Stating the obvious – language as a tool of communication

Yes it might sound rather too obvious to write about, but often language isn’t quite as hard and definite as we might think.  How often have you left a business meeting or a discussion with friends or family, only later to wonder whether you have interpreted what was said correctly or encountered a creeping feeling that you, or they, have been misunderstood?

It’s just this kind of area that, my Finnish colleague, Pasi Kirkkopelto, and I are pitching into with the photographic project we are running between our art classes in Finland and the Netherlands.

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Photograph by Suzanne Jongmans

A couple of weeks ago I had my fourth year classes (aged 14-15) write short 200-250 word descriptions of an image from a set of photographic portraits made my Dutch photographers.  My pupils approached it in a quite nonchalant way, of course they could describe a portrait in such a short text. Even after completing the task they were quite confident of the quality of the description that they had produced. To them, working in small groups as they were, they had the feeling that they had produced a ‘bullet-proof’ description. They’d covered everything, it was clear, they had considered everything. I’m guessing that in Finland there was a similar feeling, maybe the Scandinavian counterparts were slightly less confident with their use of English than my bilingual Dutch pupils, but I suspect there was a comparable feeling of having covered all the necessary detail.

We subsequently swapped the descriptive texts over, without passing on the actual photographs to the pupils. The task that followed was then to produce a photograph of their own that was based on the text.  A direct copy was never likely to be the result, our aim and hope as teachers, was for a set of technically well made photographs, that had an interesting and engaging relationship with the original source image.

In this situation, the use of language is very much as a filter. In 250 words, a certain amount of information can be passed, but a very long way from the text covering every last detail. With the new descriptions in their hands my pupils soon started to discover for themselves the limitations of language and how it can fail to be an accurate and precise tool of communication.

Before they even picked up a camera for themselves I had them work on a simple composition sketch of the photograph to work out for themselves how the various elements fitted together. In no time there were puzzled faces, not because the English was poor, it was just that their interpretation of the text just didn’t quite seem to add up. I haven’t spoken to Pasi in Finland about his experiences with my pupils’ descriptions yet, but my guess is that he’ll have encountered comparable puzzles.

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For our art project this is an interesting way of diverting away from just making a reconstruction of an existing photograph. But there is also perhaps a more serious and important language issue at a stake here. Language is not as concrete as we might like it to be. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations continually interrupt and effect everyday life. Problems can of course arise when language is used by someone who does not yet have a full mastery of it. But equally difficult is when someone’s use of language is overly (and maybe unnecessarily complex) leading to problems of interpretation for others.  I read an article about just this point recently highlighting the problems of over complexity among native speakers of English in a university setting.

Native Speakers….always the right choice?

The message seems to be, keep it clear, keep it concise. But I would also say, in terms of expressive and descriptive content, overly basic use of language comes with its own set of risks!

Photography and posters on teenagers’ bedroom walls

This may turn out to be just an initial post on this subject as I am just starting a photography project that I’ve been working on together with Pasi, an art teacher colleague in Finland. It will hopefully throw up some interesting work and stories to tell over the weeks ahead. The two of us have been working hard over the last couple of months creating an engaging series of assignments and collaborations that will hopefully culminate in some sort of online exhibition.

That though is all for the weeks ahead, yesterday was for me at least, just the introduction lesson, aimed at framing up the context of the weeks ahead. I gave an introduction presentation to two classes with a total of about forty-five pupils. During the lesson we talked about the place of photography in our daily lives in 2016.

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It’s no secret to say that teenagers (a society as a whole) are taking more photographs than any generation before, but I wanted to talk in more depth about the place and importance these photographs have , why we take them, what we do with them and what they say about us. We talked about the selfie-culture, school photos, holiday photograph albums, wedding photos on the mantle-piece at home and photographs of the children of the family on the bookcase. We also considered the places and ways we store/organize our photographs nowadays. It was an interesting and enjoyable discussion with both classes. However, in the last twenty minutes of the lesson, I broadened the discussion out a little bit into other areas where we find and collect photographs. Having two teenage children I knew that we also had to talk about the bedroom wall at home.

I moved the discussion onto the photographic images, firstly of musicians and performers and then sports stars, thinking in both cases we would be able to talk about this genre of photographic imagery in poster format on bedroom walls.

It was at this point I made a surprising discovery, of my forty-five pupils just two had pictures of any form of ‘hero’ on their bedroom wall! So much for my view that the bedroom wall was the bastion of self expression and identity, a place where you could mark out who your heroes are and freely associate yourself with them.

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This seems, alright within my relatively small sample, simply not to be the case. ‘What do you have on your bedroom walls?’ I asked, ‘my tv’ came the answer back! I shared an image that I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager, a huge poster of Beatrice Dalle from the Jean-Jacques Beineix film Betty Blue. A film that made a strong impression on me as an eighteen year old.

I have to admit to feeling pretty curious as to why this is. Do my pupils simply have no heroes? My own children seem to have them, my daughter is constantly changing the pictures on her wall. So what is it with my pupils at school. Too shy to say perhaps? Somehow I don’t think that this is the story here. I have a theory, and perhaps that tv or computer screen on the bedroom is a clue. This is a generation that has access to so much. A huge array of multiple tv channels, online entertainment in the form of games, films, Spotify and YouTube. They soak it all up, often I feel in a fairly uncontrolled and unfocused way. It’s like they experience and expose themselves to everything (or at least a whole lot) and become in doing so, fans of nothing. Ready made playlists are their music, focus and identification with a particular artist or performer seems to be occurring less. A consequence of our media saturated times perhaps? What I do know from my pupils, if I ask them about their favourite band, singer or film even, they find it difficult to express opinions that have any real focus, it is all rather generalized and vague.

I could go on to express many other opinions and theories as to why this may be, but a particular favourite I have, and I do think that it is highly relevant is the idea ‘shared experience’ being important in forming opinions in this sort of area of cultural identity. In the past pupils would talk about the film that had been on the tv the previous evening or the music programme they had all seen on tv. Discussions the following day would occur and cultural identities and preferences would slowly start to be formed. This simple sharing of experience to a large degree has been lost as young people make their own way through the media and cultural world in a more independent way.

This independence might well be a commendable and valuable thing, but there is maybe a flip side, are they becoming fans of everything and at the same time nothing?