All Posts By

Rachael Barham

Language Learning and Community Engagement

By Faculty Blog No Comments

During the study abroad programs in South East Asia and Europe, our students here at SSU interact with linguistic and cultural communities vastly different from their own. They have opportunities to learn and practice foreign languages, which can sometimes be fun, and sometimes trigger the performance anxiety that many of us have experienced in similar situations. When we are learning to speak a foreign language, we often feel catapulted back into childhood, as we forego mastery of our mother tongue, and instead find ourselves stumbling for words and feeling a little foolish. But if we focus too hard on trying to “get it right” or judge ourselves for “getting it wrong” we often miss the beautiful, living exchange that is underway as we attempt to communicate.

In fact, grasping the idea of language as a mutual exchange can really alleviate potential performance anxiety around language learning. It is also an idea that I think is worth exploring as a metaphor for the kind of attitudes with which we can approach the developing Community Engagement aspect of our academic program.

So what exactly does it mean for language to be a mutual exchange?

In a TedX talk about hacking language learning, linguist Dr Conor Quinn emphasizes that “we make meaning together” and that we therefore need to “[learn] to lean on the other person’s full and complete knowledge of the language and even more on their willingness to help [us] make this conversation happen.” Indeed, among the characteristics of human language that are commonly agreed upon as distinct in comparison to animal communication, one is that of Joint Attention.

“Meat from a Cow”

While some animals, especially apes, demonstrate certain elements of joint attention (such as looking at the same thing and even being aware of looking at the same thing), they don’t appear to cooperate in the complicated way that humans can. In the communicative act, humans demonstrate remarkable shared intentionality as they work together as a team, needing to “read each other’s minds” in order to identify another’s goals, and thus be able to help them achieve those goals.

So when, in Barcelona as a leader on the 2017 Europe study abroad program, I used my limited Spanish to try to ask for ground beef in a supermarket – “Meat from a cow. Very small. Like a hamburger but not together!“ – the woman behind the meat counter really gave this communicative event her full attention, and after much laughter and many hand gestures, she ended up figuring it out and grinding me up some steak! From my “imperfect” effort at communication, and with her willing cooperation, I gained a linguistic success, the ability to make taco salad, and a special experience of human connection.

It is an incredible part of being human that we are constantly employing such complicated forms of teamwork to communicate with each other, whether in our own language or a foreign one. Though we’re aware that it is debatable whether we always truly understand each other, we nevertheless do often manage to arrive at shared meaning, and even get some things done together!

“The Mutuality of Language Can Teach Us”

As a metaphor for the way we approach Community Engagement as a university, the mutuality of language can teach us some important things. In our discussions as faculty about Community Engagement we have regularly mentioned the importance of mutuality in student opportunities to engage with the wider community. We and many of our students desire to serve our town and region in positive ways and not be stuck in an “ivory tower,” but we are also very aware of not wanting to pretend to be the saviours or to have all the answers. We hope that Community Engagement will have a component of mutuality at its core, where our students are useful and make real contributions, and are also consciously aware of being learners, approaching the whole enterprise with a good deal of humility, so that both parties in any interaction come away with benefit, learning, and connection.

To return to Dr Quinn’s words, “we make meaning together” and this involves “learning to lean on the other person’s full and complete knowledge of the language and even more on their willingness to help you make this conversation happen.”  Community partners will in some senses speak a language that our students do not yet know – the language of, for example, a particular industry, company, or not-for-profit. I hope that our Community Engagement program can prepare students to enter any situation with an awareness that different “languages” are being spoken and learned; with a clear understanding of mutual goals and shared intentionality; and with skills for dialogue and mutual exchange. Ideally, both sides of any partnership will know that they can lean on the other’s knowledge, and on their common willingness to make this conversation – this exchange, this project – happen. (And hopefully they will also have some fun in the process!)

Rachael Barham


For more on St. Stephen’s University’s active role in community engagement, check out these opportunities:

SSU Community Engagement Scholarship

Community Appreciation Campaign

BioSpiritual Focusing

By Further Up and Further In, School of Contemplation No Comments

Biospiritual focusing is a practice that has some similarities to the Welcoming Prayer in that it encourages noticing and embracing emotions and bodily sensations. An element that Biospiritual Focusing adds, however, and which not all body-centred practices emphasize, is focusing on emotions or sensations in the body not only to let them be, and in order to “be with them” compassionately – which are also very important elements! – but also, through that compassionate presence, to listen to the unheard story that the body is trying to tell us. It could therefore be called a WISDOM body practice, as it seeks to listen to and learn from what we feel or sense, which can then lead to greater INTEGRATION within us as we listen to that unheard story.

Focusing as a therapeutic practice originated from the research and insight of Dr. Eugene Gendlin in the 60s, who, in collaboration with Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago, was interested in why some people benefit from psychotherapy and some do not.  He found that he and his students could predict from the first sessions which clients would experience success (change, breakthrough etc.) in the end, based not on the therapist but on the behaviour of the clients themselves. So what exactly were the “successful” clients doing? They paused more often. They might stop in the middle of a sentence to sense what they had said or to sit with some uncertainty. They seemed willing to deal with unclear aspects of their experience. They were listening to or sensing some totality of their inner experience that was vague and difficult to describe, and allowing more insight and clarity about it to emerge. These ideas led to a therapeutic technique called Focusing in which the therapist helped the client “focus” on a vague sensation they became aware of, giving it attention and respect, and as they did allowing the inner experience to become clearer and a space to open up for new insights and unexpected possibilities. In the end the “felt sense” of the situation often changed and that change felt good. The shift in their bodily-felt experience often led to changes in behavior that were sustainable.

Then, in the early 1970’s, Dr. Peter A. Campbell and Dr. Edwin M. McMahon – who were Jesuit priests and psychologists of religion – began to explore the link between Focusing and spirituality. Body meaning or knowing, they felt, comes as a spontaneous gift or surprise. It is not a by-product of logic and reason and cannot be predicted or controlled. They felt there was a transcendent or “graced” quality to meaning in the body. So Drs. McMahon and Campbell worked with Gendlin to widen Focusing to emphasize this gift dimension, linking the mind-knowing of our information-based culture with spirit-based wisdom, and this is how BioSpiritual Focusing was born.

The metaphor of a phone ringing can be a helpful one here to understand Biospiritual Focusing (BSF). When the phone rings it is not ringing to disturb me, but rather because there is someone on the other end with a message for me. Feelings, emotions, and physical sensations are like the phone ringing; they can feel like disturbances that make us feel bad or “too much,” or disrupt our efficiency and comfort in life! But they are there for a reason and they tell a story – perhaps a pretty immediate story of, say, tension stored in the shoulders from driving for a day, but also maybe an older story with chains of felt meaning that can unfold if we will listen, like intense anxiety that gets triggered by a particular circumstance. When the telephone rings, you don’t necessarily know yet who or what is on the other end of the line; you still have to lift the receiver (or, these days, press the little green button!) to discover that. This illustrates the importance in BSF of being able to notice and focus on VAGUE sensations as well as ones that are more easily recognized and identified. Just because I don’t know what this sensation is about, doesn’t mean there’s no point being with it; in fact, we could even say that those vague feelings or sensations are the most important to listen to, as they represent the tip of an iceberg that we haven’t yet seen the rest of. But that tip is a doorway or a pathway inward if we will follow it, by moving INTO and THROUGH our feelings, emotions and physical sensations rather than away from them, until we become aware of a deeper “felt sense” of something.

In the process of BSF, creating an inner atmosphere of compassion is vital – giving loving, caring attention to parts of ourselves with a “felt sense” of “something more.” Through this practice we experience first-hand the truth that ignoring or judging always hardens and tightens things inside us (although these are go-to responses for most of us!), whereas compassion towards ourselves and “all our parts” softens and loosens things, allowing a felt shift, change, and evolution to occur. A phrase that is often used to describe this posture and reality in BSF is “Notice and Nurture.” As we notice and nurture something, we are learning to speak/ understand the language of the body, when we are mostly so fluent only in the language of our rational minds, allowing communication and meaning to unfold in new or different ways. Can we describe a physical sensation, for example, in terms of shape, texture, colour and so on? Do symbols or images come to mind from we know not where? Perhaps a memory will spring up, or words that resonate somehow with what we are sensing. All of these are examples of how meaning can unfold when noticing and nurturing a sensation in the body and letting its story be told.

In the practice of BSF, whether alone or often with the compassionate support of a companion, there is often a sense of grace, of being led somewhere by Love that is good, that is healing, that is more truly, deeply, wholly “me.” Another surprising gift of the practice can be a growing sense of my connection to oneself, to Love /God, to the Bigger Whole, as a different relationship is developed with the body, what it is and what it knows.

BSF Check in card

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