Language and culture are often lumped together, spoken of in the same breath, as if they were one in the same. Language teachers revel in the cultures of the languages they teach. But does learning another language really make you any less racist? Some researchers caution that if we rely on cultural stereotypes, we may be adding to our students’ myopic view of the world and that we’re not really doing them any favours.
Researchers Byram and Feng (2004) say that language teachers need to get out there and connect with those who work in the field of cross-cultural training in the business world. They argue that language and culture are value-laden and socially and politically constructed, and that language teachers often rely heavily on stereotypes to teach culture.
Starkey (2007) agrees with that point, only he takes it a step further by saying that language teachers may unintentionally promote stereotypes or narrow views of other cultures by talking only about “food, fashion, festivals and folklore” as representations of culture. He even goes so far as to say that language teachers can become so enamoured with the positive aspects of the target culture (particularly if they have lived or studied in that culture) that they develop a kind of cultural idealism, to the extent that they dismiss their students’ latent prejudices.
That article struck a chord with me. As a Spanish teacher who has lived in Spain and worked for short periods in Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba, I can honestly admit that I am somewhat enamored with the people and cultures of the places I have personally visited. In my classes, I have tended to focus on the “positive” aspects of these places and I have been known to avoid or gloss over questions around poverty, drug cartels, the Basque separatist group ETA, or lack of clean water and electricity in some of the areas I have been.
Rarely do I tell students about the time I was working alongside a Cuban professor and when coffee was served, I asked if he drank his coffee with milk. He replied that he loved milk, but that he saved his weekly ration for his two year old daughter because he felt she needed it more than he did.
Nor do I tell them about being in Honduras a year after Hurricane Mitch and seeing shelters made of twigs where houses had been instantly destroyed. The makeshift shelters were hardly enough to protect anyone from the elements.
Nor do I tell them about the homeless man at the bottom of the stairs in a Madrid metro station who started to smell after three days because while passers-by thought he was drunk or asleep, he had in fact died, with thousands of people (including me, I am ashamed to say) passing him by. None of us knew… and personally, it had never occurred to me as a young, naive 20-something student from abroad, that someone could actually die in a subway station. Such a thing was so far out of my personal experience at that point in my life, that the shock of the nameless Spaniard’s death is something I’ll never forget.
I don’t share those stories with my students. Not ever.
I try to present the happy side of culture in my classes. I only start to “dig deep” or share stories that could be shocking or distressing when I am working one-on-one with students or in small groups with students whom I think can “handle” the other side of the reality I have lived and seen.
As I read these articles, I can’t help but ask myself if I have done the right thing all these years? Who am I to judge what my students can and cannot “handle”? Should I have pushed “the dark side” a little more, I wonder? Have I glossed over some of the more complex realities of real world culture in order to encourage my students to become as enamored with language learning as I am?
Starkey paired up with another scholar, Audrey Osler and together they wrote an article about how representations of culture in language learning textbooks has an effect on students’ understanding of that culture. While positive representations of culture can often be found in textbooks, culture goes beyond photos depicting national dress or typical food.
Researchers who specialize in the area of intercultural education and competence are calling on us language teachers to engage our students in deep conversations about identity, cultural integration, race and social values. They are also calling on us to engage with teachers of global citizenship and cross-cultural trainers who work in the business world, to help our students develop deeper understandings of culture and the idea that a person can have multiple cultural identities.
I grew up in a bi-cultural family, with a Canadian father and a British mother. I have lived in Canada, England and Spain. I’ve studied Spanish, French, German and American Sign Language. I sometimes rely on my national Canadian identity, which is firmly grounded in multiculturalism, to explain my own sense of multiple cultural identities. I think I do this sometimes just because it is easier than trying to “drill deep” into questions of identity. I am starting to realize that having parents from different cultures may very well have influenced my own cultural identity and fascination with the world outside the small city of 65,000 where I was born.
What about you? What elements have constructed your sense of culture and identity? If you’re a language teacher, are you enamored with language(s) you teach and the cultures you have experienced? Is it important to you that your students develop the same love of language that you have?
How do we “dig deep” into culture in a beginner-level language courses and engage our students in critical and reflective dialogue to help them develop true intercultural sensitivity and competence?
Byram, M., & Feng, A. (2004). Culture and Language Learning: Teaching, Research and Scholarship. Language Teaching, 37, 149-168.
Osler, A., & Starkey, H. (2000). Intercultural Education and Foreign Language Learning: Issues of racism, identity and modernity. Race Ethnicity and Education, 3(2), 207-221.
Starkey, H. (2007). Language Education, Identities and Citizenship: Developing Cosmopolitan Perspectives. Language and Intercultural Communication, 7(1), 56-71.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.