Quick-fire teaching: the languages of the Danube
7 August 2013
Find out how nine teaching fellows went about designing a set of six-hour courses aimed at teaching undergraduate students languages from around the Danube. The case study was compiled by Jelena Čalić, Ramona Gonczol, Lily Kahn, Sabine Lins, Christina Parte, Eszter Tarsoly and Olga Willet.
‘Languages of the Danube’ is an innovative and unique language course developed within the framework of UCL’s Global Citizenship Programme, a two-week summer school. Nine language teaching fellows took part in the programme, whose aim was to design and teach a six-hour course which was tailor-made to suit the needs of students from a variety of disciplines (from all faculties and departments of UCL), and to allow students and teachers to focus on patterns of life and culture in the Danube region through language. As such, it was a pioneering example of content- and language-integrated learning (CLIL), in which course aims had to be met in an unusually short time – in as few as six one-hour tutorials – and through languages (Bulgarian, German, Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, and a one-hour introduction to Yiddish) which were entirely new to the students.
The most fascinating methodological challenge was twofold. First, learners, who were all first-year undergraduate students at UCL, were studying a variety of subjects (some humanities, others sciences), and were of a diverse national and first-language background. Second, we had to design a course outside the curriculum on a theme (Danubian culture through languages) on which sources and especially teaching materials are scarce. Students had to develop a sound knowledge of key features of the languages in question, and an understanding of methodological and analytical approaches that allow them to appreciate the intricate and intimate ways in which language encapsulates culture in a short time span because of the complexity of the material they had in hand. Practically speaking, in order to enable students to speak and read about culture and literature connected to the Danube in a foreign language in a meaningful way, we had to expose learners at beginner level to authentic texts (in written and spoken language) which would normally be introduced at more advanced levels.
Another initial challenge was to achieve an adequate selection of languages.
How it works
One of the current trends in the interpretation of the goals of foreign language teaching came in handy in tackling the first methodological challenge. The aim of language teaching is no longer to reach the competence of the idealised native speaker in one or two foreign languages; in other words, ‘to speak like a native’ is no longer the exclusive aim of language learning. An alternative to this is to facilitate and/or acknowledge learners’ exposure to a large number of languages, including those that they bring with themselves from their place of origin or heritage speakers’ background. This involves, on the part of the language teacher, the task of equipping the students with skills and flexibility of mind that allow them to understand and appreciate the difference between various languages and cultures, as well as to switch between these, as often required in everyday situations in a multicultural context, as flexibly as possible.
Therefore, developing the students’ intercultural competence (through the specialised angle of content- and language-integrated learning about the Danube) came front and centre when defining the aims of our language programme. This is a learning process, we hoped, to which students can bring to bear their multicultural and multilingual backgrounds, and the course will assist them in developing a competence which, in turn, they can apply to their everyday lived experience in the London context.
We summarised in six points how this approach informed our development of the curriculum and our delivery of the courses in practice:
1. Development of a short curriculum and new materials
Two months prior to the start of the course a draft curriculum was written, which was then evaluated and discussed by all the teaching fellows taking part in the programme. The fact that we had to focus on one specific topic – the Danube – helped to manage the limited time. Over the following two months, and while teaching the sessions, the nine language teaching fellows worked closely together to develop the six language courses as a collaborative project across languages, producing a specialised short curriculum and detailed course plans for six languages and two lectures on Yiddish.
2. The use of the target language during the sessions and its proportion to English
Early exposure to the target language in a ‘safe’ classroom environment helps students overcome the anxiety of saying things in the target language. To build up to the point when students are actually able to say things usually takes several teaching hours, for which we did not have time. The fact that lessons were based on each other more loosely than usual as they all introduced a different topic helped to focus the students’ attention on one particular communicative situation. Students were encouraged to listen to recorded material in the language as homework. In session three, a set of slides was shared across languages. Evocative pictures helped to avoid lengthy demonstrations and translation where this was unnecessary.
Thus, from session three onwards, English was used mostly for commentary (e.g. on loan words, calquing, describing structural features of the language, discussing ethnicities, dialectal variation, events, habits, customs, environmental matters, etc.) and for translation or glossing (which was necessary in explaining grammatically and lexically complex passages), but the actual lesson (e.g. the quiz in session three, learning about food in session four, discussion of activities in session five) took place in the target language. This was a great confidence boost to students because it encouraged their immersion in the target language and made them believe that they can do and say what they want in a foreign language from the outset.
3. The use of authentic materials, texts, and dialogue
One of the greatest merits of the course was that it made authentic foreign language material, which would normally be introduced at more advanced levels, accessible to beginners. This was possible because, as we concentrated on one overarching theme throughout the course, a large part of the vocabulary that we covered occurred repeatedly as we went along. So, by session six, there was no need for extended vocabulary lists. Authentic materials were introduced from the outset but they took priority from session three, either in the form of mini-dialogues or short passages (e.g. recipes, prose passages from a variety of registers, poetry, etc.) for reading.
A stripped-down form of interlinear glossing and gloss translation was used to illustrate points in the target language, and the introductory session on the key features of the language was also necessary so that features that run through the entire system of the language do not come as a surprise to students later. To teach such key features in a short time, we found that the discovery approach was the most successful: students figured out grammar by themselves using a large number of examples, as if solving a riddle; the examples provided another way of introducing authentic material which is also relevant to the Danubian theme.
4. Student-student contact
The short and intensive learning process which was based on immersion in a different language and culture contributed to group dynamics in a way that allowed students to form pairs and groups very quickly, and in general to develop collaborative practices much more quickly than is usually the case on a traditional language course. This was of great assistance in running the classes because it helped to pre-empt, and turn to advantage, some of the difficulties that arose from the students’ varied disciplinary backgrounds (e.g. a student of linguistics or a modern language was able to help the group to figure out a complex language feature; students from sciences had good IT skills and researched topics independently, students from social sciences brought their own insights and questions to sessions). Similarly, students from Central and Eastern Europe, from the UK, and from overseas (mostly South-East Asia and the Middle East) brought very different insights to the course.
For instance, a student from Germany, who turned out to be of Middle Eastern heritage, usually supplied one of the (non-German) language groups with information on how they say or do things in Germany. As the group was learning about stuffed cabbage (Greek dolma, Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian sarma; both words of Turkish origin, Hungarian töltött káposzta, etc.) the following conversation occurred:
Teacher: So, in Hungary this is töltött káposzta, which is sarma in Romanian and in Serbian. It exists everywhere in the Balkans. [turning to the student in question] I am not sure, do they make something like this in Germany too? Do you know it from home?
Student: Well, I am not sure about Germany either but I do know it from Azerbaijan. We cook it like in Azerbaijan at home in Berlin.
An illustration of how a short conversation can be more revealing about cultural contact and transmission across regions than any lengthy explanation, especially when we are lucky enough to have students of a diverse and relevant background in the classroom.
5. Student-teacher contact
The same could be said about the dynamics between the students and teachers. The latter are from the region, which helps to suspend students’ disbelief and to engage their imagination and emotive faculty besides the intellectual one. This is of the utmost importance especially in the case of those students who are either less experienced language learners or, and there were many of these, knew almost nothing about the Danube region prior to the start of the course.
An example of this is the following. While the Danube Global Citizenship Summer School was taking place in London’s Bloomsbury, the Danube itself flooded most areas along its Central European section, leading to people losing their homes and even to fatalities in at least three of the six countries whose languages were covered (Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary) during the course.
A teacher from Austria opened the website of one of the Austrian daily papers, whose cover was, as expected, ‘flooded’ with images of the catastrophe. Students reacted very sensitively to this; for many the realisation came for the first time that the person they meet in class every day actually comes from the place they read about, at that time even in the British daily press, that her family and friends might be actually affected, etc. Similar realisations in class helped students to establish a metonymic relationship between the teacher, the language and culture, and the land where the language in question is used. This relationship enhances the engagement of the learners’ imagination, which, as studies have recently shown [cf. ftn. 1.], plays an important part in language learners’ desire to ‘write a script’: to create a fictional parallel world (an alternative to reality) through language learning. As a result, learners are more involved in the learning process and, in most cases, they take more responsibility for their own progress as well as for that of the course.
6. Teaching culture through language: why does it work?
After having shown how various aspects of our course worked in practice, we would like to suggest a few general points which could be useful to consider in language teaching in more usual settings as well. The ‘nativeness’ of the teachers in the languages they taught on these courses is a lucky coincidence but it is far from being the most essential prerequisite in content- and language-integrated learning. It is more important to acknowledge and, in teaching, build on the fact that not only the teacher but also the learners are mediators between cultures, and the classroom is the space where they jointly engage in mediation, each bringing their own background and experience to whatever material they have at hand. This pre-empts the reification of either the teacher’s or the learners’ identity into fixed cultural sets (normally based on the binary opposition between ‘native’ v. ‘foreigner’), and classes tap into the learners’ (and in a less explicit way) the teacher’s subjectivity. This encourages greater collaboration between the participants of the learning project and places the individual at the heart of it.
In this framework the aim is no longer to understand, for instance, a piece of verbal art in every grammatical and lexical detail, with its allusions and intertextuality that are more likely to be obvious to a certain kind of native speaker. Such an understanding would take so much time that we could hardly even scratch the surface of it on such a short course. The aim is rather to develop a good understanding of just one short passage and then allow students to link this understanding to their own ‘script’ about the target language and culture, and to discover original ways in which they can make sense of the material in the context of their own languages-and-culture. An alternative is to introduce a variety of passages and explore only a particular aspect of each passage (spoken or written); e.g. one is useful in conveying a point about ethnicity, for instance, the other one has relevant vocabulary to natural landscapes and the environment, yet another one illustrates how a certain grammar feature can be different across dialects but similar across languages, etc.
The use of Moodle and a blended learning approach also contributed to maximising students’ exposure to authentic material without taking up too much contact time (e.g. the homework was often to listen to recordings of songs and texts on YouTube, or a guided discovery of new material which could not have been explored in class, etc.). No doubt the course could have been further expanded in this direction (for instance, it would have been interesting to encourage students to write their own language learning diary or blog) but this would have collided with the students’ other obligations in the programme of the summer school. Still, in their final presentation on the last day of the summer school students included audio or video recordings and podcasts that they created in the target language, they discussed key typological and regional features of the languages they studied, and they prepared a poster for exhibition on this topic. Many also introduced themselves in the target language.
What the students thought
From preliminary evaluation of feedback it seems that students have identified the language programme as one of the most successful and motivating aspects of the Danube Global Citizenship Summer School. Here are a few quotations from them, collected partly from the feedback forms, partly from their final presentations:
“The language and culture course was one of the most useful sessions; there was a good balance between learning a new language and hearing about the cultural and historical background of that language.”
“I greatly enjoyed the languages classes and the teaching. The Danube is a great region to study, which also challenged me to broaden my perspective.”
“I found language sessions the most useful. They gave a good opportunity to become familiar with the language and they were also culturally very relevant and interesting.”
“I originally signed up for this summer school because I knew I would have the opportunity to start learning a new language from a region whose linguistic landscape is very varied and interesting.”
“The language teachers made us believe that we actually know the language we studied after as few as three or four lessons. In class we often used just the language but somehow we still learnt so much about the culture and the people and the structure of that language. In the closing presentation all the members of my group introduced themselves in the language we studied. It’s amazing!”
“Studying the language really made us feel we were in a different world!”
 See, for example Fenoulhet, J., Ros i Sole, C. (2010). Mobility and Localisation in Language Learning. (5). Oxford: Peter Lang Pub Inc. and Ros i Solé, C. ‘The Cosmopolitan Speaker: Locating Imagined Worlds’. Paper presentation at UCL SSEES on a CEELBAS workshop on 10 June 2013.