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The ESL Culture Issue Again

December 26, 2005

Hello again. I’d like to pick up on the topic of cultural imperialism once more.

Hello again.

I’d like to pick up on the topic of cultural imperialism once more. Three strands in this debate interest me. Firstly teachers of English are inevitably seen as ambassadors or spokespeople for their own culture even if they reject its values. How they deal with this is largely up to them. Much will depend on the reasons their students have for learning English. If, for example, they are migrants hoping to settle in the teachers’ country of origin, then some cultural information will be essential if they are to cope with all that is new and different. However, for students wishing to use English in an international environment, then cultural issues will only be relevant to those contexts that require them to be aware of cultural differences. I see no harm in teachers explaining cultural issues but that is quite different from trying to impose cultural values on others.

My second concern is about the way we define culture. Culture is not a question of Disneyfication or McDonaldization. These are outer manifestations of the western commercialism that is increasingly global in its outreach. On a much deeper level culture shapes our values and beliefs and these in turn influence our behavior. Sociologists and anthropologists have produced useful frameworks for lacing cultural norms. Thus some cultures are high context while others are low context. People from low context cultures in which language is very explicit and the world is not full of hidden meanings can be very confused in high context cultures when they are forced to try interpret language, behavior and symbols that can be very oblique. Conversely, people from high context cultures can find those from low context cultures abrupt, impolite and unsubtle. Other cultural dimensions such as power distance, certainty, achievement, monchronism and polychronism, individualism can help explain why people behave differently from each other. Dealing with these aspects of culture helps students build up an awareness of cultural differences that does not attempt to bias them in nay one direction.

Thirdly, therefore, I think teachers need to be culturally aware without being cultural missionaries. To give two examples, let’s look at university students and international business people. If you are teaching English in Asia, say, to students wishing to go to an American, British or Australian university, then it will be essential to give those students information about the target learning cultures. Students are expected to be highly autonomous as learners; they will not be spoon-fed information. Relations with teachers will be quite informal. This is all in marked contrast to the norms in their own countries. If they are not prepared they could find the whole experience stressful and unsatisfactory. International business people need to be cross-culturally aware because they need to understand the behavior of their foreign counterparts. It simply isn’t helpful for these people to see language as existing in a vacuum without a cultural context.


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» When English Teaching Promotes Cultural Imperialism from [The] English Blog [.com]
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  1. Chris Kitrinos Says:

    I don't believe at all in cultural Imperialism stemming from teaching English as a second language in the classroom. The impression this term leaves behind is one of culture being forcefully imposed upon the student who only wishes to learn the language. It's been my experience that half the fun and excitement of the students learning English, is their being able to relate and identify with our culture! They are excited about American culture in music and movies, and they seek it through knowledge of our language.

  1. John Says:

    I think Chris has "hit the nail on the head" in regards to language learning. To learn a new language and not engage in it's culture would be a terrible tragedy. For example, to learn Spanish and not learn about the customs and cultures that speak Spanish would make life so much harder if one was to ever visit a country immersed in it.

    English on the other hand, is one of those languages that is so widely spoken, by so many
    different countries, that one could be forgiven for not wanting to learn everything there is to learn about all the cultures that speak it...

    ...but you could die trying! :)

    At the end of the day, each person is going to take what they want from their teachers so the best idea is to avoid being some stereotype of the culture you're from and simply be yourself!

    Kia Ora!


  1. Consuelo Paez Says:

    Very interesting questions.
    I'd like to add one more: What about making your students aware of their own national and cultural identity as a means to develop command of the English language.
    It's what I started doing after writing my own Social Studies textbook in Ecuador. It's a meaningful way to develop EFL fluency.
    Your comments will be greatly appreaciated.
    Prof. Consuelo Páez

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