British literature is richly tangled with other histories and cultures – so why is it sold as largely white and English?


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Brick Lane: popularised in a novel by British writer, Monica Ali.
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Elleke Boehmer, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, University of Oxford

Recent global developments have sharply polarised communities in many countries around the world. A new politics of exclusion has drawn urgent attention to the ways in which structural inequality has marginalised and silenced certain sectors of society. And yet, as a recent report shows, diversity and inclusion in fact “benefit the common good”. A more diverse group is a stronger, more creative and productive group.

In the world of literary writing, we find similar gaps and exclusions. But these are counterbalanced in some respects by new positive initiatives.

In 2015, a study revealed that literature by writers of colour had been consistently under-represented by the predominantly white British book industry. Statistics in The Bookseller show that out of thousands of books published in 2016 in the UK, fewer than 100 were by British authors of a non-white background. And out of 400 authors identified by the British public in a 2017 Royal Society of Literature survey, only 7% were black, Asian or of mixed race (compared to 13% of the population).

Colourful misrepresentation

A similar marginalisation takes place in the curricula in schools and universities, mirroring exclusions in wider society. In most English literature courses of whatever period, the writers taught are white, largely English and largely male.

A fundamental inequality arises in which, though British culture at large is diverse, syllabuses are not. Indeed, many British readers and students find little to recognise or to identify with when they read and study mainstream British literature.

But it’s not just a case of under-representation. It’s also a case of misrepresentation.

Black and Asian writers who have been published within the mainstream British system describe the pressure they have felt to conform to cultural stereotypes in their work. Their books are often packaged and presented in ways that focus on their ethnicity, regularly using cliches. At the same time, more universal aspects of their writing are overlooked. For example, the covers of novels by Asian British writers usually stick to a limited colour palette of yellows, reds, and purples, accented by “exotic” images.

 

These writers bristle at the sense that they are read not as crafters of words and worlds, but as spokespeople for their communities or cultures. At its worst, this process turns these writers and their books into objects of anthropological curiosity rather than works inviting serious literary study or simply pleasurable reading. The message is that black and Asian literature is other than or outside mainstream British writing.

Against these exclusions, leading British authors such as Bernardine Evaristo and others have urged for a broader, more inclusive approach. They recognise that what and how we read shapes our sense of ourselves, our communities and the world.

Reframing the narrative

The Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds research project, based in the Oxford English Faculty and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, set out to ask what it means to read contemporary fiction as British readers. Working with reading groups and in discussion with writers, we found that readers of all ages entered the relatively unfamiliar worlds created by BAME authors with interest.

For many, finding points of familiarity along gender, age, geographical or other lines was important for their ability to enjoy stories from communities different from their own. Identifying in this way gave some readers new perspectives on their own contexts. At the same time, unfamiliarity was not a barrier to identification. In some cases, universal human stories, like falling in love, acted as a bridge. This suggests that how literature is presented to readers, whether it is framed as other or not, can be as significant as what is represented.

Contemporary black and Asian writing from the UK is British writing. And this means that the work of writers such as Evaristo, Nadifa Mohamed and Daljit Nagra be placed on the same library shelf, reading list and section of the bookshop as work by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Ali Smith – not exclusively in “world interest” or “global literature”.

Bookish.
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Equally, much can be gained by thinking of white British writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Hilary Mantel as having as much of a cross-cultural or even postcolonial outlook as Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie.

There are positive signs. A new EdExcel/Pearson A-level teaching resource on Contemporary Black British Literature has been developed. The Why is My Curriculum White? campaign continues to make inroads in university syllabuses. And the Jhalak Prize is raising the profile of BAME writing in Britain. Against this background, the Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds website offers a multimedia hub of resources on black and Asian British writing, providing points of departure for more inclusive, wide-ranging courses. Yet there is still much to be done.

The ConversationAll literature written in English in the British Isles is densely entangled with other histories, cultures, and pathways of experience both within the country and far beyond. Its syllabuses, publishing practices, and our conversations about books must reflect this.

Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, University of Oxford and Erica Lombard, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Younger is not always better when it comes to learning a second language


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Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers.
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Warren Midgley, University of Southern Queensland

It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The Conversation

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.

Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.

Why younger may not always be better

Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.

The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.

The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.

In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.

Language immersion environment best for young children

Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in classroom best for early teens

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.

Self-guided learning best for adults

There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.

To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.

How we can apply this to education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.

If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.

However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.

Warren Midgley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Every pupil in incredible primary school class speaks English as second language – and Ofsted rates it ‘outstanding’


Greet Primary School in Sparkhill, Birmingham has a waiting list in every year group and has been lauded by Ofsted

Meet the incredible primary school class where every child speaks English as a second language
Impressive: The year six pupils all speak English as a second language

Meet this incredible primary school class where every child speaks English as a SECOND LANGAUGE.

The talented multi-lingual year six pupils alone bring nine languages to the 23 spoken at Greet Primary School in Sparkhill, Birmingham.

Despite the challenge of 94.3% of pupils speaking an additional tongue, the mega primary is rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted and has a waiting list in every year group.

Proud headteacher Emma Tyler said: “While the majority of our pupils arrive with little to no English, it’s our mission to seek achievement for all.

“We’re a school for the community and so everyone, staff, pupils and parents, works really hard to make the school what it is.”

a Meet the incredible primary school class where every child speaks English as a second language
Multi-lingual: The talented pupils with all their different first languages

The 859 pupils at Greet – as it’s affectionately known by parents and teachers alike –span from the 78 strong part-time nursery intake to the 90 children in year six who are preparing to move to secondary schools in September.

It takes 161 staff and 35 volunteers to help the children make the ‘outstanding progress’ from no spoken English and limited skills in other areas to reach ‘broadly average standards’ identified by Ofsted.

And despite also being in an area last year plagued by the ‘Trojan Horse’ extremism plot, Greet has been lauded for its high teaching standards thanks to its impressive teaching teams.

The school is led by two heads: Tyler and Sheenagh Edger who between them have 51 years of teaching experience and have spent 34 years at Greet.

They’re also served by an executive headteacher Pat Smart who oversees not just Greet but Conway Primary – a school previously in special measures that has improved to good since Greet took it under its wing.

Meet the incredible primary school class where every child speaks English as a second language
Teachers: All staff emphasise visual aids and repetition to help children learn languages

While many schools have an English as an Addition Language (EAL) team, every teacher at the school is trained in the specialism.

For Sheenagh Edger, the school’s provision starts long before term starts in September.

She said: “Every child is invited to the school for a play session before they start and we do a home visit for every new starter. And many of our teaching assistants and teachers themselves speak the community languages their pupils arrive with to help the transition.”

All staff emphasise visual aids and repetition to help children associate words with their meaning and have to employ the highest standards of grammar and clarity in their own language.

And when children join the school mid-way through they are often assigned a ‘buddy’ – a classmate who can help integrate them into friendship groups as well as the new language.

Year six teacher Miss Begum said that although the challenges of teaching EAL pupils has changed by the last year of school, she still uses many of the same techniques as in lower down the school.

“By the time they reach me in year six most have achieved fluency and are secure in English,” she said.

“The next step is to introduce them to kind of language that will be used in the SATs – the kind of vocabulary they might not come across at home. So that’s lots of visual aids, using thesauruses and repetition.”

Birmingham MailFeature on Greet Primary School (pictured) near Sparkhill where most of the children have English as a second language
Ofsted: Greet Primary School in Sparkhill, Birmingham has a waiting list in every year group

She is helped by the Tyler and Edger’s decision to spend funding from the pupil premium on a higher staff to pupil ratio which can be as low as 1:10.

Saira Bibi, 11, is one pupil who has benefited from the school’s lively teaching and commitment to preparing every child for the next stage in their education.

She alone speaks Urdu, Pashto, Hindko and Arabic as well as immaculate English and is proud to now be learning Spanish with her classmates.

She said: “Sometimes I get confused with all the languages going round in my head but I like it that I can speak to lots of different people. If there’s someone that doesn’t speak English very well I can help them and communicate with them. “And I love this school – it’s really fun.”

Occasionally there are breakout groups to teach ‘survival English’ to new arrivals but Tyler and Edger think inclusiveness is key: the EAL provision is a whole school approach not served by separating the fluent from the less confidant.

Although it is sometimes necessary to hire translators to communicate with families the school’s senior parent support advisor is at the centre of the approach.

Mrs Din is a confidante for parents as much as a link home-school link and herself speaks Mirpiri, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and Gurmukhi Punjabi.

Thanks to their hard work, Greet’s last Ofsted report described the primary as an”outstanding school that successfully combines outstanding achievement, extremely high standards of care and lots of fun”.