Students Staff

13 June 2014

FLETA, Foreign Language Enhancement Through Art

Filed under: Ideas, Issue 3 — inpractice @ 1.57 pm

Beatriz De Paiva and Teresa Torres discuss how they used the University’s collection of Latin American Art to inspire their modern language students.

For full PDF version click here


 Illustration of the home page about Siron Franco


In the spring of 2013, Beatriz De Paiva and Teresa Torres (Language and Linguistics) collaborated with the university’s collection of Latin American art (ESCALA) to create an innovative project for their undergraduate students.

The aim of the TALIF funded project, ‘Foreign Language Learning Through Art’ (FLETA), was to develop Essex students’ Portuguese or Spanish language skills through the medium of art. The Essex Collection of Latin American Art (ESCALA) was at the core of the project, providing an educational resource that allowed students to learn about cultural and historic events and social issues in Latin America in the students’ target language. As the team discovered, there were benefits on both sides. Since ESCALA is the most complete public resource in the UK for art from Latin America, the project furthered the main goal of the collection; to reach as many students and scholars as possible. For the lecturers, Teresa Torres from the Spanish Department, and Beatriz de Paiva from the Portuguese Department, it was this direct contact with these works of art that created an exciting learning environment where students could use their language of study in a real context.

 “It is astounding the University has this huge and valuable asset that can be used for teaching” Steve Pegley, Student

“I think it’s really useful to have studied it, there’s a whole new vocabulary to learn along with learning about the art.” Andrea Sanderson,  Student

 “It opens up a whole other spectrum to language study.” Max Turner. Student

How the project began

The project went through several reinventions before it finally became FLETA. A year before applying for TALIF (The University’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Fund), both Teresa and Beatriz introduced the topic of Contemporary Art from Latin America into their modules. Students of Portuguese were taken on an art trail around the campus showing sculptures from Brazilian artists that are part of the collection. This was led by ESCALA Director Joanne Harwood, who explained the conception of the sculptures in Portuguese. This served both as an introduction to ESCALA, the existence of which the students were unaware, and also to contemporary art in general as students had little or no previous experience of art exhibitions. The rationale for a tour, rather than a lecture, was that it allowed students to share and discuss their own views and interpretation of the works.

 “I think using art definitely improved the course, it added a whole new dynamic to the module.” Andrea Sanderson

The students of Spanish, with the help of an assistant from ESCALA (then known as UECLAA), recorded a video of a tour around the library where, at the time, several pieces of art were exhibited. The video turned out to be a useful resource and is still used by Teresa as an introduction to the topic in her module.

Deciding which artists to use

For Beatriz there were several criteria for the choice of artist. First, selection was guided by their relevance to society, that is to say, the extent to which their work provided a social commentary and shone a light on contemporary social and political issues. As well as enhancing the students’ language skills, it was important that the engagement with art should create a rich learning environment with the potential to develop a range of skills. For instance, it was hoped that the analysis of Latin American artworks would enable students to contextualise their language learning by means of visually vivid testimonies of direct relevance to society.

 “The thing about art, especially protest art, is it’s edgy, there’s something in it that grabs you. It’s telling a story, I think art is a tremendously powerful way of getting that story across.” Steve Pegley

 “If you want to learn a language you can’t by just reading a grammar book cover to cover and then learning lists of vocab. You to contextualise it, you have to immerse yourself in it and this module is a really good way of doing that.” Max Turner

During the Autumn term, 2012, there was an exhibition in Firstsite of Siron Franco’s works in ESCALA. Franco is a Brazilian artist whose work reflects a preoccupation with social and political issues in Brazil. When students visited Franco’s exhibition they were confronted for the first time with the social realities thematised by his works. It was this, together with the emotional and aesthetic engagement with Franco’s art that created a transformational experience for the student.

For the students ofSpanish the choice was a young artist from the Dominican Republic, Karmadavis, who had an exhibition at Firstsite during the Spring term, 2013. The experience of having the class in a gallery, outside the conventional learning space, was a stimulating experience that encouraged the students to interact with the artworks. Karmadavis proved to be an exciting artist; the exhibition “Art, Justice, Transition” included video performances and photography, types of art media with which some students were not so familiar.

The development of professional skills

Real life experiences of the artworks clearly played a significant role for the students’ foreign language learning. Another core aspect of the project was the development of professional IT skills: students had to develop an e-portfolio by creating a webpage, writing blogs in a forum discussion via Moodle, and using Pinnacle, a piece of video editing software.

This innovative combination of language, art and technology in the context of collaborative learning allowed students to gain valuable experience of professional-level skills. Students gave presentations of cultural artefacts to different audiences, created synopses and annotated translations, while manipulating various media. The discussion forum proved to be pivotal in enhancing the students’ learning experience. Students were asked to write a weekly blog evaluating their learning process. These were posted on Moodle and other students had to comment on their fellow students’ blogs. This exercise created a great sense of camaraderie. The use of the blogs provided a clear focus for the project, keeping students on task on a weekly basis.

“Foi interessante ouvir as opiniões diferentes das minhas colegas no moddle e discutir o meu próprio ponto de vista” (It was interesting to see my colleagues’ opinions in Moodle and discuss my own point of view).” Anonymous student evaluation

“We had to make a portfolio by getting loads of different things, we had to do interviews and record videos and various other tasks. Beatriz asked us questions and we had to write 300 words on topics like “does art change society?” I really liked that aspect of the course because it made me think about art in a way that I’d never thought before.” Andrea Sanderson

“I liked it. It puts pressure on you to attend all the classes and I thought it was a really good way to reinforce what we’ve learnt every week.” Max Turner

Teresa found that her students were so keen they were exceeding the word limit, clearly feeling the need to express themselves. They were also eager to read other students’ views. As a result, she has increased the word limit for next year. Students were assessed on their webpages which displayed their reviews, summaries, oral interviews, oral presentations, translations, and their blogs reflecting on their learning process.

Contacting the artists

Another great benefit of working collaboratively with ESCALA was that, with the assistance of Joanne, students were able to contact the artists. Joanne pointed out that some artists are more than happy to interact with students. Karmadavis proved to be one of them. Each student asked three questions that were sent to him by email which he replied to. The answers were made available to all students so that they could use this information for their review. The opportunity to get in touch with the artists themselves, or experts on their work, proved to be one of the highlights of the project for the students, as evidenced in their feedback.

“…el hecho de haber contactado el artista fue una oportunidad única.” (…to be able to contact the artist was a unique opportunity.” Anonymous student evaluation

“My favourite part was doing an interview with Joanne, I was very enthusiastic about that and I made sure I put my all in to it.” Andrea Sanderson

Beatriz’s students also interviewed Joanne in Portuguese about Siron Franco and the interview was video recorded in the Multimedia studio. Later, the students were taught how to edit the videos using Pinnacle and they included their interviews in their webpages.

Presenting the project

In January, the project was presented at a symposium on the of use e-technology in language learning at Southampton University and was well received. Several lecturers commented on how fortunate the presenters were to have ESCALA available at their own university. Some of them came up at the end to ask about the possibility of bringing their own students from other universities to see the collection.

Continuing developing the project

“Sin duda, la mejor experiencia del proyecto fue la visita a la familia Montes, nos aclaró varias cosas y tuvimos la oportunidad de escuchar las opiniones de su hijo y su viuda, después de ese día sentí que había entendido lo que Montes quería retratar a través de su obra.” (The best part of the project was the visit to the Montes’ family and having the opportunity to listen to the opinions of the artist’s son and widow which made several points clearer for us. After that day, I felt I understood what Fermando Montes wanted to convey.) Anonymous student evaluation

“One of the things Teresa was able to do which was really good was make contact with the artists we were studying. This was a really fantastic opportunity. To go and meet the family of the artist and see his studio and the way the drawings were developed and understanding nearly first-hand his motivations and everything behind it, it really added to the whole effect of the module.” Steve Pegley

Engaging in this project has highlighted how very privileged we are to have ESCALA at the University of Essex. This year the project has run again with pieces of art from the collection being brought into the classroom. The students of Spanish were given two artists to choose from, Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean artist, who was also very happy to help with the project and responded to the students’ questions via email; and Fernando Montes, a Bolivian artist who died a few years ago, but whose family is very eager to promote his work. In fact, they very kindly invited the students to visit his studio in London. This was a rare experience for the students, which was clear from their feedback.

 Student evaluation of the project

“…me abriu as portas a um novo mundo visto que eu sabia muito pouco sobre artistas brasileiros.” (This project has opened doors to a new world since I knew very little about Brazilian artists) Anonymous student evaluation

“If you want to really contextualise a culture in respect to a language, this module is the best way to do it. With this module I could really feel my language improving. I could feel the Spanish getting better and better because of this module” Max Turner

 “I think this method of teaching is by far the best; I feel that I could hold my own content wise in a conversation with someone about these aspects of their culture that we’ve learnt because you understand what the culture’s about.” Steve Pegley

The project was evaluated by the students in the Moodle forum. From their comments it is clear that ESCALA has been a major strategic resource, providing them with an ideal context for the development of situated language use, and giving them, in turn, a head start for their year abroad in Latin America.

Teresa and Beatriz would like to publicly thank Joanne, and the ESCALA team, for their input into the project.

Teresa Torres

Department of Language and Linguistics

University of Essex


Beatriz de Paiva

Department of Language and Linguistics

University of Essex

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