Archive for Tag: cultural context

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Responding to Compliments: Do I Really Have to Say “Thank You” or Can I Just Spit Three Times?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

Advice about Compliments …  the Surprise of the Hour

“Well, at least they have a healthy pile of magazines I can shuffle through,” I consoled myself after hearing that it would be a bit longer before the doctor could see me.  Passing over the monthlies dealing with sports, cars, and teenage-hood, I settled on a magazine concerning lifestyles–and that’s where I found the surprise of the hour… an article entitled 10 Things Your Mother Never Taught You, which included a section on how to take a compliment.

“Really?” I thought, questioning the piece’s relevance to the average American audience.  To my at-least-somewhat-assimilated mind (which has lived in the US for about ten years now), most Americans seem to accept compliments almost automatically.

Responses to Compliments…  Spitting

As I began to read the section, I recalled having to adjust my reactions to compliments when I relocated to the US.  In Poland, where I was raised, people almost invariably downgrade or even reject compliments.  Reading on, I found mention of someone’s relatives who, in the face of a compliment, spat three times in order to avoid bad luck.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Teaching Students What Not to Say

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

When I worked in Singapore, I lived in an apartment block where most of the other inhabitants were Chinese Singaporeans. I regularly met other people from the block in the elevators and in the food courts, and they were always very friendly and chatty. Unsurprisingly, the first question people normally asked me was, “Where are you from?” I found this quite normal and inoffensive, but I have to admit that I was more than a bit thrown by the inevitable second question the first few times I was asked: “How much rent do you pay?” Just to be clear, I am not saying that one or two people asked me this—almost everyone did! The reason that people asked this was apparently that most ex-pats lived in much more expensive places, and the Singaporeans were fascinated to know whether we were paying the same rent as them or whether we were paying more. Unfortunately, of course, “How much rent do you pay?” is not a question that people would normally ask someone they had just met in my country, so being asked it made me reluctant to develop the conversation with that person any further.

Of course, this was Singapore, so the problem was not one of language; it was more a question of cultural differences. When a language barrier is added, the problem becomes even more acute, and learners of English can often unwittingly create a bad first impression by asking or saying something inappropriate, or something that causes them to be perceived as being dull. In other words, the problem for a language learner might not how they are saying something, but rather the fact that they are saying it at all.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Can I Please Borrow your Car?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Asking for a favor is a necessary part of life, no matter what country we live in or what our native language is. From small favors, like borrowing someone’s pencil in class, to big favors, like asking a neighbor to keep an eye on our home when we are on vacation, we are constantly requesting assistance from the people in our lives. However, HOW we ask for favors differs vastly from culture to culture.

This can cause problems for students who are trying to ask for a favor in a native English-speaking culture while following the rules of their native language culture. Although the student most likely intends to be polite when asking for a big favor, if he/she is not following the steps we have come to expect in English favor asking, the request might sound too demanding or even rude. The problem is that most text books don’t teach students how to formulate a request for a big favor. While it is perfectly acceptable for someone to say, “Can I please borrow your pencil?” it is much too straight forward to ask, “Can I please borrow your car?” without any preamble, even when the “please” is thrown in and a modal is used.

The 8 Steps of a Request

According to linguists such as Trosborg (1994) and Goldschmidt (1998), native English speakers follow several steps when asking for a favor that requires someone to go outside their daily routine in a noticeable way.

  1. Introducing: “Hey! How’s it going?”
  2. Warning: “I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?”
  3. Disarming: “I know you are really busy right now, but …”
  4. Giving a Reason: “My husband is out of town and I am having oral surgery and there is no one to pick me up from the dentist afterwards.”
  5. Asking the Favor: “If you are free on Tuesday afternoon, would you mind giving me a ride home?”
  6. Minimizing:  “It should just take about 30 minutes.”
  7. Promising: “I’ll reimburse you for gas.”
  8. Checking – only done with positive responses to the request:  “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

We don’t always use all of the steps, but we pick and choose according to our personal preferences and the relationship we have with the listener. Of course, this is all subconscious. We don’t think, “Okay, now I am going to minimize.” These steps are just an inherent part of how native English speakers have been socialized to ask for a big favor.

Something else worthy of note is the fact that we break basic grammar rules when we ask favors by using the past tense (“I was wondering”) when we very clearly mean the present. As demonstrated by Wigglesworth and Yates (2001), we also use a lot of mitigating words (“just”) to soften the request.

Favor-Asking in the Classroom

It behooves students to learn these steps because pragmatic errors are much more dangerous than grammar errors. If a student makes a grammar mistake, the listener might just think, “Oh, that person is not a native speaker.” But, if a student makes a pragmatic error, the listener probably won’t hear a mistake, he/she may just think the speaker is rude.

Unfortunately, most text books don’t teach these steps and grammar quirks. In my class, I first ask students to think about how they ask for favors in their native language. Then, we watch a video I made of a friend asking me to watch her dogs while she goes out of town. Then, we talk about the steps she uses in the video and why she says what she does. Finally, the students write dialogues in which they ask each other for big favors.

Asking for a big favor is a delicate conversational act. If we don’t explicitly teach students how to maneuver through this linguistic terrain, we may be setting them up for a slew of negative responses.

Goldschmidt, M. (1998) “ Do me a favor: A descriptive analysis of favor asking sequences in American English,” Journal of Pragmatics, 29/2, 129-153.
Trosborg, A. (1994) Interlanguage Pragmatics: Requests, Complaints and Apologies, New York: de Gruyter Mouton.
Wigglesworth, G. and Yates, L. (2001) “Focusing on Mitigation in English,” paper presented at TESOL, St. Louis.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Considering World Englishes in our Discussions of ‘Culture’

Keli YerianBy 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.