Shakespeare: Bridging the language gap for students learning English as a second language
Continuing from the themes and issues raised by the presentations of Sarah Olive, Peter Kirwin, and I at this years BSA conference, I would like to pick up on Olive’s motive to ‘decrease perceptions of Shakespeare’s remoteness’. Listening to all of the research presented, this was evidently a shared aim in every practice for students, as all incorporated entities familiar to young people – namely, new media technology, popular culture, and current affairs – as platforms for understanding Shakespeare in their own contemporary terms.
Considering what makes Shakespeare remote, the most alienating aspect for students experienced by the majority of educators is the language. The demand for clarification of the language is so great that resources such as Sparknotes and many others, offer to ‘translate’ the text into modern English. This view of Early Modern English contributes to the perceptions of Shakespeare’s remoteness, and understandably causes anxiety for students of the plays. However, I would like to draw on a recent experience teaching The Tempest at a primary school in Manchester, where the very foreign quality of the language was the gateway into the text for those with the lowest capabilities and confidence with literacy.
Looking to recent reports by Ofsted, the demographic of students in compulsory education has broadened to include a much wider number of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds. This is particularly true of inner-city schools such as the one which I am using to draw this experience from, where ‘over 90%’ come from ethnic minority backgrounds, and ‘over 60%’ of these ‘speak English as an additional language’. The challenge posed in literacy lessons to these students is much higher than for those pupils with English as their primary language, and these difficulties can be seen when comparing the assessment scores of these two groups, not only in literacy, but often across the curriculum.
Before beginning teaching, the challenges facing students in literacy was explained to me by their teachers. The expectation of all students, particularly those learning English as a second language, was generally low. Their comprehension of English was limited and their confidence with language and verbal expression was sparse. My expectations of these students therefore, were set up to be minimal.
However, once teaching began on The Tempest, these students showed capabilities with language far beyond what their teachers or I expected of them.
The universal initial reaction to Shakespeare was hostile. Showing a quote on the board, I asked the class ‘Who finds this difficult to understand?’ – every single hand went up. When asked why, one student volunteered: ‘it’s like a different language’, a view which all of the students concurred with. Once this was acknowledged, we set about ‘translating’ the lines as a class. The communal action of translating, which many students were used to doing, put every student in a position of ambiguity with the text. This meant that everyone was guessing, not knowing, the meaning of words. The effect of this was universally confidence-inducing. Those students who were often intimidated in literacy lessons were now on a similar level as those whose first language was English.
After speaking and analysing the lines together as a class, the group were split into pairs with various sections of an exchange between Prospero and Caliban. They were to rehearse these lines and perform them to the rest of the class. Whilst observing their work together, there were many instances where those students learning English as a second language were explaining the lines to those learning English as their first language. Their familiarity with the process of translation, made them more confident guessers, and therefore more successful interpreters of the text, precisely because they were less concerned about being wrong. The confidence this gave these students was evident in their empowered performances of Prospero and Caliban. After these performances, the students explained the meaning of their lines, how they thought the characters felt, and why. Each student’s pride in being able to do so was evident.
In this instance the language, in its remoteness, made Shakespeare universal. Being safe in the knowledge that every student – no matter what their ability – will find the language difficult, puts the class on a level playing field. This attitude means that the class are more confident in venturing opinions, and the lesson begets a wider range of creative analysis with heightened engagement with the text. With the challenges facing students today, coming from such a wide range of cultural backgrounds, language abilities, and economic circumstances, it is arguable that Shakespeare, in its universally alien nature, is something which can be worked extremely effectively to every student’s advantage in literacy learning.