14.12.2003 ©2003 - Patrick Boylan – patrickboylan.it
paper presented at the 4th annual IALIC conference, "The
University of Rome III
The narrative social-constructionist approach to learning how to communicate interculturally in a second language ('critical cross-cultural capability in an L2') is based on relocating teller and listener in a new world of existential values. Students create personas coherent with the target culture, ones with whom they can readily identify in brief, self-authored oral or written narratives which they then enact in real-life situations. Through 'rewriting themselves' the students extend both their own and their interlocutors' horizons of understanding. This de- and re-centring capability, based on a self-induced transformation of consciousness, is essential for effective communication in intercultural situations. What is more, acquiring this capability facilitates learning the more formal, mechanical features of the L2.
It is generally recognized that in any second language (L2) course aiming at conferring a critical cross-cultural capability, students must first learn to situate their own culture by temporarily stepping out of it. As Parry (2002: 352) writes, students must learn to distance themselves from themselves in order to challenge the social norms which make them what they are in their normal course of living.
Parry suggests using L2 literature to provoke the distancing; but this, of course, means deferring the process until students have mastered their L2 sufficiently well to be "drawn into the text constructed to see the world as the native sees it" (Parry, 2002:350). The present paper proposes, instead, a complementary strategy based on narrative social constructivism, useful even with less proficient L2 learners. Students create personas coherent with the target culture, ones with whom they can then identify in brief, self-authored oral or written narratives. By doing so they 'rewrite themselves' – expression used by John McLeod (1998), a Scots psychotherapist, to indicate a 'retelling' that empowers patients to see and live their lives differently. This de- and re-centring capability is the very heart of intercultural communication (Boylan, 2000); it enables tellers and listeners of good will to relocate themselves in a third space, beyond their habitual "horizons of understanding" (Gadamer, 1975). Moreover, by learning to empathize with the other culture, students assimilate more readily the formal, mechanical features of the L2 they are studying (Gardner, 1985; Dörnyei & Csizér, 2002).
The psychological feasibility of 'rewriting oneself' finds justification in the writings not only of psychotherapists such as McLeod but also of clinical psychiatrists such as Putnam (1989) who notes that we are all born with the potential for multiple personalities; although we consolidate an overall sense of who we are, our psychological stability can contemplate multiple selves, so long as they are integrated and willed (not the result of a trauma and not automatically triggered by changes in contexts). Putnam gives the example of a stuffy college professor who is to all effects another person when he sits down on the floor to play gleefully (and wilfully so) with his grandson or when he goes mountain hiking with home-town friends. He speaks differently, acts differently and sees life differently in each setting.
Philosophically the notion of 'rewriting oneself' finds justification in Ricoeur's theorization of moi/soi ('I' versus 'Other, including Me-objectified') as reported in Crawshaw (2002:14):
At the core of [Ricoeur's] thesis is that the identification of self with other is based on choices which are grounded in the reflexive self and necessarily involve responsibility. [...] It is not myself like another but oneself as (en tant que) another. This identity implies not only our reiterated awareness of selfhood as articulated through language in our dealings with society. It implies our identification with other members of a potentially global community, our ability to see ourselves as in their place and to act – both physically and through language – on the basis of that fundamental sameness.
From a pedagogical standpoint, the rewriting techniques described here are perfectly coherent with the social constructionist view of language acquisition, for which people develop ever more sophisticated communicative constructs and strategies through accommodation to interactional schemata that are meaningful, gratifying, and challenging (Delia et al. 1982).
The students' new personas can be fictional personae or real life personalities belonging to the target culture; they are individuals with whom students choose willingly to identify in the brief, self-authored oral/written narratives they produce in order to 'rewrite themselves'. The Appendixes describe three such activities (elementary, intermediate, advanced) currently used by the author to teach English for Intercultural Communication in an Italian university. He has employed them, or variants, in different contexts and cultures for over thirty years and can attest that, however unusual some may seem for an institutional setting, they work.
follows will be clearer if the reader stops for a moment,
How do the activities proposed differ from old-fashioned role playing (such as "At the hotel") in which students enact characters in the L2 (e.g., hotel clerk and guest)? The fundamental difference is that in rewriting themselves, students assume a different existential stance, a different series of values and, as a consequence, different norms, beliefs, tastes, wants and so on – those of their target character. This goes far beyond what students normally do in role playing, where normally only the imagined setting and the so-called 'linguistic code' (L1 > L2) change. Secondly, the 'rewritten' narrations deal with real-life events in the students' lives, ones that are then lived in another cultural key. In most role playing, on the other hand, the events are hypothetical and have little affective and volitional anchorage in the students' life stories. Thirdly, texts are largely improvised – what counts is getting the feeling for the existential stance of the character: words follow. Instead, role playing makes use of scripts and any improvisations are carefully prepared for, by drills in phraseology. Note that the present proposals by no means eliminate L2 drills; such work is, however, left to students to manage outside of the class using the course web page with links to exercises classified by learning goals. Students must self-assess their 'L2-as-a-symbolic-code' needs and can use a TOEFL-like self-testing programme in the language lab as a reality check.
To summarize, learning an L2 for intercultural communication does not imply, as first priority, the study of the L2 as a code (Boylan, 2001). Rather, it implies learning the L2 as a "process of transformation" of the students' consciousness (Tomic 2001:3) which involves the learning of linguistic and pragmatic codes – and not only those.
But while Tomic (invoking Barnett's concept of 'life-world becoming') sees such process-oriented knowledge in opposition to academic competence and operational capability, this paper (following Gadamer's  reading of Aristotle) sees all three modes of knowing as equally necessary and interrelated. For Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, VI), in fact, "knowing how to be" (phronesis) founds "knowing what is" (episteme), which in turn requires "knowing how to do" (techne) to obtain a hold on the world and thus permit "reasoned" choices of being (phronesis ). Of course, "knowing what is" can become mere dogma ("knowing that"), while "knowing how to do" can become alienation: witness the teaching of cross-cultural capability in most business training programs and in many university language centres, as Tomic reminds us. But the point is that it need not be so. Thus, rather than teaching what is "beyond competence and capabilities" (with the risk of producing intellectual drones that gather no honey and have no sting), this paper advocates Gramsci's ideal of educating "intellectuals organic to production". Illuminated by episteme, rooted in techne and pursued as phronesis, the activities described in this paper teach students to question the 'institutionalized modes of being' presented to them as 'normal', imagine alternatives and communicate from within their new world view. The critical capability thus acquired will help them mediate across cultures.
The intercultural worth of learning to 'rewrite oneself' narratively may be found in the very concept of 'narration'. A narrative is not just the recounting or acting out of a series of events. A chronicle – for example, a policeman's report – describes events but deliberately avoids giving an explicit sense to them: that is the task of the judge. A narrative, on the other hand, is such precisely because it confers an overall existential sense on the events it recounts, what McLeod and Balamoutsou (in press) call "a moral, evaluative standpoint" – even when (like a chronicle) it abstains from attributing motives or causal links explicitly. Narratives manage this feat by creating a climate and a climax (or an anti-climax): like-pitched events seem to lead to some cathartic, meaningful denouement – or one that denies any meaning (which is still a sense). This characteristic of narratives gives us an insight into what cross-cultural capability in an L2 entails. It involves knowing how to confer a particular existential sense on what one recounts – a sense 'in tune' with the existential stance of one's interlocutors. Does this imply conferring on one's accounts the stereotypical values of the target culture? No – all cultures are multiple and include less typical and marginal variants; being 'in tune' still leaves one free to choose and remix melodies from the various repertories within the culture. Does learning to narrate 'as a native' require doing rewriting oneself activities? No, again – other activities, such as ethnographic field work (Jordan, 2002), can be even more intellectually challenging and thereby educative. But students, like us all, love to hear and tell stories: the activities described here are highly educative because they are highly gratifying (Delia et al. 1982).
What about the scientific worth of the activities proposed? What criteria assure students that they have genuinely understood the existential stance of the L2 personality with whom they have chosen to identify? This, of course, is the question interculturalists have been both dealing with and avoiding since the discipline began. The external manifestations of a culture are easy enough to identify, but how can we be sure we have correctly identified what produces them, their existential matrix – the culture itself? For example, in Activity 1 the Italian students who choose Bob Marley (the reggae singer) as their English-speaking 'double' have no trouble in identifying the laid-back quality of his way of speaking, quite different from the laid-back character of, say, Bruce Springsteen's talk. (In Springsteen one senses 'power held in check', in Marley 'trust in future power' – two mind sets clearly antithetical.) The students' goal, however, is not to replicate Marley's prosody or echoisms (servile imitations of the manifestations of a culture are generally counter-productive) but rather to make Marley's mind set theirs and then to speak in whatever situationally-appropriate way they choose. Still, how can they know for sure that 'trust in future power' is indeed an existential value informing Marley's speech and one, therefore, that they should espouse while 'being' Marley? Thus, the hermeneutic problem they face is not what Marley's prosody or echoisms 'mean', but:
what values inform these phenomena so that they evoke what the students hear and feel;
what assures the students that such values are the speaker's and not theirs (by projection)?
Laboratory verification is impossible: valid and reliable models of existential value systems do not exist yet. Ethnographic testing is of course possible: student 'Marleys' can frequent West Indian expatriates in Rome to see if their entente improves. But such testing, while useful, is not conclusive: successes (or, for that matter, failures) may always be due to unnoticed concomitant causes. Field data, rife with multiple dependent variables, can offer no certitudes.
This paper answers the question of the scientific worth of the activities proposed by taking the hermeneutic position elaborated by Gadamer (also adopted by McLeod): students cannot in fact 'know for sure' in the way that positive science claims to 'know by demonstration' (a specious claim, in any case, since all demonstrations are founded on interpretation). Rather, the students' presuppositions (or the presuppositions of any researcher) can only:
supply a horizon of understanding from which the [linguistic and other behavioural documentation] can begin to be understood. The goal is to achieve a "fusion of horizons" (Gadamer, 1975), in which the material is not merely assimilated into a pre-existing interpretive framework, but through which this pre-existing framework is itself changed through authentic engagement with the text. (McLeod & Balamoutsou, in press).
In other words, redefining redefines the redefiner – and it is on the honesty of this double act of redefinition that the 'scientific validity' or 'truth' of the redefiner's knowledge is founded.
Labelling 'scientific truth' (which we normally hold to be 'objective') a moral question may come as a surprise to some. It need not. Consider, for example, the student who sets out to document critically Bob Marley's world view. This young researcher will inevitably bump into facts that do not fit his preconceptions and will thereby discover – if he is honest with himself – that what he had always called 'Marley' was in part a projection. (The same thing, of course, happens in many love affairs: after bumping into the hard facts, one finally comes round to admitting – if one is honest with oneself – that one's 'love' was only an infatuation, i.e., a projection of one's hopes and desires.) With this discovery, the student can then set out to interrogate the imprint that the real-but-unknowable-as-such Marley has made on his consciousness, asking himself what it is in him that created the Marley he had taken for real, and what it is in him that keeps him from understanding (or accepting) the multiplicity of Marleys – some disappointingly banal, some dark and even unsettling – that fit the imprint and that extend far beyond the student's normal horizons of understanding. Finally, having situated Marley as the nebulous extension of the convexity which created that particular (empirically verifiable) imprint, and having situated himself and his own culture as the nebulous extension of the convexities which created the (empirically verifiable) imprints that constitute his identity, the student is ready to assume a new existential stance embracing this double perception. The worth of what he then elaborates as 'scientific knowledge' (falsifiable explanatory constructs tested as such) will depend, above everything else, on the nature and rectitude of that stance.
In the final analysis, then, intercultural knowledge, like any other scientific knowledge, must be seen as a conceptual elaboration deriving from a positioning of oneself in the universe, the 'truth' of which is a responsibility, not a guarantee. Just as people have the leaders they elect (deserve?), whether good or bad, so do they have the knowledge they elect to acquire. In the present case, this means that the worth of the "knowledge" produced by "rewriting oneself" depends above all on the student's stance (determined by phronesis) toward the phenomena under investigation, since it dictates the research agenda. For example the scientific worth of the existential maxims attributed to Marley is due only in part to the rigour of the students' biographical and sociocultural documentation; most of all it is due to their view of human behaviour, which suggested the model determining the documentation to seek. (Most students reject Hofstede's  five-pole model precisely because its underlying reductionist stance is judged dishonest.) Likewise, students investigating the status of Marley's patwa (a variety/dialect of English? a language?) carefully compare his utterances to on-line inventories of English creoles (Aberdeen, UNE, Stanford...) but, in the end, make their decision on the basis of their view of "language" as defined by their existential stance ("post-colonial", for instance), judged "right for their times". This kind of situated, judgmental knowing is Aristotle's phronesis. J.S. Mill calls it the basis of the "moral sciences" and Gadamer science tout court. Experience shows that teaching it to undergraduates is both feasible and desirable. Indeed, any curriculum aiming at conferring an effective cross-cultural capability in an L2 should give priority to teaching the L2 as the critical internalisation of existential stances (phronesis), through real-life activities (techne) illuminated by linguistic description (episteme).
This paper has shown how students can learn to 'rewrite themselves' in an L2 by imagining new personas and then living them out in real-life interaction. By creatively producing novel expressive behaviour based on willed (not 'exercise dictated') changes in their existential stances, students learn to see their L2 as the problematic expression of competing cultural matrices; they also learn to distance themselves from – and thus relativise – their 'natural' behaviour and expressive habits. The teacher, of course, must then lead students to critique in explicit terms the so-called 'naturalness' of their native habits, the misleading 'canonicity' of their L2 as learned at school, the false (and harmful) 'dichotomy' of having to learn an L2 as 'theory' at home and 'practice' abroad, and the pervasive "mistaken consciousness" (Jack & Phipps, 2002) of intercultural studies in universities and transnational organizations today.
The transformation of consciousness thereby generated is a prerequisite not only for successful intercultural communication (Tomic, 2001) but also for the successful acquisition of the L2 as a mode of being – what languages essentially are (Boylan, 2002). Until such a transformation begins, students can learn only a hollow facsimile of the L2 – inadequate for real life use just as much as for the literary studies Parry (2002) proposes at advanced levels.
The activities described here set off this process of transformation by prompting students to talk and act as if it had already occurred. By deliberately 'rewriting themselves', students suddenly discover that all the world is indeed a stage, or rather a multiplicity of stages, each one a Globe – a sphere-of-interaction-as-text – from which to observe, like astronauts upon the moon, that distant globe of strutting, fretting players into which they happened to be born – their native culture, a dot in an infinite universe of possible worlds.
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APPENDIX 1. BEGINNERS: Cultural Identikits of target culture celebrities.
Students are to research and then write out the cultural/psychological Identikit of an L2 celebrity with whom they willingly identify (and that they then act out in their everyday classroom activities): a singer, an actor, a political figure... Even non celebrities are acceptable, if there is enough information available on them to construct an Identikit.
For example, a student who likes the Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley can document himself on Marley's cultural and psychological make up using biographies, the Internet, films, fanzines, audio clips of interviews, etc. The web sites of university linguistics departments will furnish information about Marley's West Indies language: a creole? a variety/dialect of English? a language of its own? Piecing all this together, the student produces a list of ad hoc values that seem to explain Marley's way of speaking and then translates these values into maxims. For instance, a value might be 'supporting things tenaciously': this could be translated into a maxim like "Jus' keep waitin', justice'll come", something Marley gives the impression of saying to himself regularly and something that explains the laid-back quality we hear in (assign to) his prosody and onomatopoeic catchwords. (Whereas Whorf derived cultural meaning from linguistic traits, students derive it from macrocultural products – e.g., rituals, diaries, biographies, labour union platforms – and assign it to linguistic traits taken only as emblems.)
Then, while waiting for classes to begin, the students repeat their list of maxims aloud to inculcate them – thereby 'rewriting' themselves – and from then on speak and act consequently. They do not imitate their 'double' (something that, as a rule, is interculturally counter-productive). If the student choosing Marley has indeed been able to invent and internalize maxims representing his double's make up, then he will automatically begin to talk in a way that, while not necessarily being patwa or West Indies English, will be something that a Jamaican would instinctively relate to. That, in the perspective of this paper, is what intercultural communication entails. (It also entails 'widening the horizons' of one's interlocutor, but this will be more evident in the following activities.) After several lessons in which students consolidate their new persona by experiencing the class differently (they even interrupt the teacher to ask a question as their double might), they meet in groups in their homes or in empty classrooms to 'narrate themselves' to each other while assuming their respective personas. Each group consigns a cassette with the 'interviews' and self-evaluations.
APPENDIX 2. INTERMEDIATE: Commedia dell'arte characters for the target culture.
Students are asked to research the following question: if the commedia dell'arte were a present-day British institution, what would a few stock characters (maschere) be? Students must then write out and enact a scene in English as their maschere, one that – if successful – should make the U.K. Erasmus students invited for the occasion laugh (or wince) with self recognition. The actors can take inspiration from (or simply plagiarize) the characters on popular British TV shows (e.g., The Eastenders or, if they want to enact political maschere, the old Spitting Image shows), the tapes of which they find in the language lab. What counts is that they find a 'double', a British stereotype they will have fun identifying with, during both the scene in class and the real activity which follows (the scene in class is just a warm up).
The students are subsequently told to return home and be their maschera there for a day: they are to imagine they are from the U.K. on an exchange program (so their Italian is perfect) and are boarding with the family who treats them as a lost child (one who ran off to England long ago); to humour the family, they respond to the child's name. Finally, while still being their maschera, they are to narrate their day in a report emphasising what they noticed as peculiar in the Italian family's talk and behaviour, in the family's expectations as to their behaviour, etc.
The inventor of this technique is the American ethnomethodologist Garfinkel (1967), famous for having his students act as boarders at their own homes in order to unmask the power structure and reality cues governing talk and behaviour there; the activity proposed here aims instead at revealing, contrastively, the hidden cultural assumptions. Many of Garfinkel's students reported the emotional distress of their families at their strange behaviour – mothers phoning for a doctor's appointment for their 'overstressed' offspring, etc. – and the author of this paper can confirm the same reactions in Italy. Nonetheless, in years of implementation the final acceptance has been total and the educational value phenomenal. Students often report that the day at home spent 'rewriting themselves' as Brits taught them more about the British way of seeing and saying things (filtered through Italian!) than a month spent as an Erasmus student in the U.K.; the experience also led their families to reflect on their culture's norms.
APPENDIX 3. ADVANCED: Cultural adaptations of personal scenarios.
Students first write out a deeply-felt personal experience, one that is also culturally dense, using their native language (Italian, in the case of the author's students of English as a Second Language). Then, instead of translating their narrative, the students make a cultural adaptation: they rewrite it, transposing it into an L2 linguistic/cultural setting of their choice.
For example one girl wrote about her parents' decision to put her grandmother – who had been living with the family up to then – into an old people's home. It should be noted that, until recent years, living conditions in old people's homes in Italy have generally been poor by Northern European or American standards; this is because families have traditionally taken care of the elderly and only the marginal cases have ended up in such institutions. Now, under pressure from a neo-liberal economy that seeks to shift workers around as markets change, working couples have started ridding themselves of the parents they once cared for – as well as refusing children: Italy, once the land of bambini, now has the lowest birthrate in Europe.
The pathos that the student wanted to transmit, however, was not so much about the conditions in the old people's home as about the betrayal of a loved one, the betrayal of a value, bonds that were cracking, a society that was being transformed into plastic. She evoked those feelings through the scene she wrote in Italian (interspersed with her home town dialect, ciociaro) that took place in the kitchen between grandmother and granddaughter: it was about the food that was becoming ever more plastic, too, and about the grandmother who had become just as "useless" as the family's old vegetable strainer. (Grandma was no longer needed in the kitchen ever since the family had begun to buy, from a German food market chain, quick-frozen pasta sauces sold in single portion plastic bags.)
How to rewrite such a scene in terms that an American could relate to? Especially since, in America, food has been bought and consumed in plastic containers for decades and no one has any difficulty in putting grandparents in Residences for Seniors: most go on their own! Translated semantically from Italian to English, the scene would risk sounding like Italian 'folklore', sentimentalism mixed with a refusal of progress. That is what an American 'year abroad' student, visiting the class, told the author when she explained the story to him spontaneously in English. Her intended message somehow got lost in the translation.
It should be remembered that the student's task was to write a narrative in English, not an essay. She had to evoke, not explain, her sense of loss and betrayal, her grandmother's pain and her apprehension that she – or any of us – could end up one day just like grandma, an endangered species (which is what she discovered about her own feeling of pathos by repositioning herself honestly with respect to it before 'rewriting herself'). Knowing how to evoke feelings for a culturally different public is a capability that any student interested in working in the international fiction market (especially cinema and TV) should acquire. It is in fact precisely this capability that enables one to collaborate in producing fiction that is successful, not because it is culturally 'neutral' (McDonaldised) or 'stereotypical' (folkloristic), but because it manages to take people in the target culture beyond their usual horizons.
The transposition invented by the student in her English-language version for the U.S. market concerned a little girl, 5 years old, living in Flint, Michigan, who had seen both her elder sister and her elder brother, when they turned 6, get shipped off by their parents to the "Darkwoods Boarding School" somewhere out of town, seldom to be seen afterwards. The parents had their careers to think about and refused to take care of all those kids.
The scene itself was a "goodbye" between the little girl and her elder sister who had come home from Darkwoods for a brief Sunday visit. During the goodbye the elder sister talked about the changes she had noticed in the house – for example, the plastic knives and forks at meals for efficiency, instead of the cutlery when she was growing up there. And then she added that she felt like the cutlery, getting put away as an obstacle to efficiency.
At the end of the scene the student added a note for her target public (to whom she read her text), the young American who had come to class. Did he feel the sensation of betrayal that the little girl felt for her elder sister? And her feeling that life was shrivelling up all around her? "If so," the student-author added, "then you understand how I felt when I saw my grandma get sent away. So tell me: is it fair to call my feeling 'Italian sentimentalism' or 'folklore'?" Her public agreed that it would not be, thus suggesting that the narrative had (momentarily) widened his horizons: his vision of 'one of us to care for' could now include grandparents, as in Italy. "So why," the student-author concluded, "do parents in both our countries keep ruining everyone's life, just to produce and consume more? For whose benefit?" (Deafening silence.)
While a truly accomplished writer might have been able to render, in English, the original scene as it was lived, the student's recourse to culturally appropriate metaphor (a Grimm-like setting) and style (melodramatic, like U.S. soap operas and action films) nonetheless illustrates how critical cross-cultural capability can enable effective intercultural communication.
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