I am very happy to share this guest post from Ljiljana Havran, an English language teacher and librarian from Serbia. Ljiljana has an MA in English language and has been teaching general English and English for Specific Purposes (Aviation English) at the Aviation technical school in Belgrade for eighteen years. She blogs at https://ljiljanahavran.wordpress.com/ and is @ on Twitter. I will turn it over to Ljiljana with thanks for sharing this excellent and informative post.
It was my great pleasure to write this guest post. The post was inspired by Mike’s posts and his reflections about teaching English to students in South Korea.
Cultures have widely differing characteristics and misunderstandings are likely to occur between members of different cultures. Intercultural communicative competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other language and cultural backgrounds. My main aim in the post was to explain how we can develop a culturally competent attitude, why we must avoid cultural stereotypes, and also, to point out the importance of teaching culture as an integrative part of EFL. I hope this post is interesting and useful to EFL teachers, and teacher trainers who are preparing people for cross-cultural encounters.
My first cross-cultural experience
After leaving my secondary school I spent a month in Brighton in an English home with an English family. My journey to England was a fascinating experience; the appeal of the exotic and different was not only about distant geographic places but also because of cultural distance. I was very curious about the differences, and so I was eager to experience all aspects of the English culture. I attended a summer course in a private language school for exchange students. I visited some fabulous castles, colleges, theatres, museums, and pubs. I enjoyed listening to melodious English language (which to my great surprise was a lot different from the English language I had been taught at school in Serbia). I met some nice and friendly people who did not match at all a well-known cultural stereotype of the English as reserved, unfriendly and cold. My journey to England was an experience of a lifetime; it was as if I had lived a completely different reality.
What is culture, and how can we develop a culturally competent attitude?
Culture is a way of life. It is the context within which we exist, think, feel, and relate to others. We tend to perceive reality strictly within the context of our own culture, and there is still a tendency to believe that our own reality is the correct perception. Using the norms of our own culture as standards when we judge the behavior of people from other cultures is called ethnocentrism.
In the bias of our own culture-bound world view, we tend to picture other cultures in an oversimplified manner, and we view every person in these cultures as possessing corresponding stereotypical traits. The thing is that stereotype may be accurate in depicting the typical member of a culture, but it is inaccurate for describing a particular person, simply because every person is a unique individual and all of person’s characteristics cannot be predicted on the basis of cultural norms.
If we say, for example, that the Swiss are very punctual, this could be seen as a cultural characteristic. This is because it is a pattern of behaviour which is very typical in Switzerland: from their transport system to their business meetings.
In this way, generalisations can have some value and be useful as long as they are not considered absolute. However, it is crucial to view all people as unique individuals and realize that their experiences, beliefs, values and language affect their ways of interacting with others. If people recognize and understand differing world views, they will usually adopt a positive and open-minded attitude toward cross-cultural difference. A close-minded view of such differences often results in the maintenance of a stereotype.
Milton J. Bennett coined the term “ethnorelativism” to mean the opposite of “ethnocentrism” – the experience of one’s own beliefs and behaviors as just one organization of reality among many viable possibilities. According to Bennett (2009), intercultural learning is “acquiring increased awareness of subjective cultural context (worldview), including one’s own, and developing greater ability to interact sensitively and competently across cultural contexts as both an immediate and long-term effect of change.” Bennett describes six distinct kinds of experience that spread across the continuum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism.
“In general, the more ethnocentric orientations can be seen as ways of avoiding cultural difference, either by denying its existence, by raising defenses against it, or by minimizing its importance. The more ethnorelative worldviews are ways of seeking cultural difference, either by accepting its importance, by adapting perspective to take it into account, or by integrating the whole concept into a definition of identity.”
Ethnorelativism supposes that “cultures can only be understood relative to one another, and that particular behavior can only be understood within a cultural context” (Bennett, 2009). By recognising differences among cultures, and by constructing a kind of self-reflexive perspective, people are able to experience others as different from themselves, but equally human. Adaptation to cultural difference is not assimilation; adaptation is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture.
Bennett points out that “It is naive to think that intercultural sensitivity and competence is always associated with liking other cultures or agreeing with their values or ways of life. Some cultural differences may be judged negatively – but the judgment is not ethnocentric unless it is associated with simplification, or withholding equal humanity.” (Bennett, 2009). For more information please see “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”
What does it mean to develop intercultural awareness in the EFL classroom?
The role of English as an international language of communication in the modern technological world in the 21st century poses special demands on EFL teachers. ELT researchers have recognized the dialectical connection between language and culture since mid-1980s. Krasner (1999) for instance, recognized the necessity for language learners to develop not only linguistic competence but also an awareness of the culturally-appropriate features of the language.
In recent years there have been more discussions and research focusing on the importance of intercultural sensitivity and intercultural communicative competence. EFL teachers should not just draw learners’ attention to facts about other cultures, but they should teach in such a way as to make it clear that communication is more than the exchange of information and opinions. Effective intercultural communication requires empathy, respect, openness and sensitivity.
It is very important first to raise students’ awareness of their own culture, and in so doing to interpret and understand the other cultures. Raising intercultural awareness implies the development of skills for successful communication, i.e. competent and peaceful interaction with people who are different from us. Such an approach assigns another important role to the foreign language teacher/learner: that of “intercultural mediator”, i.e. someone who is capable of critically reflecting on the relationship between two cultures.
EFL teachers will be challenged to exploit this situation by creating opportunities for communication based on the values, cultural norms, and needs of learners, rather than on the syllabi and texts/textbooks developed in native-speakers communities. Most importantly, an intercultural language learning programme should help the learners to develop an “intercultural awareness” in order to “translate” culture in their own context (Guilherme, 2002).
How could culture be fully integrated in EFL learning?
Cultural activities should be carefully organized and incorporated into the EFL syllabus to enrich and inform the teaching content. These are some useful ideas for presenting culture in the classroom:
- Students read articles or extracts from books, newspapers, magazines or websites written by travel writers or people who have visited the students’ town, country or region. Discussion topics can include the norms and values of the culture, nonverbal behaviours (e.g. the physical distance between speakers, eye contact, gestures, societal roles).
- Students discuss funny stories and experience they once had related to cultural issues, or misunderstandings. They can role play a situation based on cultural differences (e.g. a situation in which an inappropriate greeting is used).
- Using photos in class to explore various cultures and lifestyles and answering questions together can be interesting for your students; these activities enable lessons to take the form of collaborative discovery.
- Students are usually curious about the different foods, art and songs that have value in different cultures, and you can teach that by incorporating important elements of cultural celebrations into English language classroom.
- Using proverbs in class as a way to explore culture, its values, and analyze the stereotypes of the culture. Discussions can focus on how the proverbs are different from or similar to the proverbs in the students’ native language.
- Students create a brochure, guidebook, poster or webpage for visitors to their town, country or region. This should not only describe famous sites and places to visit, stay or eat, but also give visitors some useful tips about what they may find strange or unusual about their own culture.
Here on Mike’s blog you can find a lot of very interesting posts that can be used for discussions about culture and the role of the teacher. Also, you can find some ideas for teaching culture to EFL students. Some of my favourite posts on the blog are: