Live Long and Teach – Star Trek and the ELT Classroom
Hugo Dart has been a teacher for over 20 years. Since 2010, he has been employed by IBEU (Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos), in Rio de Janeiro, where he works with EFL, CLIL, and as a teacher trainer. At NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education), he specialized in intercultural education in 2012 and was awarded the Professional Award for Teacher Educators in 2019. He is a board member of the BRAZ-TESOL Intercultural Language Education SIG. E-mail: email@example.com
This thing you call language, though - most remarkable. You depend on it for so very much, but is any of you really its master?
Ambassador Kollos, in the 1968 Star Trek episode Is there in truth no beauty?
Humanizing language teaching is (pun intended) all about finding common ground. Whether working with business professionals from diverse cultures or with teenagers from a wholly different generation, the EFL educator is often in the position of reaching out to people with whom they share little background. At times, it all might seem like dealing with aliens or voyaging among new worlds and new civilizations. It is no coincidence that Enterprise is the name of the starship that started carrying viewers across the galaxy in 1966, in the first episode of the most successful science fiction franchise in history – Star Trek. During what at the time of writing adds up to six television series (with a seventh one already in production) and 13 motion pictures, Star Trek has embodied the spirit of enterprise while raising questions about the nature of our own humanity and how we establish and maintain relationships of respect with alien cultures that in the end turn out not to be so different. From the very first episode, multicultural crews have engaged with those cultures to find solutions to apparently unsolvable problems. Amongst countless examples, this article will focus on one episode from 1991 to look at what the language teacher can learn from Star Trek about working together in an unfamiliar environment to reach shared goals.
The second live-action Star Trek series was called Star Trek: The Next Generation and originally aired from 1987 to 1994. Its fifth season episode Darmok is often mentioned as one of the best in the 50-year-plus history of the franchise. Series writer and producer Michael Piller called it “the prototype of what Star Trek should be” (Nogueira and Alexandria, 2016). In it, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise try to establish communication with the Tamarians, an apparently incomprehensible alien race. Jean-Luc Picard, the Captain of the Enterprise, is nonetheless confident. As they prepare to make contact, he says to his officers, “In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe these are qualities we have in sufficient measure”. However, although our heroes possess the miraculous ‘universal translator’, which does in fact translate all the words spoken by most aliens into English, in the case of the Tamarians the output – utterances like “Rai and Jiri at Lungha” and “Shaka, when the walls fell” – seems to make no sense at all.
The crew of the Enterprise is at a loss, but the Tamarians, equally eager to communicate, have a plan. Without warning, they transport Captain Picard and their own captain to a nearby planet called El-Adrel Four, and then prevent the Enterprise from making contact with Picard or transporting him back. Puzzled about the Tamarians’ intentions and understandably concerned, the crew spend the following hours trying to make sense of what they have been saying while trying not to initiate a conflict, which could happen if they took aggressive measures to rescue Picard. Meanwhile, on the planet, the Captain also tries to figure out a way to talk to his counterpart, who keeps saying “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”. Suddenly, both are attacked by a creature indigenous to El-Adrel Four and need to work together to defend themselves.
Eventually, both Picard and his crew realize that the Tamarians communicate only by means of metaphors which are based on their own mythology. It is, they conclude, as if our way of expressing an image of romance was saying “Juliet on her balcony” – which, however, would make no sense to the other party if they did not know who Juliet was or what she was doing on that balcony. Without a common frame of reference, “the situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but none of its vocabulary”, as a crewmember says. Picard, however, spends enough time talking to the Tamarian captain, who has been fatally wounded by the creature, to understand the story of the mytho-historical hunter Darmok, who arrived at the island of Tanagra, where he met Jalad and with him fought “the beast of Tanagra”. Darmok and Jalad, who had arrived separately, were now friends, and left the island together. Picard now understands that that is what the Tamarian hoped would happen, and that he was willing to risk – and ultimately sacrifice – his life for understanding to occur. When the crew of the Enterprise finally finds a way to transport him back to the ship, angering the Tamarians, the Captain is able to use the references he has picked up to explain to the other ship’s crew what happened. As he prepares to leave orbit, the Tamarian first officer says, “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel”. A new phrase has become part of the Tamarian language.
The language classroom as El-Adrel Four
The Tamarians in Star Trek may be the ultimate expression of what Claire Kramsch (1998) describes as the reason speakers of different languages fail to understand each other, even when their languages can be mutually translated into one another. She says the failure is due to the fact that there is no agreement on “the meaning and the value of the concepts underlying the words”. Understanding depends on common conceptual systems which are born from the larger context of our experience, says Kramsch, and not on structural equivalences. Philosopher Richard Hanley, writing specifically about Darmok, reaches the same conclusion, that “there must be a substantially shared conceptual scheme for communication to succeed” (1997). That helps explain why metaphors are not simply literary devices, but “intrinsic to the nature of everyday language” (Lewis, 2012, p. 98). In any given classroom, the teacher’s and the students’ respective contexts of experience may be distant from each other to an extreme degree, not because the people are literally from different worlds (as in Star Trek), but because each individual’s age, preferences, or chosen career has increased their familiarity with their own ‘Darmoks’, ‘Jalads’, and ‘Tanagras’.
Many would argue that recent technological developments have increased the already-existing gap between teachers who are now middle-aged and their younger students. The claim is often exaggerated, as in the commonplace distinction between ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’. At the Norwich Institute for Language Education (NILE), I have on more than one occasion heard Academic Director Tony Prince suggest that it makes a lot more sense to speak of digital ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’ instead. How comfortable one feels using computer tools for work or in their personal life is a function of how much time they spend getting acquainted with them rather than an unavoidable consequence of when – and where – they were born.
Mr. Prince’s point leads us to wonder where those ‘residents’ and ‘visitors’ might have a chance to meet and learn form each other. The ELT classroom seems like a good place for it, because – at its best – it is the locus of the search for meaning which John Corbett (2010) calls the exploration of language and culture. It is El-Adrel Four for those who love the classics of literature and for those who fear or hate them; for those who design building in their heads and for those who cannot add or subtract without the calculator in their smart phones; for those who appreciate how much Star Trek can teach us about what we do and for those who still need to watch a few more episodes in order to realize that. Transported to our little four-walled ‘planet’ for a couple of hours per week – and unable to get any assistance from our starship during that time – we attempt to find ways to reach an understanding.
Once we are all there, being successful in the endeavor proposed by Doctor Corbett is no simple task. Widely respected teacher trainers such as Uwe Pohl and Margit Szesztay emphasize the importance of adding an element of compassion to the (rightfully) always mentioned ‘21st century skills’, creativity and critical thinking. They tell us that that is a consequence of understanding the impact we all have in each other’s lives. Therefore, we reach out, try to make sense of otherness as something that enriches our lives instead of something that gives us pause. In Star Trek, that idea is best expressed by the term IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), the belief that progress comes from the union of the unlike.
Speaking an alien language
Having a positive and always welcoming attitude is therefore the essential starting point, but then, as the old saying goes, one has to be willing to do the work so that they have a shot at really understanding the Tamarians. While the analogy with the generation gap is immediately understood by anyone who has ever dealt with a teenager, the challenge is less obvious in the context of Business English teaching. In the early 1990s, when, fresh out of Law School (!), I got my first job as an English teacher, most of my students were decades older than me, and it was fairly obvious that I would have little in common with them. As I eventually reached – and often surpassed – the average age of my students, it was easy to imagine that I was now dealing with people who were a lot closer to me. That can lead one to believe that reaching out is less critical, and that belief, in turn, can lead to disaster.
A simple story might be enough to illustrate my point. About one year before I wrote this article, I had a class with a student with whom I had plenty in common – almost exactly the same age, graduated from the very same Law School, each of us a father of one child, wonderful rapport between us since our first meeting. As I turned a page of the book we were using, a small text contained the sentence, “We see product quality as just one part of a total quality mindset” (Allison and Powell, 2001). Without a second thought, it would be perfectly natural for an EFL teacher to read that last noun phrase with a micropause between ‘total’ and ‘quality mindset’ – the modifier and the compound noun – and I almost did. Suddenly, I remembered the ‘total quality’ management approach, a concept with which I would probably not be familiar were it not for my father, who worked for decades as a systems engineer. In the end, the micropause appropriately came between ‘quality’ and ‘mindset’.
The fact is, we never know what universe of references we are going to encounter, which is precisely why we need to be prepared to absorb as much as possible, all the time. Because we are dealing with the most essential of human skills, the ability to communicate, it should be our default position to consider that all is potentially relevant. As much as that may sound like a cliché, having our eyes and ears open is an attitude that makes it possible for insights to occur when least expected. Here’s one final story about that.
Another in-company student, this one about 15 years my senior, used to work in the oil and gas industry – which is where Business English teachers in Rio de Janeiro find most of their clients. During our conversation classes, I would frequently ask him to tell me about technical aspects of his work. One day, no more than a couple of years ago, he summarized for me the process of extracting valuable materials using oil platforms. What follows is a brief description. Any inaccuracies will be due to my faulty memory and notes.
Oil, gas, carbon dioxide, sand, and sea water are all extracted together from the soil, where they are found as in a high-pressure ‘sponge’. The substances are separated with the injection of chemicals, later recovered for reuse. Sea water and carbon dioxide are then reinjected, the former to restore pressure to the system and the latter to avoid pollution (it is also a solvent that helps extract oil from rock). The equilibrium of the system changes continuously during the 25-year life of the well. Over time, there is a progressively higher proportion of carbon dioxide and a progressively lower proportion of gas. More efficient equipment needs to replace what was originally used. As the years pass, exploration efficiency increases, which means that it becomes possible to extract oil and gas from locations previously deemed uninteresting by the industry.
As my student explained all that to me, I realized how much that entire process had to do with our work – another metaphor, if you will. I thought about all we ‘extract’ from our students in class. Some of the language they produce is valuable, but some comes out just because they cannot separate it from the more precious part, the part from which something will be built. As teachers, we take it all in. We do the separation. We do not discard what we cannot use, but carefully put it back. We need to make sure that the system stays healthy so that over the years it can achieve its full potential. Sometimes, though, if we are paying attention, we notice that our techniques are not enough, and we need to come up with something better. As the years pass, we become more efficient, but only if we keep investing – reading this magazine is one way you are doing that. Then, that which we thought was helpless, hopeless, or useless is rediscovered as a real opportunity to go where few teachers have gone before.
The final frontier
As teachers, we reach out. If we both are very fortunate and keep looking for new ideas, we might not only learn how to understand the Tamarians we meet every day, but also create new spaces for them to express themselves. That is what I have been trying to do in an intercultural project conceived by John Corbett, of which I created a Brazilian-Polish version in 2012, which has grown and eventually merged with the initiatives carried out by others, including Doctor Corbett himself (Lima and Dart, 2019). Research and practice in intercultural language education has helped me understand the challenges we face in every interaction we have. I say that rather literally, as I have come to the conclusion that all communication is intercultural communication to some degree.
In Darmok, as quoted above, Captain Picard expresses his hope that we have in sufficient measure the qualities of patience and imagination which are necessary for communication to occur. Such hope for the betterment of ourselves has always been at the very core of Star Trek, which is why it seems appropriate to close this article by revealing to the non-expert reader what the next series in the franchise (that seventh one I mentioned in the opening paragraph) is going to be. English actor Patrick Stewart, who began playing the role of Jean-Luc Picard when he was 47 years old, is now 78, and the star of the upcoming Star Trek: Picard. He is looking to the future, and so should we.
Allison, J. and Powell, M. (2001), In Company 3.0, Macmillan.
Corbett, J. (2010), Intercultural Language Activities, Cambridge University Press.
Hanley, R. (1997), The Metaphysics of Star Trek, Basic Books.
Kramsch, C. (1998), Language and Culture, Oxford University Press.
Lewis, M. (2012), The Lexical Approach, Cengage Learning.
Lima, B. and Dart, H. (2019), The Hemispheres Connection, in Romanowski, P. and Bandura, E., Intercultural Foreign Language Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Contexts, IGI Global.
Nogueira, S. and Alexandria, S. (2016), Jornada nas Estrelas: o guia da saga, Leya.
Pohl, U and Szezstay, M. (2015), Bringing Creative, Critical and Compassionate Thinking into ELT. Humanising Language Teaching, Year 17, Issue 2, retrieved April, 2019, from http://old.hltmag.co.uk/apr15/sart06.htm
Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.
Live Long and Teach – Star Trek and the ELT Classroom
Hugo Dart, Brazil
Questions to Brazilian Experts and Panel of Writers
Mario Rinvolucri, UK