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One // History and Memory in Foreign Language Study // view

Written By: daveski on September 10, 2011 No Comment

I’m at the BLC one-day colloquium, History and Memory in Foreign Language Study, and though I’ll only be able to be here for part of the day, I’d like to leave a few thoughts. Or, as I’ve tried to indicate in the title, one view.

Before launching into the collection of liveblogging tidbits that I’ll try to leave here (a genre that I’ve never got the hang of totally), though, I thought I’d say a very little about the space I tried to open up with the “One // History…” title. It seems to me one thing that we as language teachers are faced with is, on the one hand, normative pressures to teach national or singular histories that attach to the languages we teach (“One View”?) and, on the other, the fact that any re-telling of history, in the language classroom or in the liveblog summaries on a university blog about language, is partial, particular, situated (“one view”).

9:00 – 9:30. Claire Kramsch of the Department of German at UC Berkeley gave the opening remarks. She brought up the fact that history is often something that cannot be brought up explicitly in foreign language classes, especially at the beginning and intermediate levels. Reasons for this include the belief that language classes’ main obligation is to teach grammar and vocabulary; questions of culture and history are often left to upper-division, ‘non-skills’ classes. Language teachers may also not feel able to broach issues that might offend or challenge their students’ sense of pride or patriotism–especially when those students don’t yet have the ability to adequately express their views in the foreign language. Kramsch referred to the 2004 UC Berkeley course, Language Ecology, in arguing that when we ask if and how history is to be taught in the language classroom, certainly a nuanced understanding of language is necessary.

9:30 – 10:25. In her talk, Ryuko Kubota of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia, explored several aspects of history relevant to the memories of war in the Japanese language classroom: movies, manga and other popular media in Japan including Hadashi no Gen and Omoide no Anne, demonstrating how higai (victim) perspectives assume kagai (perpetrator) status of the other, but don’t interrogate one’s own (country’s) complicity in tragedies (9/11, Hiroshima, Pearl Harbor); she explored Canada’s complicity in supplying uranium to American A-bombs and the effects on the Dené people of northern Canada; drawing a parallel between the Japanese government’s policies toward U.S. bases in Okinawa and its management of the Fukushima nuclear crisis earlier this year, Kubota argued that economically and socially marginalized peoples bear the weight of their own governments’ responses to what are officially billed as ‘victimizations’. A take-away point is that one cannot reduce complex historical tragedies to higai/kagai binaries; they must be understood in the context of power relations between state and non-state actors in the past and present. She concluded, “We need to understand that each historical event involves political, economic, and social relations of power in the forms of domination, subordination, and resistance both in the target society and in the home country,” and examination of the kagai position is necessary to critically understand the self and the other.

Q&A time followed–

10:50 – 11:40. Bill Hanks of Anthropology at UC Berkeley presents “Linguistic Conversion and the Making of Colonial Yucatec Maya”, a paper investigating the role of Franciscan friars in the repurposing of the Maya language for evangelization of the population after the Spanish Conquest of the mid-16th century, the “peaceful conquestion”, or “reduction”–convincing, reorganizing, subjugating through conversion to the faith. Creation and propagation of the “lengua reducida”, the Maya language ‘reduced’ to its new purpose, is the focus of his talk; the creation of Maya reducido involved not only changing the language (a new register with new forms) but also changed social space and changed conduct–the creation of a new cosmology. Hanks explores four principles that, he says, governed the creation of dictionaries… Interpretance–for any expression in Spanish, there can be found a corresponding expression in Maya. Relative transparency is the degree to which the Maya renders the meaning of the Spanish original, and not the form (as in the translation of “baptism”); this leads to single words in Spanish being translated into whole phrases of Maya: “translation explicitates”. Economy–translate the greatest number of concepts from Spanish that are doctrinally related (but not formally related necessarily) using the smallest number of Maya roots. Indexical grounding–making sure the pre-existing multiple or connotative (second) meanings and resonances of the words in Maya reducido don’t work against the purposes of conversion (each word exists in a pre-existing constellation of meaning, which cannot but influence the way the neologisms take up meaning).

DM: I had to leave early here, but one question that comes to mind is the analogies that can be drawn between the conscious re-engineering of the Maya language for the purposes of religious conversion (and subjugation in its many meanings), and the re-engineering of English for neo-liberal capitalist practice… “Can I take your order?

11:45 – 12:30. Yuri Slezkine of UC Berkeley gave a talk entitled “The Joys and Challenges of Teaching ‘One’s Own’ History” (absent)

2:20 – 3:20. James Wertsch of Washington University in St. Louis presented on “Texts of Memory and Texts of History” via Skype. Foundational to Wertsch’s view is that narratives are cultural tools–that they impose constraints while offering affordances to cultural actors as they create meaning together. One of his main goals is to delineate the differences between collective memory and formal history: memory is simplified, relies on cognitive shortcuts, presents a partial and singular view, is impervious to new evidence and change; history contrasts with memory on each of these points, he says. In fact, considering the perspective that forgetting is crucial for the formation of the nation, history and memory can be in conflict or opposition with one another. He pointed to the emotional commitments that people maintain with respect to narratives (and thus narratives resist change), and to the fact that narratives function at two levels of organization: specific narratives with concrete details of place, time, person etc., and narrative templates as protean forms–schematic, mythic forms that reflect humans’ being cognitive misers. An example that he gives is what he terms a “Russian Narrative Template” called “Expulsion of Alien Enemies”, a 4-stage narrative involving provocation and expulsion of an alien other that can be adapted to many particular historical events, and used in specific narratives (cf. Kubota’s investigation earlier of higai-kagai consciousness in Japan). Anger over the way that historical events are commemorated, suppressed, addressed, and otherwise present in the lives of people today raise the question of the personal relevance of historical events beyond one’s own life–Wertsch noted that William James made the point of the “me-ness” of memory, which incorporates both the knowledge of the past and the knowing that it is one’s own past (cf. Endel Tulving “time travel” by the same agent). The importance of texts, he says, is that they allow for people to project themselves into them, and allow for the performative enactment of a collective, a “we” that was there then and is here now. Wertsch then brought up a Bakhtinian perspective that sees historical groups as, potentially, narratively enacted through engagement with texts.

DM: Relatedly, one question raised here seems to be the primacy of the “I” or the “we”. If, as he suggests, the “we” is an artifact of people’s projections, that is something quite different than the distilling of “I’s” from a pre-existing “we” through processes of narrative individuation (for example). Another question had to do with the lessons for language teaching here–Wertsch suggested that, at an advanced level, language learners could be brought into discussion with the narrative debates, the arguments that are going on around both the templates and specifics of narratives in the country/societies

3:35 – 4:30. Glenn Levine of UC Irvine presented on “The study of literary texts at the nexus of multiple histories”. He will draw on 2 German-Jewish texts that do not focus directly on the Holocaust or Nazi Germany but “delve into aspects of German-Jewish culture that is embedded within modern German culture”: Heinrich Heine’s “The Rabbi of Bacherach” and Else Lasker-Schuler’s “The Wonder-Working Rabbi of Barcelona”. Texts like these, he insinuates, allow for what Scollon & Scollon (2007) in their nexus analysis might call “cycles of discourse” to be investigated–the goal of this being the student’s/class’ engagement with who wrote the text and who’s reading it, what curriculum they’re working within, the physical/geographic/historical contexts they’re ensconced in. Students must “navigate the nexus of practice”, made up of “the historical body” (similar to Bourdieu’s habitus, at the level of the text), “the interaction order” or understanding with whom and how the texts and authors are in dialog with their contemporaries and historical others (similar to concepts of discourses), and “discourses in place”. Levine noted that, with this, he’s trying to conduct a thought experiment that provokes critical evaluation, and critical self-evaluation, by the student.

4:20 – 4:35. Lihua Zhang of the Chinese Program at UC Berkeley presented perspectives on the integration of history in the teaching of Chinese–many of her strategies put attention on the histories of the forms and meanings of the language itself, as opposed to (or in addition to) so-called ‘historical content’. A lesson based on a comparison of a Republic of China (Taiwan) map and a People’s Republic of China (mainland) map is an instantiation of a suggestion that came up earlier in the day–the interpretation of visuals from contrasting sides of historical events, media representations, etc. as a way to convey the historical reality of competing perspectives (DM: and a way to create a platform for engagement by students at all ability levels).

4:35 – 4:50. Jaleh Pirnazar of the Near Eastern Studies Department responded with discussion of the first of what she termed two revolutions of 20th century Iran: the 1979 revolution is the ‘better known’, but she focused on the figure of Howard Baskerville, a Presbyterian missionary who played a role (became a martyr) in the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1909 that has since been commemorated by players in succeeding decades with investments in Iranian affairs…American and Iranian.

4:50 – 5:05. Niko Euba of the German Department provided some synopses of the day’s discussions, focusing particularly on the thorny issue of how historical perspectives are to be integrated into, made a part of, lower level language courses–and how the gap between language and literature courses can be bridged, as advised by the 2007 MLA report. Texts that are linguistically accessible are notoriously hard to find at the introductory level; Euba suggested that multiple strategies would need to be followed, considering classes that use communicative language teaching methods, grammar translation methods, other particular approaches to the teaching of language…

In pragmatic terms, among the ideas mentioned today for inculcating historical awarenesses and approaches in the language classroom are these strategies and more (techniques, activities that might be adapted to different pedagogical environments):

  • Begin by asking new questions of old/existing materials, texts, curricula
  • Relate one’s own biography to the biographies of historical figures presented in the FL curriculum. Relatedly, one can begin with addressing the diversity of the classroom, and use this as a jump-off point for approaching history.
  • Engage in meta-analysis of texts–understanding their original or originary situation, contexts of production, contexts and processes of transmission, contemporary contexts of reception and meaning-making in the language classroom and beyond
  • Work with source materials that are non-target language and have students create synopses, do role-plays, create responses, do other activities in the target language
  • Consider what multimodal resources may have to offer: YouTube videos, film clips, comic strips, illustrations, audio recordings
  • Find ways to engage students’ affect and that of the writers, speakers, authors of the texts that are being taught. How, as a teacher, do you find the personal, emotional, affective resonances of the historical material being taught, in both form and meaning?

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