Post by Associate Professor Jorge Knijnik
“Who says this accent or this way of thinking is the cultivated one?”. Paulo Freire’s inspiring words came back to my thoughts a few months ago, as I was approached by a very kind man just after my Conference paper presentation in Canberra, the Australian capital. His accent told me that he was not from an English speaking country. Next to the regular introductory conversation, he went straight to his point and asked: “Do your students pick on you about your accent?”. When I smiled, he felt comfortable enough to tell me his experience, which was somewhat similar to my own one: he was a fresh migrant who had come at the end of last year to Australia from a Middle-East country to take up a position as a lecturer in an Australian university. After his first semester, he received the students’ feedback on his course. He said the evaluations were sound; however he was really worried as a few students criticized his “strong accent”.
The Conference was great. In addition to presenting my paper, I had listened to very thought-provoking academic sections, where I had learnt loads of new things within one of my research fields – physical education and sports history. As the Conference was held in different locations along the week, I was able to visit different parts of the Capital city, such as the Australian Institute of Sport and the War Memorial. However, I have no-doubt that the most insightful moment during the Conference was my short talk with this extraordinary man. That small conversation has opened my eyes – and my ears – to a definitely central topic in today’s education: the need for those of us involved in teaching and learning to keep our minds open and aware of the role that local cultural identities play in contemporary society and in our lives (i).
I remember one of my favourites John Le Carre’s novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In his 1963 acclaimed book, the master of espionage literature tells about a British spy who spends several months in a hidden ‘just-for-spies’ language school to polish his even now perfect German. As secret agents could not have any accent the secret service expected him to speak as a native German, and he sets about making every effort to refine his already high-level language skills. The time passes by and fifty years later, the same writer tells us a different history: in A Delicate Truth, launched in 2013, John le Carre accounts for a top-secret overseas mission where the protagonist, a British public employee elevated to a secret agent condition, amuses himself by picking up his undercover partners’ nationalities according their accents: there are British spies involved in the clandestine operation, but there are also South-African and Welsh spies, Scottish and even Australians secret agents – and of course he cannot understand a word that these last ones pronounce!
Le Carre has seen the obvious. In the 21st century world, nobody lives inside their bubble anymore. There is a need for everyone to build tools to further communication with people from different realms and backgrounds. That comprises a more realistic and contemporary approach to language-skills, which includes verbal conversation. The good thing for me is that I have chosen to be an educator, not a spy. Educators, unlike spies, are to enlighten people. They are to open venues for knowledge and understanding. They are to set up fire in their students’ bodies and brains – and bodies and brains travel everywhere in today’s world, including inside schools and classrooms. As has been pointed out by Reid, Collin and Singh in their recent book[ii], having a teaching degree is currently a passport for an international career: Australia already faces an intensification of international teachers inside its schools, providing us with new exciting challenges for the way we deal with a range of different cultural identities – including the charming new accents that we listen to every day.
Youngsters and grown-ups have the right to use their linguistic configurations. It is undoubtedly important to teach, learn and be fluent in the prevailing form (Freire – cultivated pattern) and at the same time, to be democratic and accepting, to make clear that the way individuals speak can be as beautiful as the form we have come to accept as the cultivated pattern.
A few times I have overheard academic colleagues complaining how exhausting lecturing is. I agree: standing in front of 400 students week after week for 2 hours and trying to make your content clear and attractive is a hard and tiring task. Can you imagine doing this in a language that is not your native one? That is why I am appalled when confronted with the following situation: a migrant (like me) making all efforts to talk in a second (or a third or even a fourth) language, and the listener making zero efforts to understand the one who is speaking – the worst scenario is when someone reacts to you with an unpleasant and arrogant response: “this is not English”. I always keep calm as I think of Crocodile Dundee walking on New York streets without understanding anyone, and grouching that everyone there had a weird accent!
In my first language, the word “push” (“puxe”) means “pull. There are countless opportunities when I got stuck in front of a door, just pulling it as its written push on that door. Every time I see someone stuck in front of a door, pulling it when she or he should be pushing it, I laugh and say: “There is a Brazilian”. We can’t do anything. It’s just an automatic reaction. Like our accent, this is embedded in ourselves. Of course there is always room for improvement. We always have something to share and to learn – but we learn in the social experience. We learn from other people’s cultural identities. The possibilities of teaching do exist because of the learning generated in rich social experiences – as Freire says, it was learning in the social space that made human beings realize that they could teach. Social experiences include a variety of accents that challenge our listening every time we are provoked by them.
That was my conversation with my immigrant colleague in that Conference. I said to him that we need to learn to have fun with our own mistakes – including linguistic ones. However, our own presence in the lecture theatres will certainly expose our students to different ways to seeing and being in the world, perhaps inspiring them to better appreciate a diverse cultural identity – isn’t that one of the most valuable lessons that a teacher can aspire to teach?[iii]
[i] Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture.
[ii] Reid, Carol; Collins, Jock; Singh, Michael. Global Teachers, Australian Perspectives: Goodbye Mr Chips, Hello Ms Banerjee, 2013.
[iii] With special thanks to Dr. Jacquie D’Warte for providing insightful ideas to this article
About the author
Associate Professor Jorge Knijnik is the Deputy Director (Development) of the Centre for Educational Research in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, where he is also a researcher in the Institute for Culture & Society. He has recently launched The World cup Chronicles: 31 Days that Rocked Brazil.