Making connections to the world through literature

Louise Emma Potter

When learning a language, we believe that once we are able to accomplish our expected goal, which is to speak fluently, we will be able to connect to the world outside our culture bubble. However, one should be aware of the many different domains there are when learning to speak a foreign language. If, as students, we only commit ourselves to learning the four skills, that is exactly what we will learn: to listen, read, write, and speak in a foreign language. We might even be fluent in the language after some time of intense studying and practice.

However, what does it mean to be fluent in a language?

I came across this statement the other day while reading an article and I fell in love with it: “A fluent fool is someone who speaks the foreign language well but does not understand the social or philosophical content of the language.” (Bennett, 1993). Although it may seem harsh, I believe what Bennett is trying to say is that intercultural understanding is crucial in any communication process. “Culture learning is actually a key factor in being able to use and master a foreign linguistic system.” Buttjest (1982, cited in Byran).

Intercultural competence is the ability develop skills, attitudes, and knowledge, which allow you to interact effectively and appropriately in a culture which is not your own. We all view our world through our own cultural lens which means we have our own interpretations, due to our own experiences, family values, political views, language, even our humour at the dinner table and many other subtle daily habits and influences. Our cultural lens leads us to believe who we are and makes us see the world as a one-way path. When we develop intercultural competence as well as linguistic competence, we are able to interact constructively and respectfully.

So where does Literature fit in?

The traditional thought of literature takes us to the classics of American and English Literature, such as the famous Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. However, during the last decades of the 20th century, the understanding of literature has been re-conceptualized, and it has become broader including the study of a wide variety of texts. For that reason, Literature has now become an important part of language learning. It is now understood that the goal of literary texts is to open new perspectives for intercultural awareness. Short (2011, p. 131) argues that literature “provides a means of building bridges of understanding across countries and cultures”.

I believe this intercultural understanding through literature should begin at a very young age. The growing interconnectedness of our world makes it essential that children develop this understanding not only about themselves but about others, as well. There is no better way to do this than literature literacy. We learn a foreign language by reading words and making sense of them. (functional literacy). But in literature literacy, we learn to read the world - which is full of sounds, colours, smells, shapes, sizes, textures, flavours and images. Literature has the ability to take readers out of their world into other worlds (Purves, 1992).

I remember been told a story about a blind man who was admitted to hospital for some reason. His stay at the hospital was quite a joyful stay as his hospital roommate, who sadly had an uncurable disease, would sit by the window and narrate in detail the happenings of the outside world. He would describe the colours, the trees, the people chatting and passing by, the children chasing each other in the bushy park. As he described the everyday events, the images would fly through the blind man’s brain. They spent many happy days together, even though they were in the hospital. After a few weeks, the sick man passed away. Feeling depressed and alone, the blind man asked the nurse to tell him what was going on outside the bedroom window. The nurse replied: you can't see anything; the window faces a wall.

I see teacher’s role at school while using literacy in the classroom as in this story. We should encourage our students to go beyond, to see beyond what we can’t see, allow them to go across borders we have not yet crossed. Encourage students to immerse themselves in the short stories of each character, compare and contrast their own experiences to those of the fictional characters. Realize that we are different within our own concepts, but all similar in the face of the world in which we live. Literature literacy opens students' horizon, encourages critical and creative thinking and enriches their world knowledge.

When we inspire young learners to read, we inspire them to look at the world through different perspectives. They connect to characters, connect the story to their own lives, they love and hate the characters according to their own principles, as they also feel the character’s pain and cheer them on when they are struggling. We should encourage students to compare their lives to those of the characters, they may ask: What does this remind me of in my life? How is this different from my life? As teachers , we should motivate them to make connections to other texts: Have I read about something like this before? And make connections to the outside world: How is this text similar to things that happen in the real world? How is this different from things that happen in the real world? (Draper, 2010). Making these connections are crucial for students to achieve a intercultural competence.

What I am proposing here is very different from reading comprehension activities which are usually found at the back of the simplified editions of classical literature books. Not that there is anything wrong with these, but the way we want our students to experience the reading is rather different.

When reading literature texts, we would like our students to

• inquire about the world in which we live, and the situations posed in it.
• make choices.
• take a stand (facts, circumstances, characters, and events)
• criticize and praise.
• take on causes.
• Compare and contrast
• Express emotions

Dowd (1992) argues that "…from reading, hearing, and using culturally diverse materials, young people learn that beneath surface differences of color, culture or ethnicity, all people experience universal feelings of love, sadness, self-worth, justice and kindness." (p. 220).

Apart from having an expressive intercultural aspect, we then have other books which can be included in young children’s literature which main intention is to enhance their creative and imaginary skills as they immerse themselves in the world of fantasy and imagination. Imagining situations, such as, how does the moon feed itself, how did it come to live in the sky, and whether it has a father and a mother encourages students to go beyond, ask questions, build up and expand their knowledge. The questionings encourage students to think of new ideas and have an understanding of new things.

Literature has the power of bringing people together. It connects us to the world and expands our understanding of how it works, whether interculturally or engaging in imaginative and magical thinking.

Next time you are in doubt of what to do in your class, pick up a book. I am sure a perfect lesson plan will come up to connect your class to the world.

Byran, M (1989) Cultural Studies in Foreign Language Education. Multilingual Matters LTD.

Byran, M and Sarries, V. E. (1989) Investigating Cultural Studies in Foreign Language Teaching. Multilingual Matters LTD.

Debbie Draper, Comprehension Strategies Making Connections DECS Curriculum Consultant, Northern Adelaide 2010 PDF

Dowd, F. S. (1992). "Evaluating childen's books portraying Native American and Asian cultures." Childhood Education, 68 (4), 219-224. [EJ 450 537]

Purves, Alan C. “Testing Literature”. In J. A. Langer (Ed.), Literature Instruction: a focus on student response. National council of Teachers of English, Illinois, (1992).

Short, Kathy G. (2011): Building bridges of understanding through international literature. In: April Whatley Bedford — Lettie K. Albright (eds.), A Master Class in Children’s Literature: Trends and Issues in an Evolving Field. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 130–148.