Communication as Praxis, Reflective Practice

Language and the Politics of Talking and Listening  

Photo by Kyueun Kim

By Kyueun Kim

One morning in April 2019, I see two of my students walking into the classroom casually talking in Chinese. I do not understand what they speak, but I am surprised and amazed by how  they speak, or rather, how the students perform themselves in their native language. Half surprised because it is the first time I see one of my students, Chen, speak that loudly more than halfway through the semester. Half amazed because I realize that the moment has completely changed my perception of the student’s speech communication skills. During my month-long participation in the TLC’s OFIS on classroom communication, my positionality as a non-native English speaker and an instructor of speech communication at Baruch College made me engage with the concepts through the lens of language. I wondered: what roles language plays in defining, accessing, and challenging effective classroom communication?

Context: The Politics of Talking and Listening

Many students from working-class backgrounds, female students, or students from underrepresented ethnic groups will approach discussion sessions with a justifiable sense of distrust. They will feel, sometimes accurately, that success in academe is often correlated with a glib facility to spring confidently into speech at the earliest possible opportunity, thus impressing the teacher.  (Stephen Brookfield, Discussion as a Way of Teaching, 66)

In the classroom, educators emphasize fostering students’ voices for their empowerment. As Stephen Brookfield interrogates, however, the politics of talking are influenced by students’ identities such as gender, class, and ethnicity. Similarly, Julie McLeod points out that “the question arises regarding which students are invoked in the category ‘student voice’” (“Student Voice and the Politics of Listening in Higher Education,” 188). I argue that the matter of language, or more accurately whether one speaks Standard English as a native language, plays a significant role in changing the dynamics of talking and listening. Thinking through the concept of languages, especially the power imbalance between Standard English and other languages, highlights one of the themes the OFIS explored together during the workshop sessions—the “myths” of community: communication, power, and hierarchies in the classroom. Whose “voice” is more heard and represented in the college classroom? What are we missing by focusing on similarity or identity of a class as a community and not acknowledging or unveiling the differences?

Inspiration: bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

In her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks describes “languages and domination”:

In the classroom setting, I encourage students to use their first language and translate it so they do not feel that seeking higher education will necessarily estrange them from that language and culture they know most intimately. […] These lessons seem particularly crucial in a multicultural society that remains white supremacist, that uses Standard English as a weapon to silence and censor.  (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 172)

According to the Tools for Clear Speech Program at Baruch College, more than 100 languages are spoken on campus and up to 40% of all undergraduates identify as non-native English speakers. Academic language, however, is predominantly Standard English and students have less or almost no opportunity to present themselves in other languages. How can we as instructors recognize the different languages in the classroom and actively bring them into classroom discussions?

Inspired by bell hooks’ pedagogy, I designed a lesson plan that can address the issues of languages and hierarchies in the classroom. As Julie McLeod emphasizes “reframing the problem of student voice as a matter of listening, recognition and engaged dialogue” (187), one of the goals of this activity is to foster active and responsible listening.

Below are some of the questions that guided me when designing the activity:

  • How do the intentional acts of speaking and listening to a different, “foreign,” language address, uncover, and/or challenge the issues of power and hierarchy in the classroom?
  • How does one’s language—as much as other social factors such as gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality—facilitate, hinder, and/or challenge the dynamics of intentional classroom communication?
  • Does communicating in different languages change and/or challenge the notions of a “good or poor” communicator or “effective” communication?
  • Can it lead to alternative, resistant, and counter-hegemonic ways of communication and knowledge production?
  • How can we help non-native English speakers to be more confident in an academic speech communication setting by demystifying the power of Standard English as the only legitimate mode of academic communication?

The Activity: Speak in Your First Language! 

The Lesson Plan (30-minutes): In my Speech Communication class at Baruch College, non-native English speakers have an option to deliver a speech in their first languages and briefly translate it to the class. After the speeches, the class discusses and reflects on the experience of hearing non-English (or non-standard English) in a speech communication class. I designed the OFIS workshop to scaffold a 30-minute practice activity into this assignment.

  • Preliminary step (5-minute): See how many students in class are non-native English speakers. How many different languages are there? Write them down on the board. Pair a native English speaker and a non-native English speaker. If there are fewer non-native English speakers, ask some native English speakers if they can speak any additional languages.
  • Step 1. Free-writing (5-minute): Provide a discussion question and ask all participants (especially non-native English speakers) to think, write, and speak in their first languages.
  • Step 2. Pair Conversation (10-minute): As a pair, each presents their thoughts for 2 minutes in their first languages. The other person practices listening attentively. Non-native English speakers briefly translate what they said in English. Share how you feel about this activity.
  • Step 3. Class Discussion (10-minute): As a class, reflect on the activity and share how the participants felt while speaking in and listening to the languages (other-than standard English) in the classroom/workshop setting, especially in a non-language class setting.
  • Step 4. Class Presentation: Ask students/participants to repeat what they said as a pair to the entire class/workshop. Both speakers and listeners pay attention to the different mode of speaking and listening: as intimate as a pair vs. speaking in front of class.

Reflection: In my classes, students can speak Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Korean, Spanish (and Spanglish), Yiddish, Russian, Albanian, and Arabic. At first, students were pretty shocked (though amused) by my idea of asking them to speak in their first languages. One student repeatedly asked me: “Are you really sure that you want us to speak in our native language?”

Some of the students immediately jumped into the activity with full willingness and joy to speak in front of class, while others consistently resisted speaking in their first languages both in paired conversation and the class presentation. They described their feelings as “extremely awkward” mainly because “no one is going to understand” what they are saying. I told them one of the goals of this activity is to think about “the moment of not understanding what someone says as a space to learn” (bell hooks); however, I fully understand students’ concerns with not being fully understood, seeming awkward, or not wanting to be vulnerable and out of their comfort zone. Understandably, some of the students said that if they were given more preparation time, they would have spoken in their first languages more readily. So I decided to give students another opportunity to deliver another speech in their first language with more preparation time.

Some questions still remain for me with this activity.: By highlighting the differences between hearing and speaking Standard English and other languages, am I ignoring the power and hierarchies among other languages? Students who were able to find at least one more person in classroom who can understand what they say, including the instructor, seemed to be more confident and comfortable in speaking in their first languages.

But even still, I highly recommend doing this activity, preferably in the beginning of the semester, to set the tone of the course that seeking higher education should not completely “estrange them from that language and culture they know most intimately.” And most importantly, it is a fun activity for students and you can discover different aspects about them!

One participant of the OFIS workshop wrote a post-it note asking: “how can communication be multi-lingual in a content-centric course like history?” If you do try this activity in your course, please do share stories!

Kyueun Kim is a Ph.D. candidate in Theater at the Graduate Center and teaches Speech Communication at Baruch College. 

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