An Interview with Claire Kramsch from darren elliott on Vimeo.

I spent a very enjoyable half an hour talking with Claire Kramsch at the 2014 JALT National conference in Tsukuba, Japan, and here it is for your perusal. Professor Kramsch is the director of the Berkeley Language Center, a teacher of German, and a researcher with an extensive body of work related to culture and language, discourse and language pedagogy.

If you like this interview, please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes to hear more as soon as they are released, and tell your teaching friends!

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!

(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.

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.

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?