When Benedict XVI announced recently that he would be stepping down as pope, he did so in fluent Latin. This prompted discussion among my students. One asked: “Is there a Latin culture?” This led to a discussion of dead languages, and how a community of speakers is needed for a language to develop and evolve. We concluded that grammar and vocabulary alone is like a skeleton—an elegant structure that is lifeless until animated by human interaction. In too many classes, of course, language is barely alive—a zombie lumbering awkwardly around the classroom scaring students.
In my teaching, I try to present language as a key that opens a door to other cultural worlds. I share stories of my own travels, mistakes and discoveries. A whiff of the exotic can entice students out of their comfort zone and help them look at their learning in broader terms. Students are interested in language-culture issues generally: contact with “foreignness,” cultural difference, taboos, customs and values, and in travel and study abroad experiences. They’ve been at their desks for years and are often ready for exploration.
Culture can be hard to incorporate into classroom teaching. Two things that have helped me are: 1) learning a bit of theory, and 2) seeing what other teachers are doing. I get these things through involvement in the Japan Intercultural Institute (JII). JII is an independent NPO (non-profit organization) that is also a JALT (Japan Association for Language Teaching) affiliate. Its mission is to bring together intercultural specialists interested in the learning that comes from intercultural experiences. JII sponsors seminars, social events and a conference. It acts as a gathering place for teachers, researchers, intercultural trainers, and business people.
The theme of JII’s 2012 conference was Developing Global Leaders: Education and training for Language, Culture and Confidence. Our plenary speaker was U.N. Diplomat Yasushi Akashi. He spoke of the role of English in a globalized world and the need for Japanese people to speak their own brand of international English. There were also more than 25 presentations with titles such as: Developing Cultural Awareness in the Language Classroom and Reading for Cultural Competence: The Use of Immigrant Fiction in Language Learning. There were also contributions from the world of business and intercultural training with titles such as Intersections: Coaching for Global Communicative Competence.
One presentation that was overflowing with participants was Two Languages, Two Cultures, Two personalities? The presenter, Seiji Nakano, not only introduced research results but he also shared his personal perspective, which includes living and studying in New Zealand, the UK and Cyprus, learning Greek and falling in love in Italy. His presentation was popular because we all want adventure, and because many of us are drawn to the deeper challenges that accompany our intercultural explorations. Seiji provided a space for everyone to share something of their personal journey.
For the past several years, JII has been offering the Deep Culture Seminar and Certificate Program. It is designed for people who have intercultural experience but have not studied intercultural communication more formally. So far, around 70 people have received certificates. The level one seminar covers topics of foundational importance for those wanting to deepen their understanding of intercultural issues. Advanced seminars are designed for educators and trainers who are responsible for the learning of others. This year JII will be offering an advanced seminar specifically created for language teachers, to help them make the language-culture connection in the classroom.
In one recent JII seminar, we were learning how cultural programming affects cognition. We answered the question “What do you see?” while viewing an underwater scene. Westerners tend to focus on objects, such as a fish or turtle, whereas Asians are more likely to answer holistically, saying “the sea” or “underwater.” One American participant, Maurice, startled by these results, blurted out “I’m going to have to apologize to my wife!” He told a story of teasing her for not noticing a phone booth on a street they both frequented. He concluded that they were probably processing information differently. It was a wonderful moment of insight for all of us. This is the kind of camaraderie I often get at JII events.
If you are interested in what we do and would like to join us, I encourage you to check out our website at <www.japanintercultural.org> where you can apply to receive our events newsletter and find contact addresses. And finally, thanks to JALT for this opportunity to share what JII does and for the wonderful cross-pollination that our affiliation brings.