Thursday, 4 February 2016

Writing around a language barrier

This morning, I had the privilege of working with 26 ESOL students on a creative writing session. The ladies who attended are learning English as a secondary or other language - they came from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Thailand - and other countries beside!

It was a challenge to plan the session, partly because of the language issue; the ladies can speak and write English, but for some of them, it's not fluent. After discussion with the tutor, I came up with a simple plan - an easy starter to get everyone warmed up, a picture prompt for a 'take a walk' exercise to explore the senses, followed by looking at objects the ladies were asked to bring with them to use as prompts for poetry or prose work.

I reckon we could've written a recipe book after the sharing of favourite foods! There were common themes - favourites were often linked to family, to the tradition and culture of native homelands, or to sheer indulgence (95% cocoa chocolate with salt...) But this simple activity got everyone writing and talking and mixing, because two different ability groups had come together specially for the morning.

The picture prompt - that was interesting. Each group worked together to list sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings that might be associated with the place. Then, individually, they produced a paragraph or short piece of poetry about the place. We had poetry about fairytale castles, sensory walks through the forest, a description of Loughborough Fair, the beginning of a fairytale for the little house in the woods, and memories of a river that had been swum in during childhood.

This is when I began to realise that some of the ladies were finding it easier to work from their imagination than others, who were still basing their writing on fact.

Now, some of this might have been due to language - it's probably easier to write about what you have experienced and translate that, rather than imagine something that you can't express in the foreign language. But there also seemed to be a cultural element in play. Ladies from certain countries struggled much more with imaginative work than others, something which the tutor has also observed in the past. (We had quite a discussion afterwards about how we could enable or coax the students to make that jump from fact to fiction in a more structured way, especially for those who are not comfortable stepping into an imaginary world.)

And then we got onto the objects. I'd taken a selection with me from India as well as a few bits and bobs from around my house and most of the ladies had brought something from home as well. I saw beautiful hand-decorated fabrics, the most amazing shell sculpture, souvenirs from special places and jewellery, all quite personal objects with strong memories.

After they had shared something about the objects with their groups, it was time to write - and again, there was a distinct split between those who 'got' the creative approach and those who stuck to the facts...

There was a lovely piece of poetry, called Heart With Wings, based on a metal heart with wings that hangs in my lounge. It was deeply felt and written from the heart, covering themes of freedom and fulfilment, I think. A cross-stitched tablecloth, around 50 years old, was the starting point for some beautiful imagery of what the stitcher might have been thinking as she sewed. There were accounts of trips to Mecca and Dubai, and a description of a beautiful jungle and its wildlife which also had an environmental message buried within it. There was also a story about a girl who had dreams of having her own business, but she's now a mother and a housewife and she's lost her dream...

It's always very humbling, I think, when people share their writing, especially if it comes from the heart and personal experience - as so many of the pieces obviously did. I was shown poetry that was full of emotion, which the author felt had lost something in translation. I can't say I noticed - I was moved by the beauty of the imagery in the translated version, so it must have been wonderful in the original.

At the end of the session, I asked the ladies to draw on a smiley face chart. You know the sort - you've got a lot out of it, so big smile. Straight line, you're not certain. Unhappy face...well, then I've failed in my objective to deliver a fun, creative and worthwhile learning experience! Here's what I ended up with on the whiteboard:

The three at the top are my examples...

It was a really lovely morning, and I learnt a lot from it too. not to underestimate the effect of culture on a learning experience; if traditional culture relies on storytelling for example, those of that culture may be able to join in a creative task more easily than others. I needed to have used a slower pace; it takes a lot of brainwork to write creatively, even more so when you have to convert your thoughts into a language you aren't fluent in and try to maintain the gist of what you are trying to say. And I needed to have included more structure; although I'd picked some of the simpler NIBS exercises, I might have been better using a format I'd normally use in school as a step-by-step to story writing.

The students seemed to have enjoyed themselves though, and I hope that the session will have sown a few seeds for those who'd never attempted creative writing much, or built the confidence of those who already write in their native language to try writing in English too.

And next time, I shall be more aware as a facilitator of the effect of language and culture on a creative writing session...


  1. How fascinating. A nice bit of reflection, it is always amazing to see how people weave their own experiences into what they are taught. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. My pleasure, Sarah - it's my hope that this kind of reflection might help someone else to think about how they could approach a similar event.