Do cultural factors need to be discussed separately or do you think they can all be subsumed under ‘individual differences’? Present your case.
Brown (2000, p.177) defines culture as “a context of cognitive and affective behaviour, a template for personal and social existence” which establishes how a cultural group defines the world, and determines what is valued in terms of behaviour, relationships, and attitudes. Brown (2000, p.179) points out that, “cross-cultural research has shown that there are indeed characteristics of culture that make one culture different from another” (see also Wierzbiecka, 1991). Since “language is a part of a culture, and a culture is a part of a language” (Brown, 2000, p.177) cultural factors affecting SLL need to be considered in their own right, and not simply as they relate to individual learner difference. Since any ascribing of cultural values is necessarily normative, cultural factors should not be used to stereotype individual students; rather the impact of cultural factors on SLL is valuable for both teachers and students to consider in a spirit of enquiry rather than as a simple explanatory mechanism. This essay will explore three types of impact:
1) Effects on SLL of the L1 culture’s attitudes towards the target language and culture
Attitudes of a particular culture/language group towards another can influence the integrative and instrumental motivation of target language learners. The high status of English is reflected both in the growing number of people around the world who are motivated to become proficient English users because of its necessity “in the world of work and in practical communication” (Chambers, 2000, p.71), and in the declining interest of English native speakers in learning an SL (see e.g. Graddol, 2006; Clyne, 2005), so that SL teachers in Australia now need to advocate proactively the benefits of SL learning to counteract community disinterest.
However high status languages are not universally appealing. Minority groups in countries or cultures that have been colonised (e.g. Australian indigenous peoples), due to a “history of brutal subjugation and denigration of their way of life”, may reject “the values of the dominant group and … its educational system” (Mangubhai, 1997, p.39), and consequently also its language.
2) Effect of learners’ understanding of culture on SL proficiency
For many learners, SLL involves exposure to how the embedded cultural values, behaviours and norms of the L2 culture differ to those of their own. Misunderstandings, disorientation, frustration, and anxiety are all possible features of ‘culture shock’ (Brown, 2000; Schumann, 1986) and, as Mangubhai (1997) writes, if the issue of cultural differences is left unaddressed, it may lead to a decrease in learners’ motivation and a possible rejection of SL learning.
Cultural similarity or congruence between two cultures can facilitate SLL through increased social contact (Spolsky, 1989) and positive transfer from the L1. For example, the formulae for beginning meals in German and French (Guten Appetit; bon appétit) emphasises that “eating is fundamentally a social event and an event to be shared with others” (Crozet and Liddicoat, 1997, p.10) and the lack of such a formula in English may make cause French or German people to think negatively towards the seeming lack of politeness in English-speaking cultures. Even when similar phrases exist in different languages, their pragmatic meaning may differ. Although all the above countries use a greeting followed by a health inquiry (Hello. How are you?/ Hallo. Wie geht’s?/ Allo, ça vas?), Crozet and Liddicoat (1997) point out that while it has a ritual function in Australian English, in French and German it is used as a genuine inquiry and as such can cause upset or confusion when not used sincerely.
The scope for misunderstanding is exacerbated when two cultures are very different. For example, Scollon and Wong-Scollon (1991, p.113) conclude that the Asian use of “inductive, or delayed, introduction of topics leaves Westerners confused about what the topic is”, while Western ‘deductive’ ways which “introduce topics early in a conversation” strike Asians as “abrupt or rude”. Western style academic writing, which as Mangubhai (1997, p.26, citing Matalene, 1985) points out, “values authentic voice, self-expression, stylistic innovation, …directness…, a stance, and the citation of evidence to prove one’s case” can also cause problems for students from cultures where critically evaluating ‘expert’ texts can be seen as self-promoting criticism “contributing to disharmony” (Mangubhai, 1997, p.26).
If such conflicts are not explicitly addressed in the classroom, and students gradually encouraged to adapt to and incorporate new behaviours, values, ways of thinking, and patterns of expression, students may have negative experiences (e.g. social isolation, low marks, failure to progress) which will negatively impact on their motivation to continue SLL. More positively, the SL classroom can serve as an excellent place for the exploration of the target culture, one’s own culture, and the demarcation of a ‘third place’ from which to negotiate meaning across cultures (Lo Bianco, Liddicoat and Crozet, 1999). The teacher is instrumental in assisting students to be able to “function in the new environment” (Crozet & Liddicoat, 1997, p.4) without abandoning their own cultural values and identity.
3) Effect of cultural factors in teaching and learning
Hofstede (1986) suggests four categories of cultural norms that may impact on teaching and learning. I find the first two most useful and convincing but that may reflect Australia’s position at a polar end in these two categories (see http://www.clearlycultural.com/geert-hofstede-cultural-dimensions). The examples given have been observed in my ESL classes in Australia:
- Individualism versus collectivism – students from countries with a tendency for collectivism (e.g. Japan, Korea, China) may speak out less in class than students from countries where individualism (e.g. Australia, Italy, France, Germany) is valued, so I need to be aware not to let the European students dominate in class and ‘teach to’ them. Debates and discussions have to be framed and organised carefully to encourage participation.
- Power Distance - students from countries with high PD (e.g. Malaysia, China, Indonesia) may be accustomed to teacher-centred classes and resist ideas of self-directed and peer learning. I came across this in delivering a TESOL teacher training course to Chinese teachers that I had constructed around the notion of us ‘exploring’ topics and learning with and from each other. The Chinese teachers resisted this saying that I was the teacher so I should teach them. After changing the structure of the course to include more ‘lectures’, I found, somewhat paradoxically, that they became more receptive to asking and answering questions and offering personal observations.
- Uncertainty Avoidance is the extent to which people are threatened by a lack of structure or by uncertain events. Students from countries with high U.A. (e.g. Japan, France, Korea) may prefer more structured classes and activities and expect teachers to provide them with ‘right’ answers.
- Masculinity versus femininity depicts the degree to which ‘masculine’ traits such as competition and the importance of success in work and academia, are preferred to ‘female characteristics’ such as cooperation and negotiation. Japan is supposedly the most ‘masculine’ country but this value is not particularly observable in the Japanese students I teach – possibly because of their youth or the fact that they are outside of (and perhaps outsiders within) Japan. This shows the importance of neither considering nor presenting cultures as monolithic, static, and stereotyped, as variations within and across cultures need to be recognised and explored.
From this brief discussion, it can be seen that cultural factors impact on SLL in a sufficiently wide range of ways to make them necessary of consideration in their own right and not simply in the context of individual learner difference.