Language without culture

Last weekend I was at the TEA conference in Salzburg, Austria, where I gave a talk entitled BRIDGING THE CULTURE GAP IN THE CLASSROOM. One of the claims I made was that in the vast majority of circumstances, the kind of language we teach in EFL classes has no particular geographically located cultural sub-text. As teachers, we generally have to deal with meanings pure and simple. of course we DO need to be clear in our explanations of what things mean and make it clear to students how they’re used, give extra examples, and so on, but generally cultural information is irrelevant and beyond the realm of what we do.

At the end of the talk a young native-speaker teacher working in Austria asked me whether or not I was claiming that language could be taught to a high level without really dealing with culture, whatever that might mean, at all. I answered that up to Cambridge Proficiency level, I think it’s quite possible yes, and that just a brief look at the kind of language students get tested on at CPE level is enough to prove how irrelevant ‘culture’ is to the understanding and processing of meaning. I mean, here’s a random sample from the first CPE test book I could lay my hands on this morning:

Much as I dislike her, I still . . .

An argument broke out . . .

It didn’t live up to my expectations

As far as I’m aware

He had to be restrained

It’s been earmarked for preservation

It has come a long way since . . .

The country is lagging behind

I could go on, but clearly none of this language is ‘cultural’ in the sense that it requires local knowledge in order to be explained.

The teacher who’d asked the question looked slightly deflated on hearing this and gave a very specific example, which I’ll paraphrase here:

“The other day with my Upper-Intermediate group, I wanted to teach the expression little white lies, so I began by asking the class – they’re all young adults – how I looked. I have to say, I was totally shocked by their brutal honesty. They ripped me to pieces, commenting negatively on her hair, outfit, weight and so on!”

She was so taken aback that she told the class how rude and blunt they’d been, to which they replied ‘Well, you did ask us!’

Now, personally, I think if you want to teach LITTLE WHITE LIES, there are less risky ways of doing it! I think you just set up a situation where, say, your beloved gets a nice haircut which you think looks terrible and they ask you what you think, you say how good it looks and that it really suits because you DON’T WANT TO HURT THEIR FEELINGS, so decide it’s better to TELL A LITTLE WHITE LIE. Nothing cultural there, as far as I can see.

But . . . but . . . but . . IS there perhaps something in the way certain people express negativity (or politeness) that’s somehow inherently cultural? Is the problem in the exchange between the native-speaker teacher and the brutally honest young Austrians actually the problem of the native-speaker filter? if the Austrians had been talking to Russians, say, or Germans or maybe even Indonesians, would there have been less shock and offence?

A few examples here to clarify what I mean.  My wife is Chinese-Indonesian and despite the fact we’ve been together for nigh-on eighteen years, we still have the odd row sparked by what I subconsciously process as rudeness. It’s usually something to do with requests, where maybe she’ll say ‘Pass the remote control’ or something and I’ll snap ‘Please!’ Her business partner, however, is German; they both speak incredibly good English and have lived here for many many years. When talking to each other, they’re fine and don’t process each other as rude in any way. The problem is the native-speaker filter. They both seem very conscious of this as when writing emails, for instance, to natives, they know how to, as my wife would say, ‘tart it up to keep English people happy’!

I’m reminded of the many times students have looked sort of bemused when I’ve presented chunks like I WAS WONDERING IF YOU COULD POSSIBLY . . .  and asked why on earth you don’t just ask CAN YOU . . . ?

Another German woman came to a version of the Bridging the gap talk that I did at IATEFL this year and at the end told a story about how she’d come to work on London in the hotel trade after graduating and was very upset that people complained about her being rude. What bothered her most was the fact that no-one made it clear to her for a long time that much of this was just to do with the choice of certain direct styles of asking or relating negatives rather than using more indirect variants which were more palatable to . . .  yep . . . the native-speaker filter.

There was a big story here maybe ten years ago when a leading chef said he wouldn’t be employing any more Eastern European service staff as they were, and I quote, ‘rude’. I often wonder if this was essentially a similar issue.

Which brings me to my main question, really, and it’s this: is the fact that some people deal with conflict or negotiations more or less directly or indirectly relevant to language teaching? If so, in what way?

9 responses

  1. Another great post! Living in Germany, I OFTEN mention the question of politeness in my English lessons. When I came here 24 years ago, I was flabbergasted by what I perceived to be rudeness amongst the natives. Service quality back then was not an issue in Germany and so I had to put up with hearing a complete absence of “please’s” and “thank-you’s” in various shops, supermarkets and department stores. It is absolutely normal in this part of the world (“Swabia”) for people to answer questions with a monosyllabic “Ja” or “Nein”, but I know that it is NOT considered normal to do so in England.
    In the meantime, I have picked up this usage (it saves time and is more efficient and less hypocritical than the polite – but often confusing – English waffle you sometimes hear in the UK). Once I was visiting a very English lady with my German DH in Cardiff. She asked me if I was hungry, which I was, VERY, so I answered, “YES!”. Her response was, “Ooooh, you sound German!” As a result, even with elementary students, I make a big deal out of coaching them to produce the short answers, “Yes, I do” and “No, I don’t” and so on, as I fear that they will sound abrupt, unfriendly, humourless and impolite if they answer questions Swabian-style when they are dealing with native Brits. With my group of 55+ ladies, I have been surprisingly successful with this strategy and they now answer with the “correct” short questions quite naturally and spontaneously! With choral drilling and strong hints when they forget to do it, they have picked it up. I hope this helps when they are travelling!
    I imagine that a lot of the cultural prejudices about Germans have come from this kind of – for British ears – over-direct response. I imagine the same is true for, say, Chinese speakers and, indeed many other nationalities: that they are perceived as being rude or abrupt, when, in fact, all that is missing is a bit of cultural awareness and the language tools to come across in a manner which will be perceived as friendly and polite by native speakers in Britain. I can’t speak for the Americans, but I suspect that Germans also sound abrupt and impolite to them, too.
    Another tool I try to equip my learners with is the word, “Well…” when used at the beginning of sentences to mean “NO”. It comes up relatively often in listening exercises and I always draw my students’ attention to it. I think that these two tools alone – learning to use short answers and “well” appropriately – could go a long way towards making our students appear less rude in environments where native speakers predominate.
    What do you think, Hugh?

    1. I think this kind of proves my point, I guess, which is that these things only sound weird – or perhaps MAINLY only sound weird – to natives. I suspect if the ‘Swabians’ were talking to other non-natives, even very fluent ones, the perceived rudeness would be massively diminished.

      I think life is made even harder for the Germans because of all the negative cultural connotations connected to the accent and reinforced through endless World War Two movies and the like.

      That said, I do generally think most natives – of any language – make allowances and often think ‘Oh well. He’s / She’s foreign and probably doesn’t mean to sound rude!’

      In terms of language that help students avoid these pitfalls, I think softening and hedging is worth looking at – stuff like the use of A BIT (It’s a little bit more than I wanted to pay), WOULD (I would’ve thought so), fronters (In all honesty / To be frank, etc.). Also polite requests (I was wondering if you could possibly – and so on). Sure there’s other stuff as well, but that’s what springs to mind just now.

  2. I’ll keep it short and sweet. I’m probably a reasonably typical teacher in that I’m also a language learner. Having thought about this long and hard I reckon there is a disparity between the two roles when it comes to putting language into a cultural context. As an adult student I would expect(in certain situations) to be shown the possible reception of one reply or another. As a teacher I do (as an aside normally) show the possible consequences when it is relevant to the students. I value it more as a learner than a teacher (note to self…).

    I find cultural differences very interesting and perhaps it’s of more use to identify them rather than to attempt to ‘teach’ them in class. So, in a nutshell, directly relevant to the business of communication but not always relevant in class.

    1. Hi MIke –
      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to post your response.

      I also find cultural differences interesting and as someone who is lucky enough to travel a lot for work, I often find myself wondering about things I notice whilst abroad. For instance, I’ve just come back from two days in Bulgaria and I noticed that folk often shake their heads to signify agreement whilst there, which can be most disconcerting if you’re speaking to a large audience that seems to mostly be in agreement with you, I can tell you! This stuff is fascinating, but I’m just not sure it’s language teachers’ jobs to teach this stuff. Fine to provide some space somewhere – and some language – for students to briefly discuss habits like greetings, etc. but our main role must lie elsewhere.

      That said, I’m interested to know what kind of things you actually tell your students that you think are specifically cultural. You said that you try to “show the possible consequences when it is relevant to the students.” In what kinds of situations? And what kind of possible consequences? I’d be keen to hear more about the specifics here.


  3. Ooo, excellent post, Hugh (as they all are! Please keep writing!). So…my final Delta LSA is coming up in two weeks, and I am doing …. wait for it … using softening and hedging in making and refusing polite requests! Wow…so your posts (and the follow.up comments) are very helpful for the background essay! Thanks. I was wondering if you would care to “name and shame” the “leading chef” so that I could google him/her and use the relevant article as a source? Cheers! Jo

    1. Hi there Jo –
      Thanks for the kind words. Makes it worth the while to know that there actually are folk out there who are reading this and enjoying it!

      Good luck with the DELTA. Hope that all goes well for you. The softening and hedging in polite requests sounds interesting. If you can face it, post up what you end up deciding to do with the class. What level are they?

      As for the chef, I honestly can’t remember. May have been Gordon Ramsay. Was a good few years ago and I remember it causing a stink at the time, bit Googling hasn’t helped retrieve much! Hope you do better. Stick up a link here if and when you find anything.


      1. I hate to link in the vile evil Daily Mail, but just found this Googling, which is around a similar point in a way. If you can pick your way through the racist nut jobs in the comments section and avoid barfing at the general snide tone, there are some interesting points made as well.

      2. Thanks, Hugh. Very useful. A friend of mine (who is even better at googling than I am!) found the link to what I think you were referring to…
        I had tried to write it in to the essay without referencing it…but of course, it bounced straight back from the tutor with a “please reference” note 😉
        Back to the writing! Am saving up your recent posts for AFTER the 18th…the EXTERNAL…!

      3. Hi again Jo –
        Impressed you managed to dig that up. Beat me with the Google skills there!
        Had forgotten it was celebrity gobshite Antony Worrall Thompson, though.
        The Jeremy Clarkson of the celebrity chef world!
        Seems from that article he didn’t specifically mention polite language – just language in general.
        Not sure why I remember it as being about politeness.
        Maybe an interview I heard him give or something?
        Or just false memory syndrome of course. It’s always possible.
        Anyway, thanks for the link.

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