How do we communicate?

After interacting with a group of children at a SOLE  in India via Skype yesterday, I couldn’t help but reflect on the different ways communication can take place. A conversation with Chetan, Akansha, Pravin and the others could have been doomed by the potential obstacles…

  • I had never met this group and it was the first time they interacted with a ‘foreigner’.
  • Our backgrounds are as different as you could possibly imagine.
  • We don’t speak the same language.I know 5 words of Hindi and no Marathi. Their English is very limited.
  • Although we had video, the sound wasn’t working. They could occasionally hear me. I couldn’t hear them at all.
Here’s what we achieved…
  • We communicated for almost an hour by text, hand gestures and smiles.
  • I learned some Hindi words (see above!)
  • I shared pictures of animals and they saw a kangaroo for the first time.
  • They told me their ages and how many people in their families.
  • They asked about my children and I showed them a photo.
  • I learned where Mahbalshour is and next time I will show them Australia on the map.
  • We made faces and laughed.
I love the paradox of being able to use modern communication technology like Skype to interact with people anywhere, but then having to resort to the most basic forms of communication like hand gestures and making faces!
Here’s what I learned from some of my other SOLE experiences:

Mutual learning…

Summer holidays are over in Hyderabad and yesterday was my first Skype session in some time, with the kids at Madina Creative School.

There were about a dozen 10 year olds, half of whom were familiar from the earlier experimental sessions before the summer and the rest were new faces. I blogged here and here and here about my earlier experiences and what I’d learned from them. This time I went in unprepared and with no expectations. I wasn’t even sure whether there would be kids online since it’s their first week back at school.  Fortunately there was power and a connection and sound  and video. Often these are not things things that can be taken for granted! I felt more confident this time than in my first few sessions in February/March, when I didn’t know what to expect and nothing I prepared seemed to work. I chatted recently on Skype with one of the other mediators who has more experience and she reassured me that I was on the right track.

These are kids with limited English and no exposure to people of other cultures in other countries. They chatter all at once, sometimes in their own language. They don’t always understand when I ask them something and I can’t tell if it’s the language or the content that’s the issue. But they can smile and I can smile. They can make faces and I can make faces. They are as excited to interact with me as I am with them. Already we have a connection! (In a previous post, I wrote about turning the cultural iceberg upside down … )

Calling each child by name and speaking to each one individually makes a huge difference, for a start. There was Saba with the cheeky expression, vying to be in front of the computer, Nusrath and Rehana eager to have their turns to talk,  Moshim a little naughty, making faces close to the webcam , Mainaaz who’s   new and a bit overwhelmed, Saniya peeping from the back at this strange foreign lady (me!). I tried to ask what they had done in their holidays, but they didn’t seem to understand. I fared better with my questions about their first  days in Class 6. They told me they had classes in English, Maths, Science and Social Studies. They said they liked to draw and had drawn maps of India that day. In English they ‘learnt hard words’. Most of this was conveyed without any full sentences. Just a word or phrase, sometimes they typed something…  and I put the pieces together.

The highlight was when I folded a piece of paper concertina style and cut out a string of paper dolls, especially when I labeled them Saba, Rhenana, Moshin…

They said they would bring scissors and paper next time so I can show them how to make them too.

I know I get as much out of it as the kids do.  So much to learn!


Below the tip of the iceberg…

Culture is often compared to an iceberg which has both visible  and invisible  parts. The tip of the iceberg represents the elements of culture which we can see, such as food, language and customs. Those elements which are less obvious, such as values, beliefs and world view, comprise the much larger portion of the iceberg underwater. We discussed this model recently when planning a Year 4 unit of inquiry on understanding other cultures.

In Desiree’s class,  students classified their questions about other cultures into ‘above and below’ the tip of the iceberg. They were surprised to discover that all their early questions related to the tip of the iceberg, but have gradually developed an understanding that there’s more to culture than the 3 F’s. (food, flags and festivals!)

To further support their learning, they have opportunities to interact with people of other cultures. Raj, his son Aditya and a colleague Deepali chatted with them and answered their questions live from Chennai, India via Skype last week. Next week they will Skype with Corinne in Japan. Another class will engage with students in New Zealand, some of whom are Maori and Pacific Islanders. (Remember the days when you could only learn about other cultures from books?)

After the session with Raj, students explored some differences and similarities. While Hindu beliefs and customs and the way of life in Chennai are very different from theirs, they found plenty of commonalities. We too have a festival of lights, we too eat traditional foods at festivals, we too have an interest in sport and in particular they could identify with the relationship between father and son!

I was reminded of a presentation by Ruth Van Reken at the IBAP conference. In her talk on inter-cultural understanding, she  suggested adding a third level to the iceberg, the qualities that make us human. She further suggested turning the model upside down. By starting with the human qualities, finding what we have in common, we can more easily relate to and connect with people of different cultures.

Rather than focusing only on the tip of the iceberg, we need to make this kind of understanding our goal in teaching and learning about other cultures!