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!
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!
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.
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
the Costa del Sol
a week in Provence
The Beautiful Game
French art-house films
Cockney rhyming slang
car boot sales
St. Patrick’s Day
Chinese New Year
ackee and salt fish
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.
Having grown up in an era during which the prominence of the National Front forced you to take sides in a very ugly and frequently violent national debate about who could and couldn’t be considered to ‘belong here’, and in which the first brave black players to play for the English national football team were greeted, by some sections of the crowd with bananas, monkey grunting and banners proclaiming that ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ (sic.), it’s always been a point of principle for me that anyone born and raised in England is by definition English – and that to oppose this notion is essentially a form of fascism based on ridiculous, outmoded and unscientific folksy notion of racial purity and blood and land.
Of course, there’s what I may believe and hold to be true and there’s what students believe, and clearly the two can sometimes be at wildly divergent odds . . . as I found out in class yesterday. One of my students is a lovely woman who always calls herself Russian, despite the fact she was born and bred in Latvia. Now, having been to the country a couple of times, I’m all too aware of the tensions between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, and I can understand why people might choose to adopt such taxonomy. In the coffee break, chat turned to her fiance, who she calls Russian too. It emerged that he too was born and bred in Latvia, despite having one Russian parent and one parent who was born and raised in Azerbaijan. I commented that for me this meant he was Latvia, whereupon I was told that even if they had kids which were born and brought up here in London, they’d still be Russian. I laughed and said ‘They’d be Anglo-Lativian-Russian-Azeri, but they’d be English, to me at least’ . . . and all hell broke loose.
There then followed a lengthy discussion about what it means to be English, during which it became clear (a) that for many – perhaps almost all – students the notion of Englishness is still very much connected to the idea of being white and to the idea of having deep family roots in the soil. How deep those roots need to be, how many generations they need to go back, varied from student to student, but the message seemed clear – and it seemed disturbingly similar to that propagated by the NF when I was younger, albeit in a far less aggressive or politicised manner, of course – and (b) the construct of Englishness that prevails seems rooted in a general shock at the wilder excesses of a small section of London youth. One student, a Sicilian with a sister living in the UK, married to an Indian with whom she has two kids, claimed that her nephew and niece, despite the fact they’re growing up here, would never be ‘English’ because of ‘cultural differences’ such as not going out dressed half-naked to get violently drunk and have sex in the street on a Tuesday night!
In the ensuing discussion, I tried to point out that there really isn’t – and has never been – one kind of ‘English’ person and that the English differ in their attitudes, morals, behaviour, politics, lifestyles, etc as much as anyone else. Some English people are totally behind gay marriage; others oppose it vehemently; some are Buddhist, some Muslim, some absolutely atheist; some love football, others loathe it and so on and on! At this point, a Spanish student called Mohammed chipped in saying this was exactly what he’d been fighting and arguing about all his life, as a first generation Spanish-Moroccan and as the first kid of Muslim origin to attend a Catholic school in Malaga. Despite strong family ties to Morocco and despite a recognition of the fact that he had cultural roots that were different to many other Spaniards, he sees himself defiantly as Spanish – as well he might!
So where do we go with all of this and why am I blogging about it? Well, firstly, if we are to take the Common European Framework seriously, then we have a responsibility to ensure that through our teaching of language we help students “to achieve a wider and deeper understanding of the way of life and forms of thought of other peoples and of their cultural heritage.” If this is to happen, then perhaps the first step towards recognising / accepting / discussing the diversity that exists within students’ own cultures is to have their vision of Britain complicated for them. Perhaps such discussions can act as a mirror inwards and give pause for reflection? Of course, London may a special case in many ways given that 37% of its inhabitants – my students included, of course (!) – were born outside of the UK, but what’s happening in London also happens everywhere: people travel, relationships form, kids are born, cultures change.
Secondly, it’s clearly of vital importance for many many teachers and students alike that these issues are aired. An ever-increasing number of native-speaker teachers are of mixed-race or non-white origin and thus more likely to be prejudged – often negatively – by foreign students demanding what they perceive to be ‘native’ native speakers of English! In addition, there are many students who come from complex families and whose right to self-definition and determination is a basic human one. In my time at work, I’ve met Swedes with Afghan, Eritrean and Iranian roots; Swiss students from all manner of interwoven backgrounds; a young Polish lad who’d grown up in a very rural area as the only mixed-race kid for many many miles, and so on. These students’ stories and lives deserve to be validated and recognised.
So what can we do? Well, for a start, we can at least have exactly the kinds of discussions I outlined above, should the opportunity / need arise.
In addition to this, I then sent an email round my class – as I do after every lesson – containing some follow-up links and things to read. Here’s what I included:
Next up, that series I was telling you about called 100% English.
It’s an incredible view and I’d really recommend you watch at least one episode.
It’ll hopefully complicate your ideas of what ‘English’ or even ‘white’ means!!
Connected to this is this amazing article about a guy in Scotland whose DNA traces directly back to the first woman in East Africa. Fascinating story.
I then asked the class to record a Vocaroo each detailing what they felt they were a product of. This was an expression that had come up in a reading we did, wherein a mother lamented the fact that her slightly unruly fifteen-year-old son was the product of a very liberal age, and I’d discussed my own roots and formative influences briefly on my own recording that I mailed out to announce the homework.
Small steps and I’m realistic enough to know that such steps are unlikely to bring about any sea change in attitudes or prejudices, but also small steps that slowly lead to somewhere else, and ultimately it’s a belief in the power of dialogue and discourse that allows me to retain a rosy, optimistic slant on these matters even when things seem particularly cloudy!