Professor Heidi Byrnes’ “Masterclass” at the University of Birmingham 2nd September 2014

written by Agnieszka Lyons

We had the pleasure of hosting Prof. Heidi Byrnes, George M. Roth Distinguished Professor of German at Georgetown University, at the School of Education University of Birmingham on 2nd of September. Heidi led a master class “Teaching Foreign Languages in the Age of Globalization: Reflections — Refractions — Reconsiderations” in which she focused on the very current theme of globalisation and the ways in which phenomena associated with it affect foreign language teaching and learning in higher education.

She pointed out that globalisation, multilingualism and multiculturalism have led to the situation in which terms such as “language” and “heritage”, largely territorially bound, are no longer easy to define (Coincidentally, isn’t that exactly what emerged from the recent supplementary schools research?). Migration and access to a range of language varieties have resulted in a shift in the politics of normativity: how do we decide which variety of, for example, Spanish or English is “the norm” and who is entitled to make such decisions? The ubiquity of technology has also allowed for communication on a previously unknown scale – but are we aware of its intercultural potential and do we use it to creatively construct the self and the Other?

Since, as the speaker showed, globalisation has essentially led to an expansion of ways of meaning-making, we need to reconsider the principles and pedagogies of foreign language instruction. Researching the multilingual world must also be done with the needs of foreign language educational systems in mind, including the question of what constitutes “good” language teaching and learning in the age of globalisation. It is the multilingual and multicultural vantage point of today’s globalised world that could bring foreign language instruction, especially at a higher level, that would be less influenced by sociopolitical relationships of power, disciplinary trends and prevailing theoretical, empirical, and educational practices.

According to Heidi Byrnes, what is needed in foreign language instruction is a focus on creative self-expression and identity construction. She called for conceptualising language as a semiotic resource used for meaning-making in a particular social context, which in the era of globalisation has become much more complex. Learners should be encouraged to make choices within certain typicalities of language use and be aware of the flexibility of patterns within certain boundaries (for example typicalities of genres). This means that curricula should aim to present an opportunity for encountering text types and registers governed by certain typicalities and as such constitute limiting contexts for learning but also foster dynamic meaning-making on the part of the learner. She proposed the development of curricular continua that are characterised by a shift from the discourses of familiarity to the discourses of public life. Language learning is to be understood not as rule-based but as characterised by involvement with the world. Instead of teaching to – as she put it – “the cosy intermediate level” with hardly any reference to culture, we need more literacy-oriented pedagogies for the linking of language and content.

The message from Heidi Byrnes’s talk was clear: the main challenge of foreign language teaching in the era of globalisation is that of developing students’ awareness of the nature of meaning-making through language and the ability to act on this awareness in expanding sets of social contexts – a message that clearly resonated with people in the room.

 

 

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