In the past 30 years the forces of globalization have enhanced and accelerated cultural interactions throughout the world. Modern transportation, economic development, political challenges, internet technologies have eased the ways of developing and acquiring intercultural communicative competence in many educational institutions around the world. It is especially important for locations that have long been isolated from collaboration and communication with other cultures and countries.
The project under consideration joined two countries (Russia and Britain), two towns (York and Ulan-Ude ), three cultures (Russian, British, Buryat) and a number of enthusiastic teachers and students from both sides. International students’ project “Shakespeare’s Themes and Conflicts in Russian and Buryat literature” was targeted at several important objectives:
- Increase literary, linguistic, factual and cultural knowledge about the themes and conflicts approached by the project;
- Acquire intercultural communicative competence by way of establishing personal relationships with speech partners, increasing awareness of target culture and one’s own culture, developing awareness of different cultural meanings and connotations of words and concepts in the three cultures;
- Improve language awareness and develop linguistic accuracy and fluency in English through task-based learning and project based- learning approaches;
- Analyze British, Russian and Buryat literature through lenses of archetypal literary criticism;
- Establish long-standing connections between York and Buryat State universities.
2. Preparatory stage/telecollaboration
The project started in Oxford with the idea of Russian and British teachers and enthusiasts about cross-cultural students’ work. The project involved undergraduate students from the Department of Educational Studies at York and from the Foreign Languages Department at Buryat State University. The initial stage of the project was telecollaboration, when the students, making an initial contact, created a group on Facebook devoted to York — Ulan-Ude project, made friends, chose partners for themselves from the “other side” and chatted.
More than that, Skype conferences were held several times so as, first, to get acquainted with each other, then, to discuss the literary issues. The students shared their responses to canonical English and Russian literary works – William Shakespeare’s King Lear and Ivan Turgenev’s King Lear of the Steppes – as well as to a series of folk stories regarding the Buryat national hero, Budamshoo. One of the tasks at this “electronic” stage was to read and analyze the sonnet of John Keats On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again. British teachers suggested that the students should do some research on J. Keats’ biography and the concept of negative capability, write a personal response to the poem talking about the imagery and feelings it evokes, and, finally, to make a creative response to the poem or to King Lear in any form imaginable (poem, story, essay, poster, collage, etc.)
As it could be expected, the creative responses were the most interesting and inciting. For example, Sayana Galsanova (BSU) created the following poem:
“The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit»
“The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit
The color of life, the darkness of its lies…
Have you ever tasted it, understood?
And then I want to read Shakespeare twice.
What for? I’m looking for the answers
This modern world is very fast to think,
I watch this evening snowflake in dances
I touch the Beauty; feel its angel’s wings
And opening his books I’m getting sad and wise
I recognize the truth, and now know its value
I feel in my heart passion burn and rise
I opened my eyes and now want to tell you…
The truth is freedom, beauty is in kindness
And justice is so difficult to reach
Try to believe that after new sunrises
You’ll find your truth, becoming wise and rich…”
From the British side, the most stimulating response was written by Charlie Provost:
“I have created a (crude) collage of photos from a recent trip to Cambodia. For me a close reading of On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again elicited feelings of hope and excitement. The key lines I had in mind were:
“When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.”
Cambodia is a country which has spent years struggling through the “old oak forest” and could be thought of as wandering in a “barren dream”. But there is so much hope there, so many dreams, Cambodia is a Phoenix, waiting to rise again”.
Thus, during the initial stage the students increased their linguistic, cultural and literary knowledge, practiced their reading and creative writing skills, improved their conversational English and increased their awareness of cultural communicative patterns of their own and their speech partners.
3. Realization of the project
The project culminated in August 2011 when the University of York students made a trip to Ulan-Ude to engage in a series of shared workshops and the final drama with their counterparts at Buryat State University.
The workshops were devoted to the above-mentioned literary works: King Lear (W. Shakespeare), King Lear of the Steppes (I. Turgenev), Cruel Century (I. Kalashnikov) and such cultural and historical issues connected with the topic as “King Lear – other perspectives” and “Archetypal characters in literature and other media”. The major theme explored during the workshops was parent-child relationships, which involved the discussion of such conflicts as vanity -sincerity, betrayal — loyalty, wealth — poverty, forgiveness — curse, fate -free will, etc. During the workshops the students were set different tasks and directed toward the following activities:
|Identifying and analyzing cultural lacunas in British, Russian and Buryat literary pieces||Writing down the words and phrases that seem unfamiliar/confusing, giving short presentations about historical, economic, medical and philosophical issues connected with the time the literary pieces were created, do some research about the writer and the country/province he was from|
|2.||Exploring Shakespeare and his English by extending spoken repertoire and experimenting with English language in different roles and dramatic contexts||Reading dramatic and prosaic excerpts out loud, using phrases from Shakespeare’s texts in non-academic communicative situation|
|Connecting Shakespeare, Turgenev and Kalashnikov’s ideas to one’s life||Creating a poster advertising the play, dramatization, answering discussion questions in small groups, writing feedback notes|
|Developing skills of translation and creative writing||Translating excerpt from Kalashnikov’s novel into Buryat and then making it into a short drama piece, writing a short response entry for the students’ newspaper on the topic “Genghis Khan and King Lear – issues of duty, fate and pride”, creating the program leaflet for the audience|
|5.||Comparing attitudes, characters, relationships in the three texts,||Discussions on culturally “rich” points in small groups with the creation of mind-maps and diagrams, choosing contemporary actors and actresses to play a character and comparing with the choice made by a British/Russian director, discussion of archetypal representations in British-Russian-Buryat folklore, literature, popular culture|
Along with the theoretical workshops the students had acting workshops and rehearsals of the performance under the guidance of the director from East Siberian Academy of Culture and Arts. The performance was named “LEARical collage” and consisted of three dramas, each 15 minutes long, based on the content of King Lear, King Lear of the Steppes and Cruel Century. The twist of the performance was that it was dramatized in different languages: English, Russian and Buryat respectively, and parts in every drama were played by students from different cultures.
The students were also given the chance to communicate with each other out-of-the classroom and out-of-the-university by exploring the republic of Buryatia with its capital city of Ulan-Ude and its multicultural heritage, taking part in traditional Russian/British/Buryat activities, games, dances and rituals.
The acting workshops, the performance and the “after-activities” helped the students bond with their British partners in terms of personal relationships, develop their language skills in out-of-the-class settings, compare the three cultures by way of expressing direct opinions and reactions and subjective unreflective exchange of cultural information and develop pragmatic competence in foreign language learning.
4. Feedback and results
The project was very useful in terms of producing both opportunities and challenges. As for the opportunities, the most important of them was the impact of having native speakers of English work on a joint project with EFL learners. It produced an intense learning environment and conditions for developing intercultural communicative competence for the students of Buryat State and York Universities. The fact that the project was multi-lingual provided some balance, so that the native English speakers could understand the challenges of their Russian counterparts when using English. The second opportunity was that during the project we observed exchanges of British and Russian teaching methods and techniquesby demonstration, which also affected students’ learning in a positive way. These sessions seemed to be valuable in the differences they illustrated between the two practices. Third, the students from both groups increased their cultural awareness – they were faced with exploring different understanding of the concepts of well-known texts and gained dramatic insights about direct, holistic, affective ways of being in the world.
Along with this, there are many challenges that emerged during the organization and the execution of the cross-cultural drama project. Some impediments that hindered effective collaboration were lack of stability in project partners, individual differences in students’ motivation, shortage of time for teacher-to-teacher sessions which would explore in more detail and discussion different approaches to teaching both a foreign language and literature. As a way of post-comments, it could have been interesting for English literature teachers to work with Russian teachers of Russian literature and a chance to explore the Russian texts more deeply with the Russian students but using English methods and vice versa.
The EFL learners, the students of the Buryat State University, noticed the improvement in their English language skills, it helped them develop personal friendships, increase their awareness of their own culture, and break stereotypes about the target culture, learn about universality of culture, develop the awareness of relativity of their own cultural beliefs and values through traditional classroom task-based learning, face-to-face contexts and out of the classroom communication with the native speakers of the English language. The students were genuinely interested and emotional about their intercultural contacts: the project provided them with the lasting excitement about newly-made friendships, the interest in being exposed to the different methods of teaching and creative tasks they were set, the concluding performance which involved not only language skills but many other, and the trip to Baikal, where the students learned in the activities that were less controllable than the classroom and thus provided the learners with invaluable and compelling opportunities for intercultural exchange.
5. Future directions
The project has shown to hold a great potential for the development of intercultural competence and a powerful tool for putting the principles of intercultural learning into practice. Though we need to avoid unfounded expectations that it had magical transformative effects on students’ linguistic skills and their cultural awareness, we cannot argue that the cross-cultural project with the non-official title “King Lear in Siberia” has had definite beneficial outcomes, took several important developments and inspired continuative collaboration and research in Russian and British academia.
O’Dowd, Robert. (2012) ‘Intercultural Communicative competence through telecollaboration’, in J. Jackson (ed.)The Routledge Handbook of Language and Intercultural Communication, New York: Routledge, pp. 340-56.
 Ulan-Ude is the city in Eastern Siberia, Russia. It is a capital of Buryatia republic, which is home to many cultures and the deepest fresh lake in the world, Baikal. Buryatia, federal subject of Russia, got its name thanks to the indigenous population, Buryats, the largest aboriginal group in Siberia, sharing many traditions with Mongols.