Monday, 22 June 2009

Hovering between languages and cultures

The title of this post comes from one of my comments to Silvia Tolisano's recent post in her Langwitches blog. The post really resonated with me and made me think of where I exactly fit in in this global educational conversation - if anywhere?

I've been blogging on and off for a little over two years. I started out of curiosity, and the desire to get familiar with social media and the related tools before introducing any of them to my students. I reckoned that to have any credibility in integrating technology in my course plans, I should at least have some digital footprint myself. When it comes to using technology, my mantra is learning by doing, and getting motivated on a needs' basis. At least it has worked that way for me. I have kept learning new things to meet a particular need - find better and more suitable platforms for online intercultural school projects, for example.

Blogging urged me to read edubloggers around the world to learn from the more experienced. I am so grateful to all the marvellous teachers whose wisdom I have had the chance of benefiting from online. In these two years I have learned far more than I would have done in any in-service or other training course, simply because I have been able to find the guidance and answers exactly the moment I needed them. In addition, my net surfing has serendipitously led me to many unexpected wells of inspiration, too.

All this time, though, I have been rather hesitant about commenting on other people's blogs, nor have my ramblings in this blog attracted many comments from others. Two sides of the same coin, I'm sure. It is active participation and reciprocity that are called for in an attempt to build a lasting online learning network. Mine is still heavily under construction. Even though, over the years, I have managed to form quite a wide network of foreign colleagues through organising face-to-face student exchanges, unfortunately, hardly any of these teachers happen to be very active online, so I am starting my online PLN from scratch.

One of my problems all along has been the need to keep explaining my particular circumstances and background in a marginal (from an English-speaking perspective), rather unknown nation and culture. I keep wondering how many cues are totally misinterpreted in global educational discussions, due to linguistic and cultural differences. Speaking the lingua franca English easily creates a false sense of understanding, but as many nationally/culturally/linguistically-bound concepts and ideas are thrown in, are people really talking about the same issues?

Let me give you an example. Just recently I have been looking for people to follow on Twitter. People might mention 'my yr10 students' or 'K3 students'- which, for me, don't automatically give any indication of the type of school these students go to or how old they might be. If I was to take part in that conversation, I would find it essential to first explain how schools are organised in my country to make my viewpoint clear. This would probably make me sound like a hopelessly uninteresting babbler. Should it be taken for granted then that, if you want to participate in educational dialogue in English, you should also familiarize yourself with the school systems of the major English-speaking nations in the world? Possibly. But still, where would I fit in in that discussion, if the English-speaking world didn't see any relevance in where I was coming from? I'm even beginning to doubt whether I, a non-native English teacher, had better not butt in on native-English teachers' discussions, no matter how interesting they might appear.

On second thoughts, even when teachers from different cultures simply talk about 'students', they are not really talking the same language, are they? I am referring to my 16-19-year-old students here in my country, in a school system that is based on almost solely state schooling (ie. no private school system), learning English as a foreign language and speaking a structurally totally different mother tongue that, to a considerable extent, affects their learning and my teaching practices, plus living in a culture where TV programmes and films are not dubbed but subtitled, which means that they are exposed to authentic English and American every day. Plus add to all that the average number of English classes a week and the fact that I can only teach each group for 7 weeks, before the students are reshuffled again, because in our senior high school system they make their own timetables and change from teacher to teacher five times a school year... You see, here I go again! If colleagues, say from Germany or South Korea, talk to me about 'students' it becomes a drastically different word and concept.

Why did I start blogging in English then? It was a natural choice for me for two clear reasons: first, I am an English teacher and have always wanted to meet colleagues from around the world and second, at home I live in a bicultural Finnish-British family, and often feel slightly outside the monocultural, monolingual Finnish contexts - a feeling of 'lost in translation' almost anywhere, which, apart from liking the film by the same name very much, led to the name of my blog, too. And yes, a third reason - most of online communication is in English anyway.

However, just as Sylvia Tolisano, in the above-mentioned post, I am acutely aware of the 'missing voices'. I have tried to find my voice, but what if it keeps falling on deaf ears? It is not only a linguist barrier, but also a cultural one. The largely western, Anglo-American blogo- and twittersphere sometimes excludes not only those who struggle with English, but also many others who are linguistically fairly competent in English, but just fall outside that particular cultural sphere.

Photo: sunflowers by georgia.g on Flickr


Bill Chapman said...

I'm a native speaker of English, but I see a need for a neutral relatively easy international language. I suggest Esperanto.

Take a look at

Let me know what you think!

sinikka said...

Hi Bill

Thank you for your comment Bill. I think it was a good idea to try to develop a universal second language, which would be neutral as you said. However, unfortunately, esperanto has never really caught on as hoped.

I wonder whether it's perhaps because of its nature as an artificial, constructed language that is not 'alive' in the same sense as other languages in the world. At least for me, one of the big thrills of learning foreign languages is also to gain insights into the relationship between language and culture, between language and people's personalities and mindsets. A neutral 'nobody's language' would eliminate all this and make communication somewhat clinical (this is my prejudice, of course, since I have never tried to learn esperanto!).

Brian Barker said...

Hi Sinikka

I agree with Bill Chapman about Esperanto.

There is no doubt that, because of the linguistic imperialism of English, and increasingly Mandarin Chinese, Esperanto certainly has a bright future.

Can I ask your readers to have a look at

Other assistance is available at

sinikka said...

Hi Brian

I admire your and Bill's faith in esperanto. I still have my doubts, but only future will tell.