26 November 2008

The Gift of the Stranger

In their refreshing and helpful book, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning, David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill write,
We will respond to various notions of what foreign language learning is all about with three simple assumptions and three related questions in mind. The first assumption is that, as we go about our educational tasks, we work with an implicit or explicit picture of the kind of person we would like to see leave our classroom. We seek to have some effect, however slight, on the learners who pass through our care; we want them to develop in a certain direction. The first question, then, is this: What kinds of persons do the proponents of varying motives for doing foreign language learning want their students to become?

Our second assumption is that it is not adequate to view language learning simply as a self-enclosed end in itself, something that can take place without reference to an outside world or to the speakers of the language studied. As foreign language educators, we are, among other things, enabling learners to come into some kind of relationship with speakers of the target language. The second question, then, is: What kind of relationship to members of the target culture do advocates of these different motives have in mind?

Our third assumption is that sharing a world with fellow humans who are created in God's image and who are linguistically and culturally diverse has something to do with the reason for making foreign language learning part of education. The time-honored habit of dividing the world into members of our culture, on the one hand, and lesser beings of inferior importance on the other, is not ... consonant with a Christian worldview. This leads to the third question: Does the motive under consideration honor the stranger as one created in God's image, as one who hopes, thinks, suffers, trusts, and weeps, and whose sighs and laughter are just as audible to God as our own?
These assumptions and questions are part of the framework the authors develop in the service of their overall vision for foreign language teaching and learning--"being a blessing as a stranger and practicing hospitality to the stranger."
Students listed English-
language words that
have made their way
into Russian

Meanwhile, more snow
--Elektrostal city hall,
yesterday

They root their vision in an interpretation of the Babel story in Genesis, the story of Pentecost in Acts, and other Biblical passages, that emphasizes God's delight in diversity and God's sovereign disapproval of imperial arrogance (as demonstrated, for example, by Babel's builders). With special attention to a 17th-century educational reformer I'd barely heard of, Comenius, Smith and Carvill show that a humane and God-centered understanding of foreign language instruction has deep roots in Christian intellectual tradition.

They go on to apply their three assumptions and three assumptions in a review of the various reasons currently used to sell foreign language learning--appealing to "The Entrepreneur," "The Persuader," "The Connoisseur," "The Tourist," "The Escapologist," "The Revolutionary." There are redemptive aspects to all of these motivations, but mostly they are oriented around "profit, pleasure, and power" for the learner, rather than developing the capacity to offer healthy hospitality and to be a sensitive stranger.

The last third of their book considers ways to apply their insights in the classroom. I loved the case study of using the history of the anti-Hitler White Rose movement in wartime Germany, as well as a Bonhoeffer poem, as ways of conveying even very basic German language instruction in a powerfully humane context. The whole book is like that--a thoughtful and fertile Christian reflection that applies directly to my situation as a stranger in Russia attempting to build a hospitable English-language classroom.



Righteous links: A seriously tantalizing book review of Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity. ~~ Scot McKnight considers Anne Rice's conversion story, part one, part two. ~~ Tightwad strategies for Thanksgiving! ~~ Two different reflections on the recent Russian film Ostrov (The Island) and what it might say about current interest in spirituality. I saw the film, too, and am still thinking it over.



Ruthie Foster's "Traveling Shoes" take her to a blues cruise on the Caribbean.

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