Culture and Language : What Relationship?
Messages to FLTeach
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 :
||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.
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 :
- 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
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 :
||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?
A year later, I seem to have become a little more positive about
teaching culture than in my first two posts :
||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
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.
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 :
||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.
However, I managed to calm down enough to offer some more
considered advice - this time, about teaching the culture of France :
||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.
But it does seem that this subject often raises my blood-pressure.
An innocent remark by one contributor sparked off this :
||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
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.
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
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!!
R's explosion lead to a muted act of contrition on the part of the
person who originally thrust Guevara under our noses :
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)
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.
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
||Gothic, purl and plain
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
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.
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 :
||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.
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 :
||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
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.
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 :
||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.
But teachers of Spanish were not to be budged from their
certitudes. Some of these were so little documented as to raise suspicions
|| Catholicism and families
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
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
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
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 :
||HOW DO YOU TRULY MAKE CULTURE LEARNING A
Culture *is* a difficult concept. For some leads on how to
teach it in the language classroom, go to
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.
My continued skepticism about the deeply meaningful nature of such
things as the cut of one's trousers continued to annoy :
||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
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.
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 :
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
. 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.
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 :
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.
This reading of history was stoutly resisted :
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.
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
||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'?
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 :
||A Middle-aged English Radical replies to his
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
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
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 :
||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
(Note, please, that there is no need to subscribe to the
argument that language is cultural - see
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
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,
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
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
This lead a teacher from France to question whether Tennyson would
really go down with schoolchildren :
||Broken Mirrors and cats afire
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
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
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?
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 :
||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
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 :
||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
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.
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 :
||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
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
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.
One poster was shocked that anyone could imagine that language and
culture could be divorced :
||Are there a significant number of
professionals who do NOT believe cultural components are essential to language
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
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
Finally, one of the militant anti-taco squad called for a radical
distinction which I could not allow to go unchallenged :
||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
Curnonsky est une joie culturelle et intellectuelle, pour l'oeil, le palais
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.
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.
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
The phrases are, of course, borrowed from
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
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
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.