The subject is as challenging as it is practical. What opportunities does Language Animation (LA) provide for inclusive international projects? How can methods be designed in such a way that they don’t exclude any members of a group? First came the questions, then the search for creative responses. From 15 to 17 June, international youth work and inclusion experts met at Villa Fohrde near Berlin to discuss the role of language in inclusive international youth activities and the opportunities and problems associated with LA, as well as adaptations of existing LA methods.
Imagine a circle of chairs. Each participant is given one of four coloured cards. The animator pronounces the names of the four colours in various languages. The participant whose colour is mentioned can move up one chair. If that chair is occupied, they have to sit on that person’s knees. The “sat-upon” persons have to wait until they are “liberated” again before they can move. The person who manages to complete a full round first is the winner. A great way to learn vocabulary, isn’t it?
A girl may not feel comfortable sitting on someone else’s knees because she thinks she’s too heavy. Another young participant may have a history of abuse and panics when in physical contact with someone else. Wheelchair users can’t sit on anyone’s knees and feel like they’re hindering a lively activity. It is situations like these that can make adolescents and young adults feel uncomfortable. What’s the appropriate reaction in such situations? What can be done to avoid them in the first place?
“There are two kinds of people. Those with a disability, and those who aren’t quite aware yet that they have one,” said intercultural and Social Justice coach Eike Totter in his lecture, using a direct quote from Chris Downey. Totter is a proponent of a wider interpretation of inclusion that is not limited to persons with disabilities. He held up a green sheet of plastic in front of two participants’ faces, who were then unable to see anything green that was in the room, as if it was disappeared. A good metaphor for our social perception filters. “Most coaches are educated to a high level. As university graduates they’ll have succeeded in an education system that we know is not very supportive of certain groups of young people. Do you know a transsexual? Do you have a friend who’s long-term unemployed?” Totter aims to open participants’ eyes to the many diverse levels of inclusion. The first step towards this, he said, is to become aware of one’s own prejudices and fears. Totter explains this in greater detail in a video interview with IJAB.
After Eike Totter’s lecture, Elżbieta Kosek, inclusion officer at Kreisau-Initiative e.V., and Kay Lieker, expert for international barrier-free mobility, presented their positions and approaches in regard to language and inclusive international youth work.
In the practical session, the participants tried out several LA methods in familiar settings and then analysed them as to whether they excluded certain members of the group. For instance, in the “alphabet race” participants ran back and forth to flipcharts to find a foreign-language term that started with the letter that they’d been given as fast as they can. The list of potential obstacles is long: speed and mobility, being tall enough to reach the flipchart, eyesight, fine motor skills for holding the pen, ability to spell, and creativity.
The discussion of potential obstacles also extended to more fundamental issues. The more complex and demanding a game, the more likely it is to present an obstacle. But how much assistance should be given before the whole point of the exercise – learning a language in a playful manner – is invalidated? Is it not the experience of actually overcoming the obstacles that helps young people to push their boundaries and develop more confidence? Are the obstacles not what makes an exercise worth doing in the first place?
Eike Totter has heard these objections before. But, as he puts it, it’s not a question of eliminating all the obstacles. Rather, it’s about developing an awareness of existing obstacles so that one can integrate them in the activity in question. For this reason, team leaders should always have a few variations on an exercise in their back pockets and definitely have a fallback plan ready.
A handout with examples explained how this can work in practice. If the group consists of young people with limited motor skills, ball games can be played using silk scarves, for instance. People who feel uncomfortable with physical contact can play “tag” with pieces of fabric that have to be grabbed. In small groups, the participants worked on producing a number of variations on the LA methods they had previously tried out, while avoiding or mitigating any obstacles there may be for certain target groups.
These new variations were subsequently tested and a set of guidelines drawn up for a more inclusive application of LA methods.
For instance, already at the planning stage trainers should reflect on the aims of the method and the needs of the participants and come up with some alternatives. That said, it’s just as important to include all those affected, rather than seek to eliminate the supposed obstacles at all costs. Sometimes the group is capable of doing more than it appears at first glance. This avoids paternalism and “helicoptering”. Two basic principles apply: participation in an activity has to be voluntary, and there should be an option to take on an alternative, equivalent role. Generally speaking, LA should be understood as a process by which various exercises build on each other. This allows coaches to address a variety of priorities, increase the level of difficulty of the activities, and gradually gain the trust of the participants.
The outcomes of the workshop will be documented in a brochure by the end of the year and published as part of the Innovationsforum Jugend Global series of publications.
The workshop was the result of the discussions in connection with Innovationsforum Jugend Global on ijab.de. It was held in cooperation with Villa Fohrde e.V., with support from Kreisau-Initiative e.V., totter.eu and Deutsche Sportjugend (German Sport Youth).