Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Exploring Environmental and Cultural Issues in Teaching

Exploring Environmental and Cultural issues in Second Language Teaching and Learning

A final paper submitted to Dr. Gerald White

Victor Fru Asongwe


In partial fulfillment of the requirements of Education 6300 (Teaching and Learning)

For the degree of Master of Education

Faculty of Education

Memorial University of Newfoundland

St. John’s

Newfoundland and Labrador

August 5, 2008

The learning and teaching process involves a lot of movement from place to place. Teachers encounter different issues in their lives as they travel to different environments and face different cultures to impact knowledge to the students. They are welcome to their different work places; meanwhile they also face the challenges of their profession as they begin work. At the beginning, they find it challenging to integrate themselves with the students, colleagues and the indigenes. In teacher identity formation, Brent Davis et al state that;

“Although one’s sense of self tends to be fairly stable, personal identity is evolving. Shifts tend to be small, but there are times when there are dramatic shifts in one’s identifications and, hence in ones identity. Moving to a new city, switching careers, losing a friend, or becoming ill are among the events that can heighten one’s awareness of the transitory nature of who might be. For most, becoming a teacher falls into this category. Among the most demanding aspects of learning to be a teacher is the need to work across two different settings: the host school and the university. By way of contrast, it’s relatively easy to keep track of how one is positioned in a department store, in a traffic jam, or at a family wedding. The social and cultural markers are obvious.p.87”

Having taught English in Sacred Heart College Douala – Cameroon and also in Chinese Universities, all multi- cultural environments, the author describes his experiences on how culture and environment may influence students’ thoughts in the learning and teaching process. Taking an overview of the definition of culture, Wikipedia states that;

“Culture is manifested in human artifacts and activities such as music, literature, lifestyle, food, painting and sculpture, theater and film. Although some scholars identify culture in terms of consumption and consumer goods (as in high culture, low culture, folk culture, or popular culture), anthropologists understand "culture" to refer not only to consumption goods, but to the general processes which produce such goods and give them meaning, and to the social relationships and practices in which such objects and processes become embedded. For them, culture thus includes art, science, as well as moral systems.”

In this position paper, the author’s intention is to highlight the environmental and cultural concerns about teaching and learning of second languages. Time is a great factor to change and that is why Charles Dickens refers to time in HARD TIMES as “The Great manufacturer” In looking at the environment and culture, we will be talking about places and people and the different things that these people do. How does the people’s culture influence a second language? Many communities speak, just one language but because of the changes that have taken place in transportation and technology, distances in the world have become so short that people communicate with each other as if they were just a stone- throw; people cover thousands of kilometers just within a few hours. It is undoubtedly, that with distances shortened by planes and computers and telecommunication, different cultures are almost merging with others. The demand for second language learning has also become so high. It is obvious that whether we are learning a language in the classroom or not culture must be involved. When two people from different communities meet, they must discuss about food, language differences, and ways of dressing. Although they may be using a specific language to express themselves they are talking about culture. The big question for teachers now is how do they teach their students second languages keeping aside culture? What language is used for the target learners? Is a particular language learning not an element of culture? Is teaching about eating habits or table manners, fashion, transportation, beliefs, religion, technology, education, etc not about culture?

In the authors mind, schools and teachers are very influential on children’s development and for children to have an interest in learning a second language teachers and parents should mould the children’s minds well. In other terms, teachers have the capacities of motivating children in learning a second language. Some people feel they are different from others because of the language they speak and they feel proud about it. Others are looked down upon because of the language they speak. Just like other people may look superior or inferior because of the race from which they come. These are all issues that the author feels should be addressed so that the learners can feel free in the learning process. The Teaching and Learning course looks in deeper respect the problems and advantages that have to do with the learning and teaching process. In certain educational environments learners are not provided, air conditioning or heating facilities, small classrooms, no toilets nor bath rooms, no playgrounds. When learners do not feel comfortable with their learning conditions, achievement is also affected. When talking about computers and internet as a global issue and learners have not been able to see them, it should not be surprising that they may not have heard about the vocabulary before. It is the place of education boards to make the learners have access and get acquainted to curriculum material. In other words, the nearness of curriculum material to the students is the access and more understanding of vocabulary in language learning. Imagine someone learning English as a second language who lives in a society where all street names are in a strange language, all instructions and notices, directions are not in the target language. This affects learners in several ways. The mind captures many things at a time and all the senses cannot be underestimated in the process of language learning. These are all issues concerning the environment and culture in the teaching and learning process. Children learn fast by seeing and doing.

Recent studies focus on the seamless relationship between L2 teaching and target culture teaching, especially over the last decade with writings of scholars such as Byram (1989; 1994a; 1994b; 1997a; 1997b) and Kramsch (1988; 1993; 1996; 2001).People involved in language teaching have again begun to understand the intertwined relation between culture and language (Pulverness, 2003) It has been emphasized that without the study of culture teaching L2 is inaccurate and incomplete. For L2 students, language study seems senseless if they know nothing about the people who speak the target language or the country in which the target language is spoken. Acquiring a new language means a lot more than the manipulation of syntax and lexicon According to Bada, (2000) “the need for cultural literacy in ELT arises mainly from the fact that most language learners, not exposed to cultural elements of the society in question, seem to encounter significant hardship in communicating meaning to native speakers.” In addition, nowadays, the L2 culture is presented as an interdisciplinary core in many L2 curricula designs and text books (Sysoyev & Donelson, 2002).

In fact, studying an L2, is trying to figure out the nature of another people, so there is no human nature independent of culture (McDevitt, 2004). If as McDevitt holds human nature is seamlessly related to the culture, then studying L2 involves the study of L2 culture. The mutual relation between language and culture, i.e. the interaction of language and culture has long been a settled issue thanks to the writings of prominent philosophers such as Wittgenstein(1980;1999), Sassure(1966), Foucault(1994), Dilthey (1989), Von Humboldt (1876), Adomo(1993), Davidson(1999), Quine( 1980) and Chomsky (1968). They have been so influential with the issue of language and culture. Sapir (1962) and Whorf (1956) were also very influential with the issue concerning language and culture. According to Sapir, he that ‘language, race, and culture are not necessarily correlated’, adding the remark ‘language and our thought-grooves are inextricably interrelated, are in a sense, one and the same’. Yet this single remark does not supply a satisfactory reply to the question of why culture teaching should be involved in language teaching. Kitao (2000) gives reference to several authors who outline the advantages of teaching and learning culture:

- Studying culture gives students a reason to study the target language as well as rendering the study of L2 meaningful (Stainer, 1971).

- From the perspective of learners, one of the major problems in language teaching is to conceive of the native speakers of target language as real person. Although grammar books give so called genuine examples from real life, without background knowledge those real situations may be considered fictive by the learners .In addition, providing access into cultural aspect of language, learning culture would help learners relate the abstract sounds and forms of language to real people and places ( Chastain, 1971).

- The affect of motivation in the study of L2 has been proven by experts like Gardner and Lambert (1959, 1965, and 1972). In achieving high motivation, culture classes does not have a great role because learners like culturally based activities such as singing, dancing, role playing, doing research on countries and peoples, etc. The study of culture increases learners’ not only curiosity and interest in target countries but also their motivation. For example, when some professors introduced the cultures of the L2’’s they taught, the learners’ interest in those classes increases a lot and the classes based on culture were preferred than traditional classes. In an age of Post – modernism, in an age of tolerance toward different ideologies, religions, sub-cultures, we need to understand not only the other culture but also our own culture. Most people espouse ethnocentric views due to being culture bound, which leads to major problems when they confront a different culture. Some people think others cultures are richer than others, may be because they have difficulties in understanding or accepting people with points of views of the world. This point is highlighted by Kramsch (2001)

People who identify themselves as members of social a group (family, neighborhood, professional or ethnic affiliation, and nation) acquire common ways of viewing the world through their interactions with other members of the same group. These views are reinforced through institutions like the family, the school, the workplace, the church, the government, and other sites of socialization through their lives. Common attitudes, beliefs and values are reflected in the ways members of the group use language, for example, what they choose to say or not to say and how they say it (p.6).

- Apart from these advantages, studying culture gives learners a liking for the native speakers of the target language. Studying culture also plays a useful role in general education since subjects like geography, history literature, current events etc. could be taught (Cooke, 1970).

McKay (2003) contends that culture influences language teaching in two ways: linguistic and pedagogical. Linguistically, it affects the semantic, pragmatic, and discourse levels of the language. Pedagogically, it influences the choice of the language materials because cultural content of the language materials and cultural basis of the teaching methodology are to be taken into consideration while deciding about the language materials. For example, some textbooks provide examples from the target culture, some others use source culture materials and video sources may provide authentic material from target culture too. Let us say for instance that a native speaker of English is learning Chinese and he sees ‘kung fu’ or ‘ping pong’ displayed physically or via television, he will be bound to ask what do these words stand for. The definition of ‘kung fu’ as a “Chinese acrobatic display” already makes the learner to know about the word. English has equally borrowed several words from different cultures, meaning that different cultures are making English to evolve. The English Language is a very dynamic language, it is not static.

Most people are so ethnocentric that when they start to study another language their restrictedness in their own culture prevents them from seeing the world in a realistic way. Overcoming the limits of mono cultural perspective and reaching the realm of different perspective could be facilitated by studying another culture.

In addition, culture classes have a humanizing and a motivating effect on the language learner and the learning process. They help learners observe similarities and differences among various cultural groups. Recent statistics show that, most of the L2 students around the world live in a monolingual and mono-cultural environment. Consequently, they become culture-bound individuals who tend to make premature and inappropriate judgments about others’ cultural characteristics compared to theirs. This peculiar aspect may kill others interest of learning a second language, thinking one language is enough for them.

Some experts, however, look at the issue of teaching culture with some kind of reservation. Bada (2000) reminds us that awareness of cultural values and societal characteristics does not necessarily invite the learner to conform to such values, since they are there to “refine the self so that it can take a more universal and less egoistic form” (p.100). Besides, we are made to understand that English is the most studied language in the world, whereby the language has gained a lingua franca status (Alptekin, 2002; Smith, 1976). Alptekin (2002), in his article, favoring an intercultural communicative competence rather than a negative –like competence, asserts that since English is used by most people in the world for instrumental reasons such as professional contacts, academic purposes and commercial issues, the conventions of the British politeness or American informality proves irrelevant. Like wise, Smith (1976) highlighting the international status of English Language list why culture is not needed in teaching English Language:

- there is no necessity for L2 speakers to internalize the cultural norms of native speakers of that language,

- an international language becomes de- nationalized

- the purpose of teaching an international language is to facilitate the communication of learners’ ideas and culture in an English medium (qtd. In McKay, 2003)

To differ a bit with the above assertions, the researcher of this paper believes that second language teaching involves interaction and there is no way in which the teacher of second language can teach without bringing in norms of the native speaker. It is even motivating to the learners when they watch movies, or listen to tapes from native speakers and try to imitate. Further, an international language has an origin, and those at the fore front must always remind others in a polite way that that language originated from us or is an element of our culture. “That is why we think of the RP, (Received Pronunciation and GA, General American)”

In Asian cultures influenced by Confucianism where students are expected to respect to respect and not to challenge their teachers (cf.Hu, 2002 regarding Chinese culture), many students hesitate to voice objections where as students from other cultures are less likely to be so inhibited. In addition, the teacher needs to consider carefully ways for introducing a topic such as discrimination. Avery constructive criticism offered by one American student is worth considering: “Instead of stereotyping people of Japanese descent , the teacher should have asked for suggestions from the class on what her daughter could do to stand up for bullies”. This concerns a teacher who bullies the child of a teacher from another race. This suggests that students’ attitudes toward discussion reflect differences toward learning styles between two cultures. In the author’s culture active initiation of discussion and spontaneous and detailed comments are encouraged (Samovar & Porter, 2001) While in Chinese culture attentive listening and brief comments after contemplation are expected (Kindaichi, 1988).

The issue of students being listeners to their teachers is a great issue to be addressed especially with the teaching of second languages which requires a lot of interaction among students - students and students- teachers. Most of the students do not even see the need to write down words, when they know their duty is to just to listen. Most teachers teaching foreign languages are not yet used to the communicative approach of teaching languages and this makes students to be shy to speak even if they had learnt or acquired the language. This is as a result of the influence of the first culture.

The next thing to discuss concerning environmental and cultural issues in teaching and learning has to do with race. Engaging in meaningful dialogue about race will prepare students to function in society that is becoming more global and diverse. It is the instructor’s duty to create a classroom atmosphere that facilitates meaningful dialogue about race. Although students claim to be open-minded, many harbor negative stereotypes about minorities. Assumptions about racial inferiority often remain unchanged in the face of contrary evidence. To engage in meaningful dialogue about race, students must first examine their own believes and attitudes (Garrett &Thornton, 1993). According to Garcia and Melendez (1997), “students must confront their experiences and comprehend their own ethnicity and culture” (P. 23). The researcher believes that people do not make lands, but people can make a language, and can move from nation to nation.

T he primary intention of the author was to address environmental and cultural issues that influence the teaching and learning of second languages. We discussed the role of the teacher as the “pilot” to teaching and the students as the audience and active participants. We also discussed how the environment may change some one’s attitude toward language learning. Further discussed was the role of culture in language learning. Technology, particularly, computers and the internet have also been seen as a uniting tool to foster the learning and teaching of languages. The author, having taught in different places, sees the importance of culture in motivating learners to quicken their process of language learning. As discussed before, language only forms part of a culture and not a culture entirely. Research suggests that a culture class is significantly beneficial in terms of language skills, raising cultural awareness, changing attitudes towards native and target societies and contributions to the teaching profession. The researcher of this paper encourages teachers to be innovative and use different teaching styles in their classes and to draw from their own environments appropriate and accessible activities, materials and methods.


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