I’m now safely back in Brazil after a very enjoyable week in Vilnius, giving a plenary presentation and a workshop on intercultural language education at LAKMA, the Lithuanian English teachers’ association’s biennial conference. It was good to meet up with old friends like David Hill, and make new ones like Ėgle Petronienė (chair of the hard-working LAKMA committee) and her colleagues at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences, Vilma Bačkiūte of the Ministry of Education and Science, Loreta Chodzkienė and her colleagues at Vilnius University, Andžej Račkovski of Cambridge University Press and Geoff Tranter, a freelancer, wine-lover and bon viveur. I was very grateful that Cambridge University Press and the British Council sponsored my first trip to the Baltic states, a part of the world I have long wished to visit. I wanted to travel there 25 years ago, when I was working in Moscow … but getting permission to do so was difficult in those days.
Like the FAAPI conference in Buenos Aires, a few weeks ago, the theme of the LAKMA conference – ‘Intercultural Competences in the Global Village’ – indicated that intercultural language education is increasingly moving centre stage in ELT. There were a variety of plenaries and sessions on different aspects of ILE and it was a pleasure starting off the proceedings in this beautiful Baltic capital city. Augusta and I spent a week there, enjoying the autumn colours as well as (on my part) the stimulating presentations. As usual, at conferences with an intercultural focus, the style and content of the sessions was never quite predictable – like the architecture of Vilnius Old Town Centre, there were always surprises around the next corner.
Among my fellow plenary speakers, Chris Hall of York St John University in the UK and Marlene Wall of the LCC International University in Lithuania, and Adrian Holliday of Canterbury Christ Church University, also in the UK, all worried away at the complexity that naturally arises when speakers from different linguistic and cultural communities, speaking shifting varieties of English, interact. Chris argued that intercultural communication in English must embrace what he calls a ‘plurilithic’ set of norms rather than a monolithic ‘native speaker’ standard. Acceptance of the inevitable variety of English norms available in intercultural communication is not only sociolinguistically sensible, he argued, it is psycholinguistically effective. Learners move from use to competence, not from knowledge about a standard to use, and so intercultural communication needs to encourage use of its multiple norms. And, he pointed out, when you consider the variety of non-standard forms of spoken English that thrive within the so-called ‘native-speaker’ domain, the notion of multiple norms is not without precedent, even in the traditional Anglophone speech community. As a Scottish speaker of English, I could easily relate to that observation, as indeed could several of the Americans seated near me.
Marlene Wall also addressed the complexity of intercultural interactions, and argued that a sensitive intercultural curriculum must embrace a ‘post-methods’ approach to teaching ELT, one that moves beyond the traditional concerns of accuracy and fluency, and challenges the concepts of foreignness and otherness. She drew upon ethical and practical notions of ‘hospitality’ to frame the intercultural curriculum, citing Henri Nowen’s definition of hospitality as ‘the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend.’
Adrian Holliday, in a plenary that was typically considered and gently provocative, presented his developing and – yes, complex – ‘social action grammar of culture’, a model that seeks to account for the little ways in which individuals, with their idiosyncratic backgrounds and personal histories and desires, interact with languages, political structures, broad cultural processes and given cultural products. He drew upon Karen Risager’s concept of ‘linguaculture’ to suggest that teachers be trained to support learners in the often difficult process of using their own cultural frames as an initial basis for reaching out and comprehending the other. In a way, Adrian’s ‘social action grammar of culture’ was another way of conceiving of Marlene’s ‘hospitality’ – both were concerned with the triggers that prompt learners to explore the other culture with respectful curiosity, rather than knee-jerk suspicion. And as the plenaries unfolded, as often happens, they entered into unexpected dialogue with each other and I began to realise that what the teacher and teacher-trainer needs to develop, in many ways, is something I’m often accused of having in short supply – namely, tact. The teacher and trainer needs to recognise those situations when a gentle prompt can support intercultural dialogue, and those situations in which the teacher’s butting in will kill dialogue stone dead. That kind of tact arises from an understanding of the nature and purpose of intercultural dialogue, a sense of the students’ personalities, and the experience of having taken part in many such dialogues before.
Once I started thinking about tact, I began to reconfigure the content of many other presentations around it. Daryl McCarthy, the director of an NGO that organises visits and exchanges amongst American, European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian university students and staff entertained us with anecdotes of his experiences and his reflections on the basic training given to sojourners in other cultures. His mantra, delivered to novice intercultural travellers – ‘It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just different’ – is obviously an encouragement to open-minded hospitality, but, as he admitted, it only takes you so far. Then, it seems, critical judgement has to take over, and you need tact to know when and how to resist the other’s cultural practices.
I also worried about tact in relation to the numerous sessions on online intercultural exchange that were springing up like autumn mushrooms throughout the conference. A determined couple of Lithuanian schoolteachers, Loreta Jusienė and Staselė Riškienė, distributed ipads to all participants in their workshop and frogmarched the participants into registering on the spot for eTwinning programmes that support the digital connection of teachers and pupils [see http://www.etwinning.net ]. They were wonderful champions for the project, and as I looked at the map of eTwinned schools across Europe I lamented the almost total lack of participants in my home area, the west coast of Scotland. In some ways, the native speaker English community is in danger of missing out on the richness of intercultural education.
But my own sessions – the plenary and the workshop – were partly concerned with the challenges of practising online intercultural exchanges. Like the other conference participants, I was charmed and inspired by the plenary and workshop given by Liliane Sakamoto, a Brazilian who has been long resident in Dublin, where she teaches at the Alpha College of English. Liliane gave two lively sessions on ‘digital realia’, in which she urged participants to join learners in their everyday use of social media like facebook, twitter, google+ and youtube. She entreated us not to destroy this experience by turning it into a ‘learning task’ but to ‘keep it real’ and exploit the transformative potential of authentic communication via social media to encourage language use and acquisition. The multiple linguistic forms of online postings called to mind Chris Hall’s session on plurilithic norms.
Liliane was also energetic and wonderful, and clearly devoted to enriching her students’ linguistic and cultural experiences. And yet. In my own workshop on the experience, of over a decade, of using online exchanges between students in Scotland, Brazil, Argentina and Taiwan, my colleagues (Wendy Anderson, Peggy Lu, Andrea Assenti del Rio and Alison Phipps) and I grew sensitive to the pros and cons of ‘keeping it real’, of the difficulties of knowing when to intervene and encourage exploration and reflection, and when to refrain, and let learners explore (or fail to explore) themselves. We found the use of social media encouraged students to talk about themselves, but not always to elicit information from others. We found that they responded to posts in different ways – some with cold indifference and others with warm engagement. Some, in Marlene Wall’s terms, were hospitable and others were less so – in Adrian Holliday’s terms, their ‘linguacultural engagements’ flowed or froze. So to Liliane’s zeal I would add only a minor qualifier – teachers need to acquire a difficult-to-quantify but absolutely essential element of intercultural competence that is necessary to enhance learning in the global village. We need to acquire the sensitive knowledge of when to intervene and when to refrain from intervening in the learners’ own intercultural dialogues.
Again, in a word: tact.
For more information about LAKMA, see http://www.lakmaonline.lt/