Literacy Stories for Global Wits: Learning English through the Literature-Language Line

By Cimarosti, Roberta | ARIEL, January-April 2015 | Go to article overview

Literacy Stories for Global Wits: Learning English through the Literature-Language Line


Cimarosti, Roberta, ARIEL


Abstract: This essay addresses the drastic and detrimental divide between language learning and literature characterizing the study of English in university programs in Italy. It sustains that it is high time for language learning to dovetail with literary studies to allow students to better comprehend and navigate through both the complex phenomenon of the spread of English in this era of globalization and the transcultural nature of English. An English course I taught to English studies undergraduates at the University of Venice Ca Foscari in Italy in 2014 exemplifies one way to approach this pedagogical turn. In examining four literacy stories by J. M. Coetzee, Ngugl wa Thiong'o, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Caryl Phillips, the course had two aims: first, to prove that English, as with any language, is formed in relation to personal identity and the context of use in its specific culture, a basic principle often implicitly denied by the widespread structuralist and generative approaches to language; second, the course sought to see the English classroom as a microcosm connected to the social and cultural dynamics of the English-speaking world at large by using stories set in ex-colonial scenarios as mirrors casting reflections that could be illuminating for learners of English as a foreign language.

Keywords: literacy, literature, English, grammar, ex-colonial world

I. Two Steps into Global English Literacy

This article describes an English language course that I taught last year to second-year undergraduates of English at the University of Venice in Italy. The course was based on literacy stories about English-learning experiences told by Anglophone postcolonial writers, consisting of brief narratives and excerpts from works of different genres, including autobiography, fiction, musical plays, and short stories. Among the works I used are J. M. Coetzee's Boyhood: Scenes of Provincial Life, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "The Headstrong Historian," and Caryl Phillips' "A Life in Ten Chapters."

The course had two different but interrelated major goals. The first was to work on language acquisition by using a functionalist approach, allowing me both to work on language as "use" and to do so through literary texts. The second goal was to introduce the English language classroom to the dynamics of today's globalized English-speaking contexts by using the ex-colonial world as a model. Both goals tackled two critical problems with English learning at the University of Venice. The first is the decontextualized and structuralist way in which English is taught using pre-packaged course books for international students as well as specialized courses including phonetics based on Received Pronounciation (RP), generative grammar, and language variation--in the twofold form of "varieties of English" and of "varieties of text types." The textbooks and courses are based on approaches that ignore or reject the idea that language is not only normative but also "emergent" (Canagarajah, Translingual 68), because if on the one hand it is a fixed system of norms, on the other it is naturally open to cultural and linguistic connections that affect its structures, making these negotiable and changeable. The artificial divide between grammar rules and pragmatics--Standard English and its varieties--becomes more porous and theoretically unsustainable when one studies English in its contemporary international use across languages and cultures (Canagarajah, Multilingual 6-9). The second problem I wanted to tackle is the increasingly significant divide between language and literature that characterizes the study of English in Italy, despite the fact that they appear on the same curriculum and same degree in foreign languages and literatures. Students generally feel that this division is unnatural, especially as language courses resort to the technicalities of linguistics in order to emphasize the "scientific" study of the language, while literary courses do not seem to fully consider the linguistic aspects of the texts they present. …

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