Sunday, March 13, 2011

Culture As Fifth Language Skill

Culture As Fifth Language Skill

  • What did you learn from the article or what did it confirm for you as a teacher?

Barry Tomalin’s articles Culture - the fifth language skill and Making culture happen in the English language classroom (2008) from The BBC THINK webpage help confirm for me that the teaching of English as a second language around the world has not fully embraced the aspects of Hofstede’s descriptions of cultural differences, cultural awareness or cultural sensitivity to the same provinces that teachers approach grammar, lexis and task-based language learning activities. Tomalin considers culture to be a sort of “missing link” in the chains of international role and impact of globalization upon English as a possible necessary life skill for all learners hoping to conduct business around the world over the next generation.

  • How relevant is this for your business English training?

There is content relevancy in my business English training as Korean pre-experienced learners often have had few international work or study opportunities. In my global negotiation class I most closely attempt to address cultural differences among several of Korea’s top trading partners in a blend of lecture, presentations, case study readings, and negotiation simulation exercises. I agree with Nair Alvares Domingues Guimaraes’ comments regarding the need for a minimum level of communicative competence or fluency in English for these cultural topics to add relevancy to language learning among Korean learners. Tomalin also mentions in his slideshow that some cultures are more interested in friendship and relationships than just getting the job done in English. This is important in Korea as it can often seem that English is just a means to getting ahead rather than really building international relationships. Among pre-experienced learners there can be few opportunities to experience other cultures at all especially without good English language skills. Catch 22. Double edged sword.

  • How can teachers become more adept at helping learners acquire this “attitudinal change that is expressed through the use of language”?

For example I’ve met many worldly and well-travelled Koreans who have often made similar statements to the effect that they think Canada and the US are mostly the same culturally. To me this is indicative of cultural insensitivity and merely scratches the surface of the question, “When does a person successfully become aware of cultural differences? How long does that process take? What needs to be brought to the surface of that awareness? What knowledge, values, behavior or skills will help achieve this awareness?” While Canadians and Americans share one of the world’s longest undefended borders, the US shares a similar language to Canada as well where we absorb massive doses of American media and marketing messages which may well dilute our cultural identity as a nation. What is often definitive to Canadians to defining their own culture often appears as simply as, “We know we are not Americans.”

Too few Koreans appear to share a similar awareness of the extent to which Japanese components are required in the production of Korean products for export or other cultural and linguistic similarities between Korean and Japanese which are often described as two cultures which share a large number of similarities beyond language differences. I am sure Koreans would find me to be quite insensitive if I were to suggest that Japan and Korea were mostly the same?

Attitudinal change or affective change is the most difficult to encourage and/or measure. Any teacher will have their hands full with this question.

  • What training do teachers need to be able to integrate cultural awareness activities into their business English syllabus?

The course we are on appears to be making good progress towards educating “the choir” of business English instructors with some of the knowledge and awareness activities to broach the topic among our own learners. Comparing and contrasting cultural values is a useful pursuit to assist learners in the recognition that culture could be a necessary fifth skill or “soft skill” in business management and language training as Tomalin indicates.

My own personal experience taking Matt Ngui’s Cross-Cultural Management Behaviour course at UOW as an elective to my MIB was enlightening, enjoyable and illuminating. I would recommend similar cornerstones be in-built to most teacher-trainer courses to assist teachers in becoming more cross-culturally aware and gain greater interest in and thus the knowledge to experimentally approach integrating such inter-cultural activities into their learners lessons. In Tomalin’s slideshow he describes key interpersonal skills to develop include: openness or non-judgment mentality, ambiguity or comfort with uncertainty, flexibility or local adaptability, curiosity, empathy, and language adaptability. These are all challenging skills to develop in any native language or culture let alone in business English at an intermediate or upper elementary level.

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