Tag Archives: Austria

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?

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