Roots and Routes

Roots and Routes

I am between conferences. Last week was FAAPI in Buenos Aires, next week we are at LAKMA in Vilnius. In both events, intercultural language education is taking a prominent position, which is encouraging to see.

The FAAPI conference hosted around 800 language teachers, at the Universidad Católica Argentina, which is part of a network of beautifully refurbished dockside warehouses on the renovated waterside area of Puerto Madero. The participants were treated to a rich menu of presentations by local and visiting speakers, many of which touched on cultural topics and intercultural education. As usual, to the uninitiated, the variety of approaches and presumptions must have been slightly bemusing.

The territory was sketched out in Cristina Banfi’s opening plenary, which surveyed the increasingly crowded landscape inhabited by language teachers in the 21st century: a time of competing demands for our attention and a proliferation of digital and multi-literacies. The profession has a number of roots: a local obligation to empower students by giving them access to different languages, a practical and theoretical interest in how languages are cognitively acquired, and a wider aspiration to foster intercultural understanding between different language-speaking communities. The routes we follow as language teachers are complex, and their ramifications, as the succeeding sessions showed, are enormous, especially in a world where physical movement between cultures is complemented by the pervasive reach of digital media and the internet.

I did not get to see all of the many sessions that addressed these ramifications. Among those I did squeeze into was a session by Myriam Met, one of the architects of the American Council of Foreign Language Teachers’ Standards for Foreign Language Learning, which is rather like the North American version of the Common European Framework of Reference document. Like the CEFR, it gives necessary but perhaps often rather abstract guidance on the integration of culture and language education. Myriam’s practical session focused on different cultural products, perspectives and practices embodied in language and contained one crucially important piece of advice: teaching language and culture begins with the eyes. A pillar of intercultural language education is the development of observational skills that can be expanded into an ethnographically-aware toolkit. We need to provide learners with the means to become cultural investigators and that is founded on learning how to see.

A classroom example of learning how to see was given in a session by Rosana Greco, in a session intriguingly entitled ‘Interculturality in a Beer Can’. Illustrating that you can begin to explore the hidden depths of culture by beginning with the tip of the iceberg, Rosana took a television advertisement for Texas’ Lone Star beer as a jumping-off point for a workshop that explored the national and local stereotypes that characterise the Lone Star state, and invited a comparison with the national symbols often bound up with commercials for beer elsewhere. She looked at similar ads for Quilmes, the Argentinian beer – and I was prompted to recall strategies used in Scotland, England and Ireland to associate beer with national culture in particular. I have fond memories of Tennants’ lager featuring adverts aimed at a home audience but showing trendy young Japanese pub-goers in Tokyo hunting down the Scottish beer because they found it ‘exotic’ – perhaps an implicit acknowledgement that for many, drinking beer is an affirmation of their roots while for others it is itself an exploration of other cultures. Tennants’ marketing people clearly wanted to appeal to both types of consumer ,and so they developed an amusingly intercultural beer commercial that invites the Scottish audience to see itself, for a minute or so, as the Other.

The most enjoyable part of any conference, as I noted in an earlier blog post, is meeting old friends and making new ones. I thoroughly enjoyed a workshop session given by Andrea Assenti del Rio, Maria Eugenia Sardina Kuchen and Rocio Montes – all members of the Home Intercultural Learning school in La Plata. Andrea directs a small but incredibly lively operation, and the Home team livened up the Friday afternoon by showing vividly how techniques borrowed from Brazil’s Theatre of the Oppressed can be adapted to develop both language proficiency and strategies for conflict resolution. Through Andrea, I was encouraged to attend Susan Hillyard’s equally dramatic session on developing spheres of intercultural activity through performance. Susan’s perspective on interculturality is that we start first with the exploration of our own identity, and her use of childhood play in encouraging this was enthusiastically adopted by those teachers present. And the conference (for me) was rounded off by another elegant and often quite moving presentation on encounters in the cultural contact zone, given by Claudia Ferradas. Claudia again showed the richness of literary texts by writers as diverse as Jorge Luis Borges and Benjamin Zephaniah in opening up cultural topics for classroom exploration.

My participation in the conference was sponsored by Cambridge University Press, whose team, ably led by Paula Coudanes, were tremendously supportive and hospitable over the four days of the conference. I was pleased that Cristina Banfi’s dire prediction in her keynote presentation that few people were likely to attend a lunchtime commercial presentation proved to be ill-founded, and the room was packed for both my presentation on the Intercultural Language Activities resource book, and a later workshop on the use of visual images in the teaching of language and culture. All in all, we went home full of ideas, good food and – it goes without saying – excellent Argentinian wine.
And I had the strong sense from FAAPI that intercultural language education is becoming well-established as a diverse but coherent and increasingly recognised strand in the wider tapestry of English teaching and learning. Tomorrow I head back to Europe for a week, to Vilnius in Lithuania, and another conference that has intercultural language education at its heart. The next blog should be a report from the Baltic States. Watch this space.

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