Anita Patel was born in Singapore and lives in Canberra, Australia. She is as Australian as a banana paddle pop and a pair of sandy thongs and she is also a part of the Asian diaspora. She has been published in various journals including Burley Issue One, Block 9, Conversations (Pandanus Press ANU) and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Her work has also appeared in the Canberra Times and in an anthology titled Pardon My Garden by Harper Collins.
Meri Dragičević was born in Croatia and gained her degree in Yugoslav Languages and Literature and Italian Language from Zagreb University. She then completed further studies in Applied Linguistics at the ANU. She was President of the Modern Language Teachers’ Association (MLTA) of the ACT and has presented professional development workshops for teachers of languages including a paper at the 16th National Languages Conference of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations (AFMLTA) in 2007.
Steadfast friendships grow between unlikely people. And so it was with our friendship – a productive and joyful connection between two teachers from completely different cultural backgrounds, teaching completely unrelated languages (Italian and Indonesian) in a public senior secondary college. Like many specialist teachers of a second language, we felt very isolated in the wider school community because (unlike with specialist teachers of music, art, food studies or physical education) no one really understands what goes on in language classes, which makes it difficult to gain a sense of belonging in an otherwise mono-lingual and mono-cultural workplace. In addition to this, teachers of a second language are often isolated in their own faculty where everyone jealously guards their own patch of the globe. The reason for this fierce ownership is that offering the study of a second language in the Australian school curriculum is often more about marketing another culture than really learning how to communicate in different sounds and syllables. Language learning has to be sold to students through providing extra activities associated with the perceived colourful and enjoyable aspects of a culture; and so, we find ourselves cooking nasi goreng, dancing the can can, wearing a kimono and so on. We have to peddle our language by creating fun!
In the midst of this competition, for which language can provide the most vibrant and exotic cultural entertainment, the two of us, Meri Dragičević and Anita Patel, began a conversation which transcended the boundaries of nations and cultures. We shared a common belief that there was more to teaching our subject than learning how to make pizza or batik. We were determined to change the way that our languages were taught and assessed. Our plan was to place the emphasis of language teaching on the universal language and communication games that all human beings play in order to get on with the business of living. These games include making a joke, meeting someone for the first time, asking, thanking, cursing, praying, speculating, doubting, reporting, describing… the list is endless. All of us are engaged in these forms of life every minute of every day. They do not change because we are French or Spanish or Korean. We participate in these language games because we belong to the human race and because they are part of the human condition. And as much as we in Australia celebrate and enjoy a rich diversity of cultures, in the end it is similarity that brings us together as human beings.
In an education system where cultural stereotypes define language teaching and all world languages are (a bit ridiculously) divided into two clear groups – Asian and European – the idea that Indonesian and Italian could be assessed in the same way was seen as absurd. However, we persevered in creating assessment tasks that not only connected Italy and Indonesia, but also included Australia. We strove to enable our students to gain a sense of belonging not simply to one culture or language, but to the world. In Italy, Indonesia and Australia, teenagers shop at the mall or the market, have fun at parties and meet friends. They face the same problems about school, romance, parental expectations and social relationships – so why do we persist in writing separate culture-specific tasks? Our students did the same assessment tasks, often based on the same resource material. They wrote emails, created Facebook pages and blogs, shared common ideas in Socratic circles, designed double-page spreads for youth magazines and discussed global issues. We joined each other’s classes and our students watched their peers perform in conversations and debates. The students themselves had no problems in acknowledging the best language learners in each group.
The first cohort of Indonesian and Italian students in our moderation group completed year 12 in 2008, and we were very happy to note that our ranking matched the external ranking of students in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Scaling Test (AST) given by the Board of Senior Secondary Studies (BSSS). The top students of Italian and Indonesian showed a comparable level of critical and higher order thinking in external aptitude testing. The two of us went from strength to strength – delivering workshops and seminars at national conferences and sharing our ideas and findings with colleagues in the ACT. All of this was very exciting, but much more rewarding for us as teachers was the quality of student work and the deep enjoyment that our students experienced in producing tasks that allowed them to participate in the activity or game of language learning. We noticed a significant enhancement in the richness of tasks produced by our students. They were now aware that they were not just acquiring a set of ready-made phrases that were relevant to one culture or language group, but also becoming global citizens ready to negotiate the winding pathways of any language or culture and to be part of any discourse or dialogue.
Our languages might be different – our cultures certainly are – but the forms of life that we were teaching were the same. The methodology that we used to teach them was the same and the tasks that we created to assess them were essentially the same. This placed us on the same rough ground. So while we were still messing about in the mud of language teaching, experiencing all the misunderstandings that surround it, we were, at least, doing it together. Our profound friendship started with a conversation that disregarded the significant differences in our cultures and allowed us to see each other as human beings who wanted to overcome the feeling of isolation in an Australian school environment. Those first shared words between us blossomed into an ongoing stimulating (and laughter-filled) interchange that energised our professional practice, united us as lifelong friends and allowed us to create a new, authentic sense of belonging for ourselves and our students.
© Anita Patel and Meri Dragičević, 2017