Towards an aesthetic and performative approach to transcultural mediation

• Joëlle Aden — Caroline Preller •


«Mutual understanding among human beings, whether near or far, is (…) a vital necessity to carry human relations past the barbarian stage of misunderstanding.» (Edgar Morin, 2001: 14)

«Through teaching I have discovered that the body knows things about which the mind is ignorant.» (Jacques Lecoq, 2000: 8)

1. Introduction

Since the second half of the twentieth century, numerous philosophers and researchers have proposed changes in the educational paradigm to respond to the world’s increasing complexity. For Edgar Morin (2001) it has become indispensable to teach our planetary identity or even ethics in relation to humankind. Today, numerous scientists are warning us of the need to radically change our relationship to the world in the face of increasingly scarce global resources. Faced with the finite nature of their ecosystem, humans in the twenty first century have to learn how to converse «with, across and beyond»1 cultures. Consequently, knowledge only makes sense if it enables this interconnectedness (Aden, Grimshaw, Penz, 2010). In his Invitation aux Sciences Cognitives, the neuro-phenomenologist Francisco Varela warned that «human intelligence can no longer be defined as the ability to solve problems but as the ability to penetrate a shared world»2 (Varela, 1989: 113), which puts being able to relate to the world, others and the self, at the heart of knowledge. Seen this way, educational systems can no longer avoid reflecting on the hybridization of languages and transcultural mediation. How can we best prepare future engineers to navigate between languages and cultures while working towards a common destiny for the planet? In this article, we share some of the results from a language module which was devised as an attempt to address this issue. We created a series of English language workshops with the aim of making future engineers aware that the ability to communicate is rooted in the body and requires empathic listening to both oneself and others, and that words emerge from a pre-language rooted in the senses and this process is a core part of the empathic process itself. To do this we created a curriculum which combines Hélène Trocmé-Fabre’s cognitive framework L’Arbre du Savoir-Apprendre3 (2003) with a phenomenological approach to drama largely inspired by Jacques Lecoq’s teaching methods (2000).

2. Changing perspectives and translanguaging

In the same way as the world’s complexity teaches us that we can no longer build a bridge between two banks without considering the river’s whole course, we can no longer reduce cultural mediation to a series of skills which enable connections to be made between two languages or between mapped points of view between two cultures. Being a mediator requires stepping back to gain perspective, learning to adopt multiple viewpoints, focusing on our blind spots, questioning the validity of evidence and becoming aware of our biases. Only then we are able to act together beyond languages and cultural differences, but without abandoning our own roots and reference points. For us, the term ‹cultural mediation› refers to the capacity to suspend our own judgements and inhibit certain cultural and emotional filters. This raises thorny questions to do with ethics and society, especially surrounding the variability of standards and the issue of power relationships. It also requires negotiation and debate to reconcile different points of view of reality inherent within different languages and cultures.
For Walther, Miller, Kellam (2012) it is vital that future engineers develop empathic skills in order to be authentically and personally committed in their professional relationships and meet the challenges of communication the future will bring. This is the point of view shared by the authors of a French Reference Guide for Sustainable Development and Social Responsibility, (2016)4, who suggest that scientific and technical knowledge should be supported by a systemic, collective and responsible (i.e. sustainable) educational approach.
Our experimentation is aimed at future engineers at the ENPC (École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées) who have a level of an independent user in English5, and who have voluntarily chosen this module of English through masked theatre. We are repeatedly confronted with the same issue at this level of language training: despite using English syntax proficiently and having a thorough knowledge of basic communication skills, our students often use these skills to reproduce stereotypical arguments. They hide behind rhetorical devices, struggling to convince and their words are often disembodied. They often lack confidence in their oral capability and their representation of communication generally only focuses on the verbal aspects of language. Even when they are aware of the importance of non-verbals, these remain peripheral to their language repertoire. The students acknowledge the importance of intercultural communication but perceive it often as the ability to ‹convey a message› by taking into account their knowledge about the speakers’ cultures. They can sometimes exhibit an intellectual, comparatist and non-reflexive approach towards cultures, thereby favouring implicit permanent stereotypes. And finally, they often have difficulty resonating kinesthetically and emotionally with their interlocutors. They have a functional representation of languages and hardly ever consider the effects of emotions expressed through the body during interaction. This is why the first stage of the module consists in changing their points of view and ‹points of feeling›6 («points de sentir») (Berthoz, 2004), regarding the threefold relationship between self-others-environment.
When they sign up for the module, their principal goal is to improve their oral skills, which fits with the representation they have of theatre as an art of oral proficiency, but the fact of learning to relate to each other with a neutral mask from the very first exercises constitutes a drastic shift in perspective, as a neutral mask is verbally silent. The first few workshops, which are devoted to mask work, enable radical shifts in awareness to emerge:

«When I get my mask on, I forget about myself and get into the character I’m supposed to be.»

«I chose a sad mask and when I acted I really felt I was sad!»

«It was surprising how precisely we can know the direction the other person wants to go without saying it.»

«What struck me is that, even without speaking some groups managed to depict a scene in a very articulate way.»

3. The role of masks in empathy training

In theatre, the actor is aware of the illusion he is creating, he can embody a character who is completely unlike him and know that he is playing a role at the same time as he plays it. The spectator knows that he is experiencing the point of view of one or more characters and knows that the emotions evoked are both fictional and authentic. This is the paradox which Antonio Damasio modelized and called: «the as-if body loop».

[…] in certain cirumstances – for example, as an emotion unfolds – the brain rapidly constructs maps of the body comparable to those that would occur in the body had it actually been changed by the emotion. The construction can occur ahead of the emotional changes taking place in the body, or even instead of these changes. In other words, the brain can simulate, within somatosensing regions, certain body states as if they were occurring; and because our perception of any body state is rooted in the body maps of the somatosensing regions, we perceive the body state as actually occurring, even if it is not.
(Damasio, 2010: 101)

In this way the somatosensory pre-conscious perceptions which underpin the pragmatic and cultural dimensions of language also reveal the power of the empathy and sympathy mechanisms which are the foundations for the actor’s techniques (Aden, 2014).
For our project, mask work appeared as the obvious choice, as it goes even further to enable distance taking from the self. Students who already had some drama experience are unsettled by the mask, whereas those who had never done any theatre find wearing a mask reassuring, as they feel freer to reveal themselves while feeling protected. In both cases, the mask is an obstacle. In fact, theatrical masks take the learner back into his own body, and lead him to abandon his inner mask. If the body is not engaged, or reacting to its surroundings, the theatrical illusion of the mask doesn’t work. For Erhard Stiefel, mask maker for the Théâtre du Soleil, «a real mask doesn’t hide, it reveals.»7
In fact, the mask helps the actor feel different while remaining aware of the strangeness of the transformation. It mediates in the relationship between the self and the world. For Ariane Mnouchkine, the mask is a guide:

For me, a real mask is a magical object, an object which can come to life. If you listen to it, it leads you to it. It’s your teacher. It’s a character, which if you are listening well, can be your master. I think that an actor who wants his «self» to exist behind the mask is on the wrong track, is wrong… on the other hand, [with a mask] he can give himself the supreme actor’s gift, which is to become someone else.8

Becoming someone else, adopting a point of view which is sensorially different constitutes training in empathy. In becoming one with the mask, the actor’s habitual ways of seeing are disrupted and new somatosensory pathways have to be mapped (Damasio, 2010). With a reduced field of vision, the student has to learn how to move his head differently, as well as remember to repeatedly reconnect with the audience, as frequent direct contact with the audience is needed for the audience to witness the story. «The teacher did not just say: ‹look at the audience› but ‹SHARE WITH the audience» (Student Vi.). Auditory perception also changes, and students have to mobilize and heighten their other senses to connect to the environment.
For Jacques Lecoq (2000), the worth of a mask resides in the range of play it generates in a preconscious way. The student experiences different physical sensations and has to find a new somatosensory equilibrium:

I started to get too hot and I had difficulty breathing …So I’ve really got the impression that I had to bare myself totally to make the mask come alive, except that I didn’t want to… I found it a bit weird at first to work with masks because it was hard to speak with and to be aware of the people and environment […] we don’t really care about our facial expression which help us work on full body language and the tone of our voice. (Student Va.)

The mask ‹displaces› us in relation to ourselves, our stage partner, or the audience. It forces us to essentialise our gestures, as too much movement blurs meaning. Every gesture requires precision as the intentions have to be clear to be understood. In order to act with a mask, the student has to make choices, drop anecdotal details, and essentialise the relationship in such a way that every gesture, movement, sound and word makes sense for the audience.
Mask-work puts sensory perception at the core of human language, as Francisco Varela (1993) postulates in his paradigm of enaction. Masks allow the students to experience that “[…] speaking is not having something to say and knowing how to express yourself, but it is to expect the word. Words are always like a dance which is expecting, waiting for the word.»9 (Novarina, 2010: 25–26).
Finally, experimenting with masks is essentially transcultural because it is founded on what unites and connects us beyond cultures and languages, the universal poetic awareness on which Jacques Lecoq bases his teaching: «Here we are dealing with an abstract dimension, made up of spaces, lights, colours, materials, sounds which can be found in all of us. They have been laid down in all of us by our various experiences and sensations, by everything that we have seen, head, touched, tasted» (Lecoq, 2000: 57). We selected and adapted several emblematic exercises used by Lecoq and other theatre practitioners so that students could reconnect with universal movements and emotions by linking them with their lived experience and reinventing them in the present moment.
In order to generate awareness of the phenomenological dimension of communication, we reserved time at the end of each workshop for evocative writing: the students were asked to revisit a moment that they experienced in the workshop and write a short phenomenological piece10 (Vermersch 2012), for about five minutes. Each introspective moment was followed by ten minutes of recorded group discussion. These writings and recordings make up our data which is currently being analysed and which will enable us to answer our research questions: how does the practice of masked theatre within the framework of a foreign language class enable students to become aware of the invisible, pre-verbal and pre-conscious layers of communication and help them interact more efficiently in multicultural contexts?

fig. 1: Phenomenological writing
fig. 2: Feedback after the workshop

4. An enactive cognitive framework

In order to establish enactive teaching methods for languages (Aden, 2017), we based ourselves on L’Arbre du Savoir-Apprendre (Trocmé-Fabre, 2003), which presents cognitive acts within an embodied and phenomenological perspective of knowledge. This framework takes into account the balance between the three relationships of self, others, and the environment, and offers a pathway towards independent learning.

fig. 3: The Tree of Learning: the 10 core cognitive acts. Hélène Trocmé-Fabre 2003

This framework of reference progresses upwards, like a tree, and is divided into three teaching phases:

  1. A phase of sensory exploration of how we relate to each other and the environment. (Discovering and acknowledging the rules of the living). The teacher proposes activities which allow each student at his own rhythm and level to explore through sensory experience, which often entails a phenomenological rediscovery of the familiar world. Here, the masks play a vital role.
  2. A phase of pedagogical accompaniment. The teacher creates the conditions, outlines the goals and the materials, so that the students can organize themselves, find meaning, make decisions, exchange together and innovate. The teacher suggests activities and times for reflection which generate enquiry and open up ways of connecting sensory experience with cognitive processes.
  3. A phase of autonomy. The teacher gives the students the space to make decisions themselves, try to understand each other’s points of view, by entering into emotional resonance, and devise stories together. For Hélène Trocmé-Fabre it is the act of creating something new together within a given context which constitutes the definition of communication. Learning how to communicate is not the starting point but a cognitive end in itself.
    It is important to understand that the flow of these cognitive acts is not like an even, one-way movement of sap rising. Each new learning project or each new group creation starts again at the roots, where language originates, in the body and feelings.
Steps Cognitive Acts
8 The final performance Com­mu­ni­ca­ting & co-­crea­ting
7 Agreeing, bringing it all together/wrapping it up: rehearsals and production elements Resonance
6 Reflecting and sharing feelings, thoughts, questions Sharing
5 Selecting a theme: creating the educational framework that allows choice to happen Organizing / choo­sing / in­no­va­ting / crea­ting col­lec­tive­ly
4 Rendering imagination visible: exercises which touch, resonate and read emotionally. Creating meaning
3 Using memory and experience as a pathway to the imagination in order to create. Embed­ding the new in the fa­mi­liar
2 Mask discovery: guided improvisations, individually and collectively, connecting with the imagination, awareness of mask rules, sharing with the audience. Acknow­led­ging the rules of the li­ving
1 Creating the space and the group: sensory & kinesthetic exercises to enable the students to connect with themselves and others, often non-verbally initially, to build trust and awareness, and develop listening skills. Discover­ing, ob­ser­ving

fig. 4: Our approach within the framework of reference

5. The activities

In this part we describe some of the exercises which correspond to certain stages in the cognitive framework. We chose them according to the strength of the impact they had on the students’ awareness11.

Stage 1: Sensory exploration and contextualizing.

Creating the conditions for the students to discover the world through their senses means waking them up from their state of automatic pilot and bringing them back to their presence in the here and now. This is the role of the physical and vocal warm-up which aims to reduce physical and mental tensions in order to re-connect with oneself within an atmosphere of trust. These minutes at the beginning of the session ritualize the passage into the different time and space belonging to this module. This time is crucial, because even if there is always a warm-up, it has nothing ‹automatic› about it, being each time a different experience of reawakening the senses to become more fully present.
The stick exercise fulfills this objective: in pairs, the students take a bamboo stick between them, holding it lightly with just a finger each to move silently in the space. Listening occurs on several levels; touch, hearing, looking, kinesthetic awareness and managing peripheral space. Silence makes the learners focus on their partner’s movements, to sense what is about to happen, as it is the balance of pressure which keeps the bamboo from falling. The body’s awareness is both focused and specific. This exercise creates the conditions of an improvised physical dialogue and an outside observer should not be able to distinguish who is leading. When the pairs are at ease with moving and can keep the sticks in the air, the teacher can increase the level of difficulty: the exercise can be carried out in three, with eyes shut, or exploring different levels and rhythms. A short dialogue such as those used in Commedia dell’arte can be added and learnt:

  • Who?
  • Me!
  • You?
  • Yes!
  • No!

When the students’ focus is on the body, and the sticks, the dialogue comes alive, and is really heard. The body is engaged, so the words convey meaning, without the students trying to push meaning across using words. The students then are asked to form one circle, where everyone is linked by the sticks, and they make the largest circle possible, and then they are asked to get together as close as possible without letting the sticks fall. The students are often surprised by the quality of their experience and the intensity of presence and connectedness they felt within themselves and with each other: «The best exercise of communication I’ve done.» (Student Th).

fig. 5: ‹Sticks› exercise

Stage 2: Acknowledging the rules of the living

For Hélène Trocmé-Fabre this stage aims «to learn how to be aware of complexity, […] and avoid applying the same standard, tool or code to different contexts and situations, as well as learning how to acknowledge diversity»12 (2003: 35). We show this stage through a neutral mask exercise which is inspired by a combination of two of Jacques Lecoq’s exercises: The First Day and The Fundamental Journey. It takes the form of a guided improvisation that all the students do individually and simultaneously. In this case we ask them to focus on their inner world, and not react to each other or play to an audience.
Each student wears a ‹neutral› mask. The students have already worked on the ‹neutral› body, that is to say walking with an imaginary thread lightly pulling on the crown of the head towards the ceiling, while another invisible thread gently pulls the sternum forward, feet sinking toward the floor but not making any noise. The body is light and gently suspended and breathing is abdominal. The student follows the teacher’s instructions. The students start in a comfortable position – lying down, or sitting, totally relaxed. They wake up as if they are waking up for the first time ever, discovering their surroundings with fresh eyes. Gradually they make contact with the air, light, the ground and they start to move in the space. The instructor guides them on an imaginary journey, telling them they are in a natural environment – a wild space, open to the elements, and that they are going to enter a forest. In The Moving Body, Lecoq talks about the forest’s symbolism, which is personal and specific for each individual, but part of the universal poetic awareness. This is a phenomenological exercise in that its aim is not to show that we are crossing a forest, but to experience crossing the forest from within: smelling the forest, hearing sounds, sensing the way the light penetrates the leaves. Using their somatosensory maps (Damasio, 2010), the students connect to their imagination whether in the form of a snowy pine forest, tropical rainforest or forest of 100 year-old oaks. During the verbal exchange at the end of the workshop, the students become aware of the rich diversity of experience. From an outsider’s point of view, it is obvious when someone is ‹showing› rather than experiencing the journey.

fig. 6: Throwing a pebble into the sea

After crossing the forest, the students emerge onto a vast plain, which they cross, climbing down rocky boulders to get to the sea. Once they are on the beach, they walk on the sand, pick up a pebble, throw it into the sea, and stand looking at where it fell. The teacher then asks them to take off their masks, look at each other, and share if they want. Their faces are softer, different. The students experience this exercise as a deep connection to wellbeing and feel as if they have travelled somewhere else. Sometimes they are struck by how vividly their imagination transports them to somewhere that doesn’t exist. A student wrote these words in her phenomenological writing:

fig. 7: An example of phenomenological writing

Stage 3: Creating meaning, being grounded.

This stage deals with creating meaning and sharing it with others, combining perception and inner experience in order to share it. Here we use the example of a fundamental exercise in an actor’s training, developed by Jacques Lecoq and then adapted by numerous theatre practitioners: The seven levels of tension. As the student is expressing the state of tension throughout the whole body, unifying inner state and outer expression, intention and emotions are clearly visible to the audience.
This exercise works well as part of the physical warm-up at the beginning of a session and can be done with or without neutral masks. Once the students have explored each level thoroughly, and are at ease with the different states, they can move rapidly from one to another, following the trainer’s instructions. Level 1 corresponds to a catatonic state, total inertia, the body is jellyfish-like. Level 2 is that of a ‹cool and laidback› Californian, with a completely relaxed gait. Level 3 is neutral and movements are economical, neither relaxed nor tense. Level 4 is alert and curious, and much acting happens on this level. Level 5 is more intense, the pace is quickened, reactions are bigger. Level 6 is the level of melodrama, emotions are amplified. Level 7 is that of extreme tension – it is the moment of tragedy (King Lear); movements are so intense and extreme that paralysis can occur.
The exercise is essential as it starts with awareness and leads to independence. During the devising process, students can use different levels for different dramatic moments, and be encouraged to draw on them consciously when they are building characters. The levels of tension go beyond barriers of language and culture, creating complexity and dramatic interplay between the characters.
For the same stage, the students speak of learning a lot from the The Childhood Bedroom exercise (Lecoq, 2000: 30). A student puts on a neutral mask and walks on stage, and opens the door to his childhood bedroom. Upon entering, he sees that everything has stayed exactly as it was! Memories come flooding back, triggered by a toy, a book… The student is both traveling in time in his imagination, and re-discovering space, re-creating his bedroom through his movements in the space, by his gestures, how and what he looks at, and his reactions to everything. He shares everything he does with the audience. While fully experiencing the scene through his senses, the student is aware of the theatrical codes (the mask has a limited range of movement, and can’t move continuously, and every action needs to be punctuated by looks to the audience). The student organizes complexity by connecting past and present, the stage space and his inner world in a triangular relationship: 1) an actor on stage led by the mask, 2) a phenomenological evocation of memory and his childhood objects/toys and 3) the play between the memory he’s sharing with the audience who becomes the witness.
The writing which is inspired by this exercise is particularly rich, beyond the fact that it enables the student to become aware of the complex interplay between the imagination and the senses in an embodied language. It constitutes a time of reflection:

I sigh, and decide to sit on my bed. I feel like I’m 15 all over again, with all my problems and my insecurities. Have I changed, though? I have different problems, different insecurities, but deep down I am still the same frightened kid who couldn’t sleep at night. I browse through the first manga but I don’t feel like reading. I feel slightly irritated, and I put the book down. I get up and pick up the sort of straw made nest that laid on my old white trunk. It contains shells I once picked on a beach of Bretagne. I am looking for one in particular. As I find it, I start examining in the light. I painted it with teal nail polish. I smile at myself. I feel nostalgic and warm from the inside, but I don’t feel so much like crying anymore.
(Student Ga)

This exercise can seem daunting to beginners though, so we break it down into two stages: everyone does the exercise individually and simultaneously (as in The First Day exercise above). Then those who wish can redo the exercise in front of an audience. Often this exercise generates strong emotions in the actors and spectators.

Stage 4: Choosing and committing

Although all the exercises in the workshops involve choosing to commit to an action, they do so to varying degrees. We can illustrate an example of choice and commitment in the expressive masks exercise. The first time the students discover the expressive masks, they are encouraged to carefully choose a mask they would like to act with from those on display. They take their mask and look at it. Inspired by the Balinese tradition, we ask the students to imitate the mask’s expression, trying to become the mirror of the mask until he resonates with the same expression and energy as the mask he’s looking at, at which point he puts it on. We ask the student to feel the effect on the whole body of making such an expression. The exercise is purely physical, becoming the mirror of the mask. When he enters the stage the actor breathes and allows the mask to guide him and even to speak. It can seem paradoxical, as if he has not chosen anything, but in fact he has chosen to be guided by the mask. He opens up to the mask. Mimesis engages the body and triggers physiological changes in the student’s inner state. The student walks on stage, makes a gesture and utters a sound. The mask is a point of departure. For some students, the mask makes them do things, for others, it is the student who sees himself as running the show, and who decides what movement or which sound he expresses, but sometimes even that can be disturbing.
Stage 4 of the Tree of learning can also be illustrated by the choices that are made: for example, in the choice of improvisation, or its rules. For Hélène Trocmé-Fabre, the educational project has to belong to the learner. Therefore, in our mask workshops we encourage the learners to discuss between themselves what theme inspires them. This choice is difficult to make at the beginning of the term, as it has to emerge from interactions between those specific students in that particular module, and this context, and the entity of the group has to have had time to find its legs and explore this way of working. The process is a path and, as Hélène Trocmé-Fabre says, you have to build the foundations by first giving the means to learn.

Stages 5–7: The phase of autonomy

This corresponds to the last three acts of the cognitive framework: understanding, creating and co-constructing.
These three stages can be treated simultaneously in the example of our workshops. In the final improvisation in the first workshop of the module, we can see these stages unfold simultaneously. On a theme given by the theatre practitioner (in this case Journey to an Island), the students have to develop a story through group improvisation (stage 5, understanding). For stage 6, creating, the students start from a known starting point, which then develops into a story which emerges from the interactions between the characters. This process entails letting go of what they know (their own point of view) to create something which emerges from the group, which is bigger than the sum of the individuals, and which cannot be done alone. This is stage 7, co-construction. One influential expert in theatrical improvisation, Viola Spolin, describes this moment as a process of transcendence (1963).
The class is divided into two groups. One group represents the natives who live on the island, the other group chooses its identity (pirates/tourists/explorers etc) and travels towards the island in a boat. The two groups have different masks. The islanders decide what their island looks like in the space, and they must find a common identity through rhythm, movement, language (gibberish)13 and actions. They find three actions and three gestures which form an essential part of their identity.
The group at sea chooses its identity, and develops it by finding their movements, essential actions, gestures and language. They have to create the illusion of the boat through movement. Each group has 10 minutes to prepare. When the improvisation starts, the instructor can ask both groups to move, or have one group moving and the other watching, to keep the focus clear. The instructor can clap or call out «freeze» to change the focus to the other group. The group which is not moving is present however, listening and watching. The groups get closer and action builds until they meet. As the viewpoints of each group are extremely different, students become aware that there are lots of possible stories, from confrontation and war to cannibalism, hiding, running away, or attempting to communicate and negotiate. The variety of viewpoints portrayed through groups also epitomizes the theme of transcultural mediation and raises questions about it from the very first workshop. Groups often experience a euphoric moment after the exercise, which they attribute to the pleasure they had being part of a group.
For the students the theme brings the spirit of faraway adventure. The fact of being in a group makes them try together to look for ways of being together in a clearly defined setting, where they are still free to suggest a rich variety of actions and stories. Improvising a story together in the first workshop is very motivating as the students realize how much fun it is to create collectively and the pressure that they can feel when they are alone in front of an audience is lessened.

fig. 8: Journey to an island
fig. 9: Meeting on the island

And finally, the last part of the workshop is devoted to discussing, feedback and exchange where each student can talk about his experience, or ask a question, or share something that struck him or he was surprised by. There is also a moment of reliving the experience and describing a particular moment, in the present tense, in writing. This process of writing, as well as sharing, helps to integrate the work and leads the students to become aware of their learning process and the skills which they are developing. These moments correspond to the fifth and sixth stage of the Tree of Learning which concern the processes of sharing and bringing it all together, therefore the capacity to understand what they have experienced:

When I put my mask on I forget about myself and get into the character I am supposed to be […] This English class made me become someone else […] we learned to listen to consider other people’s opinions and not think that our way of doing things is the right way. (Student Ab.)

In this way, the workshop aims to train intercultural mediators who are capable of integrating other points of view to co-construct a shared world which is always in movement.

6. Conclusion

The enactive paradigm we are putting into practice through a performative approach to cultural mediation is part of the embodiment movement in language education that explores the sensitive and cultural dimensions of communication. (Aden, Eschenauer, 2020; Aden, Potapushkina, Clark, 2019; Lapaire, 2019; Schewe, Crutchfield, 2017). The first results of the ongoing study we have just presented are consistent with the neuro-phenomenological hypothesis our research group is currently testing, namely that motor activities (performing arts), pro-social attitudes (especially empathy), and language plasticity are correlated. According to Thirioux et al. (2014) these processes are underpinned by partially overlapping neuro-anatomical and neuro-functional networks that are part of the motor system. In this study, the use of masks allows us to explore the phenomenological, pre-conscious and pre-verbal layers of communication in language proficiency but more studies need to be done notably on the balance between the use of aesthetic activities and the morpho-syntactic and functional teaching of languages.


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Walther, Joachim; Miller, Shari; Kellam Nadia: «Exploring the role of empathy in engineering communication through a transdisciplinary dialogue», in: 119th ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition American Society for Engineering Education, 2012.

  1. Refers to Basarab Nicolescu’s definition of transdisciplinarity in his Manifesto, 1996, p. xxvii.
  2. Our translation.
  3. The English translation The Tree of Learning is in preparation.
  4. The Reference Guide is an initiative from the Conférence des Grandes Écoles and the Conférence des Présidents d’universités who were joined by key figures in the French socio-economic sector. []( (Last retrieved 10/07/2020.)
  5. Levels B2 or C1 of the CEFR.
  6. Our translation: «What I would call ‹changing points of feeling› [is] to experience and mentally simulate by integrating the experience of someone else into the flow of our own experience, and not just simply a theory about their state of mind.» (Berthoz, 2004: 266).
  7. Our translation. See []( (Last retreived 10/07/2020.)
  8. Idem.
  9. Our translation.
  10. For phenomenological writing see: Vermersch (2012).
  11. More details on the research blog: Embodying languages using theatrical masks. A sensory and empathic approach to interaction. Carnet de recherche Hypothèses 2019. []( (Last retrieved 06/07/2020.)
  12. Our translation.
  13. Gibberish in the first language class is a powerful way to connect to intention, the paraverbal and non-verbal. It can also free students from the pressure of speaking the language correctly, and allow them to focus on playful expression. It can also be used when practicing dialogue, to free up expression and allow the students to connect to the intention behind the words.