Sharing Languages, Sharing Realities

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok

As I scrambled to find an idea for today’s post, I mused about my classes over the last couple of weeks. Had any stood out in terms of student engagement? The answer hit me: our discussions on how language affects the way we see the world. Indeed, before we knew it, we had ventured into linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. These discussions sprang from our “Language and Culture” unit, specifically a TED Talk by Lindsay Morcom, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Language Revitalization and Decolonizing Education at Queen’s University.

In her talk, A History of Indigenous Languages and How to Revitalize Them, Morcom explores the unique aspects of languages and their connections to culture and worldviews. She points out that in her language, Anishinaabe, speakers “mark” their nouns in a way that is similar to the French and Spanish, but instead of distinguishing by gender, they identify nouns as either “animate” or “inanimate.” She says that rocks, for example, are considered animate as a testament to the culture’s deep connection to the environment. This drew admiration from the students, a generation acutely aware of climate change, followed by a spirited conversation about the layers of life embedded in rocks: the interweaving threads of colours, crystals, vegetation, and fossilized remains.

We then segued into the implied sexism of assigning, say, a feminine gender to the word “tempête,” the French word for “storm.” Does this mean that speakers inherently see “stormy” things as female-inspired? Hmm. And we talked about how people with different languages will view and describe the same events differently. For example, according to linguist Lera BoroditskySpanish speakers, on witnessing someone accidentally breaking a vase, will be more likely to use the passive form “the vase was broken” while an English-speaking person would be prone to use the active, more accusatory form “that person broke the vase.” Afterwards, the students eagerly shared examples of how they use the passive in their cultures, which prepared them nicely, by the way, for their upcoming grammar unit. Boroditsky reveals a host of other interesting examples of linguistic relativity in her TED Talk How Language Shapes the Way We Think.

I then asked the students for terms that are unique to their languages, ones that do not have equivalents in English. Our Padlet quickly filled with rich, sensory words and expressions in Turkish, Iranian, Syrian, Arabic, Georgian, Turkish and more. The excitement was palpable as students talked over each other to share their stories. Here are some examples:

  • In the English language, the mother’s brother and father’s brother are both called uncle, but in the Arabic language there is a specific word for each of them.
  • In Arabic, there is the word “بالعافيه” (bālʿāfyh) when we know a person eats something, we say that.
  • “Tindaxeduli” is a Georgian word that cannot be translated and means when a person, before deciding [to do] something, understands whether he is doing good or bad.
  • In my first language, Arabic, there is a word “نعيماً” (nʿymāً ). We [say] this word [to] people after they take a bath, or [to] men when they finish shaving their beard.
  • My [Turkish] word is “Hayırlı İşler.” It means “good luck with your work.”

Interesting, right? And although we spent a good chunk of this class…well…talking, we also developed our grammar skills, discussion strategies, critical thinking skills, and intercultural knowledge, with some nice translanguaging along the way.

I guess what I’m saying is that learning comes in a variety of forms, and we shouldn’t discount discussions. Students often prefer the big class discussions as opposed to the smaller group ones. I think it’s because of the broader range of responses and conversational offshoots. And they like having me there to prompt, steer, and validate. All I know is that when my class is fired up and engaged, this is when I love teaching the most. And, just maybe, this when they love learning the most.

I’m Jennifer Hutchison and I teach EAP and communications at George Brown College in Toronto. I have also taught courses in sociolinguistics in the English Foundation Program at Toronto Metropolitan University. In my spare time, I write short stories, read, exercise, and bake (the last two are codependent). Teaching English is my passion. I am curious about the world around me and feel fortunate to have that world brought to me every day in the classroom. Nevertheless, I took a circuitous route to discover this passion. After my undergraduate degree in French and translation, I worked as a translator and then veered off into writing and editing, which I did from home while I raised my children (four of them!). In none of these positions (except, possibly, childrearing) was I helping anybody, so I returned to school, launched my ESL career, and have never looked back. I look forward to working with you and sharing experiences and strategies on the Blog!


One thought on “Sharing Languages, Sharing Realities”

  1. Thank you so much Jennifer for your passion to school, language end classroom practice. The main path toward this is the good reputation that you do have through the long experience you come across.
    My best recommendation to every teacher/ learner is trying hard to benefit from every single chance he or she might go through in order to be successful in your career future.
    From who feels nothing but very kind!

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