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Celebrating the Linguistic Self

In Language Magazine's July 2021 issue, Olivia Halsall empowers English learners through poetry

Last spring, as the pandemic raged on outside my student dorm, I found myself mentally chained to the desk where I would now have to undertake fieldwork for my master’s degree in second-language education at the University of Cambridge. Determined to craft a dissertation that would offer meaning and impact, no matter how small, I set out to brainstorm the core challenges associated with the only subset of education I was familiar with at the time— tutoring Chinese students to gain admission into independent English schools.

Scrolling through my old resources, which comprised hundreds of past papers assessing vocabulary, reading comprehensions, and verbal and nonverbal reasoning (all of which I found could be rote learned), I felt disheartened. I wondered how such exams could have prepared my students for an English curriculum that centers around critical thinking, independence, and creativity.

Having helped numerous Chinese students toward successful admission at English schools prior to my postgraduate studies, I was intrigued as to how they were faring in an all-English environment so far from home both culturally and linguistically. I needed a project that would elicit sentiments of the linguistic and cultural self through a creative, artistic means—the former to explore how they might have adjusted to school in England, and the latter to offer my former students a creative project for fun amid the trials and tribulations of the pandemic.

And so, the idea of an ESL poetry workshop was born. Poetry has had a long and illustrious influence on society, dating to prehistoric times, when it was sung or recited as a means of oral history. A piece of literature may be considered a poem if it emphasizes musical qualities of language, condenses language, and features intense feelings and/or emotions. Harnessed as a tool, poetry can challenge convention and empower individuals. And yet it is not only the aesthetics of how language is presented in a poem but the sociocultural significance behind the language chosen by the author that is intriguing.

With English (ESL) at the center, interpretations of poetry can reveal deep feelings toward the world’s lingua franca. Today, the ability to speak English is considered a means of accumulating linguistic capital, since it possesses the highest linguistic utility and is not only a tool for social inclusion but a conduit for social as well as economic advancement.

The workshop, from which all poems and their follow-up interviews made up the data for my dissertation, took place over four weeks, on Zoom. In the first week, I taught the “Five Senses” poem, for which students had to loosely follow a template and write two poems depicting the five strongest senses they associate with China and then with England. In the second week, I taught the “Hero” poem, for which students again loosely followed a template to write two poems, one about an English-speaking friend and one about a Chinese-speaking friend. In the third week, I taught the “I Am” and then the “Me at 25” poems, which were encouraged to be free verse, authentic, and true, thereby requiring deep reflection. In the fourth and final week, students presented their poems to one another and I interviewed them about the workshop as a whole. The following is a selection of two “Five Senses” poems.

China is fiery red.
It tastes like a mixture of salt and spice;
It sounds like the roar of unity;
It looks like a phoenix ready to soar;
When the power of it bursts,
I feel proud of being part of it.

England is a blue sea, deep and mysterious,
It smells like refreshing grass in the gardens
It tastes like school meals
It sounds like the church bell
It feels like the chilly wind pierced in my skin
It looks like a kind gentleman.
When the weather didn’t change for a whole day,
I feel bewildered.

For students whose L1 is not English, the integration of ESL poetry into the curriculum or as a workshop prior to commencing and then integrated throughout their academic journey could provide recognition and celebration of their linguistic identity. Engaging ESL learners in the construction of poetry entices the learner to gravitate toward the center of the learning process. Incorporating poetry, learning a language is depicted as an embodied and emotional experience, for which issues of identity and self-perception are at the core. International students can feel empowered by situations where they can utilize their bilingualism, particularly where the grammatical restraints are lifted and wholesome creative expression without fault is advocated.

It was interesting to notice how students integrated Chinese Mandarin into their “Five Senses” and “Hero” poems. When quizzed about this, they said, “[My L1] is easier to have fun with… you can make jokes because you can interpret the pronunciation of words different and it’s funny… you can’t do that in English.” In addition, the process itself of constructing the series of poems highlighted to my students their linguistic advantage. One student said, “When writing this poem, I felt proud to be able to speak English and experience another culture when many Chinese back home wouldn’t get this experience.”

As the world globalizes and interconnects, individuals who migrate bring with them lived experiences; presenting these experiences through a creative medium such as poetry has potential to emotionally yet constructively engage readers in appreciating, if not understanding, others’ experiences. For Chinese adolescents, such a poetry workshop may help to conceptualize, place, and understand their linguistic identity, resulting in better engagement with their environment and more confidence in their linguistic abilities.

Olivia Halsall ([email protected]) | Olivia recently completed her master’s degree in research in second-language education from the University of Cambridge, UK. A trilingual speaker of English, French, and Chinese Mandarin, she is the founder of OLEA Education Ltd., an innovative education venture that seeks to simultaneously enhance students’ English writing and 21st-century skills through the use of OLEA’s Box.

Olivia encourages ESL poetry and creative writing enthusiasts to reach out to her directly with e-introductions.

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