Stein on Linguistic Reappropriation

In mainstream South African Schools, oral storytelling that draws on African theater and oral performance traditions is not a valued genre. The fact that the majority of Black students in urban schools use three or more languages in their daily lives is not generally regarded as a linguistic resource or incorporated into dominant pedagogical practice. Here I describe a project in multilingual storytelling practices that I conducted … with a class of 12- to 16-year olds in a Black township school outside Johannesburg. The aim of the project was to explore the multilingual resources of a group of students who are learning all school subjects through English, which is their second or third language. What began as a project intending to focus on the uses of multilingualism in storytelling practices unexpectedly turned into an important project in the reappropriation and transformation of textual, cultural, and linguistic forms. Students started producing multimodal genres that had previously been infantalized or made invisible by the colonial and apartheid governments. They drew on a combination of African oral storytelling and performance traditions with contemporary film and television performance traditions in order to transform these genres for their own immediate purposes. I argue that the multimodal forms of the texts produced by the students provide evidence for the use of the classroom as a site for a pedagogy of reappropriation and transformation, but this process is dependent on innovative pedagogical practices that challenge dominant practices in schools. …

The project described here needs to be set against [a] … shifting landscape of redefinition and change. I focus on possible ways in which the English classroom in South Africa can now become an important site for the institutional reappropriation and transformation of textual, cultural, and linguistic forms, which have previously either been marginalized, infantalized, or undervalued by the colonial and apartheid governments. The possibilities are now open, I think, to redefine or “redesign,” to use the term of the New London Group Multiliteracies Project (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000) the relationship between mainstream and marginalized discourses in the language classroom. Drawing on the work of Roger Simon, Shirley Brice Heath, Bill Cope, Gunther Kress, Mary Kalantzis, Allan Luke and many others working in the field of literacy, language and pedagogy, I argue that what is needed in this moment of history in English classrooms in South Africa is a pedagogy of reappropriation and transformation. A pedagogy of reappropriation is a political project that seeks to make visible previously marginalized languages and discourses in the school context. However, reappropriation as a form of validation of marginalized discourses is only one part of this process: encouraging learners to freely draw on these languages and discourses in order to transform them for their own contemporary meaning-making or representational purposes, is another crucial part of this project. In multicultural classrooms, this process of reappropriation and transformation, if conducted with sensitivity and awareness of all the interests at stake, can, I believe, lead to increased investment … on the part of students in the language learning process. This increased investment can lead to increased levels of language learning. I believe that a pedagogy of reappropriation and transformation can contribute toward building a critically reflective classroom community where all participants begin to share and re-evaluate the relation between their histories, their engagement with popular cultural forms and their language practices. At this time in our history, when we are struggling with reinventing a new South African identity (or identities), this process of re-evaluation, linked to developing a shared classroom discourse, is crucial. …

Working in the role of teacher-researcher, I was granted access to a Standard 5 class in a primary school run by the former segregated Black education department, the Department of Education (DET). The school is well-run and situated on the border of a working-class and nouveau riche Black township. Children from both communities attend the school.

The class consisted of 37 multilingual Black students, boys and girls, ranging in age from 12 to 16. … In implementing this research project, the central pedagogical question was how to structure the classroom context to give students opportunities to freely express their linguistic resources. Firstly, I decided to use the concept of story to elicit students’ voices. I interpreted story in a very loose sense: autobiographical accounts, fictional representations, and narrative accounts of important experiences. … What was interesting, in the end, about the choice of story as a mediating concept for linguistic exploration was how the students extended the boundaries of what I understood to be story to include jokes, comic routines, songs, dialogues and stylized dramatized performances, as well as autobiographical and fictional narratives.

Once students were working with story, I decided to use a video camera to record the storytelling process. I believed, mistakenly, that student’s would be captivated by the idea of seeing themselves on video for a few weeks, then things would settle down, and it would simply be regarded as another technology in the classroom. However, the opposite turned out to be the case. The video became a central mediating technology in the process of text production, and indeed, provided a crucial motivation for students in realizing their various story texts. A teacher-educator from the Gauteng education department has commented on the influence of the media in urban townships when she said recently, “There are more TV sets in Soweto than books.” This provides one explanation as to why the students showed an ongoing preoccupation with the video and viewing of their work.

I started off this project by asking a research question related to the students’ linguistic resources. After a few months of working, I came to realize that my focus on linguistic resources was far too narrow to encompass the rich range of multimodal texts, including the spoken, written, visual, gestural, and performance texts that the students were producing. Drawing on the work of Gunther Kress … I changed my research question to focus on the students’ representational resources: the multiple and complex ways in which they were using their bodies, their voices, their different languages, and their drawings, to make meaning or represent their stories to one another.

I asked the students to think of any stories from their families or community networks that they would like to share orally with the rest of us as their audience. Out of 37 students, initially only 3 volunteered. The lack of response at this point was quite important, as well as surprising and could be attributed to a number of things, including the fact that students were possibly trying to work out what I, as “the White teacher” meant by story in an institutional context where the students are rarely, if ever, invited to draw on their community and family stories. The asymmetrical power relationships may also have contributed to this hesitation—I am a White woman, an outsider. My research student, Patrick Baloyi, is Black and a master storyteller from Venda, a rural area. He managed to get the ball rolling very successfully by telling some stories he was told by his father as a young boy. As the project proceeded, and students could see that, as one student put it, “There was freedom of speech,” students volunteered to tell more and more stories in front of the class and perform for the video camera.

The exact guidelines given to the students were as follows:

  1. Divide yourselves into language groups where you all speak the same language/s.
  2. Each person in the group tells a story. The story could be a story you have heard from someone In your family or community or it can be a story that you make up yourself. TELL THE STORY IN THE LANGUAGES IT WAS TOLD TO YOU. Use translation if needed, so that everyone understands
  3. Choose the best stories in the group to tell to the rest of the class
  4. The class listens together to the best stories from each group. Storytellers should tell the story in the language it was told to them. If the story was not told in English, find someone to act as your translator or translate it yourself into English
  5. When this is over, the audience should comment on the story, ask the storyteller questions and generally discuss some of the issues or different meanings the story has for people. The storyteller could also talk about where and when she or he heard the story, who told the story and why she or he thinks the story was told

By the end of the project, we had collected about 45 stories in oral, written, and video form as well as jokes, comic radio routines, rap songs, dialogues, and dramatized storytelling performances.

What began as a fairly ordinary, rather loose language activity was transformed over a few months into a focused, engaged, and sustained project in oral storytelling practices in which students drew heavily on popular oral forms familiar to them and used in contexts outside the classroom. These popular forms emerged in a number of ways.

Many of the stories students told form part of the genre of dinonwane or traditional oral folktales or moral tales that have been an integral part of community life in Africa since precolonial times. These included numerous trickster tales involving animals, principally Hare and Lion. The small hare is the most successful trickster figure in African folklore and uses a combination of guile and intelligence to outwit his more powerful opponents. …

The stories that had the most powerful effect on the audience (causing great mirth) were contemporary, politicized versions of traditional stories. These political stories have as their central characters high-profile political leaders who connive to outwit one another. These new, popular versions of traditional animal stories have their origin in the local community and illustrate what has been called moving orality, the fluid ways in which stories are shaped and transformed for new contexts and new historical moments. They also demonstrate ways in which communities transform or redesign meanings to work in new contexts and cultural sites.

Students introduced oral performance elements that are a fundamental feature of traditional storytelling events and one of the central resources of African cultural life. These oral performance elements are most evident in the performances for the video camera and show the powerful influence of television and radio on the style, gestures, and language of the students. …

Traditional storytelling events, as a genre of popular culture, used to be social occasions that usually took place in the evenings around a fire while the evening meal was being prepared. The storytelling event often included jokes, riddles, proverbs, gossip, and conversation, in other words, a range of different oral genres besides the telling of the tale itself. The audiences were essential to the event and their participation were crucial to shaping the event. Audiences responded through joining in the songs, answering the riddles, and giving verbal affirmations of engagement and interest. This alliance between audience and performer or storyteller made the occasion a highly interactive, living performance. However, according to oral literature researchers as well as popular views, with the rise of urbanization, forced removals of communities during the apartheid era and industrialisation in South Africa, many of these storytelling and performance practices have diminished and changed … .

Although I agree that the storytelling event as a traditional cultural practice in rural communities has diminished and changed, I want to argue that these students’ highly interactive, performance-based production of their stories provides evidence of resilient and hybrid storytelling practices that continue to thrive in urban communities. These urban storytelling practices draw on traditional storytelling events as one discursive domain for text production. They also draw on youth culture and oral language practices in their multiple forms … . However, contemporary popular media culture, mainly radio and television, clearly provides another powerful and influential domain.

I illustrate the aforementioned points by focusing on one of the contemporary political stories that was told in Zulu in an oral performance style by 13-year-old Nobayeni Ndebele. This story entitled, Mandela, Gatsha and De Klerk is a tale of trickery amongst political opponents and has many of the features of a traditional African animal folktale.

Nobayeni performed the story in Zulu for the class audience and for the video camera. She was accompanied by Justice Rapasha, her translator, who stood next to her, trying to intercept her narrative at key points to translate it into English. What you see then, on video, is a lively duet between the two performers, with Nobayeni rushing ahead in Zulu and Justice valiantly trying to keep up. In the end, he does not do justice to the story in English and the students boo him off the stage.

The following transcript of their interactions on the video text gives some indication of the performance features, but obviously cannot capture the full impact of the performance elements in this storytelling event. I ask you to imagine the exaggerated gestures, the nonlinguistic playful interaction between the participants as they signal to each other through gesture and eye contact when to stop and start translations, the murmuring of the adolescent audience as they listen intently and then burst out laughing at the mention of taboo topics, the ringing of the school bell toward the end, the faces of Nobayeni and Justice as they stifle their own laughter in the telling of the tale.

(A fuller translation of the Zulu text follows this transcript.)

Nobayeni: (with a broad smile) Kwakukhona uMandela, uGatsha noDe Klerk.

Justice: There was Mandela, Gatsha and De Klerk. [Nelson Mandela, the South African President; Gatsha Buthelezi, Zulu leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party; and F. W. De Klerk, ex-president of South Africa.]

Nobayeni: (speaking rapidly) Manje uMandela bekehamba eya endlini kaGatsha. uGatsha bavumelana bathi uDe Klek sizomthola manje. Sizomfakela – (Justice indicates to her to stop talking with a polite hand gesture. She acknowledges him.) OK (laughing) Sizomfakela umuthi ekudleni.

Justice: (hesitantly) Er … er … Mandela and Gatsha decided to get Mandel -

Nobayeni: (whispers) De Klerk -

Justice: er … De Klerk … and put… pour

Audience: Poison! (laughing)

Justice: And pour some poison in his food.

Nobayeni: Manje bahamba-ke. (smiling) Bavumelana bahamba baya endlini kaDe Klerk. Bafika bathi, Ayi namhlanje sididiyele kahle. (laughing) Sizodla manje.

Justice: They decided to go to De Klerk’s house and they decided to say, ‘Today we’ve got a lovely dinner.’

Nobayeni: Ayi, bahlala … bahlala etafuleni. Ayi, uMandela wasika inyama. Wasika, wasika kahle, wasika kahle. Ayi, babeka kahle.

Justice: Mandela then … er… cut the chicken and put it… er… on the table and De Klerk didn’t… didn’t eat the porridge.

Nobayeni: Manje uDe Klerk akalidli ipapa. Manje uMandela wathi, ‘Ayi, asazi-ke ngoba wena awudli ipapa. Thina singamadoda sidla ipapa. Wena ngeke ube namandla. Wathi uGatsha, Akay, mina, ngizohamba ngiyothenga isikwa.’

Justice: Eh … eh … Mandela says (scratching his head) because you De Klerk you don’t eat porridge, you’ll… eh … you’ll go to the shop to buy -

Audience: Bread!

Justice: Bread.

Nobayeni: Ayi, wahamba. Uthe nakefika e-shop uGatsha weza ne-slice esiyi-one, ene uMandela no Gatsha kade baphethe ipapa esitsheni esikhulu. (smiling broadly) Bazodla boyi-two. Ayi, badla, badla basigede. (Justice tries to stop her talking. She carries on at a rapid pace.) Bakugede ukudla lokha. uMandela noGatsha kade badlele esitsheni esikhulu (indicates the large size of the pot with her hands). Baphekele ipapa esitsheni esikhulu (laughing, repeats the gesture for the large size of the pot, the audience is also laughing).


(Laughing) Mandela and Gatsha cooked the porridge in a big plate. (School bell rings. They pause.)

Nobayeni: Wathi uDe Klerk,’ Mina angisayidli inyama. Sengidla lesinkwa lesi.’ Wathi uMandela noGtasha bazodla lenyama leyo. Ngakusasa kuthe mabavukaekuseni, bavuka nahudile bonke. (Overcome with mirth, using large expressive gestures, she pretends to smear Justice’s body with the ‘shit’. Justice is laughing, as is the whole audience at this point.) Wathi uGtasha, ‘Hhayi indoda, mina ngiyofaka kulomuntu loyo.’ uGatsha wakipha wonke amasimba wa wasulela ebusweni benyanga wathi, ‘Hhayi ndoda, hhayi ndoda, nathi siyafuna lento lezi.’ (Loud laughter from the audience. Justice opens his mouth to speak but the audience boos him off the stage.)

(Fuller translation of the story):

Once there lived Mandela, Gatsha and De Klerk. Mandela visited Gatsha in his house and he and Gatsha agreed that they would add a potion to De Klerk’s food to win him over to their side. Off they went to De Klerk’s house, with pots of pap [a thick porridge made from maize, the staple diet of the majority of Black South Africans] and meat. On their arrival there, they said to De Klerk, “Today we have cooked deliciously. Let’s eat together now.” So they all sat down at the table and Mandela cut the meat. He cut, cut, cut carefully and then laid it out on the table artistically.

But De Klerk was not used to eating pap. Mandela said to him, “Well we don’t know what to do now because you do not eat pap. We, on the other hand, are men. We eat pap. You, I’m afraid, will never be strong.”

Then Gatsha said, “OK, let me go and buy De Klerk some bread.” And off he went. He bought only one slice of bread because he and Mandela had a huge pot of pap. They ate, ate, ate and finished all the food. They finished that food, eating it from that big pot. You see, they had cooked the pap in a big pot.

The De Klerk said, “I don’t want to eat this meat anymore. I am going to eat this bread only.” And he told Mandela and Gatsha to finish eating the meat.

The next morning, when Mandela and Gatsha woke up, they found that their stomachs had been running. Gatsha said, “No man, I’m going to smear this faeces/shit on the face of that man.” He did this to De Klerk, then wiped off all the shit. He then painted De Klerk’s face with the marks of a sangoma [a traditional healer] while saying to him, “No man, no man, don’t forget that we also want what you’ve got!”

There are many ways of reading this story. My own reading is as follows: Mandela and Gatsha try to win De Klerk over to their political position by making him eat pap, the staple diet of Black South Africans. Eating pap will Africanize him, pap is associated with virility and manliness. But De Klerk outwits them and they are poisoned by their own food. However, their response is to take their problems to him, make him eat their shit, try to Africanize him again by giving him the marks of a sangoma, a traditional healer, and tell him they also want access to power. There is cunning on all sides here as the two Black leaders unite to get rid of the White leader. He succeeds in outwitting them but they have the last word. This oral story that draws on traditional trickster stories about Hare and Lion, was circulating in the community at the time of the elections and is, I believe, a political tale about the negotiation process. …

This story is only one of a number of stories students produced that the school might call subversive and that is definitely not part of the mainstream curriculum. As the students felt more and more in control of the process, their stories became more and more interesting, touching on so-called taboo topics such as cannibalism, the scatalogical, the fantastic, the grotesque, and the satirical. …

In terms of a critical literacy project, I think the first stage is the creative process that focuses on the production of a body of texts, some of which might constitute an alternative canon. The next stage in this project involves students analyzing the texts they have produced using critical reading practices. These can focus on a number of key areas:

  • Helping students to become aware of the ideological nature of text production: that the stories they have produced are not neutral, autonomous texts that have been passed on from generation to generation in a seamless oral tradition but that these texts, particularly the African folk tales or dinonwane have been appropriated by different interest groups in South African history to serve a range of ideological and political purposes
  • Analyzing the texts themselves from a critical linguistic perspective, looking at the relation between language, power, and ideology in the contemporary political stories, for example. Whose interests do these political stories serve?
  • Critically analyzing the relationship between the storyteller, the translator, and the translation: in what ways does the translator produce a new text? What is foregrounded and backgrounded? What is omitted from the original text and why? This could form the basis of a fascinating discussion on the highly political role that translators and interpreters have played in the law courts in South African history
  • Encouraging students to produce multiple readings of their own texts and to reflect on the shifting meanings the stories might have had for different audiences over time in varied locations

[A]ll students have stories to tell but are not often given the chance to tell them in our schools. Teachers and students seem surprised at the range of representational resources that students bring from their homes and communities to classroom spaces. They seem to be also surprised at the fun they can have listening to and discussing the meanings of their different stories.

In mainstream South African schools, oral storytelling that draws on African theater and oral performance traditions is not a valued genre. The fact that the majority of Black students in urban schools use three or more languages in their daily lives is not generally regarded as a linguistic resource or incorporated into dominant pedagogical practice. Drawing on oral storytelling as a pedagogical practice is only one way to tap into the representational resources of students whose linguistics, textual, and cultural resources have been marginalized or infantalized. In conclusion I suggest that it is an appropriate time in South Africa to introduce a pedagogy of reappropriation and transformation. By this I mean an educational intervention that attempts to reappropriate and allow for transformation of previously marginalized, infantalized, or invisible cultural forms into institutional spaces, for example, the English classroom. It is a political project that applies to the South African context and arises out of a specific moment in South African history and context.

In practice, in the English classroom, it means:

  • creating opportunities for marginalized genres and discourses, for example, popular cultural forms, to become part of the mainstream classroom;
  • valorizing students’ multilingual resources: seeing students as language experts;
  • encouraging learners to freely draw on these languages and dis
courses in order to transform them for their own contemporary meaning-making or representational purposes;
  • validating students’ oral languages uses and experiences beyond the borders of the classroom, in their homes, and in their communities;
  • redefining the relation between orality and school-based literacies;
  • re-evaluating existing assessment procedures, for example no marking;
  • perceiving students as multimodal text producers rather than text receivers;
  • reconceptualizing students’ text production and reception within a critical orality or literacy paradigm in which students and teachers critically explore the social production of their texts within an historical, social, and political context.

Some cautions for such a project, however, need to be considered. There is a real danger when working with theories of culture and popular cultural forms of homogenizing people from different and varied communities and contexts. In South Africa, we have to be particularly vigilant of stereotypes and the old apartheid way of categorizing people into different cultures, languages, and identities (e.g., classifying Black people as “the oral people” and White people as “the literate people.”) There is a need for specificity and localized exploration of cultural forms and processes.

Participants in such project need an understanding that cultural forms and processes are fluid, that they change in time and are transformed by history, power, and different contextual needs. Any exploration of popular forms should involve a critical interrogation of the traditional (e.g., to explore the gendered nature of oral storytelling practices and how different interest groups have appropriated this tradition for their own interests and purposes). During this crucial time of transition and change, when South Africa is struggling to reinvent itself as a nation, I believe that the English classroom can offer a creative and critical space for South African young people to begin to understand the evils of the past. These critical explorations that lead to redefinitions of ourselves as individuals and members of a new nation are essential to the process of taking responsibility for the past and being prepared to imagine a hopeful future.

Stein, Pippa. 2001. “Classrooms as Sites of Textual, Cultural and Linguistic Reappropriation.” Pp. 151-169 in Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms, edited by B. Comber and A. Simpson. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp.151-168. || Amazon || WorldCat