Cultural drama lost in translation

21st November 1997 at 00:00
I teach at a predominantly white, Church of England girls' school in West Sussex. My attitude towards multicultural education was challenged recently when faced with a situation in my present Year 10 GCSE drama group.

Two members of my class are from Bangladesh. Their knowledge of English is limited, but they are literate and converse freely in Bengali. During their first performance project, I discovered that trying to apply the criteria for assessment was a disadvantage to them, as their patterns of speech conform to different standards of pronunciation, pace, pitch and inflection. The concentration on the English language was inhibiting their emotions and freedom of expression.

I experimented with improvisation and told the girls to create a devised drama in their own language, based on a situation that was relevant within their cultural rules and mores. I was convinced that they would be more comfortable to concentrate on the aspects of drama; those of emotion, expression, concentration and confidence.

The girls worked hard and their performance was spellbinding. The audience could easily follow the story through the actions, gestures, facial expressions and emotions of the girls. The language became an hypnotic complement, but the actual words were irrelevant to the drama itself.

I rang my examinations board to ask if the girls could enter their work in their native tongue, provided they supplied a translation. (Indeed, we thought of creating a parallel performance piece in English to supply that translation!) After a series of telephone discussions I was informed that there was no precedent and that they felt it was not acceptable. They did invite me to pursue it in writing, but warned me that it would be difficult.

It is evident to me that this is an excellent opportunity to promote better racial understanding through drama.

In this case, the girls' classmates regarded them more highly after their successful performance. Previous performances had been less successful because the girls had been inhibited, inaudible and stumbled over the English words.

Additionally, the performance had a positive effect because British children were able to see, in context, the gestures which are so frequently mimicked by those less sensitive or experienced students.

I feel that this is an important issue to pursue. I am, after all, expected to assess their dramatic work, not their literary talent. With so much that still needs to be done to support racial harmony I don't think that a bilingual project should be dismissed out of hand. I would be interested to hear about the experiences of teachers in more racially integrated areas.

MAGGIE HANNAN

171 Brighton Road

Lancing

West Sussex

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