The Language Teacher
July 2003

Current Concerns in Socio-Cultural Training in the Classroom

Simon Greenall

Macmillan UK

For some years, there has been much discussion about the relevance of socio-cultural training as part of a well-balanced language course. Yet, today, some teachers remain concerned that, alongside the many syllabus strands of grammar, function, skills, pronunciation, etc., socio-cultural training adds further demands on an already overcrowded course design.

I will begin by discussing some of the concerns about socio-cultural training which teachers have expressed, such as:

  1. "How can I teach socio-cultural awareness at low levels?"
  2. "It's easy if you have a multicultural group. But what can we do in monocultural classes like ours?"
  3. "Grammar, skills, pronunciation—there's so much else to teach. I just don't have enough time to teach socio-cultural awareness."
  4. "Is it really my job as a language teacher to teach cross-cultural awareness?"
  5. "My students are never going to live or work abroad. Why bother?"

At present, the English language is going through a period of reculturization, in which the cultural content has been reintroduced. Many years of teaching English together with target cultures (e.g. American Studies, British Life and Institutions) gave way to a period during which native speaking teachers chose not to focus on the cultural origins of the language, as a pre-emptive response to the perceived threat of cultural and linguistic imperialism. More recently, however, the teaching of English as a lingua franca has re-established its focus on the cultural content of a course by including cross-cultural training using sample cultures (e.g. cultures where English is used as a first or second language, or by speakers of other languages).

I will examine what and how to teach, and why teach a socio-cultural syllabus strand in a multi-syllabus course design, and give a practical demonstration of certain activities which address these issues. I will propose a series of social and cultural topics that should be covered in a mainstream language course. Three types of topics will be presented:

  1. social conventions and rituals—forms of greeting, making introductions, personal space, reciprocal speech, silence, smiling, eye contact, gestures, appearance, etc.
  2. customs and traditions—weddings, holidays, festivals, gift giving, dating customs, buying food, table manners, folk stories, etc.
  3. attitudes and beliefs—superstitions, men and women, networking, face, time, etc.

I will introduce the concept of the cultureme, which is a single or minimal manifestation of socio-culturally determined behavior, belief, attitude, custom, or tradition. I will also extend the concept of culture beyond describing where one comes from in geo-political and/or ethnic terms to include one's age, gender, socio-economic background, socio-professional status, etc.

The talk will then consider the aspects of the existing syllabus strands, such as grammar, functions, and skills work which can be covered for purposes of socio-cultural training. Apart from skills work, which could be easily integrated into such a course, it will be suggested that while the relevant grammar may be restricted to the present simple, any discussion and presentation of language in functional terms will implicitly include reference to its socio-cultural context. Exponents of particular functions such as making introductions, agreeing, disagreeing, giving opinions, apologising, complaining, thanking, complimenting, and back-channelling will be discussed for their socio-cultural relevance inside and outside the classroom.

I will demonstrate classroom activities to draw a distinction between concepts already referred to in the early parts of the talk:

  1. macroculture (ethnic and/or geo-political groupings) and microculture (differences in gender, age, socio-economic background, socio-professional status, etc.)
  2. surface culture (a dictionary definition or description of a culturally contextualised item) and deep culture (its cultural resonance or connotative association)
  3. target culture (to be acquired for residency, study, or employment in a given culture/country) and sample culture (used specifically for its interest value and for its potential for cross-cultural comparison).

We will look at some materials and a number of activity types which can be used in the socio-culturally aware classroom:

  1. Cognitive training: the use of material containing straightforward factual information
  2. Second Culture (C2) comparison: creating the opportunity for comparison between two cultures
  3. Experiential training (mostly using role plays)
  4. Critical incidents: the study of situations in which culturally generated behaviour is discovered to be inappropriate
  5. Cultural resonance, especially single-word items, such as tea, home, school, etc., or concepts, such as numbers, colours and objects which are rich in cultural associations, or cultural icons such as symbols on coins, banknotes, postage stamps, and other symbols of national or cultural identity
  6. L2 interference, such as trap words where words and expressions can be successfully translated but have different meanings or frequency of use in L2, and absences where words and expressions exist in one culture but not in another

The talk will consider the nature of cultural generalisation, stereotyping, and prejudice. It will examine the stages through which two individuals from different cultures may, in a C2 context, pass from cultural bump to cultural shock:

Figure 1

The same process from cultural bump to culture shock will be examined in a local, regional, ethnic, national or international context. At this stage, the focus of socio-cultural awareness turns to global issues, and to the possible consequences of not providing suitable training in the classroom. I will summarise the current concerns with a number of key points:

  1. The key to an awareness of other cultures is an awareness of your own.
  2. Socio-cultural training can be integrated with the grammatical, functional syllabuses and skills syllabuses.
  3. Cross cultural awareness does not imply assimilation or mimicry, but the understanding and appreciation of different values.
  4. We cannot give our learners specific information about every culture, but we can make them aware of the possibility of differences.
  5. Effective communication is a combination of linguistic competence and socio-cultural competence.
  6. Socio-cultural training is not an option. Its absence can compromise effective communication. It is an essential component of any language course, and the passport to effective communication.

Simon Greenall is a textbook writer and a past President of IATEFL (1997 - 99). He has published many books including exam material, adult and secondary courses, as well as radio and television programmes for the BBC. One of his best-known publications is the Move Up series. His recent work includes secondary courses for Poland, Greece and Turkey, and China, as well as a textbook series exploring cultural values, attitudes, beliefs, customs, and traditions around the world called People Like Us (Macmillan Language House). He has given workshops and conference presentations in over 40 countries around the world.

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