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Language learning in Lea Ypi’s “Free”.

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 30 Jan 2023, 10:53

I very much enjoyed Lea Ypi’s “Free”, an account of growing up in Albania at a time of great changes.  The book is sometimes ironic as the reader gradually understands more than the narrator or the important people in her life.  There are quite frequent references to language and language learning.

One account that particularly resonates is when she describes her father feeling he needs to learn English after the demise of the Communist rule.  Ypi’s describes how he already knows five languages as well as Albanian.

He has a few setbacks when he tries to learn English but then he had some luck.  Ypi describes this as follows:

“Hope came in the form of a fortuitous meeting on the bus home from work with a group of young Americans.  Probably marines,  he said - that’s how he’d heard them introduce themselves.  One could see it in the discipline with which they carried their black rucksacks, in the tight fitting trousers, the crisply ironed white shirts.”

This all seems plausible but then something seems strange at the end of the paragraph:

“They organised free English classes in the evening, they said, and he was welcome to enrol.”

Would marines organise English classes?

Anyway, he joins the class and is happy:

“Not only was my father making fast progress learning English from native speakers, the textbooks were very interesting in their own right.  He learned about something called the Church of Latter-Day Saints and about a doctrine he had never heard of before.  ….The debates were very profound, very substantial, my father reported, never about the kind of trivialities you would expect in an elementary English class.”

So, it becomes clear that they were Mormons rather than marines, which seems more logical.  This reminded me of how religious groups used English teaching as a tool for spreading the religion.  When I worked in China in the 1980s, there was an American Christian group called ELI who sent English teachers who, more or less explicitly, aimed to spread Christianity.  I also remember that many students at Moscow university in the early 1990s were offered the chance to go to courses offered by the Moonies.

It is interesting that the father liked the courses as the content did not seem trivial to him.  In the book, he is portrayed as open minded and humane and this is reflected by his behaviour in class “My father didn’t take sides…. He enjoyed listening and arbitrating” but some of the other students became very agitated as they put forward the Muslim perspectives. 

The issue of what is to be taught in General English classes is a key one.  Content which is motivating for some people (as this is for the father) might be boring for others (it would be for me) or perhaps alienating for others (perhaps those who have particularly strong opposing religious views).

Ypi’s grandmother thought the Mormons were dishonest about their motives but in keeping with his easy going nature, her father suggests that most of the students (who were often devout Muslims) gave as good as they got.

The extract seems typical of much of the book by describing important changes in people's lives in a humorous way.  This links quite closely to what my students on L101 are studying at the moment.  Hultgren (2019: unit 14) discusses humour and describes various categories.  It seems that this book mainly makes use of "breaking with expectations".  This occurs as the father originally thinks marines are organising language classes whereas it is Mormons.  There is also some surprise as the father enjoys the arguments where perhaps many readers might find the arguments tedious or threatening.

Hultgren AK (2019) Unit 14: Breaking with expectations, in L101: Introducing English language studies. Available at: https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1994429 (accessed 27 January 2023)

Ypi L (2021) Free London: Penguin

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