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June 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Dressed in Borrowed Robes: Telling Our Stories in a Foreign Language

Claudia Ferradas is a teacher educator and materials writer based in Argentina. She holds a PhD in English Studies and has extensive international experience as a presenter. She writes poetry in English and Spanish. She has published two bilingual poetry collections, Transitions (2018) and Archetypes (2021), as well as poems and flash fiction in several anthologies. She is also a podcaster and a singer. Email: clauferwebinars@gmail.com,  www.claudiaferradas.net

 

It is 1966 in a working-class neighbourhood in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. I try to get a glimpse of the low-flying planes by peering between the louvres of the closed window shutters, but I am not tall enough. My parents say there has been a coup: un golpe, which in Spanish also means a ‘blow’. I wonder who has hit who, what caused the fight.

A month later, Dad loses his job on what will be known as the ‘night of long sticks’: five schools of the University of Buenos Aires have been taken over by the Federal Police using long batons to hit students, professors and graduates. I look at Dad’s bruised forehead and think I now know what golpe means.

My grandparents whisper in German, or broken Polish, or Ukrainian, thinking I don’t understand. My elder cousins use Yiddish when I am around. But my memories’ sound-track is in English: the Monkees’ first two singles, which I listen to again and again, muffling the worried conversations. ‘If only I could sing those songs!’ I think.

On my birthday the following January, the Monkees’ second album is released. I want no other present but this LP, which takes weeks to arrive. My aunt takes me to the capital on the train and buys me an imported magazine with articles on the band and lots of pictures of Davy Jones, the lead singer. The magazine is in English. My crush on Davy Jones and my dream of becoming a singer blend to form an intrinsic-motivational cocktail that encourages me to learn a language that is not spoken at home.

Ten years later, Dad asks me to take several books to the shed at the bottom of the garden, digs a deep hole in the ground and buries them ‘just in case’. I keep my two heavily-underlined anthologies of short stories - after all, they are in English. Three months later, my first class at teacher training college will have to be postponed: there has been another coup.

 

Down memory lane

So what happened in the ten years between one coup and another – or between my becoming a student of English and becoming an ELT trainee- teacher?  My parents made sacrifices to send me to classes with the English teacher in the barrio: a well-meaning woman with lots of teaching experience and hardly any English. We sat round the table and studied the lessons in L.G.  Alexander’s New Concept English (1967) books. I was the teacher’s pet: I did all the readings and exercises, repeated all the drills, dutifully sat for annual exams in the prestigious evening-classes centre run by the National Teacher Training College. However, I could never understand why I got such good marks in written exams but lower marks in the oral ones. I was even more worried that I could not understand the songs by the Monkees and other bands and sing them properly, which had always been my aim.

When Dad was able to afford a cassette player and the cassettes of the Alexander series, I could hear the difference between my teacher’s performance and the native speakers on the tape: it was time to change teachers and unlearn my bad habits. I would fall asleep with my headphones on, playing Developing Skills units again and again. With the new teacher, we chatted over tea and used no textbooks - only anthologies of short stories with tapes that I found as beautiful and intriguing as the songs I started to learn. After class, I would sing in English with her children. I passed the entrance exam to the National Teacher Training College and promised myself my students would never have to unlearn what I taught them.  

I did my teaching internship just as the Communicative Approach reached our shores. I had studied the language with the Audio-Lingual method, then been taught to use it as a trainee only a year earlier. Now I was forced to unlearn something once again: no more drills; instead: communicative information gaps, authentic texts… Once again, there were exams to pass, lesson plans to write following the ‘new methodology’. I did. I passed with flying colours. I was a teacher of English.

 

Telling our stories

In my first year as a language teacher, I got a job teaching adults. One of my classes was a group of intensive-care doctors at a hospital. Surely they needed ‘authentic texts’ to help them read the latest medical publications and share their research at conferences. Anything else would be a waste of time. So I did what an ESP teacher is supposed to do. They sometimes read specialised texts before class, but sometimes were too busy to bother and we trudged through texts in our class time.

One afternoon, the head of the ICU was late. When he finally arrived, he burst into the room shouting ‘Ita is dead’. I could hardly believe he had a smile on his face as he announced the sad news. Was Ita a patient? Was she young? Patients died every day at the unit and they never said a word about it. I could hardly understand what this was all about, and why all the others were commenting enthusiastically on the news. But then I remembered Ita was a character in a popular soap opera. Doctors would watch the soap when they were on duty and tell each other the bits of the episodes they missed. Ita had been sick for several episodes. They all had something to say about the verisimilitude of the plot, the way producers had manipulated the illness for dramatic effect… After that, we worked on the soap until it came to an end; no more medical papers for a couple of months. Yes, medical vocabulary was revised incidentally, the right pronunciation was practised, but above all there was a playfulness which allowed them to look forward to the class as a break from their terribly demanding jobs... and they had a lot to teach me.

I already knew students could learn in spite of the teacher, in spite of the textbook, if their motivation was strong enough and they could access samples of the language that were meaningful and interesting. However, in spite of the successful results, I still felt guilty that I had taken the narrative line of a soap opera in our mother-tongue into class. It was hard to leave behind my own learning habits as a trainee. It was also hard to challenge the models I had learnt from my teachers and specialised bibliographies. Was I using ‘authentic material’? If so, what was the communicative purpose of the activities? Could I evaluate what items my ESP students had acquired?

Fortunately, having my experience as a language student so close behind helped me develop my own ‘gut feeling’ approach, a sort of principled eclecticism based initially on three questions: ‘Where does each student want to go?  Where is s/he at?  What materials can help make their aims achievable?’ But I still felt under pressure to teach what was supposedly useful, to plan lessons on the basis of the notions and functions to be taught on the syllabus… until I discovered John McRae’s Literature with a small ‘l’ (1991), a key publication in my professional development. McRae (1991: 3) advocates the use of texts whose ‘literariness’ empowers students to go beyond the merely referential use of language, i.e., language which communicates at only one level, usually in terms of information being sought or given, or of a social situation being handled.’ He claims that once language learners need to express their own meanings and interpret other people’s beyond the merely instrumental, then representational language is needed: ‘language which, in order that its meaning potential be decoded by a receiver, engages the imagination of that receiver… Where referential language informs, representational language involves.’ (McRae, 1991: 3). The ‘literariness’ of the soap opera had empowered my students in this respect.

By then, I had opened my own language school with a colleague.  We made sure we designed communicative activities and later welcomed task-based learning and aimed at tasks whose outcomes would be meaningful for each class. Of course, grammar and vocabulary were necessary and students were eager to learn to make sense of the task before them. Textbooks helped us with that. But what was real fun was to find resources outside the textbook and turn them into made-to-measure teaching materials which encouraged ‘procedural abilities to make sense of discourse’ (Widdowson, 1983, in Brumfit and Carter, 1985) and creative textual intervention (Rodari, 1973; Pope, 1995). And one day there was VHS. And then DVDs, CDs and the Internet. And students could now hear native speakers with different accents, check the lyrics of their favourite songs, access newspapers on the day they were published anywhere… I had to change my role, scaffold their own search, give them space and, above all, continue learning with and from them.

Throughout the process, whatever methodology and resources were in vogue, what mattered was telling our stories: what was happening in our lives, what we needed and were aiming at, how we felt about what we were learning. Decades have gone by. I do not remember clearly what levels and contents I taught, but I still remember the story line in the Access to English series by Michael Coles and Basil Lord (1995) and the gaps it offered to be filled in with our own interests. I remember who was interested in music, who wanted to read cookery books, who loved science, acting, singing, sewing, designing. We could learn about anything together. We just had to find the texts, songs, films in English... as my teacher had done when we chatted over tea, read and sang. We told each other our own stories responding to those in the textbooks and videos and that revealed what was relevant to each individual one of us. I made a point of bringing to class content my students were not acquainted with. I also learnt from the content they brought. Each class was a voyage of discovery.

 

Implications for teaching and training

The reality of the classroom hardly ever fits the lesson plan model - in which you have language aims (grammar, vocabulary, functions), and perhaps some attitudinal objectives, and decide on materials and procedures exclusively on that basis. As an experienced Argentine teacher educator has recently written, based on Bruner, if any narrative involves constructing a world, and ‘ ‘world making’ is the principal function of mind, whether in the sciences or in the arts.’ (Bruner, 2004: 691 in Casamassima, 2017: 31), we need to stop working on pre-determined lists of objectives as the basis of our didactic strategies, and construct a lesson plan as a narrative instead. This means a change of focus in teacher training: ‘The plan as narrative entails the co-construction of a story, with the trainee becoming a writer rather than a planner’ (op.cit.: 31).   

‘With the exception of teacher training situations, objectives are sometimes written down to comply with school requirements and then forgotten about. Narrative goals are meant to be … the living expression of what the trainee aims to achieve.   […]

We will not wish to narrate a story about grammar because grammar, however relevant it may be, is meant to have a subsidiary role in the story. … At times, [grammar, vocabulary discourse, and phonology] may come to the foreground, but only on the condition that they contribute something to the plot and not for their own sake. … our interest in the unit is to go beyond language because language is an instrument.’ (op.cit.: 49)

But far from suggesting we think of a narrative as linear, Casamassima invites us to think of a cubist painting metaphor, ‘showing an object in its many facets, all at the same time’ (op.cit : 76). Planning a lesson or a unit of work thus resembles the design of a webpage, with the possibility to move backwards and forwards from one or more foregrounded narratives (always content-based, related to the final task we aim at) to one or several background narratives (the grammar and vocabulary we need, the strategies to be developed, etc.) or from one parallel narrative to another.

This is an oversimplified view of a complex model which readers are invited to explore, but I would just like to make a point of the need to abandon the straightjacket of linear planning based on predetermined abstract objectives. Instead, I would like to focus on the exciting prospect of approaching a topic of interest and relevance to our students from multiple perspectives, in whatever order we may need in specific contexts and circumstances, with learning outcomes in mind but enough flexibility to make room for diversity. In this way, singing popular song lyrics is an aim that can be achieved and there is room for soap operas as well as academic texts, ensuring that student’s motivation does not fade but leads to productive engagement.  

 

Ourselves –in English

The texts by McRae and Pope mentioned above legitimated my approach, guided my research and helped me to rethink my practice, but my student experience as an MA student at NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education) in the UK would lead to new insights.

Our MA class in 1997 included several Argentinians and Uruguayans. As we tend to do locally in several countries in Latin America, at break-time my classmates would pass around a gourd filled with dry leaves on which one of them poured hot water out of a thermos flask to make a kind of tea. Both the drink and the cup are called ‘mate’.  The leaves are called ‘yerba mate’. Drinking mate involves sucking on a metal straw (called ‘bombilla’) which has a filter to avoid getting a mouthful of yerba mate particles when you suck on it. The other end has a gold-coloured spout which stays cool enough to touch with your lips. Drinking mate is a symbolic sharing ritual, as the cup is passed on from one person to another and they all drink using the same straw.  It is rude to refuse a mate, as the offer is a sign of friendship derived from the tradition of pouring a mate for a guest even if the host has nothing else to eat or drink in the house.

I often found myself explaining that I do not like mate and rejecting it politely with all sorts of excuses. One of our classmates, from Saudi Arabia, saw me reject the mate and join the queue at the coffee machine at break-time. She approached me and asked me what my fellow Argentinians were having and how I had managed not to become addicted to that ‘drug’. I found myself trying to find the words to explain what it was all about (the words I have written above) and, to my shock and embarrassment, I found myself as inarticulate as any pre- intermediate student. I had never before had to explain my own cultural habits in English! Even if I found the words, some of the explanatory gestures I used were evidently quite shocking for my interlocutor and the presupposition that mate was some kind of addictive practice was hard to refute –after all, my classmates seemed unable to stop passing the gourd round every time they had the chance.

It was this experience that took me back to my research on literariness and the design of representational materials, now focusing on the aim of using English to communicate across cultures. It is no coincidence that Michael Byram’s foundational text, Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence (1997), was published that year.  The process of globalisation and the impact of technology meant rethinking language teaching: intercultural communication would no longer be an aim restricted to business travellers. From then on, guided by my supervisor in the MA, Alan Pulverness, my practice, my research, the INSET sessions for my school staff, my academic publications (2003, 2006, 2009 a, 2009 b, 2013, 2016) and materials design would all focus on this central concern.

In 2001, just as I had submitted my MA dissertation, the publication of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) established an ‘intercultural approach’ as a new paradigm in language teaching:

‘In an intercultural approach, it is a central objective of language education to promote the favourable development of the learner’s whole personality and sense of identity in response to the enriching experience of otherness in language and culture.’ (p.1)

The curricular design for foreign language teaching in the city of Buenos Aires, published in the same year, proposed the same approach, so that my inquiry was inscribed both within an international and a local context. 

Since then, thousands of academic articles, books and teaching materials have been published on the topic. Among others, I have followed Michael Byram’s research (1997, 2008, 2016, 2017) on interculturalism and the challenges posed by the model outlined in the CERF. I have also reflected on Bonny Norton’s (2000, 2013) considerations on language and identity, particularly on the question of immigrants’ attitudes to the language of the host country and how this can affect language acquisition and first language loss. Claire Kramsch (1993) provides food for thought on the links between language and culture, as do Holliday et al. (2004). With the classroom in mind, John Corbett (2003, 2010) opens a treasure chest of activities to contribute to the development of cultural awareness. Publications by Argentine researchers such as Silvana Barboni (2013) and Melina Porto (2017) have also informed my practice as a teacher- educator from a Latin American perspective.

All these considerations question the notion of the ‘native speaker’ as an ideal construct in the wake of Peter Medgyes’ work (1994, republished 2017). Workshops and webinars advocating the inclusion of World Englishes in classes where English is taught as the language of international communication have become more common. What varieties of English should find a place in our classrooms? How can our choices in teacher education affect future teachers’ beliefs in this respect?

Being a trainer on the British Council’s Connecting Classrooms and Core Skills programmes has allowed me to work with trainers from a wide range of countries and social contexts. We have explored a context-based approach to the adaptation of global materials. However, wherever I go I still find teachers planning on the basis of discrete grammar points, believing that the intercultural approach consists in adding an international touch (such as food from different parts of the world) or an occasional lesson on festivals or traditional costumes for festive occasions. The tendency towards standardisation, with its hunger for quantitative data to assess progress and achievement, hand-in-hand with the washback effect of international examinations, conspire against the central aims of intercultural learning. Teachers end up replicating the models based on the teaching and assessment of discrete linguistic items, often afraid of the challenge of becoming intercultural mediators.  What is more, innovative materials often generated locally, or even globally-produced materials adapted for a local context, can be rejected by teachers and educational authorities on the grounds that students need to learn about the English-speaking world, not about their own context.

I believe all this has clear implications for teacher education. Unless trainee teachers can see themselves as cultural mediators beyond the anecdotal and integrate intercultural considerations transversally within the narratives of their class plans, students will continue to be disempowered, because the jobs they will be doing -and even their daily communication- will largely depend on having the words to ask about others and talk about themselves, with a respectful attitude towards difference, in search of the commonalities which make effective communication possible.

In short, the experiential pathway described has led to constant reflection and revision of my own practice. It has meant unlearning the habit of following predetermined methods modelled by trainers and specialised publications. It has involved listening to my own narrative and those of my students to develop mutual trust and ownership of the language. No matter how often we emphasise the need to be flexible to change, we will be working in the opposite direction if we continue advocating a fixed framework to plan a class.

Appropriating a second or foreign a language involves finding ways to express our own world views in a language often used to express different world views. Trainee teachers have to find their own creative ways to respond to students’ needs (and their own) in this respect. It is my contention that texts where different contexts, customs and beliefs are presented, i.e. literature and other narrative arts, as well as our own anecdotes and personal narratives, have a huge contribution to make.

Only developing self-confidence to experiment within changing scenarios can help teachers achieve the resourcefulness required as cultural mediators, especially in vulnerable contexts.  This makes a case for greater agency in their own training and opportunities for hands-on experimentation with content-rich texts. 

 

Back to the future

The recent publication of texts such as Paran and Robinson (2016)

seems to suggest that there is renewed interest in exploring further the potential of literature in the language classroom, already mooted in the 1980s and 1990s (Carter and McRae,1996; Lazar,1993; Maley and Duff, 1989 ). Literature is now enhanced by its dialogue with film and digital media, which challenges it and redefines it, often as part of cross-media and transmedia projects (Jenkins, 2006). In turn, song lyrics, always productive resources in language classrooms, can also be exploited because of their literariness and cultural texture (Ferradas, 2003), which the Nobel Prize awarded to Bob Dylan seems to confirm. 

Besides, the ever-growing production of texts (printed and digital) in English in different parts of the world opens questions derived from the appropriation of English, not only in postcolonial contexts, but by writers who use English as the language of international communication. Is there a ‘world literature’? Can local varieties be accepted by publishers? Is there such a thing as ‘international English’? Now that digital readers are also producers, can self-published texts (blogs, webpages, postings on social media) be considered texts for intercultural language education?

In this constantly changing scenario, the ownership of English and its role as mediator in intercultural communication should be a central matter of discussion in teacher education, as it is at the core of a narrative which keeps redefining the role of language teachers (native speakers or not).

Though all the changes I have witnessed in my long experience as a language teacher and teacher trainer, some certainties remain: I still want to know the words of songs in a language which is not my own, but I also need to make them the soundtrack of my own experience. I need to learn the words to tell my story - where I come from, how we do things back home and what I am looking for. A never-ending story.

 

References

Alexander, L.G. (1967) New Concept English Series. Developing Skills. Harlow: Longman.

Barboni, S. and M. Porto. (eds.) (2013) Language Education from a South American Perspective – What does Latin America have to say? La Plata: Dirección General de Cultura y Educación de la Provincia de Buenos Aires.

Brumfit C. J. and R. A. Carter. (1985) Literature and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruner, J. (2004). Life as Narrative. Social Research, 71, 3, 691 – 710.

Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Byram, M. (2008). From Foreign Language Education to Education for Intercultural Citizenship. Essays and Reflection. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Byram, M, I. Golubeva, H. Hui and M. Wagner (eds.). (2016) From Principles to Practice in Education for Intercultural Citizenship. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Byram, M. (2017) Intercultural Communicative Language Teaching and TCSOL. Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

Carter, R. and J. McRae. (1996) Language, Literature and the Learner. London and New York: Longman.

Casamassima, M. (2017) Planning as Narrative. A Cubist View on Planning Units of Work for English Language Teachers. Buenos Aires: Dunken.

Coles, M. and B. Lord (1995) Access to English Series, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corbett, J. (2003) An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Corbett, J. (2010) Intercultural Classroom Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Council of Europe (2001) Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Available at:  https://rm.coe.int/1680459f97 (accessed 15 December, 2018).

Ferradas, C. (2003 a). Rocking the Classroom: Rock Poetry Materials in the EFL class. In Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Issues in Developing Materials for Language Teaching. London and N.Y: Continuum.

Ferradas, C.  (2003 b) Meeting the Other, Learning about Ourselves: Cultural Awareness in the Language Classroom- Closing plenary. Proceedings of the FAAPI 2003 Conference:  Humanising our Teaching Practice. Salta, Argentina: FAAPI / ASPI / The British Council, September 2003.

Ferradas, C. (2006) Reading Across Cultures - Developing Intercultural Awareness Through Unconventional Approaches to Literature. English. The British Council Magazine for Teachers of English in Portugal. Spring 2006.

Ferradas, C. (2009a) Outside Looking In: intercultural and intermedial encounters in ELT – Closing Plenary IATEFL Cardiff 2009. In Beaven, B. (ed.). IATEFL 2009 Cardiff Conference Selections. Canterbury: IATEFL, 2010 (16 - 20).

Ferradas, C. (2009 b)  Enjoying Literature with Teens and Young Adults in the English Language Classroom. In BritLit: Using Literature on the EFL Classroom. Barcelona: Associació de Professors d'Anglès de Catalunya (APAC), (2009). ebook: London: British Council (September, 2009) https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/britlit-using-literature-efl-classrooms

Ferradas, C. (2013) Communicating across cultures: encounters in the ‘contact zone’. Plenary – Proceedings of the FAAPI 2013 Conference – Roots and Routes in Language Education. How do languages cultures and identities interact in 21st century Classrooms? Buenos Aires, Argentina: FAAPI / APIBA. September 2013.

Ferradas, C. (2016) Reflexiones sobre el enfoque intercultural en la enseñanza de lenguas: Más allá de la teoría. Revista Lenguas Vivas 12, 15 – 23, November, 2016.

Holliday, A, M. Hyde and J, Kullman (2004) Intercultural Communication. London: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. (2006) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lazar, G. (1993) Literature and Language Teaching.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maley, A. and A.Duff. (1989)  The Inward Ear.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Medgyes, P. The Non-native Teacher (1999/ 2017) Callander: Swan Communication Limited.

Norton, B. (2000) Identity and Language Learning. Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Harlow: Pearson.

Norton, B (2013) Identity and Language Learning - Extending the conversation. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

McRae, J. (1991) Literature with a Small "l". London and Basingstroke: Macmillan.

Paran, A. and P. Robinson (2016). Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pope, R. (1995) Textual Intervention. London: Routledge.

Porto, M. and M. Byram (2017) New Perspectives on Intercultural Language Research and Teaching: Exploring Learners’ Understandings of Texts from Other Cultures. London: Routledge.

Rodari, G. (1973) Gramática de la Fantasía: Introducción al Arte de Inventar Historias. Mexico: Comamex.

Widdowson, H. G. (1983) Talking shop: literature and ELT. ELT Journal 37/1: 30-36. In: Brumfit, C. J. and R. A. Carter (1985). Literature and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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