Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Can You Teach English without Teaching Culture?

Most people would probably answer the above question with an unequivocal "No!"  On top of that, why would you want to teach a language outside the context of the culture that uses the language?  I guess I'm not like most, however, because I can see the point of teaching English in Switzerland, for example, using books that were created with Swiss people in mind - not for immigrants living in the USA and trying to learn American English.

The question of whether you can teach English without teaching culture is worth discussing. Maybe what we need to think about is whose culture we should embed the English in, ours or the culture where English as a foreign language is being taught.

At the beginning of this year in the Saudi Gazette, there was an article about how some Saudi families complained to a Saudi university about teaching English that had "inappropriate pictures and components of Western culture." Will learning English embedded in American culture change the value system and unique cultural views of an Arab student?  Does globalization via language lead to loss of unique cultural identities?

The fear that someone else's different and often attractive new language and culture will displace or "infect" one's own language and culture seems to be built into our human DNA.  This fear has probably existed since the first bands of human beings encountered people from another region, with another language and different customs and dress.  Throughout our history, languages have disappeared along with the indigenous people who spoke these rare tongues and who lived in non-industrialized small-scale societies.  Isn't it a legitimate concern that - with the spread of English and the cultures that embrace it - we will lose linguistic and cultural diversity? Do speakers of major languages such as French, German, Arabic, or Spanish, spoken by millions, have to fear that their cultural values will be destroyed or mutated by English?  Which English is the most dangerous?  After all, English is a national language of England, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Singapore as well as several African countries.

I've gathered some links together on the title topic and offer them to my readers for commentary and for cogitation.  For example, here is a discussion started by a well-regarded online ESL instructor. Another teacher argues in an advertisement and blog for its tutoring services that English is not enough. Finally, this one opens up a discussion of how to actually create a class to teach English as a foreign language and be sensitive to the "culture" issue.

As always in teaching a foreign language, the difficulty lies in implementing the principles and theories of cultural relativism in "real" classrooms. Often the books or materials teachers have to work with (if any at all, in some places) have been created for ESL students studying in England, Australia, the USA, or Canada. The vocabulary and topics concern life in those countries where English is the native language but may be inappropriate in Russia or Vietnam.

Going back to the original question at the beginning of this post, can we teach English without teaching culture?  I doubt it.  However, I do think we can incorporate more of the language (vocabulary) and context of the local environment when dealing with students learning English as a foreign language.  What I mean is that if you are teaching American English in Switzerland, for instance, it probably doesn't make sense to use a text that talks about baseball or American football heroes. It makes more sense to give Swiss students language and vocabulary for talking about relevant topics such as Alpine sports, famous Swiss mountaineers, or the cultural norms and customs of Switzerland. Indeed, there are many Englishes, and maybe our texts and other materials should reflect that reality.     


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Unknown said...

You can teach English (and other languages) without teaching culture, but it doesn't produce good results. Reverse the Saudi example. Could anyone ever imagine learning Arabic without knowing anything about the culture and the religion. Saudis would certainly find that concept laughable.

You can teach the words, but you also have to know what they mean. For example, I can learn the German words for liberal and conservative, but I must also learn that the ideas they categorize under the umbrella of liberal and conservative are entirely different from American English.

Another good example is Chinese chengyu. These are four-character expressions which relate to old stories. They derive their meaning from the original stories, so you often have to teach the stories to teach the meaning.

English is no exception. Try explaining the American use of the word "frontier" to a European. There's no way to explain the word without some major discussion on American history. If you don't, all they will understand is "border."

Evelyn said...

Hi Tony, Thanks very much for your comment. I agree with you that the meanings of English words could be different if they are taught in a European context and "frontier", for example, might be (mis) understood to mean "border." However, this understanding of English goes on all the time. If I go to England, I might ask someone to retrieve my luggage from the "boot" (trunk). "Boot" has a totally different referent in American English. What I am saying is that, in a foreign context where English is not a national language, maybe we should adapt textbooks to the foreign context.

A French person speaking English in Germany may ask for "sauce," and a German English speaker may understand sauce correctly to mean "salad dressing." My Swiss German students and French students studying English here thought that "sauce" IS the English word for salad dressing. In other words, their "European English" was mutually comprehensible whereas to my American English sensibilities, this was a misuse of the word "sauce." To many Mexican Americans, I'm sure that frontier - like "frontera" - means "border" or "borderlands" even though they know American history.

There are indeed now many (too many?) Englishes!

Word Count Tool said...

In my opinion, English and English cultures are closely related that it is extremely hard to separately teach them.

For the writing part, I would like to suggest the site: http://wordcounttools.com to count the number of words in a given text.

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