Articles for Teachers
in a Swiss French Vocational Training Centre for people suffering from
various physical and/or psychological impairments
EFL teacher, Switzerland
This study is more of a first-hand inquisitive look into the pertinence of utilizing images in the foreign language classroom than a statement of fact or reality. The general source of inspiration comes from the field of Foreign Language Didactics and is intended to be an open discussion on the representation of English among people with various and varying degrees of physical and/or psychological difficulties. In keeping with our research, we have come to appreciate that the value of a language which is usually not intrinsical, finds meaning only in the interaction of its status, role and its image in any given situation. This last element is of primary interest in this article.
Linguistic context :
In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, it is generally accepted that French is the dominant language in respect to other national and foreign languages. However, we would like to suggest that there exists a triangular-type relation with French remaining the dominant language and two other languages, one being national – Swiss German - and the other international – English. The Swiss German population, due to their numbers and economic, political and cultural influence, are undeniably the principal actors among the country’s 4 language groups. Understandably then German and Swiss German are of great importance even in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. English is the language of the future, increasingly the language of business and the language of communication with the rest of the world.
The image that comes to the mind of many French-speaking people pertaining to German is that of the historical antagonism with respect to the invaders from Canton Bern. It is a stereotypical image of the rigourous pristine character of many a Swiss German. It is That this image corresponds to contemporary reality is debatable, but it is certain that for part of today’s French-speaking population, the influence of this image has marked many.
English, on the other hand, is regarded as a useful language for work, travel, modern media, etc. However, its positive or negative image is perhaps less anchored in the favourable or unfavourable opinions of the population than German. Its influence is definitely more recent and is considered in a rather positive fashion for its utility as an international language just as it can be perceived negatively in the current context given its association with what is now often considered as undesired global Anglo-American economic and geopolitical manipulation.
What we are seeking to undertake here is to observe the reactions of people with differing disorders notably in and through the way in which they talk about images, pictures and representations used either in manuals or as supplementary material in the foreign language classroom. This first approach which consists of a collection of general observations is part of a broader framework in which we will be proceeding to record learners impressions and remarks using audio and audio-visual devices.
We can comfortably affirm that at the present stage, this research is simply a subjective contemplation of the importance of linguistic representations among students suffering from different ailments at a vocational training centre intended for such a population. It is thus not representative at all of the entire Swiss population as it is limited to a series of anecdotes and real-life situations which took place in the classroom.
Target population :
The observations were carried out at a vocational training centre for people suffering from physical and/or psychological deficiencies – people whose physical, psychological and/or sensorial integrity has been affected in some way. It is a general assumption that such impairments deeply affect a person’s mental state and vice versa. This is equally true of those who are healthy and that for most people, a complex interaction between the mind and the body is part and parcel of everyday life.
From the very start of this project we encountered difficulties in terms of the appropriate pedagogical approach to adopt with respect to the people we were to teach as well as our own stereotypes and representations with regards to the students and their various inhibitions. How should one teach a foreign language in such a context? After having given this much thought, we formulated some guiding principles in order to fulfill our mandate under the best possible conditions.
• Anyone can learn a foreign language.
• Physical and/or psychological disorders have little or no impact on the learning of a foreign language. This merits further reflection as some people are disturbed in class suffering from headaches, constant physical pain (such as back pain inhibiting them from sitting for long periods of time), etc., preventing them from assimilating and producing essentials in the learning process.
• Learning a foreign language (especially English, in our case) is a definite advantage, an additional asset which partially compensates for the the deficit caused by the physical or psychological disability.
Which image of English must be taught and how ?
We can imagine that the way in which learners value and approach a language highly depends on the utility of the language : for example, in informatics, English is of primary importance if one is to remain up to date with new technology, the manuals of which are often translated into French, but after a relatively long lapse of time. Even so, much of the terminology remains almost exclusively English. Our centre’s chemistry department which prepares their students to become laboratory assistants exclusively uses English-language operating systems and software by choice. Learners in the the centre’s Accounting/Reception/(Back)office departments know pertinently that their futures depend largely on their active skills in English if they are to succeed in finding employment, and later being able to advance within a company and tasks such as negotiation which are inherent to such an activity.
The question that we asked ourselves right from the outset was: "is there a correlation between the image of the language to be learned and the degree to which the learner associates herself/himself to it?" Our fear, from the start, was based on the uncertainty as to how these people with differing ailments were to react to the often overly-positive, idealistic, utopian images and representations of the American Dream proposed by the manuals and other course material. We have the certainty that such fear has its “raison d’être” and we are all the more relieved by the observation that our learners show no (or few) external signs of negative attitudes towards the images/representations/pictures/photos/films in question. On the contrary, these images stimulate the conversation and the written communication in a positive way. They are the source of comments and even of recurrent healthy jokes typical of any foreign language classroom where stereotypes are inevitable and a way of defining each student’s personality as much as a way of understanding others.
Do the learners react to the images/representations/pictures/photos/films in class?
Do the learners react in a positive way to the images/representations/pictures/photos/films in class?
We have just suggested that learners react to the images as depicted in the course material but do they react react positively or negatively to these images? Beyond these reactions, are they able to associate with the images. In order to determine if this is the case we will be obliged to determine what is understood by a positive or negative reaction, what "associate positively or negatively with an image" exactly means. It is possible for example to affirm that a simple image (be it mental or physical) of a bird on a branch makes some learners react positively. Possible reactions may include a smile on their face or they may mention that the bird is pretty. A reaction is thus produced. This reaction could be considered positive.
Yes, certain learners react positively. What is more is that some are fascinated by the Anglo-Saxon world and the English language.
Do learners react negatively to the images/representations/pictures/photos/films in class?
Yes, certain learners react negatively, especially during the crisis surrounding the second war in Iraq. The Anglo-American coalition has felt the brunt of much anti-anglophone sentiment. This has a strong impact on the jokes, the everyday conversation, the images of the countries, the languages, the cultures, industries, the respective political representatives, etc.
Do learners associate with the images/representations/pictures/photos/films in class?
What does it mean to associate with an image: to be able to compare an image with one’s own life experience - to identify oneself to the image and its contents and with all that is represented by it. Going back to the image of the bird on the branch, this can mean nature, peace and can consequently evoke an empathetic desire to be kind to the bird and to envy it in its calm and quiet pleasant context. The learner might feasably wish to identify with this image. For the person who is a very light sleeper, the bird in the tree can remind him of many a sleepless Spring morning. It is indeed quite possible that for that person to be more annoyed than anything else by such a bird wishing not to be associated with it at all.
Do learners associate positively with the images/representations/pictures/photos/films in class?
Yes. One of our students who is in a quite precarious situation has only one wish - to leave and start a new life in America. This is her dream and she is preparing to do this partly by studying English.
Do learners associate negatively with the images/representations/pictures/photos/films in class?
Yes, certain pictures portarying cultural events are rejected or ignored by some learners. For example, images referring to Halloween or the way in which the Anglo-Saxons celebrate Valentine’s are scorned because they are considered to be overly commercialized, too North American and thus too foreign from and inconsistent with the local lifestyle. As for Halloween, it is deemed by certain to be legitimate in its "original context" but having no real significance apart from this context, in any case not "here".
After investigating into the linguistic performance skills (speaking, writing, listening, reading) as well as the psycholinguistic skills of people who are heavily disabled, we note that on the one hand, all or part of the linguistic capacities are less developed or less utilized and that the pscyho-linguistic skills, on the other hand, tend to be more developed. For example, a person having an auditive disability will tend to privilege the world of images rather than the linguistic world where she/he is penalized orally. Images are consequently of more use, and will be more privileged than oral skills.
Indeed, for people suffering from multiple disorders, such as those who have audio-visual impairments, it is legitimate to question the degree to which a language is useful. What is a language for these people? Is it the simple act of communicating? Now we know very well that they too communicate. However is it logical to teach these people a second language when their first language is not necessarily even a language in conventional terms? The only pertinent element in the communication with these people resides in the notion of communication itself through which one describes life, habits, concrete and immaterial ideas such as culture. For these people foreign languages have no significance apart from the culture in which they exist.
The images proposed by the instructors
The images suggested by the teachers can be in the form of extra curricular material and thus physical images but also mental images, descriptions of situations, and thus tend to be imaginary. It is true that through the choice of materials (if (s)he is permitted to make such a choice) used in the classroom, the teacher can propose concrete and visible images – a vision of the world to which the teacher is affiliated in some way. In any case, the teacher will interpret the course content according to her/his own experience. The more the teacher is involved in the process of choosing the course material, the more (s)he will associate with the images proposed by the manual - without forgetting, obviously, the methodology which is paramount. There are inevitably as many different images, as many perceptions and different points of view as there are people - people to whom we teach, the people we are as instructors; people who speak or who do not speak the language.
The images proposed by the course material
The images provided by the manuals are highly visual. Modern methods try to bring all the richness of the great civilizations and the nations which they represent. Sometimes, the differences between the linguistic varieties become so important that it becomes vital to produce class material in regional form. It is not surprizing then that these methods be transposed into their American equivalent. However, is this sufficient? It can be said that there are as many languages (or variations) as there are people who speak them - communication is proper to society but individual in as far as the manner in which each person expresses her/himself as everyone influences and is influenced in differing ways by their own cultural, linguistic, emotional, mental, physical inheritance.
The evolution in editing modern language manuals and the presentation of the methods over the last two decades has been more than spectacular. Let us take for example a banal handbook edited in the 1950’s. The images are simplistic; first of all they are quite rare and are often hand drawn or poor quality reproductions of what would be considered uncolourful and unexciting scenes. They are considered to be accessory and extra-curricular, thus unnecessary distractions characteristic of a generation and a society of lazy consumers who seek to reduce everything to the pleasure of the eyes. Nowadays, all methods, without exception, make some use of graphic design to illustrate their manuals with exceptional lithographic quality. Technology which is still secondary in many situations such as vidéos, didactic software or Internet also make it possible to access an unlimited world of images and representations enabling anyone anywhere to experience or to simulate real life and real communication in the target language.
As for our first question: "is there a correlation between the image of the language to be learned and the degree to which the learner associates herself/himself to it?" we can only suggest that an adult learner suffering from some or another physical and/or psychological disorder, much like any other foreign language learner, has the capacity to react both positively and negatively. It is also possible to suggest that (s)he is able to associate both positively and negatively with the language to be learned. Furthermore it is vital to respect and take into account each learner’s past and be mindful of the rapport they may have had in the learning of the language in any former academic setting. For indeed, the image of the language is extremely important in the process of its acquisition. To some, this image speaks more than the language and represents a tool which could possibly be more useful than the language itself.
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Copyright Vincent Vandersluis 2003