and Culture - a thesis
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
INCORPORATING CULTURE INTO THE FOREIGN LANGUAGE CLASSROOM:
SOME PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
question germane to our discussion is, how can we incorporate
culture into the foreign language curriculum, with a view
to fostering cultural awareness and communicating insight
into the target civilisation? In the past, this has been attempted
by dint of discoursing upon the geographical environment and
historical or political development of the foreign culture,
its institutions and customs, its literary achievements, even
the minute details of the everyday life of its members. At
other times, insights into the target community have taken
the form of 'lecturettes' (see Rivers, 1968: 272) or a "homily"
on such issues as marriage customs and ceremonies, festivals,
Sunday excursions, and so forth, thus rendering the study
of the foreign culture a tedious and unrewarding task. Admittedly,
we cannot teach culture any more than we can teach anyone
how to breathe. What we can do, though, is try to show the
way, to teach about culture rather than to posit a specific
way of seeing things--which is corollary and ancillary to
cultural and linguistic imperialism. By bringing to the fore
some elements of the target culture, and focusing on those
characteristics and traits that are of importance to the members
of the target community-refraining from taking an outsider's
view-teachers can make students aware that there are no such
things as superior and inferior cultures and that there are
differences among people within the target culture, as well.
'[Teachers are] not in the classroom to confirm the prejudices
of [their] students nor to attack their deeply held convictions'
(ibid.: 271). Their task is to stimulate students' interest
in the target culture, and to help establish the foreign language
classroom 'not so much as a place where the language is taught,
but as one where opportunities for learning of various kinds
are provided through the interactions that take place between
the participants' (Ellis, 1992: 171, cited in Kramsch, 1993:
According to Straub (1999), what educators should always have
in mind when teaching culture is the need to raise their students'
awareness of their own culture, to provide them with some
kind of metalanguage in order to talk about culture, and 'to
cultivate a degree of intellectual objectivity essential in
cross-cultural analyses' (ibid.: 5). What is more, another
objective permeating the teaching of culture is 'to foster
of the target culture from an insider's perspective-an empathetic
view that permits the student to accurately interpret foreign
cultural behaviors' (ibid.). Prior to considering some concrete
techniques for teaching culture in the foreign language classroom,
it is useful to attempt an answer to the question posed at
the beginning of this chapter by providing some guidelines
for culture teaching (most of the discussion that ensues is
mainly based on Lessard-Clouston, 1997).
First, culture teaching must be commensurate with the dynamic
aspects of culture. As Lessard-Clouston (1997) notes,
'[s]tudents will indeed need to develop knowledge of and
about the L2 or FL culture, but this receptive aspect of cultural
competence is not sufficient. Learners will also need to master
some skills in culturally appropriate communication and behaviour
for the target culture
[C]ultural awareness is necessary
if students are to develop an understanding of the dynamic
nature of the target culture, as well as their own culture.'
Second, it is important to eschew what Lessard-Clouston (1997)
calls 'a laissez-faire approach', when it comes to teaching
methodology, and deal with culture teaching in a systematic
and structured way. Third, evaluation of culture learning
is a necessary component of the "foreign culture curriculum,"
providing students with feedback and keeping teachers accountable
in their teaching. A fourth point is made by Cruz, Bonissone,
and Baff (1995) pertaining to the express need for linguistic
and cultural competence as a means of achieving and negotiating
nations' political and economical identities in an 'ever shrinking
world', as they put it.
'Our world has changed, but in many ways our schools have
not. Linguistic and cultural abilities are at the forefront
of our ever shrinking world. Yet we continue to shy away from
addressing these very real global necessities. Just as no
one superpower can dominate without censure from others, citizens
must now begin to see their global responsibilities and must
learn to move comfortably from one cultural environment to
the next. Persuasion rather than armed coercion has become
the way to do things politically and effective persuasion
requires that one know the other party's values and manner
of establishing rapport.' (ibid.)
Apparently, culture can become a third (or second, for that
matter) "superpower" dispensing justice and helping
maintain stability and equilibrium if need be.
A cursory glance at most textbooks nowadays is ample to show
what educators must first combat and eradicate: stereotypes.
As Byram, Morgan et al. (1994: 41) observe, '[textbook writers]
intuitively avoid bringing learners' existing hetero-stereotypes
into the open and hope that [their] negative overtones
counteracted by presenting positive
the foreign country'. As a matter of fact, stereotypes are
extremely tenacious, in so far as people from different cultures
have their own schemata through which they conceptualise and
understand the world, and to step into another culture is
'to deny something within their own being' (ibid.: 43). In
order to provide a different perspective on "the foreign
culture," teachers should use comparison, with a view
to identifying common ground or even lacunae within or between
cultures (see Ertelt-Vieth, 1990, 1991, cited in Byram, Morgan
et al., 1994: 43). Most certainly, learners will not relinquish
their 'cultural baggage' (ibid.) and begin to see the world
"in the French, English, or Japanese way," so to
speak. Nevertheless, they can acknowledge that any "intellectual
antinomies" emanating from their exposure to the target
culture are natural and by no means pernicious.
Before venturing into unknown territories (Grove, 1982), learners
must first become conversant with what it means to be part
of a culture, their own culture. By exploring their own culture,
i.e., by discussing the very values, expectations, traditions,
customs, and rituals they unconsciously take part in, they
are ready to reflect upon the values, expectations, and traditions
of others 'with a higher degree of intellectual objectivity'
(Straub, 1999). Depending on the age and level of the learners,
this task can take many forms. For example, young beginners
or intermediate students should be given the opportunity to
enjoy certain activities that are part of their own tradition,
such as national sports, social festivities, or songs, before
setting about exploring those of the target culture. Here,
we will only be concerned with the latter. 'Beginning foreign
language students want to feel, touch, smell, and see the
foreign peoples and not just hear their language' (Peck, 1998).
At any rate, the foreign language classroom should become
a 'cultural island' (Kramsch, 1993; Singhal, 1998; Peck, 1998),
where the accent will be on 'cultural experience' rather than
'cultural awareness' (see Byram, Morgan et al., 1994: 55-60).
From the first day, teachers are expected to bring in the
class posters, pictures, maps, and other realia in order to
help students develop 'a mental image' of the target culture
(Peck, 1998). According to Peck (1998), an effective and stimulating
activity is to send students on "cultural errands"
(my term)-to supermarkets and department stores-and have them
write down the names of imported goods. Moreover, teachers
can also invite guest speakers, who will talk about their
experiences of the foreign country.
Another insightful activity is to divide the class into groups
of three or four and have them draw up a list of those characteristics
and traits that supposedly distinguish the home and target
cultures. Tomalin & Stempleski (1993: 16) provide a sample
of the kind of list students could produce:
arts and crafts
In this way, it becomes easier for teachers and students to
identify any "stereotypical lapses" and preconceived
ideas that they need to disabuse themselves of. To this end,
once major differences have been established, students can
be introduced to some 'key words' (Williams, 1983), such as
"marriage," "death," "homosexuality,"
etc., and thus be assisted in taking an insider's view of
the connotations of these words and concepts. In other words,
they can query their own assumptions and try to see the underlying
significance of a particular term or word in the target language
and culture. For example, in English culture, both animals
and humans have feelings, get sick, and are buried in cemeteries.
In Hispanic culture, however, the distinction between humans
and animals is great, and bullfighting is highly unlikely
to be seen as a waste of time, as many western spectators
are apt to say. For Spanish people, a bull is not equal to
the man who kills it-a belief that has the effect of exonerating,
so to speak, the bullfighter from all responsibility; a bull
can be strong but not intelligent or skilful; these are qualities
attributed to human beings. In this light, notions such as
"cruel," "slaughter," or "being defenceless"
carry vastly different undertones in the two cultures (see
Besides, the way language and social variables interpenetrate
should inform culture teaching in the foreign language classroom.
The main premise is that language varies according to social
variables, such as sex, age, social class, location [
and the concomitant register differences should not go unnoticed.
For example, students can be taught that there are certain
words used more by women than by men, and vice versa, and
that there are also different dialects which may not enjoy
equal adulation and prestige (for example, Cockney as opposed
to Received Pronunciation in England) (see Henrichsen, 1998).
Through exposure to the foreign civilisation, students inescapably
draw some comparisons between the home and target culture.
'Cultural capsules' (Singhal, 1998, and others), also known
as 'culturgrams' (Peck, 1998), attempt to help in this respect,
presenting learners with isolated items about the target culture,
while using books and other visual aids. Yet, according to
Peck (ibid.), a more useful way to provide cultural information
is by dint of cultural clusters, which are a series of culture
capsules. Seelye (1984) provides such capsules, such as a
narrative on the etiquette during a family meal. With this
narrative as a springboard for discussion and experimentation,
students can practice how to eat, learn how, and to what extent,
the members of the target culture appreciate a meal with friends,
and so forth. A word of caveat is called for, though. Students
must not lose sight of the fact that not all members of the
target community think and behave in the same way.
Henrichsen (1998) proposes, among others, two interesting
methods: culture assimilators and cultoons. Culture assimilators
comprise short descriptions of various situations where one
person from the target culture interacts with persons from
the home culture. Then follow four possible interpretations
of the meaning of the behaviour and speech of the interactants,
especially those from the target culture. Once the students
have read the description, they choose one of the four options
they think is the correct interpretation of the situation.
When every single student has made his choice, they discuss
why some options are correct or incorrect. The main thrust
of culture assimilators is that they 'are good methods of
giving students understanding about cultural information and
even promote emotional empathy or affect if students have
strong feelings about one or more of the options' (ibid.).
On the other hand, cultoons are visual culture assimilators.
Students are provided with a series of four pictures highlighting
points of misunderstanding or culture shock experienced by
persons in contact with the target culture. Here, students
are asked to evaluate the characters' reactions in terms of
appropriateness (within the target culture). Once misunderstandings
are dissipated, learners read short texts explaining what
was happening in the cultoons and why there was misunderstanding.
Nevertheless, much as cultoons 'generally promote understanding
of cultural facts
.they do not usually give real understanding
of emotions involved in cultural misunderstandings' (ibid.).
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