By Keli Yerian
Instructor, English Language Institute
University of Oregon
This last winter term, I taught a Language Teaching Methodology class in which undergraduate students were asked to write a research paper on a topic in language teaching. Several students chose to write about language and culture.
Their papers were heartfelt appeals for teachers to see language and culture as inseparable. They were careful to expand their definition beyond ‘big C’ Culture, such as traditional holidays and food, to include ‘small c’ culture, such as the pragmatics of how to be appropriately polite while eating, or to start a conversation with a classmate. One student wrote, “Students cannot fully acquire a second language without also mastering the cultural context from which the language has developed”. This argument sounds quite reasonable for those of us who care about our students’ well-rounded communicative competence, right?
Meanwhile, as the term was nearing its end, I was able to attend the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) conference in Atlanta, and went to several sessions on World Englishes. Here presenters appealed for more recognition and attention to the many varieties of English around the globe, pointing out that the so-called ‘Outer Circle’ varieties of English, such as those spoken in Singapore, India, and Hong Kong, have become ‘nativized’, with distinctive phonological and syntactic features that are only non-normative when compared to ‘Inner Circle’ varieties. Even ‘Expanding Circle’ areas, where English has primarily foreign language status, may have distinctive local English uses and features. Since the number of multilingual ‘non-native’ English users worldwide now far outnumbers ‘native’ monolingual users, it is argued that these varieties should be recognized and valued more than they typically are (see Canagarajah 2006 for a review of these points).
When I returned home and read the final versions of my students’ papers, I realized that despite their good intentions, my students were making some strong assumptions in their arguments about the importance of keeping language and culture tightly linked. They were picturing specific cultures in their minds, cultures of the ‘Inner Circle’ (such as the U.S., Great Britain, or Canada). They were assuming that without including the social norms of language use and their contexts from these countries of origin, that the language itself would feel, in the words of one student, ‘dead’.
But are the English language and the culture of its original communities really inseparable?
Do we need to assume, for example, that English language learners in India will necessarily care about acquiring the current cultural norms of those who once colonized their land and people? Likewise, do we need to assume that two people from different East Asian countries doing business together in English necessarily care about the pragmatics of American or Australian negotiation? Maybe these speakers would care about these things, but maybe also, quite possibly, they would not.
English has been adopted and transformed by communities all over the world to fit into local customs and local cultures. When two Malaysian speakers converse in English, what is important is that they share or negotiate norms of use together, not that they have adopted a specifically British or American set of norms.
At this point it probably sounds like I will suggest we teach language as an abstract, context-free system, since pragmatics and contexts of use are so variable anyway, especially in the case of the all-pervasive English language.
But of course this would be misguided, for at least two reasons. First, from a social standpoint, even though language can be adopted and adapted from its original cultural contexts, language is never free of context or pragmatic norms when used by actual speakers, even when speakers from different ‘cultures’ interact. No matter who the users are, some level of norm sharing must exist for communication to work at all.
Second, some research on international users of English has shown that pragmatic strategies actually matter more when speakers from diverse linguistic backgrounds interact. When multilingual speakers are sensitive to the possibility that others may use English differently, they may actually become more flexible, supportive, and strategic in their interactions (Seidlhofer 2004).
Consider, for example, how even the simplest act of saying ‘Thank you’ can be more or less appropriate depending on cultural norms and context. In some places in India (and perhaps also the US!), saying ‘thank you’ for small things like giving someone a pencil or opening a door may sound excessive and strange. By contrast, not saying ‘thank you’ in the same situation would likely seem rude in many other English-speaking cultures. If English language learners don’t assume that there are fixed cultural ‘rules’ about when to say ‘Thank you’, but instead learn that these patterns of use may vary widely across English users, they will be open to learning ‘culture’ more deeply. Here is where we as English teachers can help students become ‘pragmatically flexible’ as part of their global cultural competence.
In the end, I wholeheartedly agree with the claims about culture made by the thoughtful students in my class. We can and should expose students to the importance of language use as well as language forms. But we must understand as language teachers that the relationship between language and culture is never fixed nor fully predictable. Although many EFL students may indeed want to become familiar with or even acquire the general norms of British or American users of English (and note how variable even these may be), we as teachers should not assume that these norms automatically count as ‘the culture’ of English.
Canagarajah, S. (2006). Negotiating the local in English as a lingua franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 26,
Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239.