As a writer, I have always been fascinated by the ways in which language impacts our lives: the way our ability to think in the abstract is limited by our vocabulary, or the way varying grammatical structures across languages result in different communication styles and cultural norms. My “word nerdiness” has only grown since joining CSC and learning about our work in teacher development around the world. Our team faces significant challenges in bringing our expertise to the international community. For instance, how can we make our lessons from Ontario classrooms resonate with people in Korea and Peru who don’t speak any English? What do we do when there’s no word for “flipped classroom” in Spanish? How can we convey a concept so rooted in our own linguistic context?
We have worked with many institutions and system leaders to improve the skills of ESL teachers, and we have overcome some incredible challenges, but nothing like the limitations faced by the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language & Culture Cooperative. I learned about Muurrbay at the World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education, in a session on “Developing the skills of Gumbaynggirr language teachers” delivered by Susan Poetsch. As an aforementioned language nerd, I thought this would be a good way to get exposure to a new way of thinking, and maybe learn some tricks to bring back to the CSC team. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Gumbaynggirr is a previously dead language – it has been revived from historical sources by the small community who is re-learning it. That means that there are no native Gumbaynggirr speakers. None of the Gumbaynggirr teachers grew up hearing it. It was lost for generations, and now it’s back. Can you IMAGINE?!
How do you teach something no one knows? Teachers first need to learn the language themselves, as well as second language teaching skills. To do this, Susan and her partner Michael Jarrett put out a call for Gumbaynggirr language teachers and invited them to language training sessions every 3 months. Using what could loosely be described as a master training model, Michael conducted lessons by telling stories, which served the dual purpose of teaching the language and sharing material that teachers could use with their own students.
The advantages of stories:
- Stories make learning fun for both the students and teachers
- There is a long oral tradition of storytelling in the community
- Most of the stories are really plays involving lots of direct speech from characters and acting out
- Stories can be used to teach not only language, but life lessons and cultural norms as well (e.g. parables, morality plays)
- Stories allow teachers to move beyond teaching individual words to using the whole text.
- Stories allow teachers to stay in the language without switching to English.
Thanks to Michael’s stories, the Gumbaynggirr language has reached the ears of an ever-expanding community in Australia. Their story gives me great insight into the work that CSC does, and an even greater respect for language teachers all over the world.
By Kate Salmon
Kate Salmon (@KateSalmo) is a Communications specialist and general word nerd from Ottawa, Ontario. With a BA in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo, she continues her learning journey at Learnography with a great team of former educators who are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences. She lives in Toronto with her very fat cat.