EAVESDROPPING ON THE CULTURAL CONVERSATION by Ned Danison

Preface: To the teacher
site map
previous page
contents

    Practically every foreign language learner has complained about conversations with native speakers in this way: "I can
    understand people when they speak to me one-on-one, but I can't keep up when they talk with each other." This is because
    native speakers draw upon all sorts of background knowledge which is implicit or obliquely referenced in conversations
    among themselves. Cultural minutia -- movie quotes, references to childhood TV commercials, popular songs,
    Shakespeare, the Bible, seafaring, etc. -- peppers ordinary English language conversations. Much of this is out of
    awareness to native speakers and language learners alike. Are most native speakers of English conscious, for example, of
    the biblical origins of an eye for an eye or the skin of my teeth when they use these phrases? In the same way, nonverbal
    and paraverbal messages -- hand gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, silence, rhythm and so on -- are part and
    parcel of a conversation. These are also out of awareness.

    Media of every kind is essentially a conversation between native speakers. Language learners encountering media are, in a
    sense, eavesdropping on native speakers: Much background must be fleshed out for learners to follow the conversation.

    Learning language in its cultural context

    These materials were written expressly for courses in the Applied Foreign Languages Department with the word culture in
    the title. In short, my aim is to impart knowledge which will enable and assist students of American English to better
    understand the language in its cultural context by comprehending people as products of cultures. Without such an
    understanding, students can aspire only to wooden, literal translation, interpreting the foreign language in terms of their own
    culture. This knowledge is specifically anthropological, sociological and historical.

    Anthropological: Linguistic and cultural sciences provide ideas such as world view, cultural symbols and patterns, and
    human universals that help us take the unwieldy, abstract "everything" of culture and conceptualize it concisely.
    Anthropological analysis helps us tease out cultural attitudes, values and beliefs.
    Sociological: Language is social behavior taking place on variable social footings including age, gender, social class,
    political orientation, etc. Sociological concepts help us understand language in social context. Identifying social
    differentiation shows us who is talking to whom in the cultural conversation.
    Historical: A culture is rooted in its history; myriad past events are embedded in language. Thus we need to understand
    historical context as we learn language and culture.

    This academic knowledge is the subject of the first part of the book, in which I keep in mind as much as possible that the
    teachers aren't anthropologists, and the students are expecting something practical and relevant to their language study, as
    should be expected in the Applied Foreign Languages Department. The theoretical content is, I hope, amply illustrated, and
    is coordinated with the online version of this book, which is chock full of audio-visual illustrations and reinforcements,
    teaching/learning aids, and links to Internet resources, as well as additional text.

    The practical application of this knowledge is, then, analyzing American English texts including stories, news articles,
    advertisements, video clips from TV and movies, and audio clips of voice and music available online.

    Analyzing the cultural conversation: An example

    Following is a randomly chosen example of a text, a brief news excerpt from the New York Times. It is analyzed in
    anthropological, sociological and historical terms -- that is, in terms of world view, social differential and history. The
    analysis draws on concepts expounded in this book.

    New York Times Education News
    National Briefing, November 14, 2006

    Washington: Racial Disparities Persist

    Racial disparities in income, education and home ownership persist and, by some measurements, are growing, according
    to data from the Census Bureau. The median income for white households was $50,622 last year. It was $30,939 for black
    households, $36,278 for Hispanic households and $60,367 for Asian households, the bureau reported [truncated].

    World view: We can easily recognize the ideal of equality, which is one of America's highest values. The writer's attitude is
    reflected in word choice. That differences in income levels between "racial" groups are described as "disparities" indicates
    that the writer believes inequality (not parity) exists, which is newsworthy because it is contrary to the ideal of equality. The
    disparities "persist" -- a word connoting intractability, not merely continuation -- and may also be "growing," which may as
    well read "getting worse."

    Social differential: Noting that this article appears in the New York Times (NYT), we can assume it is written with a particular
    demographic in mind which, at the broadest level, consists of American English speakers (although the NYT makes
    appeals to a multicultural population). More specifically, the NYT speaks to an urban reader with an education level higher
    than high school, and a more liberal than conservative political orientation. Moreover, the article appears in the Education
    News section, which assumes such information is relevant, and of interest, to educators.

    History: Race and ethnicity are writ large in American history. To be a citizen of the Nation of Immigrants, which hosted then
    abolished slavery, is to be mindful of cultural differences and disparities. Government offices such as the Census Bureau
    tabulate information in terms of "race" partly for purposes of social programs (such as begun in the Civil Rights movement of
    the 1960s) aimed at rectifying disparities which may stem from racial discrimination. Such programs are not without
    controversy, nor is the practice of identifying citizens in rigid and unscientific categories of "race".

    Thus an analysis from three angles gives the EFL reader some background against which to understand a news item in its
    cultural context. The three angles are not mutually exclusive -- there is much overlap -- and the analyses do not add up to a
    comprehensive view of issues involved, but they go a long way toward defining what the issues are and are not. A basic
    grounding in American world view, social differentiation and history imparts skills the EFL student needs to analyze
    American behavior, language and media independently.

    The AFLD culture component

    The first Applied Foreign Languages Department above the secondary school level opened at Kao Yuan Junior College
    (now Institute of Technology) in the fall of 1993. Designers of the curriculum included a required culture component called "A
    Survey of World Cultures" (世界文化概論). Curriculum planner Chweenmei Lin recognized that the study of language is also the
    study of culture, and as such, study of culture should be a course in its own right (Lin 1997, 1998). Therefore Kao Yuan's
    culture course was renamed "Language and Culture" (語言與文化). I was the first to teach this course, and drawing upon my
    undergraduate work in Cross-cultural Studies, I began to compile the materials that make up this book. That was well over
    ten years ago.

    A quick survey of language-and-culture teaching materials in Taiwan's bookstores reveals three categories of books: 1)
    Simplified overviews of manners and customs, holidays and miscellaneous cultural items with no theoretical framework, 2)
    American culture readers providing an overview of attitudes, values and beliefs via authentic articles and stories, and 3)
    Technical treatments of intercultural communication drawing upon cultural anthropology and linguistics, apparently written
    for teacher training courses. This category includes Culture Bound (Valdes, ed.), Language, Culture and Communication
    (Bonvillain), Language and Culture (Kramsch), and Intercultural Competence (Lustig & Koester).

    The three categories of books share in common that they are written in English from a Western point of view, intended for
    British and American markets. (I have found no texts specifically on the subject of encountering culture in American English
    written in Chinese from a Taiwan point of view.) Use of highly technical English textbooks in Taiwan's AFLD requires
    considerable time spent in textual explication -- time taken away from engaging students in the ideas presented. Moreover,
    AFLD goals are not primarily to prepare students for graduate study in linguistics, but to cultivate an awareness of culture,
    specifically related to students' future encounters with the people, language and media in their professional fields.

    Content and style

    I have tried to include, in gist at least, much of the content of the Valdes, Bonvillain and Kramsch books listed above, writing
    in a casual style in the first person, using personal anecdotes which parallel the research data presented in the technical
    books. The bibliography reflects my reading related to the subjects discussed. I have tried to keep examples and
    illustrations mainly Taiwan-oriented. Where possible, I have exploited my experiences as a foreigner encountering the
    Taiwan students I attempted to teach about encountering foreigners.

    References

    Bonvillain, Nancy. (2003). Language, Culture, and Communication: The meaning of messages. Prentice Hall publishers.
    Kramsch, Claire (1998). Language and Culture. Oxford University Press.
    Lin, Chwenmeei. (1997). 應用外語科英文組專業程規劃研究. Kao Yuan Journal of Technology, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 1-6.
    ---- . (1998). 五年制應用外語科英文組專業程規劃研究. Tainan, Taiwan: Fuwen Publishers.
    Lustig, Myron & Jolene Koester. (2005). Intercultural Competence. Allyn & Bacon.
    Valdes, Joyce Merrill, ed. (1986). Culture Bound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Organization of this book

    There are two parts: The first part outlines theoretical underpinnings, and the second provides illustrative material --
    interviews, short articles and anecdotes-- and questions for discussion.
Please offer your comments, critiques, and suggestions.
Your name and e-mail address are optional.