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Authenticity and the Single Story in World Language Teaching

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives a moving TedTalk titled "The Danger of a Single Story." She discusses how we are often presented with one common narrative about a group of people. Her earliest example of this relates to the stories she read and subsequently wrote based on the Anglo characters and experiences she saw represented in the literature available to her. When she discovered authors like her, and connected with experiences like her own, she realized that her voice also belonged in literature and her experience was also valid and valuable.

Like the title of her talk implies, there is danger in limiting our students' interaction with content sources to the dominant "single story." So many of the resources we have easy access to bleach the rich variety of cultural experiences that exist in the languages we teach. Further, our own conception of what experiences and voices are of value in our own communities can limit how we value student voice and how we design work that helps students connect their lives to the lives of those we study. For example, in the Americas, literature, media, and film tend to center White voices and experiences of Whites within systems built on White supremacy. The contemporary and historical perspectives and experiences of BIPOC are rarely represented, or are falsely represented through a White lens. In that context, the materials we make available for study often fail to honor the voices of students of color, both in the target language and in the native language. As I discussed in this post on Antiracism, teachers who are part of the dominant group may lack knowledge of minority experiences as a result of their lack of representation in media and hegemonic institutions.

So as we talk about authenticity as a design quality that affects engagement, we must ask ourselves if the (hi)stories we tell are authentic to the experiences of our students, but also if they are authentic to the diversity of experiences in the target culture. For example, the first time I taught about the Garifuna people of Honduras (descended from an alliance between African and Indigenous people trying to protect themselves from colonizers), a Black student in my class shared the connection that her mother's family were part of the Gullah community along the coasts of GA, SC, and FL and how the histories and traditions of the two groups shared many similarities. That was the first time I learned of the Gullah people and I am a college educated, advanced-degree-holding honors graduate of GA public schools. By sharing the "story" of the Garifuna, I built a personal connection specifically with that student, but also a connection for all of my students between the shared history of the coastal Southern US and Central America. This connection anchors students to history, geography, music, dance, and food in ways that are both engaging and compelling, not to mention novel for students like me who had never heard this story of our own people. Likewise, by giving voice to communities like their own, I have affirmed my students' voices and helped their peers to appreciate their value.

How does the work you design affirm the stories of your students, and the diversity of experiences to be found in the target culture? Are the sources you select authentic - meaning they are created by someone who is a member of the target audience, and not just about the target audience? Do you make room for your students to give voice to their own connections and experiences related to the language and culture of study?

In Adichie's talk, she says, "Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity." Teachers have a tremendous opportunity to empower students and help them see the humanity in their peers and in their subjects of study. We have a duty to honor the authentic voices and experiences of underrepresented stories and to present them with dignity.

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