Searching the Cambridge CELTA syllabus for ‘culture’, I discover the following.

Unit 1 – Learners and teachers and the teaching and learning context

1.1 Cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds

Demonstrate an understanding of the range of backgrounds and experiences that adult learners bring to their classes

A quick scoot around the Trinity CertTESOL site yields similar results….

Learning objectives

Successful trainees will be able to demonstrate the following on completion of the course:

b. awareness of the learning needs of individuals or groups of learners, and of the motivation of learners in a variety of cultures and environments

These organisations are the prominent international providers of entry level TEFL qualifications, and many of the trainees on these courses will go on to their first teaching jobs after receiving their certificates. A fairly large number, I would predict, would be NEST’s , and a lot of them would be going on to their first extended forays into foreign cultures.

I am at the preliminary stages of work on a paper at the moment, and I wonder if I could draw on the expertise of teacher trainers and trainees out there. Some questions, to help me get a feel for the topic.

  1. If you train NESTs on either the Cambridge or Trinity certificate, how do you interpret the excerpts reproduced above? What kind of input sessions do you give on ‘culture’, and how do you assess whether trainees have gained cultural understanding?
  2. It would appear, from the syllabi, that cross-cultural training focuses on what happens in the classroom. How well are trainees prepared for life / work abroad? (Or is that beyond the remit of a four-week course)?
  3. If you are a NEST who has taken an initial training course before travelling to a teaching job abroad, did you feel sufficiently well prepared?

These questions are very broad but any feedback is welcome. If you would like to answer but would rather not respond in a public forum, please feel free to contact me directly at darrenrelliott@gmail.com. Any response will be confidential and identities will be protected. If you want to forward this to colleagues who are not active in the blogosphere, please do so.

Thanks in advance and your help is much appreciated!

An Interview with Jeannette Littlemore from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Play

It was great to see Jeanette’s workshop, and to talk to her afterwards about the research she has been engaged in regarding metaphor and gesture. As teachers, we need to be aware of the ways in which our gestures may be interpreted… whether they support or contradict the words coming out of our mouths (which are quite likely to be metaphorical themselves). We also need to understand the messages our students are sending through gesture. It’s a fascinating topic. Some things you might like to comment on.

Teachers who gesture more are perceived to be better teachers.

The idea that gesture can betray an ‘accent’ in L2 users, or conversely, that adoption of an L2 physicality can give a more positive impression.

Incorporating gesture into teaching may enable learners to connect more powerfully to the target language.

You can find a list of Dr. Littlemore’s work here.

UPDATE Dr. Littlemore kindly sent me a copy of the article she published in the pre-conference edition of The Language Teacher, which includes further readings. The original can be found at…
Littlemore, J. (2010). Metaphor, gesture and second language acquisition. The Language Teacher, 34.4, 35 – 37

This is the first of four interviews from the JALT conference in Nagoya, Japan…. more to follow!

Play

(Written as a NEST, working in a foreign country, but hopefully of interest to all)

How did you learn cultural awareness? Assuming you did, of course….

For an industry which pitches different cultures together with such force and frequency as ELT, there is very little teacher training devoted to cross-cultural communication. On the CELTA? Sorry, to busy cutting up cards to practice the past perfect. DELTA? Well, can we do it after I’ve transcribed this into phonemic script.  Masters? Perhaps, but who knows what people get up to on those things. No, most of us have to figure it out for ourselves…. new job, new country, new people, new language… well, here goes nothing!

Of course, for many of us that is part of what makes teaching exciting. For others, it may be what forces them out of the profession early on. Is there more that we could do for new teachers in training to prepare them for life abroad? Especially if we have no idea where they are going, or might go in the future? Can we give any better advice than “Look, listen and learn?”

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Geert Hofstede’s research has been taken up as a business tool, but it has applications to the ELT classroom. He assesses five aspects of culture; Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long-Term Orientation.

Here is a comparison of my home culture, and my host culture. I should expect to come up against a greater reliance on rules than I am used to (Japan is an uncertainty avoiding culture), and I am also likely to notice a greater gap between gender roles (based on the masculinity index).

It is an interesting starting point, but rather simplistic. There is little mention of how the different dimensions play against each other, and the categorisation into national cultures attributes homogeneity where there may be none. Even a country like Japan, not generally considered diverse, has enough difference to be significant. Perhaps the iPhone app (Cultural GPS) advertised on the site gives us a hint – this is a handy tool for the business person flying in and out, but maybe not much more.

Culture Bumps

Carol Archer first coined this term for the unexpected outcomes, foiled expectations or unpleasant surprises which are not uncommon in cross-cultural encounters. The idea is not dissimilar to that of Critical Incident Technique theories. Unlike Hofstede’s model, these techniques suggest that we extrapolate backwards from what has actually happened to reveal something about a particular culture, group or individual, rather than make an assumption based on research about what might happen in real life.

Contrast Culture Method

As opposed to the previous two methods, CCM is very precise in how its sessions are conducted. Two players perform a role play based on an incident – one acts as a reference player, supposed to be closer to the audience’s own culture. The other is the contrast player, who reacts against them. After the role play, each player is interviewed by a facilitator, still in character, while the other player waits outside. Both players then return, and come out of character to discuss what has transpired. There are similarities to Critical Incident Analysis, but in this case players are at great pains not to identify as any particular nationality or culture, rather as a pair in reaction to one another.

I have been loosely affiliated to the CCM Special Interest Group of SEITAR Japan (Society for Intercultural Training, Teaching and Research) for a while, and have taken part in a few sessions. Here you can see an edit of our workshop at the JALT PanSIG in Osaka in May…

CCM Long from darren elliott on Vimeo.

(There is a short version here)

Choices

Which of these models, if any, do you think would be most useful for the novice teacher preparing for their first overseas posting? Have you ever received any training? Was it any good? Do you have any epiphanies to share, of culture bumps that taught you something you needed to learn?

Further Reading

Carol Archer’s website offers free downloadable materials for English language classes, as well as further information. This article on handling culture bumps from the ELT Journal by Wenying Jiang is freely available with a bit of googling…. and this one from the APA explains CIT from in earliest incarnation.

Cultural differences are a mainstay of ELT coursebooks, but this one does it with a bit more style and depth. Joseph Shaules, one of the authors, is also a member of the CCM SIG, but I haven’t met him yet.

Geert Hofstede’s ideas can be explored on the cultural dimensions website here.

You can learn more about CCM in this great reader.

Whether it qualifies as a fully fledged language is very doubtful. It may be a lexicon, but that doesn’t really give it the full sense of social gravitas it deserves. It’s not really a dialect, a pidgin or a creole. To call it a jargon would imply that it was a technical or professional form, so we should probably refer to it as an argot.

So what is it?

Polari was a language spoken predominantly by gay men in the earlier part of the twentieth century. A mixture of Italian, backslang, Pig Latin and who knows what else, it had its roots in the slang of outcasts through history, from theatre, from the circus and from the criminal underground – linked especially to the actors form Parlyaree, and Cant, an underground language of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used to obscure meaning and cover up illegal activity from the general public. Of course, homosexuality was illegal for many years too, and dropping the occasional Polari word or expression into a conversation was a great way to tell if a new face was trade or naff.  Polari was popularized by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as the two out of work actors Julian and Sandy in the 1960′s.

But almost as soon as Polari entered the mainstream, it died. Partly because it had entered the mainstream – a savage blow for any slang. And partly, too, because it was no longer necessary – once homosexuality was legalised there was a movement in the community to take pride in one’s sexuality, and to shun the camp language of Polari (and the figure of ridicule represented by mainstream media).

What is interesting about Polari is that it served to both declare and obscure the user’s membership of a tribe. It acts as a particular reminder of the way in which language is selected for an audience, to ingratiate or distance ourselves from a listener, and that a single word can convey an entire biography for the astute listener.

As English teachers we often ask ourselves what motivates our learners. One classic understanding is the  integrative / instrumental paradigm, which sees the learners orientation towards the target language group as important. I imagine that, as a proportion of learners worldwide, those who have a particular desire to join a native speaker group, and thus need to attain certain native speaker norms in order to gain entry to such groups, are limited. Even amongst ESOL students there may be a stronger desire to succeed in everyday transactions (instrumental motivation) than to become a member of the local English speaking society. In language learners studying in their home countries, with little likelihood of extended stays in English speaking countries, integrative motivation will probably be non-existent.

I know a number of students who, having spent parts of their childhood in English-speaking countries, retain native-like pronunciation. Yet when talking to another student, their English becomes thickly Japanese – membership of the group they are with is more important at that moment than displaying their ‘true’ English voices. Many students will choose to retain or emphasise linguistic elements from their local context, phonological, grammatical or lexical. So are these learners failures, or merely asserting their pride in their own biographies?

This post leans heavily on Paul Baker’s work, particularly his book…

Baker, P. (2002) Polari – The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge

…which I stumbled across whilst trolling around the basement of the university library, snuggled up next to ‘Negro Orators and their Speeches’. How lucky I am to work here! You can see an interview with Dr. Baker here, and read an article of his on the topic here.

I also read Quentin Crisp’s well known biographical work ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ recently. You can see Britain’s stately homo here, in an interview which helps one understand, perhaps, why Polari was swept away as a reminder of a time when homosexuality was even more of a dirty secret than it is now. The title of this post means ‘How lovely to see your pretty face again’ … or something like that, anyway!

Wife and children abed, the teacher was scratching his way through a stack of conversation transcriptions that his students had handed in earlier that day. “Hi, how are you” began one. “So-so” was the reply. The teacher lifted his pen to strike through the unnatural phrase in blood red ink – after all, don’t we native speakers usually say “not bad” or “okay” – but then paused. The pen hovered above the page, as the steady tick of the kitchen clock marked time.

“so-so”

He understood the meaning.

It made sense.

It wasn’t technically wrong, was it?

“so-so”

It’s a very Japanese response, but one I have rarely used / heard in the UK. The temptation is, then, to strike it out as incorrect. There are many more such examples, and I’m sure you have your own from the contexts in which you work. Aleks Kase has a great list of ‘Konglish’ expressions over on his site which is worth looking at.

There are two debates which draw particularly impassioned discussion across the ELT blogosphere. The first is the use of technology in education, and the second is the ELF / International English / ‘standard’ English bunfight. But I wonder if the question of whether the teacher accepts an expression, a usage or a pronunciation feature as ‘natural’ is of any importance whatsoever.

I suggest that there are two people who have an interest in the learner’s English, and neither is the teacher.

  1. The first person is the learner themselves. Many learners are not aiming at a ‘native-like’ English. Perhaps they accept that such a goal is often unrealistic. Maybe they want to retain certain linguistic features as a part of their own cultural identity (they wish to use English, but not be changed or defined by it). For many, a certain functional level of attainment is sufficient for their purposes – for tourism, for reading documents or for online interaction.
  2. The second is whoever the learner will be using their English with outside the classroom, in authentic communication. The non-native speaker should be concerned with two aspects of their English, in this regard. To start with, they must be intelligible – certain features of non-native Englishes may be more or less intelligible to those they interact with. The other issue is the image that the speaker creates with his or her language. If the non-native speaker is percieved negatively due to their English, they may have a problem. Of course, people can (do) have pre-concieved notions of others before they even open their mouths, based on racial or cultural prejudices. This is something over which the speaker has little influence. But learners need to be aware, perhaps, which turns of phrase or phonological features are likely present a negative professional or social impression.

In all likelyhood, your learners will either be learning English to interact in fairly narrow and specific contexts, or they will be learning general English because they have to. In the first case, the teacher and the learner will be able to negotiate, at the learner’s lead, based on the learner’s potential audience. If a learner is planning to attend a British university, then native-speaker academic norms are obviously worth focusing on. If the learner is doing business with her collegues in the Bangkok office, perhaps not.

Realistically, the vast majority of learners in state education are learning without a particular audience in mind. However, most of them are likely to be at the beginner to pre-intermediate level and the variety of English they learn is somewhat moot – the struggle with basic grammar and vocabulary is enough to contend with.

The student needs to know what kind of English world they are stepping into, what they can expect to achieve from their starting point, and how they are likely to be recieved by their potential audience. What the teacher thinks about English norms means nothing.

Or “cultural diversity is a wonderful thing (within the framework of western liberal democracy)”

Sara Hannam has just contributed yet another excellent post to the blogosphere, prompted by a horrific bit of teaching in the movie ‘Donnie Darko’. In this case, the teacher stifles the expression of a bright young man by sticking to her lesson plan… which also supports a hidden  dubious agenda.

But what do we do when the teacher is ‘right’ and the student is ‘wrong’?

This morning, the listening in our regular textbook was a discussion between a school principal and a concerned mother, about a teacher who was scaring the children with his enthusiastic lectures on environmental catastrophe. Rather than pursuing the ‘green’ angle that the textbook then took, I thought we might get some value out of educational policy issues. I played about with intelligent design, Darwinism and creationism, but then decided to have a look a something else.

Take a look at this clip (don’t feel obliged to watch all of it, I think you’ll get the point soon enough)

This is a typical representation of homosexuality in the Japanese media. Probably not so different from when I was growing up in England in the seventies and eighties – gay people were objects of derision and ridicule, or dangerous perverts to be feared (perhaps they still are). A prime topic, then, for a challenging Tuesday morning class about ‘What teachers should teach’. And this is the worksheet I put together.

So here is the problem. What do you do when the students express ideas or beliefs that could be considered homophobic… that is, when students are ‘wrong’? Or, more broadly speaking, what do you say to students who say something sexist or racist? How do you respond to students who put forward opinions you feel uncomfortable with? At a party, you might challenge the speaker, or avoid them? Doesn’t really work in a lesson though, does it?

The teacher has a distinct power advantage which makes a direct challenge extremely unfair. The first advantage is linguistic – the teacher is more skilled in the use of the target language than the student. The teacher is also in a position of (perceived) authority, and although they may not intend to abuse their power the students may fear for their grades. In some contexts, the learners are considerably younger than the teacher. This may also put them at a disadvantage in a disagreement, either culturally (with respect shown to elders), intellectually or experientially. Students will often back down if challenged, for these reasons. But they will resent being put in that position and grasp their beliefs yet more firmly.

If the student is in alignment with his or her cultural norms, where do we draw the line and openly state “I believe your society is wrong in this case”?

Please express yourself freely in this class, as long as you are ‘right’.

In a previous post I mentioned an article I had read on ‘nativised’ reading materials – readings which are adapted to include local (and familiar) names, places and foods (for example) whilst retaining the vocabulary and grammar structures of the original. In the article, the researchers took a story based in New York and transplanted it to Canakkale, a coastal Turkish city. The authors reported that students’ reading fluency was best with a combination of pre-reading tasks and ‘nativised’ readings. I had a little correspondance with Salim Razi, one of the authors, who is kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of his insights here.

Recently I have been reading a book titled ‘Acts of reading: Exploring connections in pedagogy of Japanese’ which was edited by Hiroshi Nara and Mari Noda (2003). It might help me answer your question, I suppose. Nara gives an example of a tofu recipe in the book (I think, you are familiar with tofu soup as you are living in Japan but I am not as a Turkish resident). It is important to make an awareness of the topic by providing essential background knowledge in case of lack of relevant prior knowledge; however it is also important to provide the balance between teaching culture and reading comprehension. The teacher needs to consider his/her aims in asking students to read the text. If the aim is comprehension then is it really vital to spend much time on culture? I do not mean to imply that we should not teach culture in foreign language classes; but I try to stress that culture should be taken into consideration when it is necessary. Especially if we are teaching English which has more non-native speakers than native ones and called as franca lingua. The case might be different for Japanese language teaching as Japan is the only country in the world speaking it. We have Japanese language teaching department here at Canakkale and I know that they integrate much more cultural elements into their curriculum.

It’s a point I think we have to consider. If we learn the Japanese language, we need to study the culture too. I don’t disagree with that. Is English different from other languages in this regard? Is there even an ‘English’ culture? And how do teachers of Spanish, French, Arabic and other languages with a wide range deal with it? Is it a debate for them too?

“Did you hear about that boy on the other side of town? No? Apparently, he was walking home from school quite late, it was getting dark, when he saw this woman standing on the corner. She was wearing a mask, you know, like she had a cold. As he walked past she was staring at him.. he felt a bit uncomfortable. Well, she was saying something, in a really small voice, so he leaned in to hear her. She pushed her face up close to his and said “Am I beautiful?”. Actually, what he could see of her, she was. Anyway, it would be rude to say otherwise, wouldn’t it? So he said, “Yes, you are” and she pulls off her mask and says “Even like this?”. Her mouth was slit from ear to ear. Now he’s in hospital, she did the same to him. Don’t walk home on your own, will you?”

I came across the story of the ‘kuchi-sake onna‘ (slit-mouthed woman) when I was looking around for halloween topics for class beyond the usual jack ‘o’ lantern word search. The legend is a fairly modern one, dated to 1978 in Gifu prefecture, which reached its height in 1979. In that year, ‘kuchisake onna’ was named in the list of annual buzzwords, and it has passed into urban folklore. In 2007, it was even made into a pretty crappy looking film (although you REALLY shouldn’t watch this trailer if you scare easily – Japanese horror films don’t mess about!)

On the surface, this is a scary and slightly titillating story to provide a cooling shiver on a hot summer’s night (as is the Japanese custom). But digging a little deeper there are several readings of the basic story. The first is of course sexual – I’ll leave you to figure out what the mouth represents and why young boys should find it frightening – but sex is a general subtext to just about anything, so let’s leave that to one side. Michael Dylan Foster posits three further readings with more direct connections to time and place. The first is the rise of the kyouiku mama, the educationally driven mother pushing her children through cram school, which Foster cites in the oft-reported age of the cut-mouthed woman (in her thirties) and the fact that her usual victims are children coming home from school. Next is the symbolism of the mask itself, particularly in a Japan suffering the environmental and societal effects of rapid-post war growth. The gauze mask, (a daily sight on Japanese public transport since the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918) serves a dual purpose, protecting the wearer from pollution and disease in others, and covering up sickness from the rest of society. The mask also turned up as a sign of resistance during political action in the 1960′s and 70′s. Is the kuchi-sake onna a revolutionary? Foster’s attention focuses most deeply on our protagonist in relation to beauty and feminism, and believes that she continues to act as a subversive influence to this day.

It strikes me that the urban legend, as modern folklore, is ripe for exploitation in the classroom for critical thinking.

  1. I sometimes feel that students are so bound up in deciphering the language that they take the content for granted. By providing familiar stories, the student has a better chance to manipulate both the language and content.
  2. For many students, teachers and textbooks are unquestionable. Tell a tall story with a straight face and see how many call you out on it. Encourage this attitude vigorously.
  3. There are many, many readings of most legends. Seeking the origins of the story and extrapolating to the wider context which it sprang from is a great research project.
  4. Legends are often either local, or adapted to fit the locality. Use the chance to have the students tell the the teacher, or each other in a multi-cultural class, and take part in an authentic communication experience.
  5. Charting the progress and changes to a legend over time and space gives a thermometer reading of social concerns in context.
  6. Utilise Hammersley and Atkinson’s ethnographic questions about texts – simple to ask but often a bugger to answer. These last are vital questions for anyone (student or teacher) spreading their wings above the vast hinterlands of the internet. Too many “I don’t knows” and you’d better move on to something else.

How are texts written? How are they read? Who writes them? Who reads them? For what purposes? On what occasions? With what outcome? What is recorded? What is omitted? What is taken for granted? What does the writer seem to take for granted about the reader? What do readers need to know in order to make sense of them?

In a neat coda, reports surfaced in 2007 of a coroners report of a woman who had been hit by a car whilst chasing after a small children. Her mouth was slit from ear to ear, perhaps caused by the accident but perhaps….

Now, read through this post again and tell us what may have prompted this latest twist in the tale of the kuchi-sake onna…… happy halloween!

Further Reading

Foster, M.D. (2007) “The Question of the Slit-Mouthed Woman: Contemporary Legend, the Beauty Industry, and Women’s Weekly Magazines in Japan.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 32, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 699-726.

Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (1983) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London: Tavistock.

Snopes.com, the best site on the internet for debunking urban myths and folk ‘wisdom’.

Bad Science, Ben Goldacre’s blog taking down tabloid ‘twitter gives you cancer’ scaremongering.