Seeing and saying things in English

Author: Patrick Boylan


A description is given of a module in English for Intercultural Communication currently offered at the University of Rome III (Italy). It teaches students how, in intercultural exchanges conducted in 'English', mutual understanding can be best achieved by relativising the concept of 'English' and by reconsidering the relationship between language and 'thought' (or, more recisely, 'being'). Students introject English-speaking cultural 'doubles' and then, as their doubles, carry out intercultural research tasks.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum, which was part of the 4th Annual Conference of IALIC (International Association for Languages and Intercultural Learning).

Description of the Module

The phenomena of globalisation and mass immigration recently prompted the University of Rome III (Italy) to create an undergraduate curriculum for 'Intercultural Communication Operators'. Students major in Arabic or Chinese and must also study English or some other European language as their co-major or minor. The module described below, 'Seeing and saying things in English', is one of two first-year modules (each 3 credits, 25 contact hours) designed to teach English for Intercultural Communication.

Students (a mix of EU Framework levels A2, B1 and B2) first view and discuss scenes from documentary or feature films portraying people in various English-speaking cultures, then choose a real-life or fictional character as their double and study her/his expressive habits both linguistically and as clues to a cultural mind set. In other words, they link their double's way of seeing things to her/his way of saying things. Copies of the film clips are available in the language lab for self study using an ethnolinguistic grid. Cultural indices are gleaned from macrolinguistic products in the second language found on the Internet -- songs, political speeches, jokes - that the double has made or that somehow characterise him or her. Students then write a report in which they list the distinctive language features that their double shares with some L2 community. (Since this module is for students of English as a second language, 'L2' will, in this paper, be used generically to indicate the Anglo dialect or variety chosen for investigation -- here, patwa). Students also characterize their double's communally-shared mind set by means of maxims, which they invent and introject in order to 'live' her or his culture. Finally, participating in one or more of the activities briefly described in this paper, they narrate themselves as their double (a full description appears in Boylan 2003), or interact with native L2 speakers as their double might, for example by:

  • undergoing initiation into a local L2 community (a full description appears in Boylan 1983),
  • playing their double in a simulated tandem conversation, videotaped for comments and coaching by a genuine L2 tandem partner (a full description is forthcoming),
  • attempting to understand an expressive tic of their double - one that is culturally-connoted - by using variations of that tic with different L2 speakers and then comparing their reactions to the felt meanings (a full description appears in Boylan 1996).

Observed Benefits

Through the activities proposed, and others like them, students learn languages as a 'transformation of consciousness' (Tomic, 2001) obtained by putting aside momentarily their habitual, culturally-determined thoughts and and feelings in order to acquire a new 'will to be' and, with it, a new 'will to mean'. This vision - which we have called the basis of intercultural communication (Boylan 1983, 2002, 2003) - produces accomplished linguists who are, at the same time, competent intercultural mediators, in demand everywhere as negotiation coaches for international businesses or government agencies, web page localizers and dubbing supervisors, front-line intermediaries with immigrants or displaced populations, and so on. Moreover this vision, bridging the gap between language learning and cultural studies, makes 'Learning languages as culture' an independent discipline, no longer in need of hiding under the umbrella of literary or area studies. Finally, learning languages as culture enables students to set more wisely their language learning priorities: how much time to spend studying grammar, how much investigating cultural phenomena, how much carrying out 'consciousness transformation' activities, etc. This makes students better autonomous learners and better able to take advantage of 'year abroad' programs.

The constructivist pedagogy (Piaget 1968; Delia et al.1982) underlying the activities proposed in this paper also contributes, by its very nature, to preparing better linguists. By considering university 'lectures' not as a vehicle for the transmission of information about the properties of verbal repertories, but rather as a moment to stimulate, guide and evaluate students' holistic research into communication in the L2 as a behavioural phenomenon (the actual research is done in groups outside the classroom), students learn to grasp the learning process itself as a largely self-directed, autonomous 'acting upon the world'. They become ethnographically adept - exactly what is needed of linguists today.

The absence of traditional lectures does not mean that students fail to learn 'the basics' of English dialectology or of Intercultural Communication theory, just as the absence of grammar/usage exercises does not mean that students fail to improve their rote knowledge of the variety of English they choose to learn. Such learning does take place but outside the lecture hall: in the library, in a 6-credit language practice class, and in the language lab, using self-correcting and peer-correcting materials. Occasional 'background knowledge' and 'performance' tests assure students of norm-referenced feedback on their self- and peer evaluations.

Activities: Narrative Discourse

Initial Narrative Activity (valid for all levels: EU Framework A2 to B2)

1) Creating Identikits of target culture speakers. As explained briefly in the paragraph 'Description', students first learn to research and then write out the cultural/psychological Identikit of an L2 speaker with whom they willingly identify (and that they then 'become' in their everyday classroom behaviour): usually film characters are chosen, but also singers, actors and political figures, provided the student finds enough audiovisual documentation to construct an Identikit.

For example, a student who likes the Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley can document himself on Marley's cultural and psychological make up using biographies, the Internet, films, fanzines, audio clips of interviews, etc. The web sites of university linguistics departments will furnish information about Marley's West Indies language: a creole? a variety/dialect of English? a language of its own? Whereas Whorf saw cultural meaning in linguistic traits, students derive it from macrocultural products - e.g., songs, rituals, diaries... - and assign it to linguistic traits considered simply as cultural emblems.

The students then create and internalise an appropriate list of maxims, thereby 'rewriting' themselves as their double. From then on, they speak and act consequently. This does not mean imitating their 'double' (something that, as a rule, is interculturally counter-productive). If the student choosing Marley has indeed gasped (through the maxims) his double's make up, then he will automatically begin to talk in a way that, while not necessarily being patwa or West Indies English, will be something that a Jamaican would instinctively relate to. That, in the perspective of this paper, is what defines intercultural communication linguistically: the creation of a language that one's interlocutors relate to, whatever be the repertory of artefacts used to realise it.

Finally, mixed-level groups are formed for class projects in which the more introverted students can experiment being their double in a protective atmosphere. Groups then meet in members' homes or in empty classrooms to narrate their new selves to each other; the group leader acts as the interviewer and tape records the session. Interviewers loosely follow the ethnographic grid used for laboratory work, beginning with biographical questions and then moving on to ascertaining their interviewees' value system (what they 'live for'). Groups consign the audio cassettes together with an evaluation sheet on which they have marked (graded) the narrations; the evaluation criteria used, elaborated as a group before the recording sessions and based on course syllabus texts, is also specified.

The Interview activity enables even beginner students (EU level A2) to participate fully and allows them to establish a working relationship with the intermediate students in their groups. This then enables them to participate in the following activities - designed for pre-intermediate or intermediate students - as more than just tag-alongs. Normally Activities 2 and 6 (or 10) are chosen or, if there is a heavy presence of beginner students in the class, just the second part of Activity 2 and Activity 7. If there are no beginner students Activities 3, 4, 5, 8 or 9 are conducted. Modules normally consist of two or three activities in all.

Intermediate Narrative Activity (levels B1 or B2, but accessible to A2 students participating in mixed-level groups)

2) Creating Commedia dell'arte characters for the target culture. Students are asked to research the following question: if the commedia dell'arte were a present-day British institution, what would a few stock characters (maschere) be? Students must then, as groups, write out and enact a scene in English as their maschere, one that - if successful - should make the U.K. Erasmus students invited for the occasion laugh (or wince) with self recognition.

The students are subsequently told to return home and be their maschera there for a day: they are to imagine they are from the U.K. on an exchange program (so their Italian is perfect) and are boarding with the family who treats them as a lost child (one who ran off to England long ago); to humour the family, they respond to the child's name. Finally, while still being their maschera, they are to narrate their day in a report emphasising what they noticed as peculiar about the Italian family's talk and behaviour, about the family's expectations as to their behaviour, etc.

This 'estrangement activity' is often met with scepticism by teacher colleagues: "Isn't it asking too much of the more reserved students?", they wonder. The answer is that, as with every activity (including the first, which is also based on voluntary estrangement from one's native habits), students do no more than they feel comfortable doing. In one case a student limited herself to doing Activity 2 as a mental experiment (while lying down on her bed and listening to the family in the adjoining room, she imagined what would happen if...). In other cases students, while being their double, limit their interaction to younger siblings. But, as surprising as it may seem, the overwhelming majority carry out the activity to the hilt - usually with initial misgivings, but then, once they begin, with increasing enthusiasm.

The inventor of this technique is the American ethnomethodologist Garfinkel (1967), famous for having his students act as boarders at their own homes in order to unmask the power structure and reality cues governing talk and behaviour there; the activity proposed here aims instead at revealing, contrastively, the hidden cultural assumptions. Students often report that the day at home spent as Brits taught them more about the British way of seeing and saying things - filtered through Italian! - than a month spent as an Erasmus student in the U.K. Erasmus students, in fact, tend to form outgroups. Moreover, the experience leads them - and their often (momentarily) distraught families - to reflect on the norms of their own culture.

Advanced Narrative Activity (EU Framework level B2 or C1)

3) Creating cultural adaptations of personal scenarios. Students first write out a deeply-felt personal experience, one that is also culturally dense, using their native language (Italian, in the present case). Then, instead of translating their narrative, the students make a cultural adaptation: they rewrite it in English, transposing it into an L2 linguistic/cultural setting of their choice, and act it out before an Anglo public to test reactions. First, however, they must undergo a divesting process with respect to their own culture and psychology, in order to ascertain honestly what reactions they are trying to elicit and why. Then they must consider how the target public's culture can make such reactions difficult to reproduce and how to circumvent this by investing their characters with suitable local identities. A full description and example of this activity may be found in Boylan (2003).

Two other intermediate/advanced narrative activities that call for 'rewriting oneself' are:

4) Composing pastiches. This is a once traditional French lycée exercise in which a student 'becomes' (i.e., assumes the mind set of) various famous authors and then attempts to write in their style.

5) Translating by double immersion. This is a communicative translation exercise in which students: (a.) identify with a typical member of the 'ratifying public' of the source text; (b.) respond to the text as that person; (c.) identify with a typical member of the target-text public; (d.) imagine, as that person, the closest equivalent response and the necessary conditions to produce it; (e.) translate the original text, altering it as necessary in order to reproduce those conditions. (This is also the procedure adopted in Activity 3. Here, however, the student is not the original author and so must evoke and identify with the ratifying public, i.e., the public that, attributing a certain sense and value to the text, made it something to translate.)

Activities: Interactive Co-constructed Discourse

Other intermediate or advanced activities involving divesting/investing identities - but based on interactive co-constructed exchanges instead of narration - are:

6) Undergoing initiation within an L2 community (if one exists in the students' home town). In Rome, for example, there are British, American, and Irish communities with their own schools, churches, libraries, pubs, etc.; this holds to some extent for French, German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic speakers as well. 'Undergoing initiation' means making friends within the community and being taught 'what counts in life' by assuming an ethnographic naïveté. Students analyse the cultural identity that they invest. This activity is described in Boylan (1983) and a more research-oriented variant in Boylan (1996).

7) Presenting oneself under different identities to subscribers of an L2 Internet Dating Service. Experimentation will show the students which assumed persona attracts the most responses and therefore how one ought to speak and 'be' in that culture. This is something many students do anyway in their native language/culture, albeit intuitively. Here the activity becomes a way to learn and experiment with Intercultural Communication theory: students must spell out, in measurable terms, the cultural and personality traits they intend to foreground in their various assumed roles. This involves building a statistically treatable descriptive model (for example, using the IPIP-NEO Personality Inventory and Rokeach's Value Survey or the traditional 'cultural dimensions' proposed by Hofstede and Trompenaars). Their final report must be based on tables of empirically-obtained correlated values predicting success.

8) Participating in a culture-specific SIG (Special Interest Group) on the Internet, e.g., a fan club for a local sport or a citizens' committee for a local issue. A print-out of the chat session or Mail Group threads will show if the student's contributions are accepted and answered (co-optation) or simply ignored (marginalisation). This activity espouses the view that culture is always local. Using the technique of Case Studies, students learn to specify the intersecting currents - ideological, economic, sociocultural, religious, political, historical, annalistic (the recorded gossip and faits divers) - that constitute the mores and idiom of a specific community: their Durkheimian collective conscience. They then internalise it using Stanislavski's techniques for creating a character from a fait divers (State of "I am", Through Action) before writing to the SIG as a 'local'.

9) Playing the L2 speaker in a simulated tandem conversation with another member of the class; afterwards, the student selects excerpts from the videotaped conversation and has them criticized for realism and cultural authenticity by a genuine L2 tandem partner. The purpose of the criticism is threefold: it takes tandem interaction beyond the usual exchange of 'touristic cultural information' into the heart of what culture is; it furnishes the L2 learners with individual coaching for subsequent simulated tandems in class; it provides the L2 native speakers with a concrete occasion for defining their own culture in behavioural terms, thereby facilitating integration into the host culture (they see more clearly the distances to bridge).

10) Attempting to understand a culturally-connoted expressive tic of an L2 double by trying out variations of that tic on a group of L2 speakers invited to participate in a discussion, then debriefing the guests to ascertain the effect produced. If it is possible to invite the same group of L2 speakers twice over a two month period (using, for example, ERASMUS students or guests from a local L2 community), then the double can be one of these selfsame L2 speakers, video recorded during the first discussion and then used as a model for speaking during the second encounter. By doing so the student researchers can: (1.) hypothesize the meaning of an expressive tic observed while studying their double in the video recording; (2.) seek to understand the tic experientially by using variations of it with the same (presumed) intents during the second encounter; (3.) confront their double, at the end of the second encounter, with their hypothesized and experienced meanings, (4.) discover not only the relativity of their own hypotheses concerning the 'real meaning' of the tic, but also the relativity of the folk explanations given by their double. In academic terms, this activity teaches students the ethnomethodological approach (Garfinkel, 1967) to analysing everyday communicative behaviour performed unawares. (Activity 6, on the other hand, is meant to teach them a specific ethnographical method - participant observation and naïve questioning - for elaborating 'thick, organic, theoretically-grounded descriptions' of ritualized behaviour and consciously-taught beliefs.) A full explanation of activity 10 appears in Boylan (1996).


By learning to see and say things as might a member of another linguistic/cultural community, students acquire Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC), i.e., the ability to speak the language of a cultural Other, making use of any repertory of artefacts mutually available: either party's native tongue, some variety of English as a lingua franca, a conventional language, mere gestures... whatever. In doing so, students widen their awareness of the phenomena called 'language' and 'English' while, at the same time, acquiring a capacity to work successfully as intercultural mediators.

When students also learn to remove the fig leaves covering the social implications of certain communicative practices, both in the target culture and in their own (see, for example, Activities 2 and 3), they acquire something more: Critical Intercultural Communicative Competence. CICC enables them to interact more responsibly in the L2 (Tomic, 2001). In addition, it enables them to assimilate L2 phonology and grammar much more quickly (Dörnyei & Csizér, 2002). Indeed, saying things 'in the L2 manner' becomes less irritatingly arbitrary when students discover that their L1 manners are equally arbitrary and that the L2 mask they learn to don, in place of their own, actually empowers them to see things anew. For any culture's myths reveal as much as they hide, so long as they are seen as myths.


Boylan, P. (1983). L'apporto dell'antropologia linguistica all'insegnamento delle lingue straniere. In: Gruppo di Lecce (Eds), Lingua e Antropologia [Proceedings of the XIV Congress of the Società di Linguistica Italiana,1980], 497-509. Roma, Bulzoni. (Available on the Internet see Related Links).

Boylan, P. (1996). Being one of the group. Paper presented at the 6th International Pragmatics Association Congress held at Reims, Reims, (Available on the Internet see Related Links).

Boylan, P. (2002). Language as representation, as agency, as being. In S. Cormeraie, D. Killick and M. Parry (eds), Revolutions in Consciousness: Local Identities, Global Concerns in Languages and Intercultural Communication, 165-174. Leeds, LMU Centre for Language Study.

Boylan, P. (2003). Rewriting Oneself. Paper presented at the 4th IALIC conference, The Intercultural Narrative, Lancaster University, 15.12.2003. (Available on the Internet see Related Links).

Delia, J., O'Keefe, B., and O'Keefe, D. (1982). The constructivist approach to communication. In F. Dance (ed.), Human Communication Theory, 147-191. New York, Harper & Row.

Dörnyei, Z. and Csizér, K. (2002). Some dynamics of language attitudes and motivation: results of a longitudinal nationwide survey. Applied Linguistics 23 (4), 421-462.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall.

Piaget, J. (1968). Le langage et la pensée chez l'enfant. Neuchâtel, Delachaux et Niestlé.

Tomic. A. (2001) Languages and intercultural communication as a 'new' discipline. In D. Killick, M. Parry and A. Phipps (eds), Poetics and Praxis of Languages and Intercultural Communication, vol. I, 1-16. Glasgow, University of Glasgow French and German Publications.

Related links

Patrick Boylan's home page
Click on the word TEACHING to see current and past modules at the University of Rome III. Click on the word RESEARCH to see publications, among which Boylan (1983), (1996), (2002) and (2003).