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Culture and Language : What Relationship?

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My first post on this topic was sparked off by a thread on how to teach the "culture of signing" by teachers of American Sign Language :

May 1996 ASL, deaf culture and language

Culture and language are both slippery concepts - one person's culture is another person's subculture, and a language is a dialect with an army. A language can be taught with very little reference to culture - this is the case with English in many places, and is referred to as 'PARSNIP', although I cannot for the life of me remember why. Some cultures make language a central referent of their identity - as with the French language in Quebec, or Afrikaans in S. Africa. Others do not.

I am an Englishman who has been teaching English in France for almost twenty years. I find the idea of teaching about my culture rather perplexing - I am not sure that I know what it is. Many of my colleagues, both francophone and anglophone, do appear to know, and often their knowledge surprises me. Very little of it seems to have anything to do with the England that I thought I knew.

Often people appear to confuse culture with political slogans - deaf culture is about being proud of being deaf. Can that be true? I doubt it. I don't believe culture is about anything - it's more the background which makes it possible for things to be about something. Bourdieu calls this the 'habitus' .You only catch it if you watch with your eyes half-shut.

What language teachers do know about is language. In particular, they know about how languages can be structured in different ways. They know that the English tense system is very different from the French tense system. They have an intimate knowledge of what happens when two (or more) languages meet . This knowledge goes to the very roots of what it means to be human. Sign languages seem to me to be particularly interesting in this respect - I am sure that if you learn ASL, you must truly think about language, think about the relationship between language and the world, language and the group, language and the self.

Schoolchildren learn about culture in all their lessons. There is nothing else to learn about. In maths lessons, they learn about mathematical culture . In language lessons, they learn about linguistic culture. Of course, they learn about Spain and South America in Spanish lessons. Here in France, they learn about the United States in their English lessons. Doubtless in Alysse's ASL lessons they learn about the lives and the institutions of the deaf. Good. But most of all, they learn about language - and I think that that is good too.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

This drew no reply. As I had not, at that stage, had much experience with the ways in which e-mail lists proceed, I believed that this meant the message had not got through. So I tried again :

May 1996 ASL

- language teachers do not necessarily have any special insight into the cultures which use the languages they teach. Most of us have not majored in cultural anthropology. Much of what passes for cultural insight in language courses is anecdotal, outdated and superficial. Often enough, cultural prejudices are simply reinforced. French teenagers often are given the impression that the USA is founded on Disney and the KKK - what do American adolescents learn about French culture?

- language teachers do have some insight into language as a system. Learning a foreign language can and probably should involve reflecting on one's own language and on language as such. I assume we have all studied linguistics - learning a sign language will lead to such reflection just as well as learning any other L2 - and in some ways may bring even richer insights. (Steven Pinker's book 'The Language Instinct' is of interest here).

- obviously students will encounter material from other cultures in foreign language lessons - if only because they need to have something to talk about . But I suspect that it would be a mistake to see this as being central to FL teaching

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

That was the summer of the Macarena ; teachers of Spanish were eager to seize the opportunity to bring a slice of authentic Hispanic culture into the classroom. Alas, some of the more curmudgeonly argued firmly against using such trash in schools. A member of the list leaped to its defence :

Aug 1996 Macarena and Culture?
La macarena is just a neat dance of Spanish origin that is very popular right now.

Whatever the origin of the music, the dance itself was choreographed by an American national, resident in Paris. Her commission was to find a set of steps that could be danced by anyone. To do this, she first worked out a simple routine, and then tested it on a large group of dancers. She eliminated from the group those who were able to handle the dance easily, concentrating on those who found it difficult, and simplifying the steps even further, until this group was able to follow them.

The Macarena would seem to be part of the global, MTV culture that most young people are now plugging into - very little that is Hispanic about it, apart from the words to the song. The most we can say is that it represents some international corporation's image of Hispanic culture - each summer, the record companies offer us 'beach party music', which needs a touch of exoticism to conjure up pictures of holiday sunshine. Exoticism is a form of condescension - bringing a touch of local colour to the holiday camp. I wonder how Hispanics themselves feel about it?

This said, if the children like it, and if it helps teach them Spanish - why should a language teacher complain?

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

A year later, I seem to have become a little more positive about teaching culture than in my first two posts :

Sept 1997 ISO Culture Lessons

To my mind there are two separate questions here. The first is, is it possible to teach a language without teaching the culture? The second, is, if it is possible, is it desirable for *school*-teachers to teach the language without the culture. I would reply to the first with a qualified 'Yes' ; if we take the case of the English language, we note that it is spoken in a wide variety of different cultural contexts, and that it nevertheless remains recognizably the same language. We may deduce that the language centres around a set of core structures, and probably also a set of core lexical items, and even a set of core phonological rules which hold good wherever the language is spoken. This does not mean that two people who speak English will necessarily understand each other ; although, by and large, I kid myself that I can follow the thought processes of an American or an Australian, a Hindu businessman or a South African police officer, I am probably missing much and over-interpreting some of what is said. It should, though, be noted that misconceptions and incomprehensions may also arise when I am talking to my next-door neighbour, for each of us inhabits, to some extent, his or her own little world.

To the second question I am, on this occasion, at least, tempted to answer 'No'. This has nothing to do with my conception of what the students may later on use the language for ; it has more to do with my beliefs as to the value of school as an institution. In so far as schooling can be said to have a positive benefit for students, I would argue that this lies in its capacity to lift us free of our muddy particularisms and to allow us to catch a glimpse of the universal. Now one odd thing about the universal is that mine is likely to be very different from yours ; it is perhaps a part of the language-teacher's task to draw the attention of her pupils to the strains and the epiphanies of this strange and impossible communion.

This is an extremely difficult task ; just how difficult we see every time, as Bob mentioned, a language teacher asks the list how to say 'pajama party' in Korean, or whatever. Such questions denote a failure of nerve, a refusal to ask the hard questions about who one is and just how much of that who-ness is contingent, non-essential. This failure of nerve is more institutional than it is personal ; that is one reason why I have welcomed the recent Instructions Officielles which direct the teaching of foreign languages in French Primary schools, and which make it quite clear that one of the primary objectives of this subject is to open the minds of children to the world they live in.


Timothy Mason

For reasons that surpass my understanding, members of the list - despite my dire warnings - continued to use non-authentic materials to teach Foreign Languages to young Americans. I'm afraid I got rather grouchy :

Sept 1997 Culture in the Classroom

How, the student teacher asks, should I include culture? There is one main answer, and all the minor answers derive from that.

Use authentic materials

Print that out on a banner, and stick it on the wall in front of your desk. Then you can begin asking the next question, which is :

'What does 'authentic' mean?'

And that, however tortuous the thread upon which your thinking runs, will lead you to the question :

"What do *I* know about the culture, anyway?'

To which I have, after 25 years of profound reflection, come up with this answer :

"It ain't Walt Disney dubbed in Spanish."

So you can print that out on a banner, and stick it under the first one.

Good luck.

Timothy Mason

However, I managed to calm down enough to offer some more considered advice - this time, about teaching the culture of France :

Nov 1997 Teaching About France

X asks for some advice on teaching about French culture. I suppose the most obvious advice on materials is to head him over to TBob's Web site, where the riches of Ali Baba's cave pale into insignificance, but it may be useful to have a small think about what we mean by 'culture' and how material may be presented.

You say you lived in France for three years and therefore have a good deal of insight. I'm impressed - I've been living here for about twenty years now, and the longer I stay, the less sure I am that I know anything about 'the French' at all. However, if I were a teacher in America, and I wanted to find a way into this question, I might start by looking at the contributions that France has made to American culture, and by the traces that the French have left in the United States and, of course, on your great neighbour to the North.

One might, for example, do some research on the Statue of Liberty ; who made it, why they made it, its grounding in an artistic tradition and so on. The possibilities here are vast. Or one could look at the contribution that Louisiana has made to the American musical tradition, and the Creole input into that, and to see whether one can follow elements of that tradition back across the Atlantic to France (look to the accordion).

That's just a couple of possible starting points - and without even mentioning a trip across the Canadian frontier. One advantage, it seems to me, of an approach along these lines, is that too often, when we cover the cultural element, our students tend to latch onto differences, rather than similarities. Marking the difference, without taking the common ground into account, only reinforces prejudice and stereotype. And by bringing home once again the diversity and the riches of which American culture is composed, it might actually reinforce that pride in nation that D feels is so sorely lacking in the schools today.

I would, if I may, end on a note of caution ; anthropologists and sociologists, who have undergone years of training, know just how slippery and ambiguous the notion of culture is. If you do want to approach culture, perhaps you could set aside a little time to read Marvin Harris, Clifford Geertz, Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi-Strauss, and have a look at Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Anthony Giddens.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

But it does seem that this subject often raises my blood-pressure. An innocent remark by one contributor sparked off this :

Aug 2000 Lining up for culture

D, addressing the differences between USAnian and Hispanic queueing (damned, as my French friends will say, it's much easier to spell in American) writes :

I remember one culture book I used with classes back in the early 70s pointed out that conduct in stores (lines versus no lines) has to do with what is frequently in Latin America an economy of scarcity in which consumers, even those with money, cannot be sure the goods they wish to purchase will be available.

If this is the kind of thing that writers of 'culture books' are trying to put across, they need shaking by their heels. Take a few counter examples - in Britain people continued to queue stoically during the whole of WWII and in the aftermath when rationing was still in force. In the USSR and other Eastern block countries - as I think D well knows - shoppers would stand in line for hours. On the other side of the coin, French people are still apt to regard the Anglo-Saxon habit of queuing up as risible - and France has not been a culture of scarcity for some decades now.

This suggests that the proffered explanation is one of those easy rationalizations for cultural differences which are apt to pop up in saloon-bar conversations, and which makes it difficult for any listening anthropologist to swallow her beer.

D concludes :

These cultural phenomena are often multi-faceted and reach very deep into the economic, social, and political life of a people. All the more reason why future teachers should not be spending so much time reading 14th century unrhymed jingles, but studying history, geography, and sociology (in the target language) of the countries whose languages they teach.

On the other hand, some facets of social life which we think of as deep-rooted can often be shown to be recent and relatively malleable. Many of the traditions of the British, for example, date back no further than the nineteenth century - and some are even more recent - queuing being a good example.

The refusal to stand in line is not a sign of a cultural difference so much as it is the result of a more recent entry into the disciplines of modernity. If 'Hispanics' - whoever they are - haven't learned to queue properly yet, it's because they're behind the times, rather than because they are deep-rootedly 'other' - in the same way as they continue to celebrate their mastery of the animal world in public and in blood. Give them another hundred years, and they'll all be queuing peacefully to purchase their veggieburgers like any honest Englishman.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

Nobody openly objected to my crack about Hispanics - and the French - being behind the times, which I found a little disappointing. But the same day saw the beginning of another culture debate, when someone proffered a list of Hispanic Heroes which included Che Guevara. A fellow list-member saw red :

Aug 2000 Heroes

Why not find some real heroes to talk about, such as Fujimori, Violeta Chamorra, Vicente Fox, Aznar in Spain, and yes, Pinochet in Chile who saved the country from falling into the communist sphere, etc.??


Which probably demonstrates fairly clearly that one man's hero is another man's poisonous mass-murderer. (Most of the people you name seem pretty dubious characters to me; although I find that old Stalinist hack Guevara pretty non-simpatico as well).

That's one reason why I rather think that the list of great men/women, heroes and so on is not the best way of getting into another culture. On the other hand, a look at how Che became a cultural icon - he's still to be found chewing away at you from a hundred T-shirts wherever the young gather in number - might be of interest. Much of the fascination probably derives from his having given up the opportunity to wax fat on the fruits of one revolution to go off and start another - but I reckon even more of it has to do with that beard and the natty beret. Right on maaaan!!

Timothy Mason

R's explosion lead to a muted act of contrition on the part of the person who originally thrust Guevara under our noses :

Aug 2000 Heroes
I know that someone many Latin Americans may see as a freedom fighter could indeed be a villain to many other people - maybe the term "hero" isn't the best one to use.

It may be the very best term to use ; the hero is not a real flesh and blood human being, but an imaginative construction. His or her life is lived fully and in view, but there is no reason to believe that his deeds and his fortunes will necessarily be of much benefit to the rest of his (more) mortal fellows.

When we confer heroic status on someone, we make a fiction of them : Che is an excellent case in point - the bare bones of his life lend themselves to fictionalization as a tragic hero of epic proportions. Most of the names offered by Richard Lee, whether one approves of their activities or not, have little in their biographies that lends itself to such a treatment. The hero - like Achilles, Oedipus or Ulysses - offers a rich pathway into culture. Trying to understand how and why a given people constructs heroes out of the specific weave of cloth that they do is an excellent exercise - why it is that Che is still a hero for many Latin Americans - and a Devil for many others - is a good question to ask.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

Later that month, Blaine Ray, the man behind TPR-S, decided to defend the lack of cultural content in his classes by referring to 'comprehensible input'. Give the pupils material they can understand, he argued :

Aug 2000 Gothic, purl and plain
Therefore if we are teaching language it might be better to have material from our students' own culture. Having them read culture articles about Gothic architecture which they know almost nothing, might not be a great use of time.

French children learn to differentiate between Gothic and Romanesque. Why would they not? Gothic architecture is, in any case, part of America's cultural baggage - as you can gather, I believe, by wandering around Chicago.

Learning a foreign language is about opening out. If it isn't about that, then you might as well teach them knitting. I remember finding that extremely fulfilling when I learned it in Primary School, and was probably much deprived when it was not followed up in later years. Get rid of all this silly TPR-Ssing about, which only serves to have them pick up a code that they will have forgotten five years after leaving your class, and give them knitting grade 4. A practical skill for life.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

TPR-S has become all the rage on the other side of the Atlantic, and my slighting of the hero of the hour was not allowed to pass unchallenged. So I had to become a little more explicit about my objections :

Aug 2000 Gothic Purl & plain

X's reaction, as well as G's, shows the regular symptoms of a sectarian ; which is one thing that bothers me a great deal about TPR-S. So let me make a couple of things clear ; yes, I have used TPR; I have read Asher, and have been thinking about why he's right and why he's wrong for about fifteen years now. And I have told stories in my classes - have told them with and without using TPR techniques. So I am not particularly fazed by the basic ideas behind TPR-S.

But TPR-S is not, it appears, simply about using stories and TPR. It is, I gather from reading your and Blaine Ray's posts, about focusing on the language and throwing out the culture. When Blaine Ray tells us how to tell a story in class, I'll listen. When he tells us that you shouldn't want to introduce the children to Gothic architecture - for example - because they don't understand it, he is ex-cathedra and his words need be taken no more seriously than those of any other self-appointed guardian of the faithful.

As teachers, it is our job to open out the children to other cultures, to other values. It is our job to introduce the children to Culture - not in a knees-bending, overawed kind of way, but critically, Which is why in my classes I tell folk-tales and legends. And why I put Pre-Raphaelite paintings on the OHP. And why I read William Blake out loud to them - the first time, without the text, and then again with the text so that they can follow it. And when they come up to ask questions about these things at the end of the class, why, yes, we probably switch into the mother-tongue for a minute or two

If school is doing no more than reinforcing the culture that children already have, it is not fulfilling its function and they might just as well remain at home. We teach them to read so that they can become literate. We teach them to count so that they can become numerate. If the language teacher is giving them no more than the code, then whether she does it through TPR-S, through Grammar-Translation, through Suggestopaedia or whatever, then they would probably be better off learning to knit. And knitting, by the way, can offer a thousand paths into culture.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

P.S. I know that people are using TPR-S successfully. This is interesting. I think other teachers are doing other things that are just as successful. And that is interesting. I am pretty sure that there are people who have tried TPR-S and found it wanting - or, as R explained once in this place - have taken the kernel ideas and adapted them to their own situation. The same has been true of just about any one of the methods and approaches that have been developed over the years in language teaching. If it works, say some, do it. Well, OK - but what do we mean by 'it works'?

But it took a series of posts on Bullfighting, after a parent had objected to her child's being shown a video on this pastime, to set me off on how troubled the concept really was :

Dec 2000 Bull, machismo and the nutty parent

Opinion polls tell us that, both in the USA and the UK, people are becoming more and more sensitive over violence to animals ; the mother whose complaint you dismiss as 'nutty' may, by now, be well over into the main-stream of American thinking. Certainly she has reason to believe that it is part of her job to protect her children from images of violence against animals - particularly in circumstances where that violence seems to receive official approval, as is the case in Spain and Mexico over the bullfight.

She could cite FBI statistics on the relationship between torturing animals and criminal violence towards human-beings. she could cite evidence from psychology on the power of modelling, and on the impact that seeing real violence on television can have on young children (they are able to distinguish between the play violence of the Hollywood movie and news shots, and they are distressed by the latter).

So whether we finally decide to show the film or not, we would do well to listen - as we would do well to listen to any parent of a child in one of our classes. It's never good school policy to dismiss a parent as a nut - just as it is not good policy to bow to the wishes of every parent.

Now, let's look at the issue of the bull-fight. (I have seen bull-running, but never the full combat - today I would not do so, and in the past, when I might have done, it was too expensive). In Western Europe I believe that Spain stands as the odd man out in still allowing this kind of spectacle.

In the UK, bull-baiting, bear-baiting, dog-fighting and cock-fighting were all banned by the nineteenth century; fox-hunting continues, but will almost certainly be banned some-time in the next five years. Even fifteen years ago, the fox-hunt was looked upon as a fine old English tradition, just as the bull-fight is regarded as a jewel in Spain's cultural crown today. Tomorrow the fox-hunt will be gone*. The day after tomorrow, the bull-fight will be a thing of the past in Europe.

Of course, such activities continue underground ; dog-fighting is found in the UK and in the US today. Yes, it's illegal - the illegal continuance of what was once an overground 'tradition' - a tradition as well, if not better anchored than American football - which, by the way, an American journalist recently - in one of the London newspapers - announced as dead on its feet. Which is as much as to say that we need to ask what is meant by the term 'tradition'.

Most of the sporting events that we think of as deep culture were codified in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. We changed them then, and we can change them now, without losing anything essential to national identity or culture (a difficult word to handle; try reading Raymond Williams on the concept or, for a more up-to-date (and highly critical) look, go to the first chapters of Adam Kuper's 'Culture ; the Anthropologist's Account').

Spain will be Spain without the bullfight - and, as Ana says, it is not at clear that it represents the best of that civilization, in any case. There are certainly far more interesting things about Spanish-speaking countries than the fact that, so far as blood-sports are concerned, they are way behind their neighbours. (Of course, they may be right to be way behind their neighbours - bring back the red-hot pincers and the thumb-screws goes up the cry). So - I'm not saying don't show the film. It's not my call. But don't dismiss a parent's disquiet about it as simple 'nuttiness' either. That *would* be an error of tone.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

This was not well-received. Bullfighting should not be seen as a sport, but as a quasi-sacred ritual, expressing the inner yearnings of the Hispanic soul. This kind of thing makes me nervous :

Dec 2000 Bullfighting as sport

I see little difference in kind between bullfighting and such popular spectator sports as football, boxing, wrestling and so on. Each of these has its fans, its codes, its rules of appreciation. Each of them is a money-spinner. Each of them involves ritual and pomp. Bullfighting clearly belongs to the same family of human activities - or life-games - as do the others. The big difference appears to be that its promoters have managed to convince large numbers of people that it expresses something intrinsic about Spain. A neat move - but one that is encouraged by the general tendency to reify culture, and to anchor the resulting beastie to some essence or other of a nation, or of an ethnic group.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

But teachers of Spanish were not to be budged from their certitudes. Some of these were so little documented as to raise suspicions :

Dec 2000 Catholicism and families
... the case of abortion, which, although I'm sure that it does occur from time to time even though illegal, is completely unacceptable to Hispanic Catholics

The rate of abortion in South America generally is quite a lot higher than in the United States or in Western Europe (see the statistics at http://www.agi-usa.org/pubs/journals/25s3099.html). The real differences are in the numbers of abortions that are performed illegally - 95% in Latin America as against less than 0.5% in the United States.

This suggests that it is not deep and culturally implanted religious differences that lead to different behaviours, but the extent to which the churches are able to control legislation. The same thing is probably true of the birth-rate ; people in peasant societies tend to have high birth-rates when compared with both late-industrial populations and with hunter-gatherers. Usually, when the women migrate to urban areas, the birth-rate quickly drops to around the levels of the host population - whether they are Catholic or not.

The reasons for this are varied ; children cost more to bring up in societies such as our own, where long-term schooling has become the norm, and where sons and daughters may easily move away from their families of origin, leaving parents to fend for themselves. Among farming peoples, numerous children provide hands to help on the farm and insurance for old-age.

The abandonment of unwanted infants that R comments on has been pretty much a constant in human history - including European history, as John Boswell's 'The Kindness of Strangers' demonstrates. From about the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, the European states substituted orphanages for abandonment. The death rates were appalling.

There is, I suspect, a tendency amongst language teachers to look upon culture as an autonomous, free-floating determinant of behaviour, feeling and belief. But culture itself is shaped by forces of some power ; an interesting look at how the human family has adapted across the ages will be found in "Mother Nature ; Maternal Instincts and the Shaping of the Species" by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Vintage, 2000)

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

The next month, a student in an education college somewhere wanted us to help him write his term essay. I did my best to confuse him - probably without much success :


Culture *is* a difficult concept. For some leads on how to teach it in the language classroom, go to this page , where you'll find a few pointers to articles both by language-teaching specialists and anthropologists. For my part, I think that it is difficult to escape teaching the culture if you use authentic documents - but that you need to be very careful about defining the term itself. I suspect that there is a distinction to be made between historically marked cultural traits (like bull-fighting, for example, or collective festivities of any kind, including the Day of the Dead) - and these tend to be the ones we notice - and deeper traits which, I rather think, may be things that we can point to, but cannot actually say. I know, for example, that there are differences between the English and the French (in so far as such large categories have much meaning) but it is very difficult indeed to put your finger on them, to formalize them, without flirting with stereotypes.

So if I were a teacher of Spanish, I might present documents about bull-fighting that showed how it developed historically, and the extent to which there were parallels with other mass spectator sports in other countries. And I would probably let them hear a number of voices, both favourable towards the bullfight, and less so. And then I might put that in the context of general attitudes towards animals, towards violence, towards death and masculinity. I don't think I'd dress up as a matador, though. I might, perhaps, wear a pair of horns.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

My continued skepticism about the deeply meaningful nature of such things as the cut of one's trousers continued to annoy :

Jan 2001 Coming on with culture
But it's also a fact that the MAJORITY of the 6 billion people on earth do NOT dress alike - I only need to go to one of our hypermarkets on a Saturday afternoon to see that. Or I can watch the news on TV.

True - but what to make of it? If you pin down a dress code of some kind at a particular moment, by the time you've lifted your nose from the canvas, it's ch-ch-ch-changed. Culture is not clothing. (Look at the realities behind the silly hats that some women can be persuaded to wear in Brittany, for example, or the odd hairdress favoured by English judges).

Nor is culture in the bread you eat ; my local baker carries an array of different loafs, and you can, indeed, buy a baguette if you wish to. But you might also go for a Bannette Moisson, or a "baguette tradition" - which doesn't look much like the ones you used to see back when everything was white bread and had to be thrown away when the clock struck midnight - or a "pain de campagne", or any amount of weird and wonderful stuff - while, if you go to England, you can now buy something called a 'French stick' at the local Sainsburys.

I wasn't criticizing D's way of doing things - I'm happy people can have the certitudes to do whatever it is that they do. I don't ; I'm an English teacher, but I have no real idea of what it is that I would present as English culture. Over here, the teachers will go on about Christmas - a rather shallow celebration cooked up by Dickens and the Prince Consort - which I usually try and avoid. Or the English Breakfast - which I have only ever eaten in Ireland and Scotland, at boarding houses, a speciality for the tourist. I suspect culture isn't anything much at all, but that the 'je ne sais quoi' and the 'presque rien' have their importance.

Dressing up might do it - as might showing movies, reading poetry - yes, they can do that in first grade (the Spanish teachers over here have them looking at Lorca in CM1) or whatever. But I'm not sure that anything you can pin down long enough to 'teach' it is worth looking at.


Best wishes

Timothy Mason

Then yet another student - this time, post-grad, I seem to remember - dropped by, wanting to know whether we language teachers believed that it was possible to divorce language and culture. One of the replies emerged from an igloo :

Jan 2001 Cultural snow

Uh-oh, there go those Eskimos again, talking about snow! It's a cultural thing chez eux - like it is chez les anglais (lie on back, stare at ceiling and enumerate all the ways you can think of for talking about snow in English).

Or is it? Well, there's this book called 'The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax'. You'll find out all about that by going to http://www.stg.brown.edu/~sjd/mymusings/eskimo.html . Or you could just grab Stephen Pinker's 'The Language Instinct' down from your shelf. Of course it's there - you're a language teacher aren't you?

Should language-teachers teach culture? I suppose that when you ask this question, you mean something like, should teachers present those cultural practices which have been observed in one or another of the communities/societies/countries within which the FL for which they are responsible is spoken. In which case, the answer is 'not necessarily'. Korean adults who want to be able to use English for business purposes are not interested in British - or even USAnian - culture.

What about public schools? There I think that David Jones has a strong case. But it still leaves open many questions to which I have already referred in the earlier posts. You can't teach language without teaching culture, some of us claim. It is a claim to which I'm sympathetic, but I want to know how it is that there can be so much cultural variation among, say, those who speak Spanish. Or English. Or French - are Canadians more similar to Parisians or to New-Yorkers?

Cultural practices can change very fast indeed ; in recent times we have recorded instances of whole peoples switching from polytheistic or animist beliefs to Christianity or Mohammedism in virtually the twinkling of an eye. Or cultural practices change very slowly indeed - traces of shamanism have been found the whole world over, and can still be detected in the fairy-stories we tell our children. Arguments about what culture is, about how it works - and about how important it is - rage in the world of anthropology, sociology or psychology. Unless you are aware of these arguments - and the 'snow' thing has been one of the battle-zones - how can you "teach culture"? And if you are aware of them - how can you "teach culture"?

Teaching culture will not, by the way, prevent racism, ethnocentrism, or all the other naughty 'isms' you can think of. The stereotypes can hang on just as tightly after exposure to the culture as they can when people remain ignorant of the lives of those they look down upon ; a well-anchored prejudice will survive and even thrive on closer acquaintance.

Why wouldn't it? *Some* cultural practices are pretty awful ; excision, sub-incision, clogging, human sacrifice, bull-fighting or institutionalized racism are all abhorrent. *Many* cultural practices are at the least questionable ; polygamy, dog-walking without a scooper, using the klaxon in town-centres to express annoyance, impatience or high-spirits ... one could go on. The young English learner who discovers that you can (still) find horse-butchers in France may be persuaded that the French are too barbaric and disgusting for words.

And - you'll have to take my word for this - many French adolescents find, after doing the usual round of texts on American race-relations, the Death Penalty, Gun control and so on (they're in the text-books), that Americans are, quite simply, gross.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

This was misunderstood, so I'd better say clearly here that I do not, myself believe that Americans are gross. But it can be the impression that pupils take away from their classes once they have done the round on 'Racism in America', 'the Woman Problem in America', 'the Weight Problem in America' and so on that you can find in some of the text books. One list member rushed to the defence of her fellow-countrymen, particularly praising the fathers of the American Revolution for risking their lives in the greater interest of mankind. She was generous enough to include Lafayette in her group of heroes. I offered her an alternative way of viewing US history and culture :

Jan 2001 Gross parasites

Bunny, I'm not sure what you're talking about here. Your understanding of history is severely limited by the iniquitous ideology foisted upon you by those who, in their own narrow interest, engineered the most tragic social error in history. For my part, I've always thought that Lafayette's treachery was a costly act of brigandage, aiding a bunch of pirates to bring about a coup d'état which removed the American settlers from the enlightened and mild rule of the English Crown.

How much nobler the world would be today if only America had remained a British colony for another couple of centuries. Why, if that bunch of ignorant scoundrels had not squandered what should have been your birthright, you probably would not have had to send anyone to fight in Europe, for France would have been neither encouraged nor allowed to tumble into revolutionary chaos, and the Germans would have faced such a strong, united and steadfast opposition as to have never dared go to war.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

This reading of history was stoutly resisted :

Jan 2001 Whatever that was
Timothy, I am glad that we scoundrel Americans separated from the British, however wonderful they may be.

Oh, Bunny! Deliberate misreading. I said neither that Americans were scoundrels nor that the British were wonderful. The so-called founding fathers certainly were treasonous criminals, and should have been hung at Traitor's Gate. But today's Americans are, of course, all terribly good chaps - except for those that aren't. The Brits, on the other hand, are a nation of hooligans, drunkards and fanatical animal liberationists. But - and it is here that the nitty gets gritty - the British have a set of political institutions that bring about a semblance of niceness and delight. Americans have - well, what they have.

As for second-guessing history, historians do it all the time. And it is highly likely that without the American Revolution, so-called, the world would today be a marginally better place.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

To which my correspondent replied : Surely, Timothy, you are not talking about British policies of the past in South Africa nor India. To what do you refer? and added Are you not American yourself?

Jan 2001 On the great benefits of British Rule

What, Bunny, would my being American have to do with it? How would it prevent me from recognizing that British rule - both in India and South Africa - did much to temper the more unpleasant practices imposed by the powerful and nasty. Or perhaps you prefer Zulu totalitarianism - Shaka would have thought Hitler a bit of a softy - and suttee?

But in any case, the argument takes place against a back-ground of generalized thuggery and wreaking of mayhem. The doughty American pioneers of whom you are so proud were into business as usual - which is to say skullduggery and large-scale land-theft, oiled by back-handed genocide. Just like the Brits, the French, the Germans and the Belgians. Just like any self-respecting colonist on declaring Terra Nullis, meaning inhabited by no-one but a bunch of defenseless savages (accentuate the defenseless).

What we need to distinguish is between pretty horrible and absolutely awful. On that scale, the British political system is measurably superior to the USAnian, guaranteeing more freedom, more security and a better degree of health care, malgré what you read in the papers. But - and here is the main contention I have been making - if the blackguardly bunch that had the impudence to revolt against King George had, unaided by France, and rejected by a majority of their fellows - a far closer call than you might think from reading USAnian histories - lost their treacherous gamble, the world would, by and large, be a better place today.

It is likely, of course, that the bits of that world which you inhabit would no longer share a polity with the UK - any more than Australia, Canada, India or South Africa do today. It is even likely that, in the long run, the tail would have outgrown and outwagged the dog - just as the outlying bits of the Roman Empire ended up more powerful than Italy. But to pretend that the present dispensation was either inevitable or particularly blessed is ethnocentric in the extreme. So if you do believe that, how can you properly 'teach culture'?

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

P.S. I have been sternly warned, off-list, to cease my attempt to discuss American culture in this way ; sure sign that I have slapped a sacred cow upon the rump.

Bunny forgot that she had identified me as an American - while another member of the list opined that the only kind of person to write such nonsense would be a spotty fifteen-year-old :

Jan 2001 A Middle-aged English Radical replies to his critics
What does your being American have to do with our discussion? It just seems that the majority of Americans are proud of the American Revolution and of their independence. That's all.

Well, I hope it's not an obligation. For my part, I have an affection for both of the countries whose passports I have a right to carry - or at least, I have an affection for some of the people, for some of the places, for some of the customs. I see no need to go further than that.

Nor do all Americans ; you might want to look at the writings of Howard Zinn on the history of the United States, for one example. It's not the only way the history can be written, but it does show that even a USAnian born and bred can be skeptical about pioneers, revolutionists and the US Constitution. Zinn, who is quite an old man now, is still active in radical politics, so, Clau, one doesn't have to be fifteen years old to espouse the kind of opinions I've voiced in the last few days.

Perhaps both Zinn and I are already into senility. Let me just say that the thought experiment of re-running history and doing it over again with different outcomes is quite a respectable one ; English historians do it all the time. And so do some American historians - you may read a fascinating History of the Confederate States of America, for example. Of course, we can never know what the French polity would be like today if Marie-Antoinette had not managed to make herself so unpopular, but it is, as a number of specialists maintained on a recent BBC 4 History Programme, that there never would have been a war between France and Germany in the 20th Century. And it is pretty much a certainty that some kind of 'democracy' would have arisen in the European nations - probably sooner rather than later.

And if the American Revolution had not occurred, why, slavery might have been abolished sooner, and you would still be independent today. (Outcomes for the peoples already living there when the first European invaders arrived would, I fear, judging by Canadian and Australian history, have been very little different).

Now, the point of all this, apart from the fine amusement that one can derive from the cut and thrust of amicable debate, is that many of the things that we think of as 'deep cultural markers' are little more than historical accidents. While I do not think that our race is infinitely malleable - any nation which is founded upon the principle that 'everything is possible' is going to have a continually disappointed citizenry - I do believe that we are very malleable, and that most of what are thought of as cultural traits are made up of superficial adaptations, which can be as quickly un-learned as they were learned.

Strangely, Americans seem to resist this idea ; they like their immigrants to retain identifiable characteristics, permitting hyphenization. In France, the descendents of Italians have very quickly become French, while in the United States they have been encouraged to hang onto the hyphen ; odd, if you really do believe that 'everything is possible'. Cultural practices change far more quickly than representations.

E seems to believe that not only do her countrymen and women continue to buy baguettes, but that they carry them under their arms. I've been looking at what people do on leaving the bakers in Clichy ; I can report that they do not stick their sticks beneath their elbows. It wouldn't work anyway ; you'd crush the crust, as I did when I tried it out, ending up with a severed loaf and crumbs all down my coat. Teaching culture, if it means anything, does not mean 'up-dating the stereotypes' ; stereotypes simply prevent us from seeing what is.

BTW, I'm English (and French) - but not British. Nobody is British.*

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

This was, of course, just a side-show ; While Bunny and I were sparring, others were making sharp distinctions between those who saw their pedagogical task as being 'Language, language, language', and those they saw as their enemies, and who, they surmised, spent their time cooking tacos and watching 'The Lion King' dubbed in Japanese :

Jan 2001 Language, culture and schooling

Language is just words and grammar? Language is culture? Why do we hang on to these shibboleths? I'm in the middle of planning out a training session for Primary School teachers of English. This lasts 4 weeks ; if you'd like to see where it's at, you can find a rough draught on my site. It's a little different from most of the training sessions we've offered up to now, which were mainly concerned with basic stuff like 'setting up a communicative situation', TPR-like activities, the nuts and bolts. With which I grow more dissatisfied with every passing hour. So I came up with a session on 'culture'.

Why? It's not that I'm persuaded that you cannot teach language without 'teaching' the culture. It's more that I do not see how you can teach a language for communicative purposes - which is what the Official Instructions say we should be doing - without reference to the real world, without using those narrative schemes and structures, without making sense. So you need to talk about something, and you need to talk about it in culturally sanctioned ways.

(Note, please, that there is no need to subscribe to the argument that language is cultural - see Jon Centner's post, in which he gives what can be thought of as the Standard MIT position. I don't know that I altogether agree with Jon, but I'm pretty sure you can't just ignore what he says and assume that the link between culture and language is obvious, and that John Quinlan's questions were nonsensical).

So I would, when teaching a language, usually work out teaching sequences as sense-making projects. For primary-school, I reckon stories and tales provide good material to work with. But I certainly don't want the kind of watered-down stuff that is so often served up in the text-books ; I want real stories by real story-tellers (no, I'm not sure how to define this, but you know one when you see one).

Such stories are less culturally specific than we might think ; Cinderella is found the world over, and Cupid and Psyche, in one version or another, seems to be equally wide-spread. But there may be broad cultural differences in the ways that they are told, and in the ways that they appear in one place or another. There is a history of the way the English have treated fairies, witches and animals - a series of interlocking histories, including a history of painting, a history of poetry, a history of heroes and villains - the fairy-story often spills over into the formal political system, for example.

Unless the teacher has some consciousness of the specificities, of the changes through time, of the social uses of the figures of enchantment, she or he may well be trapped into an over-simple idea of culture and into the kind of use which sees the relative lack of school success of African Americans or the business acumen of members of the Chinese diaspora as being due to culture, and therefore somehow inevitable.

Because I rather suspect that the specificities can be understood as resulting from the interaction of a handful of basic forces. Underneath it all - just as Chomsky claims there is only one language - there is but a single, well-constrained set of procedures for making culture with, and human cultures resemble each other far more than they differ. Within the parameters, and taking account of extra-cultural forces - the economy, the technology, the political structures, earthquakes, fire and wind - human beings can be inventive and adaptable.

And language is not a particularly powerful constraint ; if you were to substitute English for Inuit over-night, the Esquimo would still be able to talk about snow with all the subtleties and distinctions that s/he makes today.

So I'll be taking the group of primary-school teachers that have signed on for the course on a trip that will lead from Spenser's Faery Queen to Terry Pratchett's 'Lords and Ladies', from Stubbs' lions and horses to 'Watership Down'. I think they'll find it interesting - most of the trainees I've worked with find the stuff I do on the pre-Raphaelites and the Romantic poets stimulating, although one lady did recently object that she wanted 'some real culture - you know, Christmas'. I hope they'll end up - if they're not there already - with a more complex conception of the relationship between language and culture than you get from reading the Official Instructions. And I'd also hope that, in the near future, some French children will be looking at a pale lady sitting in a rowing boat on a river while someone reads them a line or two from Tennyson.

All the best

Timothy Mason

This lead a teacher from France to question whether Tennyson would really go down with schoolchildren :

Jan 2001 Broken Mirrors and cats afire
But there's such a thing as Student centered teaching, and I really believe in the "zone proximale de developpement" stuff - only you should try to stretch it a bit.

I think you will agree that an education means that, although we may start from where the learner is, we are not in the business of leaving him there. And, as you note, the point about the ZPD is that the child's capacities are to be extended. (By the way, I would not want to 'believe in' the ZPD ; it is a nice image, but I'm not sure that it is a good analogue for all developmental processes).

Now, let's have a look at what one might do with Tennyson. (I could have spoken of Blake or Keats. Text-books for primary-school Spanish use Lorca). I suggest that first you go to the ArtMagic Gallery and browse through the section of John Waterhouse's paintings. Look at his three illustrations of 'The Lady of Shalott'. Then look at the poem itself ; it can be found at this page (where you'll also find some more illustrations - the rendition of the tapestry in Meteyard's 'I am half sick of shadows' is particularly good).

Using the pictures, we can build up, with the children, an idea of the story behind them. (I'd start with Waterhouse's image of the Lady in the dinghy). When we've done that, we can go on to read a verse or two from the poem itself, to give them an idea of the music of the language.

Another poem that I have used in lycée is Blake's 'The Tyger' and there is what looks like an excellent page dedicated to the poem which carries a lot more of Blake's art-work. Yet another poem, once more using Waterhouse's illustration, that is used in lycée, but which could be adapted for the primary-school, is Keats' 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'.

In no case would I want to offer a full exegesis of the poem to young children. But you can use a poem, and the children can hear the music of it (just as my own children did when they were much too young to understand) without going into minute analysis. And there's a lot more meaning in it than in that dreadful old piece of nonsense, 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes'.

Children are used to hearing things they do not altogether understand - see what Shirley Brice Heath has to say about how Tracktown infants enter language. It is not the incomprehensible alone that makes school boring - on the contrary, it is the often overloaded explanations that grind them down. But think of a class of ten-year-olds, clapping hands, stomping feet and chanting 'Tyger, tyger, burning bright ...' Sure, they don't know what it means - do you?

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

Another poster picked up on my writing that human beings are malleable, and that 'deep cultural traits' can change pretty quickly. He made the point that people will stick to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence :

Jan 2001 Malleability, culture and language

... if you see what I mean. Let's look at it this way ; We are born with a certain endowment which imposes limits - my cats are much better at being cats than I could ever be - and offers possibilities (my cats cannot play cricket and nor, whatever claims may have been made for them, can pigeons play ping-pong, for they cannot count to 21).

We are able to learn quite a lot - both what cognitivists call declarative and procedural knowledge. That is, stuff you can say, if you think about it, and stuff you can do, without having to reflect too much on it. Most of us can do both at the same time ; I can hold a conversation about the relative iniquities of the USAnian and the UKanian political systems while driving my car.

Much of the procedural knowledge becomes quite deeply ingrained. It is difficult to un-learn well-rooted physical skills - the golfer who has got into the habit of swinging from a crooked back-lift will, so I am told, have the devil of a job correcting things. On the other hand, declarative knowledge is easier to up-date ; I will soon get used to referring to the President of the United States as 'Bush' rather than 'Clinton'.

Bourdieu uses the term 'habitus' ; it is similar to, but not quite the same thing as, procedural knowledge. Seen linguistically, the habitus impinges upon just about all aspects. But I suspect that it is more deeply rooted in some than in others. It has often been noted that it is more difficult to acquire a foreign accent when one comes to it later on ; this is, I suspect, because the accent is the most thoroughly routinized, proceduralized of the aspects of language. The way you move your vocal apparatus about is as thoroughly ingrained as the way you carry your fork to your mouth.

(It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that I am willing to agree that learning a FL is like learning to play a musical instrument ; you need to practice getting your tongue around the sounds, and you may well find it useful to do your vowel sounds in the same way a pianist does her scales).

The same is probably true of the way you move your body during conversation - the signs of assent, of dissent, of distance and of status are so well incorporated as to be quasi-instinctive. All of these contribute to the shaping of discourse. All of them are difficult to change - although not absolutely impossible.

These ways of being and ways of speaking are handed on from one generation to another - but they are so in such a way that they can be subject to rapid change from father to son, from mother to daughter. Schooling has become almost as important, if not more so, in giving language to the young as the parents are ; when children are brought up in a bilingual household, it is the language of the school which will determine which of the two tongues becomes dominant. In fact, the language of the school can replace both the languages of the parents, if it is different from either of them.

So when I say that cultural change can be very rapid indeed, it is with the caveat that, in most cases, radical change will occur from one generation to the next, particularly when it is the habitus that is concerned. (Bourdieu is, I think, over-tempted by what Alvin Gouldner called 'metaphysical pathos' ...). This happens, I believe, all the time and in all cultures. The Englishman of today is vastly different from those that Dickens described in the mid-nineteenth century. You would have a hard time understanding the men who framed your constitution if you were to step out of a time-machine to converse with them.

At the same time, I suspect that there are ways in which Englishmen and women continue to be English. But this is in what I've referred to as the 'je-ne-sais-quoi' and the 'presque-rien'*; I don't think you can teach it. You may point learners in the right direction - or what you think of as the right direction - but they have to work it out for themselves.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

Another argument that often cropped up was from 'utility' ; you learn the culture to sell your produce. I have nothing against vendors - but I'm not convinced that a good salesperson should need much in the way of cultural priming :

Jan 2001 Language and culture
A person who knows a language but nothing about the culture is much like the man who has "all book learnin' and no common sense. Incidentally, many a business deal has been won--and lost--because of cultural awareness, or lack thereof. Of course learning the language is most important, but cultural issues should not be overlooked.

Which implies that the cultural knowledge you're thinking of is procedural, rather than declarative. If this is the case, do you think school is the place to acquire it? (Language teachers already have enough trouble putting the procedural aspects of linguistic knowledge into place, without having to cover the gestural habitus). Surely if a businessperson feels the need to 'get to know the culture' before doing business, s/he can best do so through enquiry and observation.

As a teacher of EFL, I find such arguments as yours rather thin ; much of the time, learners of English use the language to converse with non-anglophones. French people use it to talk to Italians, to Germans, to Koreans ; should I be teaching Italian, German or Korean mores in my classes?

Well, perhaps I should ; after all, the basic rules of polite conversation ring a few changes from culture to culture on what are a pretty fundamental set of parameters - to my mind, the man who loses a business deal through committing the sin of cultural inappropriacy is probably an oaf (one remembers that McCartney lost the Chinese market not through lack of knowledge of the rules of etiquette, but through refusing to obey them).

Now, I you will excuse me, I must break off for a cup of tea (PG Tips - not Earl Grey, for goodness sake) and cucumber sandwiches.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

Another - more noble - reason often advanced for teaching culture is that this will lead to greater understanding between peoples and nations, and to a lessening of prejudice :

Jan 2001 Culture and Standards

Your national standards are quoted as saying :

" Opinions and attitudes, both hidden and expressed, are often based upon a surface-examination of other cultures using criteria that can be applied with validity only to one's own culture. The erroneous judgments that result from such assumptions, born of a lack of adequate information, understanding and sensitivity, eventually lead to negative reactions to members of different cultures."

The French Official Instructions say much the same thing. If only it were true ; unfortunately - as I have already argued in this place - it is not. Human beings are quite capable of retaining negative reactions to the members of other cultures when in full cognizance of their habits and practices. Ordinary Germans and ordinary Poles - as well as ordinary French men and women - were quite capable of turning their Jewish neighbours in to the agents of death during WWII even though they had lived alongside them all their lives.

Moreover, it is not illegitimate to apply the moral rules that one believes in to the behaviours of members of other societies. I quite sincerely believe that it is wrong to - for example - execute criminals, cut crucial bits out of the bodies of young boys and girls, plaster the streets with images of the bodies of attractive young women in their underclothes or relentlessly hunt whales to extinction. I am willing to go to great lengths to understand the mind-sets and the feelings of people who think it is all right to do these things, but that is all.

The relationship between language and culture is, I think, a complex one. One does not expect such complexities to be recognized and addressed in the official documents which chart our course for us ; these are matters that the individual teachers, with the individual students and classes - in those schools, *there* and *at that time* - have to sort out very much for themselves.

Pace Lee or Stillman, I will not argue that politicians should leave school to - whom exactly? If they want me to address cultural matters, then I will do so. But, having trained as a sociologist, and having, for professional reasons, some familiarity with anthropology, I am sometimes worried - even appalled - by the way 'culture' is treated in language text-books. I sometimes find that my misgivings are confirmed by what I hear or read language-teachers saying about how they introduce what they conceive of as culture into their lessons.

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

One poster was shocked that anyone could imagine that language and culture could be divorced :

Jan 2001 Are there a significant number of professionals who do NOT believe cultural components are essential to language learning?

Professional what? If you were to ask American theoretical linguists about the relationship between language and the other things that people do, they would probably go around the houses a while before giving you an answer. Most of them today buy into Fodor's idea of modularity - and so do more and more teachers, if what I see on list-serves is anything to go by. In this view, it might make sense to say that language as such is a specific system that has little to do with contexts or communication. That is probably the thinking behind the question that was sent to the list by a graduate student, if I remember rightly.

Language teachers, on the whole, are expected to see language as a communicational tool. In this case there is a strong argument for adding a cultural component. This should not, however, go unchallenged. My own reservations stem from two observations.

One is that the majority of young people who leave training institutions with a teacher's certificate in FL do not have a great depth of cultural knowledge of the countries where the language they are to teach is spoken. Nor do they have a good theoretical grasp of the concept of culture itself.

The second is that too much is often made of cultural differences in communication. For example, gesture and expression are important parts of communication in all human communities ; this we share with our cousins, chimpanzees and other apes. The number of such gestures and expressions is limited, and people can and do learn to decode them very quickly indeed - I have had a number of friends go out to Japan with no training in either the language or the culture, who have picked up both to the extent that they have made friends and made a living. The Japanese that I have met over here have been quick to notice the differences between French face-work and their own. In both cases, it is the language that takes the most conscious effort, and that needs the most work. This is understandable, for there is far more room for variation in the linguistic system than there is in body language (so-called).

Best wishes

Timothy Mason

Finally, one of the militant anti-taco squad called for a radical distinction which I could not allow to go unchallenged :

Jan 2001 Cooking is cooking, and culture is culture.

Je deviens de plus en plus perplexe. Si la cuisine n'est pas une pratique culturelle, qu'est-ce la culture? Et si vous croyez que l'habitus est culturel - et, si je ne me trompe pas, c'est bien ce que vous avez avancé implicitement - comment est que vous pouvez rejeter l'idée de faire de la cuisine en guise d'apprentissage culturel? (Les gestes d'un maître chef français sont les témoins remarquables d'un savoir-faire admirable - et lire Curnonsky est une joie culturelle et intellectuelle, pour l'oeil, le palais et l'esprit).

Mais pour enseigner la culture culinaire, ne faut-il pas possèder le savoir(faire) nécessaire? Combien de profs de langue sont dans ce cas? Je n'en connais qu'une seule parmi mes amis - une jeune écossaise, qui a suivi des cours chez un grand chef et qui est maintenant cordon bleu. Les profs de langue sont - ou ne sont pas - des experts de *langue* ; s'ils ont réçu quelques cours de 'civilisation' en fac - normalement dispensés par des enseignants qui eux-même ne sont ni sociologue, ni anthropologue - ce n'est pas pour celà qu'ils connaîssent bien les cultures des pays dont ils enseignent la langue. Quelques grands livres et un éparpillement de faits d'histoire (et encore - on peut bien sortir d'une licence d'anglais sans savoir ce qui s'est passé en 1066) ne vous arment pas pour enseigner une culture.


Timothy Mason

King, Barbara J., "Debating Culture", Current Anthropology, Volume 42, Number 3, June 2001.

It looks as though I may turn out to be wrong about fox-hunting. Tony Blair's deep conservatism got the better of him, and a compromise has been reached that will keep the hunters in the field. But the hunting Lords may well shoot themselves in the feet. See Guardian report.

Someone wrote to me privately to tell me that I was wrong about this ; she herself, she said, thought of herself as British. This is a delusion in which she may be backed up by Linda Colley (Britons ; Forging the Nation, Pimlico, 1992). It must be some kind of conspiracy.

The phrases are, of course, borrowed from Vladimir Jankélévitch.

Timothy Mason

IUFM de Versailles

Most attempts to set out the aims of Foreign Language Teaching include among the goals a cultural component. But what does the concept of culture point to? Anthropologists and sociologists seem to be unable to come to any agreement - and in a recent edition of Current Anthropology, we learn that : "Apes have culture; humans don't.". Barbara J. King writes : Many cultural anthropologists ... now urge abandonment of the culture concept because they see it as hopelessly essentialized and politicized when applied to human groups. That is, they reject the idea that discrete human groups have a distinct, bounded set of identifiable ideas, beliefs, or practices, and they worry that claims for such sets of bounded ideas, beliefs, or practices are too often made by suspect nationalist movements. *

At the very least, culture is a difficult notion to grasp - and yet many language teachers find themselves constrained to include a cultural component without ever having been offered the opportunity to thoroughly analyze what it is they are supposed to be doing. This can lead to trivialization, to exoticism, or to seeking refuge in Great Books and Great Art. In the posts that follow, I have tried to raise some of the difficulties - but do not pretend to have solved them. As you will see, my own opinions on the question are not really stable, and although I sometimes seem to come close to saying that a language teacher's job is to teach language, leaving 'culture' and 'history' to those who are better qualified, that is not quite what I believe.

The following messages were all sent to the list FLTeach. I have included the dates, and have bold-typed the message-headers, so that anyone who wishes may follow up the threads in the FLTeach archives. Where I have included short extracts from posts by other members of the list, I have used italic script. As this is a long document, I provide an index, so that you can either scan through the whole page, or choose the bits you might want to look at.

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