But of course, you couldn’t do that in Japan! Part One

An old post of mine about the thorny issue of how and why teachers may want – or need – to tackle issues surrounding diversity in the classroom was recently quoted in a very interesting post on similar issues, but from a Belgian perspective. In a piece on the excellent BELTA website, Eef Lenaers wrote about the frustration she sometimes experiences when her students come up with gross over-generalisations about other cultures and what can be done about this. Now, all of this got me thinking about an old talk I used to do on the conference circuit ten or so years ago, which tried to address similar issues, and I figured that as I’ve been utterly useless at blogging of late, amidst various madness that’s been visited upon me, it might be a good idea to dig that old talk up and turn it into a post. Better than nothing, eh? So here goes . . .

Frequently after classes, my students will come up to me and ask “But where are you from? You’re not very English!” Over the years, I’ve learned to delude myself into taking this as a compliment: it must be down to my warm, out-going personality, I assure myself; or perhaps it’s the fact I’m not that bad with languages, that I’m chatty, and possessed of a lust for life. These moments help me stave off the sad fact that really I’m scruffy, prone to mumbles and rants, and somehow inherently shabby in the way that only those reared on bacon sandwiches and milky tea can ever truly be!

20121129-rashers590-08milky-cinnamon-tea-and-eggs-015

At home, however, it’s often a totally different story. I have a non-British partner, and the last line of attack, the riposte to which there is no return, is always “God! You’re so bloody ENGLISH!” This can mean anything from you’re the kind of sad, repressed person who walks out of the room to break wind to why on earth can’t you phone someone just because it’s after 10 in the evening! It could be quiet rage at my not wanting to talk about sex – or even really talk at all very much full stop, or else anger at my refusal to ever admit to feeling down or pissed off when the brown stuff starts hitting the ventilation. Whatever, it still comes as really quite confusing. I am English by birth and by upbringing. I feel intensely connected to certain aspects of life in Britain, repelled and appalled by others. And yet in the eyes of the outside observer, I seem to flit back and forth across a line of some supposed cultural finality.

The first point to make here is that both national identity and the notion of culture that it is so frequently associated with are far more complex than the simple retorts above suggest. However, it still tends to be the trite and the simplistic which prevails within EFL. Culture in English Language Teaching materials is a simple black and white affair; or rather, it is all too often simply white: antiseptic, anodyne, bleached and sanitised and bland. As a teacher trainer, this becomes most apparent when watching trainees use widespread EFL materials. Trainees generally come to the classroom with little or no experience and thus view the coursebook as an expert source of knowledge and as somehow implicitly right. The notion of culture as propagated in coursebooks tends to either revolve around the presentation of literature as a vehicle for culture, so the old Headway Pre-Intermediate, which I once used on a CELTA course, had, for instance, an extract from Dickens which includes such choice lines as “The mild Mr. Chillip sidled into the parlour and said to my aunt in the meekest manner ‘Well, ma’am, I’m happy to congratulate you’”. The many hours of fun to be had by watching trainees on their second teaching practice slot trying to explain to bemused students what a parlour is or how exactly you sidle is tempered only by an awareness that this is singularly useless vocabulary for learners of this level to be learning!

parlour-in-1790

Another angle on the culture issue crops up in a text in an Upper-intermediate book called ‘Soho: My favourite Place”. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the wonderful mess that is Soho, but the last time I looked, it was still as full of drug dealers, gay bars, meat-head bouncers policing dubious late-night binge-drinking establishments, transvestites and menacing-looking characters lurking in shadows as it has ever been. Not in Headway, though, of course! Oh no! The nearest any of this comes to impinging on the antiseptic world of the coursebook is the admission that “the place is a bit of a mess”, whilst readers are coyly told that there are “surprises around every corner”. Those of you familiar with a bit of classical mythology may also be surprised to learn that Eros apparently celebrates “the freedom and friendship of youth”! This is culture as a kind of white-washed national tourist board ad.

eros__piccadilly_circus_by_danndeemann-d31xzxj

All of this is then compounded by a persistent triteness which reduces people from other countries down to their crudest stereotypes, as in yet another text from a well-known coursebook that looks at ‘Minding your Manners Around The World’. Here, trainees get to inform students that if they are expecting the arrival of foreign business colleagues, they can be sure that Germans will be bang on time, Americans will probably be fifteen minutes early, Brits will be fifteen minutes late and as for the Italians! Well, you’d best allow them anything up to an hour! The supposed veracity of these gross, offensive stereotypes is not even challenged by the methodology. The kinds of questions students are asked to discuss after reading the text are almost always simply comprehension-based, so they are forced into uncovering ‘Which nationalities are the most and least punctual’, for example.

It seems to me that three broad issues arise from all this: the basic question of what exactly culture is, how trainees can be made more aware of it, and how a broader notion of culture leads to methodological changes. I strongly believe that even initial preparatory courses such as CELTA should be addressing these sensitive areas. Here, though, I’ll just try to outline some basic notions of what culture might actually involve – and look briefly at how this could impact on initial training.

The title of this particular post comes from a comment made to me early on in my teaching career. It was, presumably, intended as useful guidance to a rookie teacher and also perhaps as some strange form of protection for any mono-cultural Japanese classes that might later be encountered. The myth of the difference and uniqueness of the mono-lingual, mono-cultural context is a very damaging one in that it insists on speakers of one foreign language somehow all being equal participants in a shared, mutually agreed upon culture. Those still clinging on to such an idea might like to discuss the following exercise (later adapted for OUTCOMES Advanced) which we frequently used to do with CELTA trainees on our courses.

GOD SAVE THE QUEEN?

1. Are the following part of British culture? In what way?

2. Do any of them mean anything to you personally? What?

3. Have you seen any of them mentioned in EFL materials? In what capacity?

God Save the Queen                      

bacon and eggs

Balti curries                                      

lager

port                                                      

the Costa del Sol

a week in Provence                          

ballet

the Proms                                                   

Reggae

Old Labour                                                  

Conceptual Art

The Beautiful Game                        

The Environment

bowler hats                                        

Notting Hill                          

French art-house films                 

Irvine Welsh

Cockney rhyming slang               

Shakespeare

Islam                                                             

Sunday school

marijuana                                                    

Cricket

Direct Action                                     

Harrods

car boot sales                                            

St. Patrick’s Day

kebab shops                                     

Easter

Chinese New Year                                   

ackee and salt fish

ackee 5

My own take on this is that all of the above form part of the complex fabric of modern British life in one way or another and that the degree to which each is relevant to any individual with any connection to British culture depends on the webs of micro-cultures we each weave for ourselves. As such, there is very clearly no such thing as ‘British culture’ in any monolithic sense – it is rather, as the axiom has it, horses for courses, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You also cannot make assumptions that, say, reggae and marijuana will always overlap or that Islam should somehow exclude fish and chips! It should also be added that not only will the same intense involvement in a wide variety of micro-cultures be the case for all foreign learners, but that often – as moneyed, globally-oriented beings – many of our students will  frequently participate enthusiastically in exactly the same globalised micro-cultures as many native-speakers. This is where non-native speaker teachers, working in the countries of their origin, have a huge advantage over native-speaker teacher imports. The local teachers will almost always know far more about the macro-culture of the country they are teaching in and can thus use all of this knowledge to hook new language onto in ways that are pertinent and meaningful to their students. Once you accept that mono-lingual certainly does NOT mean mono-cultural, at least when one is thinking of culture in terms of micro-cultures, then the gap that then remains can be envisaged less as cultural and far more helpfully as a purely linguistic one, with any attitudinal differences that each participant in any micro-cultural discourse might feel then being acknowledged and negotiated through language. Such an understanding of the way we all contain and negotiate a vast variety of cultures within our day-to-day lives will hopefully result in the end of essentialising comments about what ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘Turkish’ students can and can’t somehow cope with in classes, and will lead instead to a classroom culture in which students in ANY context are given the time, space and language to be first and foremost their own complex selves.

I’ll leave it there for now, but be warned: there’s a part two to all of this and maybe even a part three waiting in the wings.

I’ll see what comes back in response to this one first and take it from there.

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15 responses

  1. A very engaging post. Thanks a lot, Hugh!
    For some time I’ve been involved in promoting equal rights in TEFL and fighting against the discrimination NNESTs and some NESTs suffer. It is interesting how by some the cultural aspect is still brought up as something which only a NEST could teach, as if there was a homogeneous NEST culture.
    Perhaps it’s a bit off topic, but I was wondering what your take on the NEST/NNEST debate was, especially when transmitting the cultural aspects are concerned, and whether you would find time and like to contribute a post to a blog I’ve recently founded with a group of English teachers. You can find it here: http://teflequityadvocates.blogspot.nl/
    Once again thanks for an interesting post. Looking forward to reading part 2 🙂

    1. Hi Marek –
      Thanks for your thoughtful response.
      Glad it struck a chord and very pleased to see it fits with the kind of ideas you’re trying out with your own blog there (which I’ve just been Tweeting about, btw).
      The idea that somehow Native-speakers have some monopoly over culture – or even that ‘culture’, whatever it may mean, is even really that important a part of teaching EFL, is ridiculous.
      Every native speaker, just like every non-native, inhabits their own micro-cultural universe and the idea that you can find a large group of natives who agree on ‘cultural’ things that may be of use for, say, a monolingual Intermediate group in Hungary to know – and that we’d somehow be better at this than non-natives – is so outmoded it’s depressing to know it’s still an argument that needs to be had!
      I would be interested in writing something for you, but sadly at present time is very much of the essence as we’re in the middle of a mad book writing schedule and that basically means I can’t really take on any extra commitments at present.
      Drop me a line again at the end of the summer and I’ll see where I’m at.

      1. Hi Hugh,
        Thanks for your reply. I’ll definitely drop you a line in August or September. Our readers would really appreciate a post from you on the blog.
        It is ridiculous to claim that there is a homogeneous something called a native speaker culture, as you said. But I’ve had countless arguments with some recruiters and a few NESTs who claimed that a student needs a NEST to teach them ‘the culture’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. And surely a NNEST isn’t qualified to do it. I can understand that a student might be interested in let’s say the generic British culture (if we agree that it exists). But then this is not an argument for recruiting a NEST! It’s an argument for recruiting a teacher with knowledge of this specific culture, regardless of their nationality.
        Looking forward to discussing the post for our blog with you after the summer, and to reading part 2 of this one! 🙂

      2. Hi again Marek –
        Great to hear back from you.
        Yes, please do get back to me and remind me later on in the year.
        Having just given a talk to Ukrainian teachers on the advantages of being non-native, I can see the appetite out there for posts on the themes you’ve set out to explore!

        As for teachers who insist natives know ‘the culture’ in order to properly teach, I’d just ask for examples of what aspects of the so-called culture they feel they might to talk about and when. Without concrete examples, it’s impossible to really have discussions about any of this.

  2. Hi Hugh,
    One ofthe effects of culture is that it is hardtosee outside of it, it takes experiencing other cultures to get a glimpse of ones own. And there lies the rub of “teaching” culture. One useful and common heuristic is grouping big c culture which most of your post i think discusses and little c culture of everyday behaviours.

    The example i use often with french sts is my difficulty interrupting and/or talking over others when in a conversation with a group of french people. Waiting for the other/s to stop speaking is my default mode which is not so adaptive in france.

    Apart from showing and discussing such differences in everyday behaviours in class there does not seemto be muchsubstitute for lived experience from outside the classroom (this does not necessarily mean going abroad, sts whohave done an internship in france seem to have a certain cultural awareness over sts who have not), hence coursebooks have always been on a uphill battle 🙂
    Lk fwd to more in this series of posts!
    ta
    mura

  3. Thanks for this post. I love the way you explicitly reject the idea of a mono-cultural society. I did your suggested exercise at school (especially question 1) and it was an eye opener for my students! I feel very strongly about challenging stereotypical ways of thinking/teaching and learning about culture and language. I believe culture is so complex that nuance and exposure to diversity is necessary.
    You briefly touch on the relation between literature and culture. That’s such an interesting one. I would be interested in hearing your opinion on this more. How do you integrate culture into literature or literature into culture? I teach English to 17-18 year old Belgian students, so they are upper-intermediate to advanced learners.
    Thank you so much.
    Eef

    1. I suspect my own perspective may well have been shaped by growing up in the 1980s,. which was a very tribal era, shaped by endless sub-divisions of youth subcultures, and a time when you were made very aware of how different you were from many of your compatriots due to internal politics, key divisive issues such as the miner’s strike and Hillsborough, and so on. It was apparent to me from almost as soon as I was a teenager than monolingual people from the same country often had nothing except language in common as a result!

      Interestingly, one of the key goals of the Common European Framework is to encourage teachers to think more of ways of encouraging acceptance and tolerance of diversity and other ways of thinking / living through language teaching, so we’re clearly not alone in our thoughts here!

      As for the literature question, in all honesty I don’t use literature at all ion my General English classes – as I’m teaching General English, not British culture/s per se.
      I tend to go for a more global slant and try to cover a wide range of topics across a wide range of places, the kind of thing we’ve included in our series of coursebooks, OUTCOMES.

  4. Hi Hugh,
    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.
    I’ve recently had a few discussions with students touching on NEST/NNEST and on British culture, and each time I think about how much their idea of Britishness is shaped by the media they have been exposed to, tempered through what they have been told in their English classes. I’ve been told that my classes are interesting because of the bits of culture we talk about, but I always want to say that it’s just a tiny part. Your list above highlights just how tiny that part is – there are at least two things on your list I’ve never even heard of! In her journal, one teen student asked me to describe the people in my town, and was surprised when I wrote about how big and influential the Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean population are in Wolverhampton, where I grew up. It’s not something she’d ever come across in her coursebooks.
    I think both native and non-native teachers should (and often do!) share the bits of the culture that they’re interested in too – we all pick different things. This builds up a patchwork of information that students can choose to investigate further if they want to.
    As I’m about to embark on some of my first materials writing, I’ll try to keep this in mind. I like to think I would have done anyway, but it’s always good for someone to say it explicitly.
    Sandy

    1. Hi Sandy –
      Thanks for the comments. Glad you enjoyed the post and that it struck some kind of a chord.

      I think the issue of students becoming more aware of the sheer diversity of Britain / native speaker environments in general is a really important one, and in many ways linked to an understanding of diversity and variety of their own home environment too. This issue with regard to Britain and native speakers is especially pressing when you consider the large number of native-speaker teachers who do not fit the expected white middle-class stereotypes students have. For many of these teachers, being asked “But where are you REALLY from?” is a perennial annoyance that simply shouldn’t happen in this day and age – and classroom materials and practitioners have a responsibility to tackle this, I think.

      By the way, just out of curiosity, what were the two items in my list above that you’d never even heard of?
      Hugh

      1. ‘Ackee and salt fish’ and ‘Direct Action’. I’ve just looked up ‘direct action’ and realised I do know what it is, but looking at it on your list it didn’t ring any immediate bells. That probably has a lot to do with my age, and the fact that my association with trade unions/labour movements has been almost none-existent. As for ‘ackee and saltfish’, growing up in Wolverhampton, it must have been around, but Indian and Pakistani food was much more common!

      2. Ackee and salt fish is what I used to have for tea round at my mate Nelson’s house when I was at primary school, so it remains close to my heart.
        It’s also mentioned in the lyrics of one of my very favourite ever songs!

        Direct Action? You have to bear in mind I came of age during the time of Greenham Common and Molesworth, so again it’s very much part of cultural DNA.
        Of course, though, the point is we all differ in what our own culture means to us.

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