Bland Culture

Ana Carolina Calil, Brazil

Author: Ana Carolina Calil

English has come to be a global language. Nobody would deny that. However, what does it mean and what does it take for a language to reach this status? According to David Crystal (1997, 2): “A language achieves a genuinely global status when it develops a special role that is recognized in every country”.

There are around 350 million first-language speakers of English and just as many speakers of English as a second language. English has become the language of business, science, government, international communications and tourism. Speaking English became a synonym of status. In the words of the editor of the Oxford English dictionary: “… any literate educated person is in a very real sense deprived if he does not know English” (Burchfield, 1985).

As a typical middle-class Brazilian kid, I was ten years old the first time I set foot in an English classroom and seventeen when I took my first proficiency exam, and not once was the reason for my studies explained to me. I remember being dragged to class because we HAD TO learn English. It would be important for my future, whatever that meant. So, like many other children of the nineties, I spent part of my week amongst books and cassette tapes which showed a culture I knew nothing of and couldn’t get myself to relate to. When I look back, I can still remember my first textbooks “Touchdown” and “Sam on radio 321”, and how little they reflected my interests and culture. I can still sing most of the “Grammar Chants”, “Jazz Chants” and “Muzzy” songs.

I have fond memories of those days: my teachers were caring and I did learn enough so that when my family sent me away for high school in the United States, I didn’t feel my language skills let me down at any time. Nevertheless, what nobody had prepared me for was to deal with another culture. No one had told that my very Brazilian lace up bikinis might be the source of embarrassment in the pool, or that taking my customary three showers a day would be considered a waste of water and money. I could go on giving other examples, but the point is that, now, I find myself in front of the classroom and, after being a teacher for fifteen years, I still think we don’t teach our students what matters most. We insist on artificial dialogues and meaningless cultural tips, failing our students every step of the way.

According to Brown (2007), “Culture is a way of life. It is the context within which we exist, think, feel, and relate to others. It is the ‘glue’ that binds a group of people together”. Nevertheless, we can’t reduce the study of culture to public representations of this way of life, in other words, we can’t reduce it to holidays, celebrations, “exotic” curiosities and “fun facts”. In order to understand, respect and discuss the aspects that led a group of people to act the way they do, we should stop swimming in shallow waters and immerse in the other culture in a way as to promote meaningful interaction and, therefore, meaningful communication. As Hall (1959) said: “Culture is communication and communication is culture”.  Hence, the way in which we communicate and convey meaning is deeply rooted in our culture. Language and culture are, in all counts, inseparable.

Bringing culture into a classroom that is already culturally diverse by essence raises issues that teachers may not be prepared to deal with, for there is no college course or internship that prepares a teacher to deal with every possible source of conflict that may arise in the classroom. The problem is that there is no ready-made formula. Every student brings to the classroom their own values, beliefs, anxieties and expectations that, combined with the teacher’s own values, beliefs and expectations, may generate a number of different responses.

In English as Second Language (ESL) classrooms, teachers play the role of culture brokers, which gives them the added responsibility of representing the other culture without reinforcing stereotypes or emitting biased opinions. According to Brown (2007, 190-1) “In the bias of our own culture-bound worldview, we too often picture other cultures in an oversimplified manner, lumping cultural differences into exaggerated categories, and then view every person in a culture as possessing stereotypical traits”. A teacher who doesn’t have proper awareness of how different cultures and identities should be addressed in the classroom could easily turn the language class into a place in which prejudice is translated into words and actions rather than a place that fosters mutual respect and tolerance.

Over the years, I have seen a shift from books that showed a foreign culture to books that, in the attempt of catering for “the global market”, started picturing a neutralized culture that doesn’t truly resemble the complexity of any culture at all. The culture of these books is a culture that doesn’t belong to anybody. It’s the “BBC English” equivalent of cultures: it is neutral, it doesn’t offend anyone and it aims at representing every continent at once by featuring characters from different countries, texts that oversimplify a given festival or footnotes with culture tips. The mass production of textbooks that aim solely at making profit at the expense of students who are eager to learn the lingua franca only reinforces the stereotype and widens the gap between cultures. The multicultural textbook that was supposed to empower each individual’s particular culture has turned into a parade of stereotypes and a bland amalgam of old clichés.  It is adamant that ESL textbooks contemplate diversity in all its forms. If the textbook treats culture as a superficial issue and brings it as a “side dish”, that is exactly the role it will play in the learning experience and, subsequently, in communication. If we spoon-feed our students bland culture, we are denying them the opportunity of making the leap into the other culture and creating meaningful connections.

Nowadays, we cannot conceive any attempt of separating language and culture. Studying a foreign language was, for a long period, the study of “the language of others” and “the culture of others”. Nevertheless, as the communicative approach came into the ELT scene, it brought the idea that acquiring a foreign language means making that language your own and using it in contexts in which there is meaningful communication. In the words of Brown ( 2007) “…culture is a deeply ingrained part of the very fiber of our being, but language – the means for communication among members of a culture – is the most visible and available expression of that culture”.

In conclusion, it is the duty of applied linguists, teachers, researchers and material producers to ensure that the world cultures are not given lukewarm status in the foreign language classroom. We need to use the results of linguistic research to ensure better results to our students, because “… to work with language is to necessarily intervene in the reality in which it is part of” (Rajagopalan 2013). A call for action is in place.

References

Brown, H. D.2007. Principles of language learning and teaching. White Plains: Pearson Longman.

Crystal, D. 1997. English as a global language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Damen, L. 1987. Culture learning: the fifth dimension in the language classroom. Reading: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

Phillipson, R. 1992. Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, E. T. 1959. The Silent Language.Garden City: Doubleday.

Rajagopalan, K. 2013. Por uma linguística crítica: linguagem, identidade e a questão ética. 4th ed. São Paulo: Parábola Editorial.



Ana Carolina Calil is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Applied Linguistics at University of Brasília (UnB). She also has a Non-degree Graduate Course in English and a  Licensure in Language Arts - Portuguese/English. Ana has been an EFL teacher for 15 years, having worked in schools and language institutes. She is from Uberaba, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil.

9 thoughts on “Bland Culture

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog. Nice critique of “bland” mass culture–Englishification/homogenization/standardization of world cultures (“the culture industry” as Adorno and Horkheimer would call it)–stressing a symbiotic relationship between language, local culture, and pedagogy predicated on specific socio-cultural and historical contexts. Powerful ideas expressed in a very lucid language:) Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Ana, I really enjoyed your post too! Thanks for sharing it, love how you start with your personal story, and link to globalisation of English, plus research / theory on intrinsic ties between language and culture.
    Really interested in these ideas – and when I think about my own language learning, this idea of it being embedded culture rings true too. Although born in Australia to parents who had been in the country for quite a while, I did grow up in a bilingual household (speaking Chinese and English). This became considerably less so as we started school…less and less Chinese spoken until eventually just English – as Western culture became the prevailing culture I was exposed to, at school, and home. I often wish I’d kept up speaking more Chinese…but, as you point out in your post, your language is often a product of your culture…and as Western culture became more entrenched, so too did English.

    1. I completely agree with you, the more I got imersed in the culture of the second language, the more I failed to value and share my own culture. I guess it’s never too late to bring our home culture back to our lives.

  3. Hi Ana,
    There’s a saying in Canada (and the title of a book): “If this is your country, where are your stories?” Country could changed to “language” and the point would be about how you reside in your culture and how it influences you. The story in this song is personal and cultural: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrcUSx00haI and somehow even though the story is odd, it’s understandable as a moment in life.

    1. Every time we open our mouths, culture comes out of it. Our language is an expression of our story and we have to make sure we build a safe classroom environment in which our students feel encourage to tell their own stories, whatever it might be.

  4. Within cultures there are differences that are enriching for some and a mystery for others. Both my parents were art school graduates. My Father worked self-employed as a commercial artist and my Mother as an art teacher and later in charge of alumni affairs at an art college. No matter what you were doing at the time if you saw something curious or were distracted from the flow of conversation by some exciting thought there was no criticism for interrupting reality for a moment of exploration or an exotic elaboration on what for others was just “plainly obvious.”

    Fortunately, we looked normal:-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *