Identity and Language Learning across Time and Space. On the final day of the convention, our keynote speaker was Bonny Norton. She is an American Educational Research Fellow and is based in Canada at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Norton began by having us consider the extent to which social relations of power, namely racism, sexism, and elitism, limit opportunities for language learners. She highlighted the connection between communication and identity: When learners speak, listen, read, or write, they engage in more than an exchange of information; they are organizing and reorganizing their identity, a sense of who they are.
Dr. Norton’s 60-minute presentation was thoughtfully constructed and eloquently delivered. I may fail if I try to recall all the points made, so I will make a humble attempt to list just a few of the key thoughts I walked away with.
- Identity is not only about how we understand our relationship to the world at the present. Identity stretches across time and space and encompasses future possibilities. Dr. Norton spoke of imagined communities and imagined identities. She encourages us to allow imagined communities into educational discourse. Students can then see the power of individuals to shape the future.
- Whereas motivation is a psychological construct, investment is a sociological construct. We should move beyond the question about what motivates a learner and ask what the learner’s investment is. Dr. Norton views greater investment in classroom practices as a result of giving greater ownership over “meaning-making.”
- Word Englishes have a place in our community. Again, with a focus on the relationship between identity and communication, Dr. Norton stated that students should not be made to feel embarrassed if they do not have “the Queen’s English” or standard English.
- Our goal is to teach students so that they will not need us. We need to make ourselves dispensable.
Developing Intercultural Awareness. Joe McVeigh, co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture, presented for the Intercultural Communication Interest Section. Participants gained insight into the many hidden dimensions of culture through the fable of The Blind Men and the Elephant. Our choral reading kept everyone engaged. Should you wish to share this fable with a group of international students or teacher trainees, you might follow Joe’s example and use strategic word gaps (omit the final word in each verse) or use an online reading, such as the one by Tom O’Bedlam (whose YouTube channel, SpokenVerse, I’ve featured before). Unlike each blind man in the story, who could only understand a part of the whole, we were given the chance to identify all the elements of a particular culture, from laws and customs to humor and arts, and construct an encompassing definition of culture.
Joe offered several practical ways to facilitate understanding and communication among learners from different cultural backgrounds. I’ve listed a few of those suggestions below.
- Discuss proverbs to identify cultural values.
- Use multiple choice questions that prompt discussion about customs, manners, and thought patterns. Example: You and your friend go to a restaurant in the U.S. How do you pay for your meal? > List choices A, B, C.
- Practice non-verbal communication, such as handshakes. (I recommended the orientation video put together by Columbia Business School.)
- Give students the chance to present in the role of an expert and tell about their own cultures. This could take the form of a written text, a poster board, or a classroom discussion.
Final set of Day 3 highights to come! (Hint: Clever uses of technology.)