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Language and Culture - a thesis
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 6

Cultural problem solving is yet another way to provide cultural information (see Singhal, 1998). In this case, learners are presented with some information but they are on the horns of a dilemma, so to speak. For example, in analysing, say, a TV conversation or reading a narrative on marriage ceremonies, they are expected to assess manners and customs, or appropriate or inappropriate behaviour, and to employ various problem-solving techniques-in short, to develop a kind of "cultural strategic competence" (my term). Singhal (1998) sets the scene: students are in a restaurant and are expected to order a meal. In this way, learners are given the opportunity to step into the shoes of a member of the target culture.

Indisputably, conventional behaviour in common situations is a subject with which students should acquaint themselves. For instance, in the USA or the United Kingdom, it is uncommon for a student who is late for class to knock on the door and apologize to the teacher. Rather, this behaviour is most likely to be frowned upon and have the opposite effect, even though it is common behaviour in the culture many students come from. Besides, there are significant differences across cultures regarding the ways in which the teacher is addressed; when a student is supposed to raise her hand; what topics are considered taboo or "off the mark"; how much leeway students are allowed in achieving learner autonomy, and so forth (for further details, see Henrichsen, 1998).

Alongside linguistic knowledge, students should also familiarise themselves with various forms of non-verbal communication, such as gesture and facial expressions, typical in the target culture. More specifically, learners should be cognisant of the fact that such seemingly universal signals as gestures and facial expressions-as well as emotions-are actually cultural phenomena, and may as often as not lead to miscommunication and erroneous assumptions (see Wierzbicka, 1999). Green (1968) furnishes some examples of appropriate gestures in Spanish culture. An interesting activity focusing on non-verbal communication is found in Tomalin & Stempleski (1993: 117-119): The teacher hands out twelve pictures showing gestures and then invites the students to discuss and answer some questions. Which gestures are different from those in the home culture? Which of the gestures shown would be used in different situations or even avoided in the home culture? Another activity would be to invite learners to role-play emotions (Tomalin & Stempleski, 1993: 116-117): The teacher writes a list of several words indicating emotions (happiness, fear, anger, joy, pain, guilt, sadness) and then asks the students to use facial expressions and gestures to express these emotions. Then follows a discussion on the different ways in which people from different cultures express emotions as well as interpret gestures as "indices" to emotions. As Straub (1999: 6) succinctly puts it, '[b]y understanding how cultures and subcultures or co-cultures use these signs to communicate, we can discover a person's social status, group membership, and approachability'. According to him, it is important to encourage learners to 'speculate on the significance of various styles of clothing, the symbolic meanings of colors, gestures, facial expressions, and the physical distance people unconsciously put between each other' (ibid.), and to show in what ways these nonverbal cues are similar to, or at variance with, those of their culture.

Herein lies the role of literature in the foreign language classroom. Rather than being a fifth adjunct to the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), culture can best find its expression through the medium of literature. As Valdes (1986: 137) notes,

'literature is a viable component of second language programs at the appropriate level and…one of [its] major functions …is to serve as a medium to transmit the culture of the people who speak the language in which it is written.'

First of all, literary texts are an untapped resource of authentic language that learners can avail themselves of. Exposure to literary works can help them to expand their language awareness and develop their language competence. Moreover, trying to interpret and account for the values, assumptions, and beliefs infusing the literary texts of the target culture is instrumental in defining and redefining those obtaining in the home culture (Gantidou, personal communication). Of course, literature can extend to cover the use of film and television in the FL classroom, for they 'have the capacity…to present language and situation simultaneously, that is, language in fully contextualized form' (Corder, 1968, cited in Jalling, 1968: 65). A major shortcoming, though, is that the viewer can only be an observer, not a participant. There is only reaction but no interaction on her part (ibid.: 68). What is more, there are some difficulties regarding the methodology of teaching literature. Carter (1990, cited in Carter & McRae, 1996), for example, cautions that a limited knowledge of linguistics could blindfold teachers and students to the fact that literary texts are 'holistic artefacts which are situated within cultural traditions, are historically shaped and grow out of the lived experiences of the writer' (Carter & McRae, 1996: xxii).

The literature on culture teaching methodology is vast and a great many techniques have been employed, in an attempt to strip away the layers of obfuscation the term culture has been cloaked in, and show that 'a basic competence in the English language proper, with a minimum of cultural references' (Bessmertnyi, 1994), not only is of little value but can also lead to misunderstanding, culture shock, even animosity among nations. What should be made explicit is that the "cultural references" Bessmertnyi alludes to can only act as facilitating devices, so to speak, in the process of socialisation into the target community. Knowing a second or foreign language should open windows on the target culture as well as on the world at large. By the same token, speaking English or Chinese should give the learner the opportunity to see the world through "English or Chinese eyes," without making him relinquish his own grip of reality, his personal identity, which can step back and evaluate both home and target cultures. In a sense, cultural knowledge and experience should make us aware that, far from becoming members of the same 'monocultural global village' (Kramsch, 1987c), we can actually become observers and participants at the same time, registering what is transpiring in every culture and trying to find 'third places' (Kramsch, 1993), a third niche, from which to divine pernicious dichotomies and bridge cultural gaps. After all, as regards language teachers, '[w]e cannot teach an understanding of the foreign as long as the familiar has not become foreign to us in many respects' (Hunfeld, 1990: 16, translated by, and cited in, Kramsch, 1993: 234).

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