Teaching Through a Third Language
Creative communication in a multilingual classroom

By M. Thomas Thangaraj, D.W. and Ruth Brooks Associate Professor of World Christianity


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A research project on Asian Christians took me to Tainan Theological College and Seminary (TTCS) in Tainan, Taiwan, during my sabbatical leave (2001-02). There I was invited to teach some courses to the students at ttcs. The medium of instruction at ttcs is primarily Taiwanese with a generous use of Mandarin every now and then. Since I speak neither Taiwanese nor Mandarin, a ttcs faculty member was asked to translate in each of my courses. This was my first experience in a classroom where the students and I did not share a common language, and thus I had to depend totally on a translator to conduct my teaching. While I knew what I was saying to my students, I had no idea what they were hearing through the translators, especially when the translators were not “professional.”

This new situation somewhat limited my teaching style. I normally watch my students’ body language and facial expressions while I am speaking, both to monitor my communication as well as to be inspired by the students. Here I was receiving no signals at all from my students while I was speaking, and could only watch their reactions during the translation. Moreover, I had to pause after every two or three sentences to allow for the translation into Taiwanese. I was required to do two things at the same time—watch the students’ body language during the translation and get ready for the next two or three sentences. This meant that if I was not attentive, I could lose my own line of argument!

At TTCS, I could not expect the same level of back-and-forth discussion that I had come to take for granted in my classes here at Emory. Though we had some good discussions in class, the process of translating every sentence cut the time available for lectures in half. Another difficulty was the impossibility of organizing the course around readings since the readings I could require or recommend were all in English. I ended up giving brief English passages that they could, with great difficulty, read as preparation for class.

It was indeed a great challenge to overcome these difficulties and hope for some creative teaching. In searching for ways to make up for what I was losing due to
translation, I was led to the idea of finding a “third” language or medium for instruction that I held in common with my Taiwanese students. I discovered two such “third” languages. The objective of one of my courses, titled “Images of Christ,” was to expose students to a variety of interpretations of Christ from around the world, thus enabling them to construct their own image of Christ. Whenever I taught this course at Emory, I would assign only a couple of sessions for examining the artistic images of Christ—such as paintings and sculptures—from different parts of the world. The rest of the time we spent with written materials. In Taiwan, however, I discovered that these pictures conveyed much more to the students than my lectures, which were often poorly translated into Taiwanese. These pictures became the “third” language in
this course. I began every class with a PowerPoint presentation of pictures of Christ related to that day’s theme, thus significantly assisting their learning.

I was also invited to teach a course titled “Music in South India.” Listening to various types of South Indian music—classical, popular, and folk—and singing along became the “third” language for this course. We listened to various Indian artists sing classical and popular pieces. We began each session with the students’ singing along with me some bhajans (chants) set to South Indian classical music. We also ended each session by singing some of the exercises that a beginner in South Indian classical music would be expected to sing over and over again. By singing these exercises, the students gained a much deeper insight into the ethos of South Indian music than they would have through the lectures.

Now back at Emory, I have begun to look for a “third” language in all my classes. Surely when I offer the course on the images of Christ in World Christianity in spring 2003, there will be plenty of PowerPoint presentations with pictures of Christ from around the world. Further, the Blackboard system and other information technologies are providing a “third” language as well in my current courses. For example, I invite my students to post a brief autobiographical account to assist all in the class, including the instructor, to come to understand one another better. I find that students engage in
such an exercise more readily in cyberspace than face to face in a discussion group. The discovery of a “third” language has transformed my teaching into much more fun.