Multilingualism and the arts

“Being in the flow of language”

Logo „Sprachfluss“ © Goethe-InstitutAfrican schoolchildren are learning German through play: drama exercises are the focus of the “Sprachfluss” (Language Flow) project, which was developed by applied drama specialist Edda Holl. An interview about fruit, large school classes and learning German in Namibia.

Ms Holl, how can you learn a language through drama?

When you’re learning a foreign language, you do frequently have to “pretend” after all. You have to put across what you want with limited means, miming and gestures, you have to guess what the other person means.

So it’s like it is at the theatre?

Exactly. Anticipating the sub-text between the lines, the art of observing, all that’s elementary for learning a new language. And that’s what “Sprachfluss” is all about.

What exactly is “Sprachfluss”?

In short: we’re helping young people between Windhoek, Lomé and Johannesburg to learn German.

And more precisely?

There have been five workshops in five cities, each lasting a week. In total 100 schoolchildren and 20 teachers from 16 countries took part. The focus was on stage work: I had worked with other applied drama specialists to devise a series of stage exercises to enable students to approach a language playfully.

Complimenting with types of fruit

For example?

One exercise for instance was constructing a dialogue just with numbers. Or they had to compliment each other with types of fruit – once adjectives were added, they learnt to decline as well.

Instead of normal learning by heart?

Yes, instead of just cramming grammar and vocabulary, this form of language acquisition is more about communication, about actually speaking. You have to imagine – there are usually 80 to 100 students in a class there, which means only teacher-centred teaching, speaking is neglected. Of course we can’t replace German teaching. But they learn to speak with all their senses.

How’s that?

For instance if someone has sentences in different languages whispered in their ear, they are like a megaphone, they pass on what they hear, imitate the sounds without understanding what they’re saying: they don’t think, the language flows through them.

So that’s why it’s called “Sprachfluss”?

Well it isn’t supposed to mean being able to speak fluently straight away. It’s more about surrendering themselves to the flow of the language. Drama is good training for that. And since the students are communicating across language boundaries, their repertoire of expression has automatically increased. They thought it was fantastic to speak languages that they didn’t even know.

Continent of languages

Edda Holl © privateIsn’t that an everyday experience with Africa’s language diversity?

Well it is indeed the continent of languages. But multilingualism is much more a part of African identity than not understanding: everyone already speaks two or three languages by the time they come to school. Each one represents a different aspect of their lives.

How come?

We got them to make language portraits, they told us which language they associate with which part of their body: for one schoolgirl, Zulu belonged to her heart because of her grandmother, English as a school language to her head and to her hands because she uses it for working. It was about more than language acquisition.

What was it about then?

Personality development. After all they are all aged between 14 and 18, in the middle of puberty, just finding themselves. They are not familiar with the idea of the focus being on one person. They aren’t used to putting themselves forward as individuals.

Democracy, landscape and Angela Merkel

Why do young people from Mali, Uganda and Lesotho learn German at all?

It varies hugely. In Madagascar German has been taught in school for 100 years, in the French-speaking countries it’s automatically part of the lesson material as well.

No other reasons?

Yes of course. Some people think of economic relations, others think Germany’s great because of Michael Ballack or Michael Schumacher, they like the democracy, the landscape, they know Angela Merkel.

One of the places you went to was Windhoek, in Namibia, one of the former German colonies. Isn’t German significantly tainted there?

We visited one of the monuments that commemorated the colonial history, discussed it. But surprisingly that didn’t play a big role. Maybe that was partly because of the school we were working with: even in colonial times, during the South African protectorate, they taught mixed classes and not just whites.

As I said, multilingualism is part of the identity here, the language of the former colonial powers is part of it. 80 languages are spoken in Ghana alone – people make themselves understood with English. In South Africa they have a completely different relationship with the oppressor language: when there were plans to introduce Afrikaans as a curricular language, it resulted in the Soweto uprisings of 1976.

Not theatre in the classic sense

Were there any other peculiarities specific to countries?

Not really. In South Africa for instance, eye contact is absolutely not the norm: people don’t look each other in the eye when they greet. We practised that correctly. One reason is because the schoolchildren from other countries should know that if they come here.

About the closing events in September – what exactly is happening?

For the last workshop week the African schoolchildren are meeting with German schoolchildren in Brandenburg, they have already been writing letters to one another. To conclude they are all performing a play together in Berlin, as they do after every workshop.

A play?

Not in the classical sense. Incidentally the students thought that too – they assumed that they would put on a pre-written play and everyone would have to take a part. By creating a play themselves they were also abandoning their pre-conception of theatre.

When the workshops have finished: how will this go on?

I will make a textbook out of our series of exercises, with educational instructions and complete with a DVD. The whole thing should be copied mercilessly and passed on. Preferably in Germany as well.

Dr. Edda Holl is an applied drama specialist. She wrote her thesis in Hildesheim on pop history, and has lived in South Africa since 2000.
The “Sprachfluss” project was supported by media artist Anke Schäfer, who will release a film about learning German in Africa at the end.
Anne Haeming
writes as a freelance author for printed and online media. She lives in Berlin

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
September 2009

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