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Pedagogies for evolving intercultural identities

In this blog post, I share some of the thoughts I presented at the fifth Language Acts and Worldmaking debate, Debate 5: Interculturality and creativity in language education.

I have been teaching modern languages for the past three decades and have many wonderful memories of unexpected creative moments with and by other teachers and learners. Despite my poor memory, these seemed to have stuck in my mind regardless of the time that has gone by. A very early and significant experience happened during my first year of teaching at the University of Michigan in the USA. I was very young and inexperienced and was mostly doing what I had been trained to do. During an oral examination done via a classic role play between two students, they both stood up and started singing their dialogue. When they finished their wonderful performance, it transpired that they were both studying to be opera singers and they thought it would be a good idea to combine their newly acquired singing and language skills. This creative act by risk-taking students at a high stake assessment piece was truly revelatory for my ways of thinking about language education.

Matsuo (2012) has argued for a pedagogy in which teachers create intercultural interactions or dialogues that require creative responses from the students with a transformative intention not only of students’ interculturality but also teachers’ own. This is certainly an important point. With the focus on learner-centred approaches, language teachers have forgotten to adopt pedagogies that have a transformative impact on their professional selves. But one may ask, how can impactful intercultural and creative pedagogies be promoted and achieved in our language classrooms? I propose here that educational approaches that foster the creative construction of new identities in intercultural and intracultural encounters are a good starting point.

In language education, the theory of intercultural communicative competence was constructed as a set of savoirs or ways of knowing – which involve knowledge, skills, and attitudes (Byram, 1997). A creative development of these savoirs would mean the integration of activities that promote four fundamental components of the creative individual (Hills and Bird, 2018): originality (novel ideas), imagination (generated through imagination), fertility (generation of many) and motivation (urge to create). But various factors are needed for the emergence of these creative traits such as the right stimulus, opportunities, and resources to think and develop ideas.

Here are some interrelated approaches that could support the interaction of creativity and interculturality in language education. Firstly, adopting Nicolini’s idea of switching theoretical lenses (2009), language education could explore pedagogies that zoom out of intercultural communicative competences and zoom in on threshold concepts related to interculturality that students need to understand. One such concept could be the fractured self which, as Ros i Solé (2016) has recently highlighted, “opens up the possibility for the learner to take a new lease of life, to feel liberated and empower” (p. 48). Secondly, intercultural pedagogy could encourage individual phenomenological writing or spoken activities where students shift from analysis to intuition, from unity to division and from constraints to freedom. An approach that would allow for the much feared exhibition of incoherent language and identities. Thirdly, pedagogies could encourage a creative approach to language use that subverts a consistent use of languages varieties, genres and levels of formality. For instance, translanguaging practices could provide this platform because they motivate the language learner to move across languages investing fundamentally in social interaction and engaging in a continuous reproduction of their identity (Sembiante, 2016). Fourthly, there needs to be an understanding that in language education provisional personal and social identities are constructed while old ones are transformed and new ones are in the making. These constructions could be individual and social processes. Byram’s competence framework of savoirs has been criticised because it focuses too much on the individual and in his or her actions in one direction, perhaps in detriment of the reality of communication in which two or more human beings interact and relate (Spitzberg and Changnon, 2009). I therefore suggest here identity practices of the collective.

Ros i Solé’s revision of the literature around creativity and imagination in language learning suggests the benefits of exploring ways of creating individual and social roles and positions of the self within the possibilities of new sociocultural contexts. I would like to add a nuance about this dynamic progression of the self. The exercise of this changeable state should acknowledge the past and trace a future, but should have a focus in the current moment. As Wenger pointed out, “[a]n identity is a trajectory in time that incorporates both past and future into the meaning of the present” (1998: 169). 

Reflecting on interculturality and creativity I have found that both intersect in the formation of our identities as language learners and teachers. Their characteristics and aims align. This is why intercultural communication could be used as a tactical creative approach for pedagogical change in modern languages. An approach that goes beyond learning to do and fosters learning to understand, learning to feel and learning to be in the world.