I don't think many people will argue with the statement above. What does make it contentious, however, is what each of us means when we say "culture," particularly when we may assume that we're working from the same definition, but one we haven't actually clarified for ourselves. Try sitting down and coming up with your own definition. Easy?
I have often taught a course called Intercultural Communication for Language Teachers (ICLT) in the Master of Arts in (Language) Teaching program at the School for International Training. The students who are carefully chosen for this program have all had cross-cultural experiences. ICLT is a required course. It is also the one that is guaranteed to churn people up the most. Why? Let me describe it. The course had three major writing assignments: In the first module students wrote their own cultural autobiographies; in the second they carried out three interviews with a person of a different culture, culminating in an ethnographic report; in the third the students engaged in classroom-based activities and finally came up with conclusions about how they would include culture in their upcoming internships.
With hindsight, the students find this a perfectly reasonable syllabus. While they are involved in the course, however, there is a great deal of emotional reaction. I might at this point inform you that this happens every year, regardless of the syllabus, regardless of the teacher. When I was a Masters student at the same university in the 70s, the course was very different, but it was also the course that churned us up the most. What is this about?
Lee Kronk in his illuminating book, That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior, uses an unusual simile to get us to consider how ingrained culture is in each of us:
Perhaps one could even say (after one has first inserted tongue in cheek) that culture is to human social interaction as mud is to mud wrestling. Human social life is a bit similar to wrestling in that it is so often a contest or struggle between people with competing goals. But the addition of mud – culture – drastically changes the nature of that struggle. Just as mud wrestlers are coated in mud, people are coated in culture: It shapes who they are and how they interact with others in very profound ways. Like mud, culture can get in your eyes, leading you to do things that may not be in your own best interest. Just as mud wrestlers may use the mud itself in their contest – flinging it, wallowing in it, using it to blind their opponents – so do people use culture as a tool in social interaction. Just as one wrestler covered in mud is likely to muddy others in the ring, so do culture traits cling to people and move from one to another through social contact. (Kronk, 1999, p. 93).
Kronk is a cultural anthropologist who defines culture in terms of human evolution. There are countless other authors who define culture in a full range of other ways. It is our job as teachers of English language to decide consciously on what exactly we mean when we use the word "culture," and then to decide how/if/why we will include culture in our classrooms.
For some teachers, culture is presented in the form of products (clothing, buildings, music) and practices (going through customs, getting a job). Other teachers will include communities (families, social institutions). Course books are generally comfortable with portraying culture through these dimensions. The assumption is that there is a direct relationship between a language and the culture of the people who speak it as a first language, implying that if we are teaching English, then the products, practices, and communities in our cultural activities will be from one of the BANA countries (British, Australian, or North American).
When it comes to perspectives (beliefs, values, attitudes) and persons (identity groups, cultural marginality), we are on shakier ground, especially if we believe that no two people are identical representatives of the same culture.
I would like to suggest here that the goals for cultural instruction through language can have a greater purpose than preparing our students to be comfortable tourists. We might think instead of helping our students:
- To recognize that all people are different
- To become aware of cultural connotations
- To recognize the origin of stereotypes
- To develop skills to evaluate and refute generalizations
One framework which can be of help in working towards these goals is the redesigning of the Experiential Learning Cycle described in Moran's Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice (Moran, 2001).
Figure 1. Cultural Knowings
The starting point is the self, not an external "culture." The process is the student's developing awareness of who he/she is as a cultural being. Let me give you an example: stereotypes. It is not difficult to think of some obvious stereotypes that each of us carries around (participation), such as how the world views Americans, or how certain pop stars behave. Have the students work through the Cultural Knowings Framework above to describe, interpret, and respond to the chosen stereotype. Then have students consider stereotypes within their own country, region, town, school, or classroom. How do they describe those stereotypes? How do they interpret them? Is everyone's description and interpretation the same? What has been their response, and how will this new awareness change that response?
Let me return to my opening statement: Language learning for life as responsible citizens of the international community must include cultural awareness. In summary, our first job as language teachers is to decide on a working definition of culture, even though the process of establishing that personal definition can be uncomfortable, because it touches on identity issues. (There is also the political dilemma of deciding what the relationship is between English as an international language and its native speakers, who are now fewer in number than those who speak it as an additional language.) It is only by beginning with the self, and understanding who I am as a cultural being, that we can start on the journey of recognizing what we share on this planet, rather than focusing on our differences.
Kronk, L. (1993). That Complex Whole: Culture and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Boulder: Westview Press.
Moran, P. (2001). Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Dr. Susan Barduhn is a Past President of IATEFL and a Professor Emerita at School for International Training Graduate Institute in Vermont, U.S.A. She was a teacher trainer for many years in England and has also taught in Colombia, Kenya, Portugal, Switzerland and Spain. Her special interests are teacher development, teacher thinking, and intercultural communication.