Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Drawing on the local

I like travelling. Seriously, if there's something I'd love to do as a job, that would most definitely be travelling.

photo credit: Thomas Leuthard via photopin cc
I'd be the one ON the train.

I went to Budapest recently, my first visit as a tourist and not attending the classiest conference in the region. It was awesome! Lights! Buildings! Parks! Danube! Argh! I want this city to be my home!

Yes, I'll build my swimming pool right over there.
And I got a T-shirt. See, some people go and buy nice souvenirs, but I saw this T-shirt and I needed to have it. See if you can guess what drew me to it.

It must be the high-quality print!
HUNGARY It's a country. That puzzles me. Is it a self-deprecatory remark? Like a shrug and "Meh, not much, but it's ours" or is it a proud statement "We didn't use to be a country, but now we are!" or is it "You know what the others are, but let's clarify Hungary"?

So, because a teacher never stops being a teacher (why is this usually said in a proud way? It's a terrible thing), I spent a bit of time thinking about the lovely linguistic conundrum of the T-shirt and how to use it in class.

Here's what I came up with.

I sometimes dedicate the first 10 minutes of the first class in the week to little language tidbits, like culture quizzes, words of the week, sayings and quotes and stuff like that.

I wore my T-shirt in my Monday class and asked them to read what it says. Together we explained what each of the words mean and then we talked about the slogan. We came up with some ideas, but the one thing we could agree is that we don't really get it.

We also talked a bit about why people buy tourist T-shirts (other than silly teachers who get excited about linguistics) and souvenirs.

Then I asked them to tell me what would that shirt look like if it were made in Slovenia. Cviček, sausage, potatoes, šnopc (kind of similar to German Schnapps, kozolec, accordion, potica, Triglav, Bled, ... All the typically Slovenian stuff. It made me want to break out an accordion and dance the polka.

Then we talked a bit about the slogan, how can we encompass all the diversity that is Slovenia in one sentence. From neighbourly hate to our size through our love of wine, we mentioned it all.

Slovenia! If you're not our neighbour, we like you.
Make sLOVEnia
Slovenia! Not Slovakia.
Good food, good wine. 
I asked them to design their own T-shirts, with the option to either describe the pictures or draw them, whichever is easier. I didn't feel comfortable drawing when young, so I wanted to give them a choice.

I also asked them to justify why they chose the pictures words and slogans they did, so the language practice was a bit more meaningful. We wrote up some useful phrases for justifying opinions on the board.

  • I put Triglav on my T-shirt because it's our highest mountain.
  • Tina Maze is our most successful sportswoman and so she deserves to be on my shirt.
  • Potica is typical for my country that's why it's on my T-shirt.

Some people complained that they don't know Slovenia and they got the option to do it for their part of the city or their country of origin. Surprisingly, they suddenly decided they know enough. I was a bit disappointed, I'd have liked to see those T-shirts.

Wow. Theirs were much, MUCH better than any of the ones I saw on sale! If anyone reading this is in the T-shirt business, leave your contact and my boys will mail you at their convenience.

It's a dragon on top of Triglav playing an accordion. You don't get more Slovenian than that!
A lot of people focused on our traditional food, like sausages, meat, potatoes, Idrijski žlikrofi (see link for recipe), almost everyone mentioned our wines, beers, strong likker and general preoccupation with eating and drinking.

A lot of them also mentioned the Slovenia/Slovakia mix-up, one of them even suggested a map of Europe where Slovenia and Slovakia were clearly labelled, with "Slovenia is here, not over there" and arrows printed across it.

Because we're so small, of course some focused on that as well. Here's my favourite example, with a really detailed justification.

I love the phrase "moisten up our stomach", such colourful language! I know it's not standard, but still.
I was also surprised at how many of them commented on the current political situation. I am always happy to see my students thinking for themselves and it's refreshing to see some of them are interested in what's going on around them.
He even self-censored, but I censored it a bit more for the delicate eyes that may or may not be reading this blog.

I've included this activity in several of my talks and I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions. I even got a lovely new slogan for Slovenia from Ivana Kirin: "Small, smaller, Slovenia"
So cute. (For the record, we're not small, we're bijoux.)

The talk about drawing on the local context has been very much present at the conferences I attend, a side effect of hanging out with SOL people. The importance of building from the students and our own local experience cannot be overstressed. Of course it's important to know the culture of the language we're learning, but that doesn't mean we need to give up our own identity or even switch it. Yes, I'm looking at you, Mrs. Students-should-be-given-English-names-person who taught me at one point in my life. We extend it, we enrich it by adding a new components to it, but we will not replace it. And we shouldn't, our mother tongue is part of who we are, and it doesn't matter if we move to another country or adopt English as a means of communication. We won't replace our identity if we add a language.


  1. I remember it as well! In the 5th grade in English classes we all had an English name! How strange was that! I never heard anybody talk about it later and I kind of pushed it way back into subconsciousness, but I am assuming they must have been trained at one point to do it and someone somewhere claimed it had some benefits... but I can't think of any... Otherwise, thanks for sharing these stories :)

    1. Yes, we had that as well... My name didn't get changed, because the teacher said it was English-sounding enough (?!?!?!?!), but my sister's got changed to Terri when she went to the same class four years later. On the basis of having the same first letter as her real name. Again, ?!?!??!?!?!

      One of my early jobs in a language school also demanded of me to let my students choose English names for themselves. That was perhaps 8 or 9 years ago, so it still seems to have some supporters. I felt quite a bit dumb calling a student Judy when I knew what her real name was.