Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field

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Alison Phipps & Mike Gonzalez

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    Acknowledgements

    We would like to take this opportunity to thank numerous friends and colleagues. We have gained immeasurably from working with students of German and Hispanic studies and of Anthropology at the University of Glasgow. Their openness and engagement have sustained us throughout. In particular we are profoundly grateful to our respective partners Clare Maclean and Robert Swinfen for patiently tolerating our often excessive enthusiasm for this project. This book would never have been possible without our involvement in the Barcelona Group. Our thanks to Melanie Walker, Quintin Cutts, Judy Wilkinson and Chris Warhurst for creating new critical spaces in the institution. We learned much from Ron Barnett and Jan Parker who took the time to read drafts of the manuscript at various stages. Their conviction that the project was worthwhile sustained us.

    We are grateful to our initial reviewers and readers for their warm endorsement and practical, critical suggestions. All errors which have escaped undetected in the final process are, however, our own responsibility.

    Foreword

    The study of modern languages lies at the intersection of many routes, and provides a way station on many itineraries. It is consequently diverse and ever changing. And while change and diversity are stimulating and enriching, they sit uncomfortably with the stability and sense of a settled identity that provide comfort and recognition to many students and staff. ‘Language people’ usually have enough personal and professional versatility to navigate the complexities and uncertainties, even if they sometimes feel a yearning for the more settled ‘home’ that their counterparts in some other disciplines appear to enjoy (Evans, 1988). This versatility has stood them in good stead during the lean times and the crises that have buffeted languages in higher education every ten or fifteen years. It has rarely been more needed than today, when soaring demand for language learning by students of many different subjects seems to go hand in hand with declining demand for specialist language degrees (Kelly and Jones, 2003). As a result, teachers and support staff are increasingly challenged to rethink their approaches, from the design of programmes through to the style of their personal engagement with students.

    However versatile individuals might be, they need the resources of shared reflection and collective imagination to respond creatively to new and daunting demands. This is the challenge to which Alison Phipps and Mike Gonzalez have risen so magnificently. In a radical reappraisal of the theory and practice of modern languages, they draw on a wealth of insights taken from some of the most exciting thinkers of our time as well as from more venerable sources that have not lost their freshness. They confront fundamental issues of the purpose and rationale for learning languages, and subject the dominant alternatives to an unflinchingly critical gaze. On the one hand, they reject a purely instrumental approach which sees the overriding purpose as the acquisition of a skill to enhance employability. The preponderance of this rationale for learning languages has been a key feature of public policy declarations in recent years, but has tended to dehumanise languages, reducing them to a one-dimensional activity. On the other hand, they reject a purely cognitive approach which sees modern languages as a body of arcane knowledge, valued for its own sake. This rationale was the traditional justification for literary and philological degrees, but tended to reduce languages to a conspicuous marker of distinction for a cultured elite. These approaches have tended towards an artificial polarisation in which each of them feeds off its contrary. The authors argue passionately for a different way of thinking about languages, as an embodied activity whose value lies in expressing and enriching human beings in all of their dimensions. The generous and inclusive humanism that pervades their thinking also provides a degree of leverage, necessary to escape the exacerbated binary oppositions that have tended to close down dialogue and sterilise debate.

    What they propose is nothing less than a shift from avoir to être, from having to being (Marcel, 1949). Rather than a set of skills or a body of knowledge to be acquired, they conceive learning other languages as something to do and something to be lived: an activity and a way of being. The key concepts they introduce, of ‘languaging’ and ‘intercultural being’, are unfamiliar and no doubt awkward to use, but the conscious defamiliarisation may also serve to jolt readers out of ingrained habits of mind and enable them to reframe their perceptions. It is an invigorating approach, which opens the space for a fundamental rethinking of languages. More sceptical readers may wonder how this approach will ‘play’ with quality assurance units, or whether it will ‘align’ with the strategic priorities of funding councils. They need not fear: the approach fulfils and hugely exceeds the limited objectives of administrative frameworks. The authors encourage us to raise our gaze and be led rather by our long-term aspirations, since they are what give life, meaning and purpose to our teaching and learning. The many concrete examples extracted from the rich pedagogical experience of the two authors are evidence of what can be achieved. They show that life can be breathed into apparently dry or daunting subjects, and that teaching and learning can and should be punctuated by epiphanies and personal transformations.

    In some respects the authors propose a utopian vision, but a practical utopia, which shows that it is possible to step outside the well-worn frameworks of thought and practice. New and different ways of teaching and learning are demonstrated and argued for in chapter after chapter, addressing almost every aspect of the modern languages experience. Most teachers (and many learners) will recognise the problems to which the authors propose imaginative solutions, and most will put the book down reluctantly, feeling energised by the ideas they have found. I expect it will become a much-thumbed handbook for teachers in search of inspiration, and I am sure it will be a catalyst to further debate and exploration. But I suspect it may also become a turning point for thinking about modern languages. This book exudes life and hope. It shows a future where languages can thrive because they are an integral and indispensable part of what it means to be human. It is an exhilarating prospect to help to bring that future closer.

    KellyMichaelDirector, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies University of Southampton August 2003
    References
    Evans, C. (1988) Language People: The Experience of Teaching and Learning Modern Languages in British Universities. Milton Keynes: Open University Press and Society for Research into Higher Education.
    Kelly, M. and Jones, D. (2003) A New Landscape for Languages. London: Nuffield Foundation.
    Marcel, G. (1949) Being and Having, transFarrer. K.Westminster: Dacre Press.

    Introduction

    This book is written during a time of upheaval and crisis in the field of modern languages and in the context of higher education. As such it bears the marks of the experience of writing, thinking and reading in a time of uncertainty. The speed of change and sheer pace of development of the crisis in modern languages and in higher education makes any attempt to capture the nature of the status quo impossible. This book is, then, an attempt to work with the uncertainties and radical unknowability that characterise the fragmenting field of modern languages. The context is the same for learners and teachers alike. This book is not a manual. It is a critical resource for modern language teachers in higher education. Its central premises build out from cornerstone concepts of languaging and intercultural being.

    The Argument

    The argument of this book is that languages are a social justice issue. Languages, skilfully embodied and enacted, are part of the richness of human being. Languages are not skills or competences. This book contends that the ways in which we teach and learn languages today are so marked by functional and technicist approaches, in the service of employability and the market, or in the service of philology, that they have become detached from human ways of being. It also argues that the concepts that have served us in the past will do no longer. Fresh thinking is required to enable us to move out of the binary impasses of languages versus culture, literature versus language, language elitism versus language populism, structural versus communicative approaches.

    If our teaching is to enable the development of dispositions that can become intercultural, fully awake to the possibilities and pitfalls of global citizenship, then new concepts are required, tools to help prise open ways out of our defensive stockades and to begin shaping a space for languaging and intercultural being.

    The Analysis

    We analyse the discourse and practice of language teaching in higher education critically. We situate ourselves within the broad tradition of cultural studies. It is, of course, possible to smooth over supercomplexity (Barnett, 2000) with simplistic explanations and technicist solutions. However, to do so, in our view, is neither interesting nor productive.

    Throughout our analysis of languages in higher education we foreground our concern for questions of power, inequality, social justice, for marked patterns of difference and division between rich and poor, male and female, black and white. Cultural studies has a particular history, a characteristic style and a distinctively political way of questioning given facts. In questioning facts, cultural studies invites us to engage in a process of learning and relearning, of deconstruction and reconstruction. With Giroux (1992) and Freire (1998), we believe that teaching is a form of political and cultural action and we explore this proposition in the context of language teaching and intercultural action in higher education.

    Stories Matter

    Alongside the cornerstone concepts of languaging and intercultural being, we work with certain principles-in-action. These apply to the process of creating this text, and to the process of being languaging teachers in higher education. These principles are those of exchange, engagement, equality, of a struggle with the difficulties of power and a continuous, reflective practice of collaboration. From the empirical ground of projects that engaged us both in action research in our institution, aspects of which are reflected elsewhere (Walker, 2001, 2002), and from the resources of our engagement as teachers, we have developed stories as resources for hope, for resistance and for realising the project of languaging.

    These stories, grounded in ‘data’, are offered as part of the business of making meaning in an age of supercomplexity, and in an age which requires languaging. Structurally our stories have a dual purpose. Firstly, they break into the text to create a moment for a different mode of reading and reflecting, for a different form of engagement and exchange. They enable the injection of different voices, tones, colours into the thrust of the argument, bringing the discussion back to the ground and helping remind us of the work we have to do. Secondly, they aim to act as a springboard for further conversation, for the telling of more stories in such a way as to create an environment where talking of teaching is not a taboo. The current managerialist ideology in higher education is not conducive to open exchange, bringing, as it does, more fear than freedom. But we have a commitment and a hunger for intellectual debate as academics, and our current circumstances, and the inherent injustices in the patterns of language provision, demand that we use our best resources to this end. Some are stories to live by, others are stories to resist.

    Creating Space

    To teach as a languaging, intercultural being, in higher education, is to develop a different disposition for action, it is to be in a continual process of becoming an interdisciplinary academic. To this end, we continually look inside the field of modern languages with the purpose of deconstruction and critique, examining our cultural history and the material circumstances that have grown current practices. We then look beyond ourselves in search of theories and methods for appropriating new worlds and new experiences of languages. We look to learn lessons from other fields and other ways of questioning the world, fields that have long worked with border crossings and where languages and intercultural experience form part of the territory.

    Our proposition for languages is resolutely not one of a technicist compromise. We offer an alternative to the discourse of skills and competences and do so in a quest for co-creation, meaning-making, relation, exchange, fluency, being.

  • Bibliography

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    Websites

    The Interculture Project: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/users/interculture/

    Learning and Residence Abroad: http://lara.fdtl.ac.uk/lara/

    LTSN Languages, Linguistics, Area Studies (2003):

    http://www.lang.ltsn.ac.uk/index.aspx

    Quality Assurance Agency (2002a) Anthropology Benchmark Statements:

    http://www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/benchmark/phase2/anthropology.pdf

    Quality Assurance Agency (2002b) Languages and Related Studies

    Benchmark Statements:

    http://www.qaa.ac.uk/crntwork/benchmark/phase2/languages.pdf


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