February 1, 2007

It was Stephen Krashen who pointed out the importance of exposure in the context of second language acquisition-learning. We remember some of our grandparents who studied under the Thomasites and we marvel at their English proficiency given that some of them did not even finish tertiary education due to the economic and social disruptions brought by the war. We need not wonder because of the fact that they had Americans, native speakers of the language, as teachers. Needless to say, they had some sort of an edge, learning the grammar and acquiring the nuances of the language directly from its owners.

This brings me to my topic. Since poetry is language to the nth power, I think it can be used as material in L2/L3 learning. With poetry, we do not only get to examine syntax and semantics, we also get the ‘feel’ of the language. And since literature is culture, it also becomes a chance for us to take a peek inside the language’s culture base by means of its poetics. Also, poetry like music is meant to be heard and by reciting the material, we get to practice our diction.

I am of course, presupposing that we will be using English and/or American poems. Studying works by Filipino authors will showcase to some extent our brand of English. It is quite an issue really. Postcolonial theorists say that we have many englishes. Even that the so-called ‘colonial project’ appeals to structuralism by means of an imposition of the construct of the colonizer to the colony. Only to encounter ‘difference’, a junction that somewhat becomes a source of power by both parties. The former maintaining the so-called ‘master narrative’ and by means of political subjugation, make themselves ‘poster boys and girls’ of how to become better humans; while the latter would resort to calling them names like ‘malungsing bangus’ or ‘coño’.

It was National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario who narrated to us a story about a Spanish friar who gave his all to write Tagalog verses. The Spaniard presented his work to a native expert and got the reply: “Mahusay datapwa’t hindi tula.” I wonder if that priest still pursued his ambition of becoming a makata after such criticism.

Cirilo F. Bautista also wrote about the problems of Filipino poets in the US. They are sort of being discriminated upon despite their mastery of the English language and the craft of poetry. It is more than the language and the craft, it is a cultural issue, he would say. Or maybe again, it is all about politics.

Discussing poetry in an L2/L3 class also has that conversational nature and the classroom setting, in essence, is a dialogue between the teacher and the students. Thus we can also say that it has a sociolinguistic facet. Courtney B. Cazden says that any social institution can be considered a “communication system” by virtue of its existence. Michel Foucault would say that we all are designed to enter into discourse thus the necessity for language.

In the academe it is said that language has three general features and functions: 1. Language transmits curriculum, 2.) Language communicates control and 3.) Language reflects personal identity. The first emphasizes that spoken language is the primary medium of instruction and demonstration of learning in the classroom. It also initiates, monitors, adjusts and evaluates cognitive processes. The second pertains to discourse formation and to some extent displays a form of power relation. The classroom here is like a miniature of the social order initiated by institutions like the government (like the teacher) towards its citizenry (the students). The third speaks of language as somewhat demonstrative of the Self as it converses with an ‘alien’ Other. Thus in a class, there are so many dialogues from various selves and others happening at the same time.

Language as primary classroom commodity almost always comes in question form, an initiation (from the teacher) eliciting response from the students. The answers would then be evaluated by the teacher. Thus we have the IRE model.

This somewhat mechanical discourse is critiqued by Joseph Lukinsky, saying that “a student who can provide an acceptable answer has not necessarily mastered the learning—he or she has merely mastered the structure.” Therefore this system caters to lower cognitive processes. Brophy and Good assert that the focus should not be on the questioning process but toward the learning. Cazden suggests that we prolong wait time to make sure that there is student participation. For his part, JT Dillon encourages student initiated questions.

Now looking at it, the classroom discussion model of student-teacher and student-student dialectics may not be a novel idea at all. It is already a natural tendency for us and can be observed in non-formal social interactions like that among group of friends. Thus the classroom setting should aim to simulate this atmosphere in order to effect productive classroom discourse.

Now let us go back to the use of poems in L2 classes. The art of poetry is a dialectics between the author and his milieu. There is also a dialogue between the poem/text and the reader, and likewise the reader and his/her milieu. During the era of oral poetry, bards would recite in ether in front of an audience. He would use metaphors containing images/objects familiar to his people otherwise he would not be understood and there would be no communication. After the introduction of the printing press, poets began to write in the privacy of the page and would spend creative contemplation in some place away from the crowd. But he was still influenced by the reality he was enmeshed in and most often than not, his poems would finish by themselves according to the temperament of his milieu. Thus he may not be conscious of everything about his creation, maintaining the dialectics. Same with the reader’s interrogation of the text for he too is immersed in his own reality that although related is not identical with the author’s. Consequently, the text becomes a phenomenon and he becomes partial, seeing it in a new light.

The art of poetry then becomes just a process for both poet and reader to arrive at certain realizations. And this conversational tone can be brought into the classroom setting by way of discussing a poetic text. And here, the teacher has no monopoly of knowledge and interpretation although he/she can help guide the students in approaching the text and together they can discover new meanings lurking within the layers and folds of poetic language.

-Jose Jason L. Chancoco

Sta Cruz, Naga City.



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