Why bother exploring language with young people?
And where does creativity fit into that?
By Mark Ball
Lists of the languages spoken in the class cover the walls. Maths, Geography and Art are all used to celebrate this linguistic diversity.
On the way to the staff room, past a sensory room, are shelves with dual language books and sections dedicated to breaking down Gender Stereotypes. I had the pleasure of working with every class twice in St Mary’s Primary School on Dorset Street, over a two week period with Mother Tongues’ Language Explorers’ programme. It was a beautiful experience full of learning and has hugely impacted my work as an artist. I’m grateful to the playful young people and staff at St Mary’s, as well as the experienced and passionate team at Mother Tongues.
We explored language through drama and play. In Junior Infants to 1st Class, they helped me learn how to say hello in different languages- ٱلسَّلَامُ عَلَيْكُمْ, Jambo!, 你好, Hola!- and helped a Teddy Bear friend of mine – Rosie Flower, or Freddy Teddy depending who’s asking- feel more comfortable about her differences by building a comfortable blanket fort and drawing pictures about what makes them different and great.
From 2nd to 6th class we learnt Polish and about Poland and listened to Krys’s Passport to Poland by Alison Martin (a Bilingual English and Polish piece). The following week we shared stories about what parents/family members/family friends who are older than us enjoyed when they were our age. We acted out stories in Somali of a young person’s mam’s sneaking up and scaring camels, and stories in Polish of a young person’s dad stealing cherries from a neighbour’s bush. We found out and were surprised that as children, no matter where in the world, they all played similar games and had a passion for soccer.
But, why bother exploring language with young people? And where does drama and creativity fit into that?
Language Exploration is Cultural and Creative Exploration
When I asked the young people why they think we should do multilingual workshops, the resounding answer was: to learn other languages. Or, as one young person captured beautifully, “to create language friendships”. But what about learning more about each other? Or being given the opportunity to be creative in their heritage languages?
For me this is an area for teachers and visiting artists to push further. Although we started to explore these workshops, two forty minutes will not give you the depth to the why behind it all. It’s just about learning a few words in different languages. Why are we doing it?
To make a more welcoming space? If so, ask the young people in other ways they make someone welcome. Language taps into culture and experience. We asked young people to share stories about older people in their lives and in their heritage languages. This gives young people a chance to situate their lives in comparison to the adults in their lives, and when they share what they’ve heard, to compare with the other students in the class.
What in our stories are similar, shared experiences? What different experiences do I have to you?
When trying to make equitable classrooms, or spaces, sometimes we can focus too much on affirming similarities and avoiding, or simplifying differences. If we do so, we’re not creating a space where being different, or outside of the “norm” of a classroom is respected. Creative collaboration can help with this. Through creative collaboration, or sharing stories, young people are reminded by how much their viewpoints are shaped by their experiences. Creative tasks can bring up a conflict that shows this, and gives a focus for these differences – making art. How can we work together, listen to each other, and learn from each other to say something we want to say? To capture a feeling, or idea?
In the UN Convention of Rights of the Child, a part of their developmental rights is the right to play, cultural activities, and freedom of thought. It was clear to me from the week in St Mary’s that young people should have the right to high quality multilingual art if those rights are to be met. This should be paired with their right to make multilingual art. Exploring language is not just about learning new words, spelling or grammar, it’s about how they connect and how they uniquely see the world through their differences and similarities, and how they use language in a creative way to construct and reconstruct ideas, learning about culture and their lived experiences.
Non-Verbal Play is Accessible
Young people speak and play. And learn deeply through it. There were many young people who were very new to English and found it hard to participate in the verbal aspects of my workshops. St Mary’s has a brilliant culture of support, with young people actively translating and helping their peers. However, as a facilitator, this makes it hard to develop a relationship with these individual young people. If I’m to ask young people to express themselves and participate, they have to develop a good relationship with me. I have to signal that I’m willing to play too.
A part of a warming-up to drama is a physical warm-up. In Language Explorers, this is an opportunity to learn different parts of the body in different languages. But if you add a layer of non-verbal play (playing with sound and movement), young people without English are able to participate.
“What’s an action we can do to warm up our arms? What is arms in another language?”
“Cross the circle as birds, and let’s hear the noises”
It was at these group activities of creative physical tasks where young people without English perked up, got invested, and were able to play on an equal level. A lot of them were more excited to try and communicate with me with the limited resources we had. We ended up making each other laugh and having fun with non-verbal games, developing that relationship that is key. Young people will be more keen to explore multilingual work, and drama, if they’ve had a good experience. I would also wonder how play in this case impacts their learning- we are learning a word and then embodying the word, or idea straight away through play – connecting it with knowledge and experience they already have.
Multilingual Stories: They were empowered by being the cultural expert
In the first workshop for 2nd-6th class we chatted about Poland, learned some Polish and listened to Krys’s Passport to Poland by Alison Martin, a bilingual story produced by my company Super Paua. We produced this series with a Polish focus as it is the second most spoken language in Ireland after English. This was my first time in a room with young people watching them listen to the story.
Polish speaking young people lit up when they heard and recognised phrases. All of them would look at me wide-eyed when they would hear it, and they excitedly translated for their friends. They were empowered by being the cultural expert! When asked how it felt to hear a story in their heritage language, one young person sat quietly for a really long time until stating it was “really cool”. All the young people who speak Polish had never heard a bilingual Polish/English audio story. They had never heard stories about children like them.
As an artist, and advocate for high quality art for children and young people, it was clear to me how worthwhile it is to have multilingual stories and theatre for young people. And how important it is to give space to other languages and cultures in more depth to celebrate differences. A lot of children were asking me desperately to create something similar in their heritage languages. I hope that I can use this experience and, in collaboration with young people, be able to encourage arts venues to support and work with artists who speak multiple languages to create this work that’s so desperately sought after!
The Power of the Outsider: How can an “outsider” and a host school/community benefit from a collaboration?
I leave my collaboration with Mother Tongues and St Mary’s having learnt a lot. I have a lot more questions than answers, which is the only way I would want it. I’m excited to discover more than to solidify any of this into a rigid, inflexible experience for young people.
As an artist, I am really lucky to learn so much from working in partnership with organisations and other groups of people who have different experiences to me. In one sense, I was an outsider who was very much welcomed into St Mary’s. Although I work a lot with children, I come from a different background than the teachers. I’m also a visibly queer (LGBTQI+) person – I have long hair and paint my nails. This is a difference they may not have seen in the school setting yet, and I naturally got curious questions.
Young people coming to, or moving through school may feel like outsiders for many different reasons. Having adults of all different ages, genders, who speak different languages and have different ways of approaching the world can only enhance the experiences of the young people. Having good relationships with, and seeing many different types of adults, fosters that championing of difference.
An outsider working with a class can give a teacher an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. I wonder now what a longer term collaboration with a multilingual school could bring for artists, scientists and any person who is invested in young people. It has changed how I will make theatre in the future, and has changed how I will run all my workshops. From now on I will interweave multilingual techniques, and will continue to make and support the making of high quality multilingual art. People talk about making art, and education more accessible and diverse. Focusing on pairing multilingual exploration with creativity is a specific, rich area to do this. As long as you are making space for different languages, experiences, and bringing it back to exploring the why with them.
Mark Ball is a theatre-maker, and the Engagement Director of Super Paua (www.superpaua.org). Mark has been collaborating with Mother Tongues since May 2021. He creates theatre and workshops mostly for young people and communities. With Super Paua, Mark has made a free multilingual podcast for young people aged 5-12 called Super Paua Stories/Scéalta Super Paua/Opowiadania. Mark is interested in creating arts experiences that inspire young people, draw on and celebrate their natural curiosity and creativity, and that are accessible and socially-relevant.