jump to navigation


Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
Tags: , ,

By Dr Jorge Knijnik 

“Who says this accent or this way of thinking is the cultivated one?” Paulo Freire’s inspiring words[ii] came back to my thoughts last month, as I was approached by a very kind man just after my Conference paper presentation in Canberra. His accent told me that he was not from an English speaking country. Next to the regular introductory conversation, he went straight to his point and asked: “Do your students pick on you about your accent?” When I smiled, he felt comfortable enough to tell me his experience, which was somewhat similar to my own one: he was a fresh migrant who had come at the end of last year to Australia from a Middle-East country to take up a position as a lecturer in an Australian university. After his first semester, he received the students’ feedback on his course. He said the evaluations were sound; however he was really worried as a few students criticized his “strong accent”.

The Conference was great. In addition to presenting my paper, I had listened to very thought-provoking academic sections, where I had learnt loads of new things within one of my research fields – physical education and sports history. As the Conference was held in different locations along the week, I was able to visit different parts of the Capital city, such as the Australian Institute of Sport and the War Memorial. However, I have no doubt that the most insightful moment during the Conference was my short talk with this extraordinary man. That small conversation has opened my eyes – and my ears – to a definitely central topic in today’s education: the need for those of us involved in teaching and learning to keep our minds open and aware of the role that local cultural identities play in contemporary society and in our lives[iii].

I remember one of my favourite John Le Carre novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In his 1963 acclaimed book, the master of espionage literature tells about a British spy who spends several months in a hidden language school to polish his even now perfect German. As secret agents could not have any accent the secret service expected him to speak as a native German, and he sets about making every effort to refine his already high-level language skills. The time passes by and fifty years later, the same writer tells us a different history: in A Delicate Truth, launched in 2013, John le Carre accounts for a top-secret overseas mission where the protagonist, a British public employee elevated to a secret agent condition, amuses himself by picking up his undercover partners’ nationalities  according to their accents: there are British spies involved in the clandestine operation, but there are also South-African and Welsh spies, Scottish and even Australian secret agents! 

Le Carre has seen the obvious. In the 2013 world, nobody lives inside their bubble anymore. There is a need for everyone to build tools to further communicate with people from different realms and backgrounds. That comprises a more realistic and contemporary approach to language-skills, which includes verbal conversation. The good thing for me is that I have chosen to be an educator, not a spy. Educators, unlike spies, are to enlighten people. They are to open venues for knowledge and understanding. They are to set up fire in their students’ bodies and brains – and bodies and brains travel everywhere in today’s world, including inside schools and classrooms. As has been pointed out by Reid, Collin and Singh in their most recent book[iv], having a teaching degree is currently a passport for an international career: Australia already faces an intensification of international teachers inside its schools, providing us with new exciting challenges for the way we deal with a range of different cultural identities – including the charming new accents that we listen to every day.

Youngsters and grown-ups have the right to use their linguistic configurations. It is undoubtedly important to teach, learn and be fluent in the prevailing form (Freire – cultivated pattern) and at the same time, to be democratic and accepting, to make clear that the way individuals speak can be as beautiful as the form we have come to accept as the cultivated pattern[v].

A few times I have overheard academic colleagues complaining how exhausting lecturing is. I agree: standing in front of 400 students week after week for 2 hours and trying to make your content clear and attractive is a hard and tiring task. Can you imagine doing this in a language that is not your native one? That is why I am appalled when confronted with the following situation: a migrant (like me) making all efforts to talk in a second language, and the listener making zero efforts to understand the one who is speaking – the worst scenario is when someone reacts to you with an unpleasant and arrogant response: “this is not English”.  I always keep calm as I think of Crocodile Dundee walking on New York streets without understanding anyone, and grouching that everyone there had a weird accent!

In my first language, the word “push” (“puxe”) means “pull. There are countless opportunities when I got stuck in front of a door, just pulling it as its written push on that door. Every time I see someone stuck in front of a door, pulling it when she or he should be pushing it, I laugh and say: “There is a Brazilian”. We can’t do anything. It’s just an automatic reaction. Like our accent, this is embedded in ourselves. Of course there is always room for improvement. We always have something to share and to learn – but we learn in the social experience. We learn from other people’s cultural identities. The possibilities of teaching do exist because of the learning generated in rich social experiences – as Freire says, it was learning in the social space that made human beings realize that they could teach. Social experiences include a variety of accents that challenge our listening every time we are provoked by them.

That was my conversation with my immigrant colleague in that Conference. I said to him that we need to learn to have fun with our own mistakes – including linguistic ones. However, our own presence in the lecture theatres will certainly expose our students to different ways of seeing and being in the world, perhaps inspiring them to better appreciate a diverse cultural identity – isn’t that  one of the most valuable lessons that a teacher can aspire to teach?[vi]


 Dr. Jorge Knijnik is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney . He has recently launched, with Miriam Adelman, the book Gender and Equestrian Sport  (by Springer).

[ii] Freire an interesting conversation

[iii] Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture.

[iv] Reid, Carol; Collins, Jock; Singh, Michael.  Global Teachers, Australian Perspectives: Goodbye Mr Chips, Hello Ms Banerjee, 2013.

[v] Freire an interesting conversation

[vi] With special thanks to Dr. Jacqui Duarte for providing insightful ideas to this article


1. Steve Wilson - September 30, 2013

Jorge, I really like your comments here. I think it is wonderful and very important that UWS has appointed outstanding academics from around the world, including ones such as you in the School of Education. It is so important for our student teachers to be exposed to global ideas and cultures if they are to be effective 21st century teachers. Being exposed to different, and even challenging, accents is part of this education. It is the same for those young people in our schools, and hopefully our graduate teachers will contribute to their capacities to embrace cultural diversity. Keep up the good work, and keep explaining to our teachers of tomorrow the need to be positive about, and respectful and welcoming of, different cultures and ways of talking.

2. Jorge Knijnik - October 3, 2013

Hi Steve. You’re totally right, just in our hall at the Bankstown campus we get used to hear different accents and a great diversity of languages and cultures – it’s really an amazing experience to be immersed in such a rich and at the same time challenging universe. Good to see you here!

3. Sandra Aliberti - October 23, 2014

Hi Jorge !! It is always a pleasure to read your comments ! I always get stuck in front of the doors …next time I will laugh and think of your wise and pleasant words !!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: