Found in Translation
The text originally appeared in https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/developing-expertise-through-experience
Jane has taught language in all sectors primary to higher education, and in several countries including Poland, Mexico, Hungary and Switzerland. She is Professor of Education at Oxford Brookes University, UK, where she developed a fully online MA for practising teachers of English. Her publications include poetry, learner literature, teacher resources, and multiple publications championing creative and reflective language teaching, including Changing Methodologies in TESOL (Edinburgh 2013) , Storybuilding, and Creative Poetry Writing (Oxford University Press 2004 and 2007). Her most recent publication Crossing Borders in University Learning and Teaching (Routledge 2022) explores stories of studying in a second language culture. Email: email@example.com
My beliefs/values about language and learning languages.
I did not know what my beliefs were about learning languages until I was confronted with its opposite. At school, we learnt French through humiliation and rules, yet a few nuggets of enlightenment stay with me today. The first was the day we learnt the French song, Il était un petit navire. I relished the gorgeous sounds of these new words that floated into meaning: the little sailor who had never sailed. To this day I thank him for launching me into the joys of language. The second realisation was when I spent the summer with a family in Provence, and realised that French was spoken by real people, sitting round large farmhouse tables as dusk fell, talking animatedly and effortlessly in this other code. It was never again just a school language, inside the hard green covers of our grammar book. The third moment of enlightenment was realising that there were word-families from which you could build new words: so the ‘navire’ couldn’t ‘naviguez’ nor in English ‘navigate’ though he might be in the ‘navy’. Realising there was a system that joined things up, instead of random words floating in space, was exciting. From that starting point I began to build a language of my own, with different building blocks only I understood, but with systems of morphemes and compounds learnt from English. My beliefs as a teacher sprang from these experiences as a learner:
- language without meaning, music and imaginative reach is like food without taste or texture.
- language learning needs crucially to be connected with the way it is lived and spoken, not just functionally, but socially and emotionally.
- learning anything at all should bring out the best in the learner – their passions, talents, aspirations , capacities, uniqueness.
- learning a language should be about opening up opportunities to travel, think and communicate in new ways.
- learning a language includes an appreciation of its systems and structures as building blocks of new language.
Earliest experiences of language learning and education
My first explicit language learning experience was as a child, being tutored by a family friend in colloquial Hebrew with my sister, three years older. In these lessons I heard the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ to describe words, and was too intimidated to ask what they meant. By deduction, I came to understand that they seemed to divide nouns into two groups, and there were patterns of word-endings which belonged to each group. This was my first realisation that the ‘rules’ of language were sometimes beyond meaning and logic, and that simply ‘feeling’ the language did not necessarily lead to accuracy. I think what I took away from this as a language educator, was that there are some aspects of language which cannot easily be simply ‘picked up’ and which can be helpfully illuminated by a teacher giving them shape; classifying, labelling, and providing the tools for ‘noticing’. I may have stumbled upon these differences for myself, but being told there were two distinct groups, and noticing the shapes of words in each group, provided a framework which came to help with other languages too.
Most notably, when several years later we began French in school, the idea of ‘articles’ inflecting to introduce ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ nouns was familiar. In fact, it was a delight to realise that being open to one kind of system had opened my mind to many. It seemed that Latin too had this habit of dividing nouns, and there was a third category called ‘neuter’. How interesting to discover that German had this third category too, and like French, all the articles changed to introduce their category: der, die and das. At 11-years old I recognised that languages had systems which could be learnt and ‘felt’ and other aspects which were unpredictable and had to be remembered through many encounters. Those childhood Hebrew lessons were the first building blocks of a whole tower of Babel with its architecture revealed.
However languages were just another school subject, until my first trip to France when it was possible to actually use the language learnt in school. They were an intellectual discipline, and sentences were written out and practiced because they were good for us, like Lucozade or fluoride toothpaste. But when, aged fifteen, I went to Provence with my school penfriend, the language transformed into a people, a culture, a landscape and a literature. During those long summer weeks in the Provencal countryside, my sixteen-year old penfriend was mostly off somewhere with her boyfriend; so I learnt from everything and everyone I could to cope with the desertion: from her 10-year old little brother who taught me ‘argot’ - the language of teenagers and children (not to try out with teachers on coming home). I listened to French songs by Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel and learnt to sing them myself; deciphered the extracts from Rimbaud and Sartre pasted all over the walls of the elder sister, and thrilled to being called ‘ma belle’ by the handsome visiting cousin with the equally handsome name Roc. The feeling of French took me over by stealth and when I came home after 6 weeks of that long summer, I had absorbed its music and amazed the French teacher. In my French oral exam the examiner commented that I sounded like a true ‘campagnarde’ – a country girl; so in this process I had unknowingly also acquired a Provencal twang in my accent. My insight from that long summer is this: that the French learnt in school for all those years, bore almost no resemblance linguistically, functionally, emotionally, pedagogically, to the French I actually came to learn, use and love in France. Everything learnt in France came from an encounter –with music and song, with intriguing texts, with people, events and emotions; whereas learning French in school was not much different from learning maths – systematic, disciplined and applied to nothing very much.
Influences arising from places/institutions where I have lived and worked.
Before training, or even choosing to be a language teaching professional, I was offered a teaching assistant job at the University of Liege, Belgium. I taught English language to large groups of students, alongside linguists who were thrilled by the mechanisms of the relative clause or the role of the comma. The enthusiasm in the Department of Philologie Germanique was sincere and contagious. The problem for me was how this scientific approach to language could ever make a difference to teaching it. The language teachers and the researchers belonged in different camps, and though they respected one another, they didn’t expect to learn from one another. It gave me a thirst to grapple with the question of how research can make a difference to teachers, and vice versa. My very first piece of published academic writing was with Jacques Noel, looking at how multiple-choice items were ambiguous at worst, but at best could tease out appreciation of fine nuance. It was an interesting joint project which gave me an insight into compromise and collaboration: multiple-choice was not a testing method I much valued but it was one which could play to the fine-tuned research interests of my colleague, and to my interest in testing the subtleties of literary texts. But most of all, this experience confirmed that I firmly belonged in the teaching camp, wanting to do that work professionally and to the best of its possibilities. From a position of best practice, I could think about research only in terms of - what difference does this make for teachers?
Returning from Liege, I began my teaching qualification at the London Institute of Education when ESOL was in favour in the UK: children with other first languages (EAL or English as an Additional Language) were supported by special government funding (Section 11), there were EAL specialist co-ordinators in schools, well-equipped EAL resources centres in each educational region, and dedicated EAL teacher- training qualifications awarded alongside all other state qualifications. It was a thrilling time to enter the profession; it had status, it met urgent social needs and it was making a positive difference to children and schools.
My first teaching practice with this qualification was in a London, inner city, primary school. There were thirty children and a ‘lockstep’ approach to learning, at that time. One of my tasks as a novice teacher was to support Turgay, newly-arrived from war-torn Cyprus. The experience of seeing the school through his eyes made me aware of the importance of non-linguistic activities as a starting point for language. Turgay was happy following movements in a dance (Simon Says), face-painting, building villages out of matchboxes, playing football, drawing portraits of one another in charcoal, working with numbers and counters. It was through these activities he became loved and accepted and even something of a leader. I came to see the importance of non-linguistic activities and the other arts as a springboard for language learning, providing a safe haven in which learners with all kinds of different access to the language were equal.
This was not the only approach however. At Bedford College, then a Higher Education College merged with a College of Education, I worked in the centre for English asylum-seekers and new arrivals. It was a task fuelled by a mission and a passion. The centre, part of the college, worked from a spacious Victorian house in a side-street, with a large sitting room on the ground floor where there were regular parties and social gatherings for both staff and students. Amongst those I taught were Vietnamese boat people newly arrived in traumatic circumstances, several so shocked by the cold English winter they were reluctant to get out of bed. They were on the edge of depression and despair, and it was patently clear that the areas of language I could cover in one-hour lessons didn’t come anywhere near the real needs of these people. How was I to understand what they had been through and what they now needed? How could my experience as a language teacher thus far give me the empathy for what it meant to cross worlds?
This was a watershed moment and I determined my experience would take me to the places where my students came from, so I would know what it was for myself to be newly-arrived, to cross cultural borders and to negotiate a new language and life. This took me to India, Sri Lanka, China, Mexico, Egypt, Kenya, Japan and, after the Berlin wall came down in 1989, to the former Soviet countries: Poland, Russia, Romania and Hungary. These travels entailed multiple, different kinds of teaching: materials-writing projects in Kenya and Romania, literature for language teaching in India and Egypt, upgrading university language teachers in Mexico, test-writing in China, retraining Russian teachers in Hungary. But what I powerfully learnt from these travels, was that the deep learning from one culture will not necessarily transfer to another; it would never be possible to make assumptions about how one skill or method might translate into another setting. Every new setting entailed new learning, different conditions, different sensitivities, different needs. For each place, there would need to be a kind of forgetting to avoid comparison with other places; and a kind of remembering that this learning would take constant vigilance.
Key people who have left an enduring mark on my life, beliefs and practices
It would only be fair to start this section by explaining the enduring influence of my father whose first language, Polish, was a secret code he shared only with his mother and surviving siblings. He left Warsaw at the age of sixteen, travelling through Berlin on Kristallnacht 1938, on the last train to safety. Like other refugees who silenced their pre-flight stories, he spoke to us always and only in English, his second language (Wajnryb, 2001). It was only when my school-friends who came to tea asked, ‘why does your father have a funny accent?’ that I noticed he spoke differently to them, and to me. His English was peppered with Polish and Yiddish words, usually highly colourful expletives which were untranslatable; and occasionally the names of myself and my sister would emerge from the miasma of his Polish. So we knew when we were being spoken about, and the rough mood of what was being said; but we developed a negative capability that simply accepted this was his family language and not ours. As I grew up and his story became real to me, I began to grieve (too late) that this language was never shared with us, and that we showed so little curiosity in learning it. In not growing up bilingual, I was driven towards the needs of children who were bilingual; my empathy for Turgay, the Turkish Cypriot boy at Downside School, was fuelled by empathy for my father who at that age had no-one in the English school to help him navigate its language and culture. Helping Turgay was healing some of the isolation he must have felt, arriving at the age of 16 with not a word of English, dropped into a school in the suburbs of Newcastle; perhaps feeling, as did Hoffman (1989) that moving from Polish to English was like being ‘lost in translation’.
For my own learning, there was as much to learn from the flawed teachers as the inspirational ones. They gave me a model of how I did, or did not want to be as a teacher. Miss Macauley the English teacher was legendary. She read aloud all the literature we studied, from Hamlet, to Beowulf to Paradise Lost. We were shaken awake by these theatrical lessons, and inspired by her passion for them. Yet on the other hand, she had a way of putting children down that made our English lessons complicated experiences of push/pull, towards and away from the subject. However, the lessons gave me an abiding love of literature which has never waned, and which has carried me through life as a strong guiding star. Even now I remember the awe of hearing for the first time the opening lines of Paradise Lost - ‘Of man’s first disobedience/and the fruit of that forbidden tree’. My second degree was an MPhil in Cultural History in which I specialised in the education Milton gave himself, in preparation for writing Paradise Lost. In 2016 my first book of poetry was published, and it was her words I remember: ‘One day I will see your name on the spine of a slim volume’. (I think that meant poetry, rather than slim volumes of teacher resources or ELT methodology!). Yet the main insight from learning with Miss Macauley, was how even more powerful a teacher might be who could give that inspiration and belief in the future of each child, but without the undertow of bitterness. That would be the kind of teacher I would hope to be.
At University College London, where I studied English, Randolph Quirk’s first lecture on everyday English was a revelatory moment. This was the first time I had considered everyday language as a focus for study; the difference between a sentence and an utterance, the architecture of spoken grammar as distinct from written grammar, and the ways we change the sounds of English in fluent natural conversation. I didn’t know then that this English department was at that moment collecting ground-breaking data of everyday language, with research students such as David Crystal, or that this would lead eventually to the corpus and a revolution in the way language would be understood and explained. But it did feel like a totally new and exciting way of hearing language, and re-calibrating what we should notice, learn and teach in language.
Max Morgan, my violin teacher at the Guildhall School of Music, was a different kind of inspiration. The teachers described above delivered knowledge from the front of the room, and it happened to resonate with me. The difference with a music teacher, is that the teaching has no validity unless it has tangible results in the way the student performs. Max Morgan’s genius was the way he carried his huge expertise with such lightness, focusing instead on the minutest measures of progress in my playing. He chose music that would stretch me technically but played to my strengths – work by Geminiani, Wieniawski, Vila Lobos, which I might not have found for myself. His attention to the fine details of music, and to courteous ensemble playing, informs my playing with other musicians to this day and wherever I live. Music, like language, requires both ‘feeling’ alongside a scientific precision and accuracy. To have one without the other is to be limited, either as a musician or as a linguist. The parallels are clear: playing the violin is amongst other things, social. It expresses itself most fully in practice with others, in duos, trios, quartets; just like language, which is also profoundly social.
I came to see that the link between language teaching and the other creative arts, and especially literature, was a critically important one for me; but that in this respect the mainstream ELT profession did not agree. However, there were several important allies who championed the language-literature union with brilliance and authority. The first was my supervisor, Henry Widdowson, at London Institute of Education, He had the same way as Miss Macauley, of dramatically delivering the literary text so the tutorial room became a theatre; but who was full of belief in his learners and never delivered a put-down in my hearing, unlike her. Then, as my line manager in my first full-tenured job at University of Nottingham, was Ron Carter, for whom there hardly seemed enough hours in the day to produce all he did. He had such energy, grace and generosity that it seemed you could take away with you a little dusting of his genius as a gift after each encounter. It was Ron who brokered an introduction to Chris Brumfit, who published my four papers about literature teaching and assessment; and John McRae, who published my collections of stories for language learners in a new Thomas Nelson series. As a newly qualified teacher and writer, at the very start of my career, this generosity was beyond my wildest dreams. These were the people who made up for me a brief professional Garden of Eden. Others who were kindred in their vision of language, creativity, and literature were Alan Maley and Jill Hadfield, who made generous and inspiring publishing decisions and changed the landscape for ELT writers and teachers, Rob Pope at Oxford Brookes University and Amos Paran at London Institute of Education (now University College London) who became friends, mentors and co-facilitators.
The final key influence I have time to mention is the educator and action researcher, pioneer of living theories, Jack Whitehead. Jack has the passionate conviction that practitioners have a story to tell which deserves to be legitimated in the academic world. He has a genius for harnessing the messy realities of a working life, helping to tease out its inner consistencies and to shape it as doctorate-level writing. When I met him at Bath University as my doctorate supervisor, I spread out on the floor a smorgasbord of my written work: short stories for language learners, books of creative resources, childhood poems, a novel, two poetry manuscripts, articles on literature testing. Through a mixture of Socratic questioning, co-counselling methods of reaching self-disclosure, and action-research guidance, 7 years later a doctorate emerged which I feel truly represents the multi-layered professional I had become. Jack’s way of being as a supervisor has been profoundly influential in my own practice, shaping the way I am now as an action researcher guiding creative practitioners to write about their own practice. I have characterised this is a story which is an allegory of two kinds of supervisor: thought-doctor and fellow-traveller – with the latter being the kind of supervisor Jack was and I try to be. I now run an action-research programme for creative artists at Oxford Brookes, and am doctoral supervisor to professionals in musical theatre, nursing, and social sculpture.
Key ideas which have helped form or change my beliefs and practices
Key ideas which have formed, or changed my beliefs, fall into four categories; ideas about language itself; ideas about the language learner; ideas about the language teacher; ideas about being a teacher in the world.
Ideas about the language:
Since Randolph Quirk’s lectures on everyday language, written and spoken corpora worldwide are now freely available online, defining the way dictionaries and course-books are written, and changing the meaning of written and spoken accuracy. For me, availability of the corpus is the single most influential difference between teaching at the start of my career, and the way I teach now. In other words: there is no need for artifice and guesswork. We can see how a word, a phrase or a structure is actually used, and measure the distance between this and prescriptive explanations. The books which set me on the path of corpus and the use of everyday language in teaching are numerous, but I shall cite here as significant Halliday (1985) and Carter and McCarthy (1996).
Ideas about language learning:
Ideas about the holistic teaching of learners have also been an important influence. I welcomed the development within the profession that recognised language learning was about the whole person, and not just the language faculty. Caring and sharing in the language classroom (Moskowitz, 1978) helped to endorse this view, and gave me some practical ideas for dealing with it. A holistic approach to learning has been on a long journey since then, and we have notions now of well-being in learning which are becoming almost mainstream. But it is satisfying to know that the ELT profession recognised its importance many decades ago, with books such as Arnold (1999) which helped me to make our classrooms more holistic.
Ideas about teaching:
A concept that helped me in my own development as a teacher, was that of the ‘enlightened eclectic’. The enlightened eclectic does not follow any orthodoxy or fashion, but places the learner at the centre, and draws on any ideas that suit the learner’s needs. This was a liberating philosophy and one which I had unconsciously adopted; but it was helpful to have a language for explaining it. An inspirational book, leading the way for this philosophy, was Kumaravadivelu and Gass (1997), Beyond Methods. Yes, this is what we were and there was a language and a literature to explain and endorse it. It was the teaching approach of the new century, and one which still inspires teachers as I introduce them to it in 2018 on teacher development programmes. It was the approach which gave teachers the mandate to think for themselves and be confident about their own teaching decisions.
Ideas about teaching in the world:
I have also mentioned, as a key insight from teaching in different parts of the world, that insights from one setting cannot safely be transferred to another, and that there are limitations to both comparing and generalising. I found several books which opened up this problem, and made me recognise it as essentially political. A key publication was Hall and Egginton (2000), and in particular Pennycook’s article within that (2000). It led me to question what I was doing as educator in other countries and cultures, and to be more acutely sensitive to power roles and balance. I was able to look back with refreshed eyes at my experience retraining Russian teachers to speak English, or working with teachers in India to bring Indian literature into their language teaching.
What then can be done? Into the gap opened up by this question came the notion of ‘intercultural competence’. Most inspiring was Byram’s book (1997) Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Competence. This suggests that learners might develop a set of ‘savoirs’ or ways of knowing akin to a social anthropologist. These would include being open to each new culture without assumptions or judgements, noticing patterns and trends, and seeking out the appropriate and typical within any new situation. It has seemed an ideal competence to develop for my own purposes as a teacher; and to build into all the ways I work with teachers and students.
Critical incidents/ epiphanies in life and work which have given me new insights
My very first teaching experience was in the summer holidays while I was a student at University College London. My belief at that point was that language teaching was something anyone could do, especially if you were studying English as I was. You simply talked about what you knew. The teaching was at a summer school in Poole, a seaside town in the south of England; and the children were mostly young teenagers from Europe, sent away by their parents to be kept out of mischief and improve their English over the summer. Thus the setting was not the best for motivating children; and my naivety and complete lack of experience made for a perfect storm. On one of these bad-teaching days a small group of the teenage boys voted with their feet when break-time ended, and refused to come back into the classroom at all. Instead they stayed out in the playground, playing football, shouting instructions to one another. I remember standing in the playground watching them, and had a series of insights. The first was that I did not wish to stop them, because they looked so thoroughly happy and engaged, in a way that nothing in class had made them. The second insight was, that if I could generate this kind of engagement in my lessons, then real learning would start to happen. I had come to take for granted that real happiness, ‘flow’ and engagement happened somewhere else, not in language lessons; and that this was simply unacceptable. My lessons thus far had been an ordeal for us all, because I had seen teaching as something different from ‘the thing I most want to do with my time’. From that moment my aim in teaching was to generate that intense level of engagement, by many different means and methods; for example, by joining up my lessons with the thing my learners enjoyed most –seeking it out, extending it, and bringing it into the classroom.
Another moment of insight was a lesson with international students in a language centre in Plymouth. I was using sentence-frames to create poems through patterning, rhymes, repeated lines. One of the poetry lines was ‘I used to…’and a student from Mostar wrote, ‘My city used to be beautiful’. The line shafted through my heart, because that week the city of Mostar had been bombed and its ancient bridge had been destroyed. Inside that past time-form lay a wealth of pain and loss. I remembered the line from Yeats, ‘Tread softly for you tread on my dreams.’ There is life beyond language which we need to handle with profound sensitivity as language teachers: there is more to what we do than language.
Referring back to contexts mentioned in the sections above also constituted critical moments. One was working with Turgay, the Turkish-Cypriot child in Downside School. After six weeks of being his mentor and friend through his first weeks in school, my teaching practice was over and I was to leave. He had prepared for me two new words: ‘Don’t go’. In that moment I had another shaft of insight: yes, teaching language is more than language, and we can make a difference. At that moment I made a personal vow to commit my professional life to supporting learners like Turgay, as my father had been.
Themes emerging from my chapter
The following themes seem to me to recur in my stories and accounts.
Empowering the learner: each of the sections above seem to bring out the capacity for language teaching to transform more than language. Whilst I am deeply interested in language as a subject, all my teaching has revealed to me that good language teaching is a great deal more than this. It can build self-esteem, opportunity and new channels of thought. For this, the teacher needs to tread with sensitivity and caution, paving the way for change to take place responsibly.
Post-methods and the enlightened eclectic: another theme which repays attention is that of the teacher as ‘beyond methods’, not following any orthodoxy but learning from each situation and fine-tuning their response, case by case.
Creativity and spontaneity: connected with both the themes above, is the capacity of the teacher to think ‘out of the box’, and to notice the quality of actions which are unplanned and intuitive. The critical incidents and many of the stories recounted above, all open up the importance of unplanned responses, and thinking ‘sideways’ and laterally to take account of the unexpected. It is in these unexpected moments where most learning seems to have taken place, both for myself and my learners.
Arnold, J. (1999) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Byram, M. (1997) Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Carter, R. and M. McCarthy. (1996) Exploring Spoken English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hall, J.K. and W. C. Eggington. (2000) The Sociopolitics of English Language Teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1985) Spoken and Written Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hoffman, E. (1989) Lost in Translation. London: Vintage.
Kumaravadivelu, B. and S. Gass. (eds) (1997) Beyond Methods: New Perspectives in Second and Foreign Language Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moskowitz, C. (1978) Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
Pennycook, A. (2000) The social politics and the cultural politics of the language classroom. In J.K.Hall and W. C. Eggington, The Sociopolitics of English Language Teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 89 – 103.
Wajnryb, R. (2001) The Silence: how tragedy shapes talk. Crow’s Nest, New South Wales: Allen and Unwin.
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