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The Role of Local Culture and Context in English Language Teaching | Nelta Choutari

By nature it grapples with the following dilemma: should it stress the commonalities or emphasise the differences between the native and the target culture? To what extent must teachers hold non-native speakers to native speakers' conventions of language use, and to native speakers' norms of interpretation?


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These words characterise two educational attempts to understand and overcome particularity, by building bridges between one culture and another. The term "intercultural" is used in Europe in the educational world, to characterise the acquisition of information about the customs, institutions and history of a society other than one's own; in the corporate world, the term is applied to the behavioural training for business executives e.

Beyond the traditional knowledge of cultural facts, an intercultural approach aims at gaining an understanding of the way these facts are related, i. Other forms of intercultural education refer to a process of decentering, of relativising self and other in an effort to understand both on their own terms and from their own perspective, as well as from the outsider's perspective. This "intercultural approach" to teaching foreign languages Zarate, , and to writing foreign language textbooks is not without raising some controversy among politicians and literary scholars alike who feel that language teachers should responsible for teaching "only language", not culture nor politics.

Indeed, culture cannot and should not be taught in classrooms, they say, but rather, learners should be sent abroad to experience the culture "on location". Radically different from these efforts to link the teaching of foreign language to an understanding of foreign national cultures are current initiatives in American foreign language education to broaden and diversify traditional views of culture beyond the boundaries of nation states. The notion of "multicultural education", in particular, attempts to "expand the traditional curriculum by incorporating issues of race, class, and gender in an effort to sensitise students to the unique historical realities that have shaped United States culture" Mullen, Multiculturalism has had the effect of de-emphasising national differences and of highlighting the social diversity and cultural pluralism that exists within one and the same nation, within one and the same foreign language classroom due to differences in ethnicity, social class and gender Taylor, It is little wonder that multiculturalism has become in the U.

The debate is fuelled by current discussions about immigration laws in the light of the recent immigration waves, both legal and illegal, to the United States.

Learning About Local Culture Means Less Misunderstandings

From the language teacher's perspective, multiculturalism has helped diversify the presentation of foreign cultural phenomena to include a variety of social class and ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the traditional national isolationism of American education counteracts the benefits of its multicultural perspective. Cultural diversity within the United States is of such overwhelming concern in American education that one easily loses sight of general national characteristics that might differentiate U. Americans from citizens from other countries.

It is easy to take one's own national culture for universally human. Under the fear of reinforcing cultural stereotypes, and under the cover of multicultural pluralism, the default assumptions linked to national cultural ideologies remain often unquestioned and, hence, unexplored. In sum: Despite the advances made by research in the spheres of the intercultural and the multicultural, language teaching is still operating on a relatively narrow conception of both language and culture.

Language continues to be taught as a fixed system of formal structures and universal speech functions, a neutral conduit for the transmission of cultural knowledge. Culture is incorporated only to the extent that it reinforces and enriches, not that it puts in question, traditional boundaries of self and other. In practice, teachers teach language and culture, or culture in language, but not language as culture.

The argument goes as follows. If we accept, with Halliday , that language "as social semiotic" is central to the way cultural reality is shaped and represented, then we have to realise that cultural reality is as heterogeneous and heteroglossic as language itself. What does it mean to say: "French speak this way, Israelis think that way, Russians behave that way? Multicultural relativism or democratic pluralism do not automatically reverse these relations of power and authority, they only make them more invisible.

This is where advocates of critical language pedagogy propose replacing the binarism of Us vs. Them, Insider vs. Outsider, that essentialises people in one or the other of their many cultural dimensions e. This process is a dialogic process that attempts to locate the cultural component of language teaching at the moment of rupture or disjuncture between interlocutors' assumptions and expectations.

A critical foreign language pedagogy focused on the social process of enunciation has the potential both of revealing the codes under which speakers in cross-cultural encounters operate, and of constructing something different and hybrid from these cross-cultural encounters.

Michael Byram: Intercultural competence and foreign language teacher education

Bhabha calls this "a third space, that does not simply revise or invert the dualities, but revalues the ideological bases of division and difference" Bhabha, Rather than seek to bridge differences and aim for the universal, it seeks to create a dialogic context in which the vital necessity to continue the dialogue ensures a mutual base to explore the sometimes irreducible differences between people's values and attitudes. Of course, it is Third World or minority cultures that have given us the necessary insights in this regard.

Homi Bhabha, writing about "Postcolonial authority and postmodern guilt" , describes well the situation of the language teacher having to teach in conditions of heteroglossia: "From that perspective, the perspective of the 'edge' rather than the end, it is no longer adequate to think or write culture from the point of view of the liberal 'ethic' of tolerance, or within the pluralistic time frame of multiculturalism". Culture must be seen as a moment caught "in between a plurality of practices that are different and yet must occupy the same space of adjucation and articulation" p.

The realisation of cross-cultural conflict and incommensurability of values offers the opportunity to pause and muster the effort necessary to speak, quite literally, in terms of the other.

Culture Teaching in L2/FL Education: Background

Bhabha calls this pause "the time-lag of cultural difference" p. For Bhabha, this ambivalence is grounded in the fundamental ambivalence of the linguistic sign. Teachers of language as social semiotic are placed at the privileges site of "possible reinscription and relocation emerging out of cultural difference" p. I would like to suggest that language teachers focus less on seemingly fixed, stable cultural entities and identities on both sides of national borders, and more on the shifting and emerging third place of the language learners themselves.

In order to teach a foreign language as oppositional practice, learners have to be addressed not as deficient monoglossic enunciators, but as potentially heteroglossic narrators. The texts they speak and the texts they write have to be considered not only as instances of grammatical or lexical enunciation, and not only as expressing the thoughts of their authors, but as situated utterances contributing to the construction, perpetuation or subversion of particular cultural contexts.

Thus the development of linguistic and communicative competence can be enriched by such a growth in aesthetic and critic consciousness that we can define as "critical cross-cultural literacy". Conclusion The theoretical framework I propose here for teaching culture through language suspends the traditional dichotomy between the universal and the particular in language teaching. It embraces the particular, not to be consumed by it, but as a platform for dialogue and as a common struggle to realign differences. In this regard, it makes learners and teachers accountable for what they say, it fosters linguistic vigilance and discursive circumspection.

Within this theoretical framework, one may want in the future to define the language teacher not only as the impresario of a certain linguistic performance, but as the catalyst for an ever-widening critical cultural competence. If the ability to understand other cultures is itself mediated through language, then language teachers and learners may want to reflect on the social process of their own pedagogic enunciation. They may also want to reflect on the limits which the academic culture of their universities, the educational culture of their classroom and institution impose on their attempts to teach language as culture.

For, in the final analysis, the process of "reinscription and relocation emerging out of cultural difference" is not intended to maintain the status quo. It is a process which makes language teachers into agents of social change. This paper was delivered at the Conterence on Trilingualism held at Haifa on 12 June It is reprinted here with the author's kind permission from Language, Culture and Curriculum , 8 12 , , Back to document 2.

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Identity and Culture Shaped by Foreign Language Learning: A Case of Iranian University Students

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Kramsch, Claire a. Context and Culture in Language Teaching.