The play's the thing

July 27, 2007

Rogelio Vallejo explains why the British are so poor at languages and how his Bristol University theatre course can help to put it right.

The British don't really understand why they need to learn other languages. Their culture characterises other lingos as strange, complicated and marginal.

As children they are brainwashed in the superiority of Anglo-Saxon, Anglophone culture and will not wish to engage with others. Even grown-up Brits, so dissatisfied with the mother country, not to mention the weather, that they choose to uproot and settle in the sun-drenched Costas, will feel no compulsion to learn their hosts' language.

Where some of the latter have realised that it would be good to chat to Johnny Foreigner in his own tongue they will have gone down the road of corner cutting "fast language-acquisition" courses. Such courses fail, as surely as laboratory teaching in schools, because they may teach the basics but they cannot impart the cultural and behavioural nuances necessary to avoid causing confusion or offence in a foreign counterpart.

This tendency to divorce languages from their wider cultural settings (as well as setting them in joyless, arid contexts) and to project our own socio cultural prejudices on to them compounds British culture's problem with other languages.

At Bristol University, for example, students and especially their parents often ask at open days whether the Spanish we teach is "proper Spanish". They assume that Hispanic studies is simply about linguistic skills and that Spanish-speaking countries share their crippling obsession with an "ascendancy accent", equivalent to "Queen's English". Many British students are so anxious to speak their target language "properly" that they inhibit themselves from learning it at all.

Such attitudes ignore that all languages are in a constant state of flux, particularly Spanish and English, which, as major world languages, enjoy huge national and regional variation, with time, geography and fashion contributing to robust and continuing difference.

Besides, we all know writers of consummate English who cannot explain the difference between a split infinitive and a gerund and are no worse writers because of it. They simply know what is right and what is not, so why inflict hours of grammar exercises on the generality of language learners, siphoning off all their joy in the process?

There is abundant evidence that there is hardly any correlation between excellent examination results in a language and the ability to function successfully in it.

So many language teachers are obliged to spend too much time obsessing over grammar exercises, form-filling and conforming to systems in order to satisfy the bureaucracy or administrative fashions of the day. These energy-sapping corsets are inimical to creativity.

Language teachers should be like the new friend a child meets at nursery: the child will seek the company of that friend, attracted by the fun and the difference, and will be keen to communicate. Modern language teaching has annihilated any possibility of this.

The adult learner's situation is even more dire. Any delight in language learning in a context linking it organically and imaginatively with its general cultural aspects is subordinated to institutional imperatives concerned with measuring and grid-filling. This is the reverse of what motivates people for lifelong learning. It reimposes examination-hall associations they thought they had long left behind, and results in their abandoning evening classes in droves.

Saturation in a language and its culture, with total immersion and isolation from co-linguals, is the best way to acquire another language - by way of a torrid love affair with a native speaker, for example, though admittedly this is a possibility for only the fortunate few.

So how can teachers inject a sense of fun and immerse their students in a foreign language?

In Bristol's "Language through theatre" course conventional roles become redefined. The teacher acts as a source of knowledge, a catalyst: students research, implement their discoveries and eventually take over, with everything determined democratically (even the choice of each year's project and the way it is developed). This engenders their sense of ownership; I know my work is almost finished when students say: "Leave us, we'll show you what we've done but we need to work on our own now."

This is actually a traditional mode of mentoring. We prepare corporately, discussing ideas, doing initial exercises, then students work independently, become "responsible", eventually feeling proud of their developing work. They have to trust me and they find me ready with ideas, a willing agent in developing their ideas. They realise that should they get stuck, make "mistakes", or get things confused, I am not there to correct or, worse, to punish, but to help clarify and devise alternative means for achieving their objectives.

This year's project is on the seven deadly sins. The research covers the plays Don Juan and Dr Faustus , the works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, as well as images from the Middle Ages and the internet. There are improvisations, exercises, and the construction of a structure, followed by the actual writing of the text, based on things found, on bits recorded and written.

Finally there is the performance. The students' "text" is refined further after the initial performance. Subsequently students write critically on the whole project.

All the meetings are in Spanish: the students are second-year undergraduates, the majority with A-level Spanish but some may have been beginners in the language in their first year at university. Generally they all struggle a bit at the beginning, but they learn very fast to find ways to explain themselves and argue their points.

I suppose the course is successful because the acquisition of language is taken very much as a given; it seeps in, mostly unnoticed, in an environment in which the students feel safe and confident that their tutor is there but not intrusive.

The course enables other attributes too: an ability to collaborate, trust and share with peers. Students also learn to organise, market, fundraise, project manage; they learn the conventions and history of Hispanic theatre, and to become inter-culturally able. Above all, they learn to be creative with only basic facilities and to perform in minimalist situations.

I developed the course over the years, putting into practice the experience I had gained teaching both adult leisure learners and university students. It has been successful. Student feedback is overwhelmingly positive, and external assessors have made encouraging noises too.

The course has gained conventional recognition with a CiLT (National Centre for Languages) European Award for innovation in language teaching as well as a Spanish Embassy Award for the best project in Spanish in higher education in 2005.

I am now trying to develop Taller ("taller" is "workshop" in Spanish, and here an acronym for Teaching/arts/language/ literature/education/research). It is a more ambitious project investigating the possibilities of applying aspects of "Language through theatre" via other media - such as opera, football, poetry, cinema, sciences and puppetry.

Bristol's teaching support unit has been very helpful, and we are now seeking a dedicated space to function as a really creative human laboratory. We hope language teachers from across the UK may come to explore relevant ideas free from performance-related pressures, form-filling and over-assessment, and to enjoy a place in which new and exciting ways of languages teaching and learning can be tried and discovered.

Rogelio Vallejo is teaching programme co-ordinator for Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American studies at Bristol University. He received an award from Bristol University for excellence in teaching and is a National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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