Elgazette Logo newtrans  The magazine for English language teaching and English medium education

The importance of meaningful conversation

The globalisation of English often focuses on doing business, but the language is a powerful tool for communicating across cultures and across ideologies.

Last month’s Iatefl conference in Glasgow I started my presentation using the evocative image of a campfire. I see this as a metaphor for meaningful group interaction. Whenever I engage in deep conversation with a group of people, I feel as if transported back to the roots of humanity, when the fire was the magnet bringing homo sapiens together, giving us warmth and being the bond that built communities. Whenever I see a circular formation emerging naturally out of a group of students waiting for a class to start, for example, I feel the pull of that imaginary fire.

The circular formation of the campfire also signals that everyone’s voice matters. If you’re sitting in small groups or in a horse-shoe formation in the classroom, attention can flow in different directions, and as you look around you will notice the people around you. In such classrooms the message of this layout is that learning is not just something that happens between you and the teacher with everyone competing for attention. Rather, learning becomes a communal activity.

And yet engaging in meaningful group dialogue is not without challenges. In his book The Learning Organisation, Peter Senge asks a very pertinent question: ‘How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?’ I have often encountered blocks to group intelligence in educational settings as well, and have wondered why it is that ‘bright’ individuals often seem to
lose their intelligence in the give and take of group interaction.

Some dominate the discussion, while others get worked up easily and stop listening the minute their ideas are challenged.

“Teachers of English are in a unique position to challenge such a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking ”

It seems like the nature of individual intelligence and collective intelligence is different. Quick thinkers, people who can come up with arguments easily, who are good at inferencing and other forms of logical thinking and can articulate their ideas clearly, don’t necessarily make good conversationists or discussion members. In order for the intelligence of a group to be set into motion, individual members need to move into group mode.

Of course the group will need ideas to be articulated clearly, but equally, it needs quality listening, curiosity towards each other’s views and the ability to tolerate ambiguity and opinions that are different from the ones you hold.

The other framing image for my presentation was that of two camps – facing each other with hostility. This image to me represents the polarisation that is gaining force in the world at the moment. The Americans and the Rest of the World. Muslims and Christians. Liberals and Conservatives. We are led to believe by the media – and the public discourse of many politicians – that the boundaries separating people into camps are sharp and define who we are. This is false and misleading – human beings are not defined by belonging to any one nationality, ethnic group, religion or any other ideology, though they can be manipulated to see themselves that way.

I feel teachers of English are in a unique position to challenge such a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking. English as a school subject has no specific content the way biology or literature does, so one of the main roles of language teachers is to help their learners to communicate. We are the communication experts. But the real test of whether students have mastered a foreign language is their ability to communicate, to use the language outside the classroom.

As the role of English as a lingua franca is gaining ground, the globalisation of English often focuses on the world of work and doing business successfully. But global English is much more than that. It is a powerful tool for communicating across cultures and across ideologies. The English language can become a language of building understanding and peace across political, social and ethnic divides. In order to do this, we need to master cooperative ways of interacting together through our common language. Metaphorically speaking, we need to go back to the campfire and rediscover our common humanity by engaging in meaningful conversations.

Margit Szesztay is president of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (Iatefl).
She works as a teacher trainer at the department of English Language Pedagogy at ELTE University in Budapest, Hungary.