What do Teachers Need to Know About Culture?

Starting this year, I am part of a team that is including culture in training sessions for Japanese senior high school teachers of English. I’m not unfamiliar with the topic, having taught a content course at junior college called Anglo-American culture for eight years. But it still was hard in the beginning to come up with content for our sessions. We wondered what exactly  high school teachers need to know about culture.

Recent visits to some high school classes have made me think that the answer to that last question is “lots.” In all of the classes, there was a definite focus on the isolated utterance, strings of words held together by grammar plucked from the communicationosphere and duly explained, and manipulated in drills. High school teachers have an almost gravitational attraction to grammar from what I’ve seen. There seems to be a strong tendency to conceptualize language as (man, I am tempted to write “merely” here) a collection of grammar and lexis; one that that must be taught in order. Compared to many other language education settings, the junior and senior high school system in Japan possesses a level of comprehensiveness and order that I am in awe of. The approach followed focuses on discreet items pulled from textbooks that are far too advanced for the level of users. It is mechanical. And here is where culture rears its head. First, such language is often similar to the model diagrams we find in applied linguistics textbooks or psychology textbooks, all boxes connected by lines or arrows to show relationships and processes, a shorthand for the messy biological reality taking place in living breathing organisms. We get so focused on the abstract that we forget that language is communication, and communication is context, and context means people, and people means culture. Culture influences how people make sense of social situations and how they approach communication opportunities. Culture influences the action chains or scripts people follow as they navigate situations and interact with others. So an understanding of how culture influences thinking and language use is essential, what is often called deep culture (see Joseph Shaules’s book for an excellent introduction, or visit his website), but that is not all that comes to mind.

It is a sad truth in Japan (and probably most places) that language education is not incredibly successful. After six years of instruction, most learners cannot adequately introduce themselves, ask for or give basic directions, understand an opinion and voice their own, etc. etc. But they have been exposed to a comprehensive list of grammatical structures and a very long list of “essential” vocabulary. An entire conversation industry and pages of courses in university and college catalogs are devoted to simply getting people to remember, re-learn, or  try to use the contents of those six years of lessons. Which brings up the second culture point I want to mention: the culture of teaching situations. There is a clear cultural separation between two “camps”, the serious, comprehensive camp of Japanese junior and senior high school teachers of English, and the looser, more eclectic eikaiwa (or English for use) camp. It is, of course, a false dichotomy, but I think in cultural terms, there is enough difference to constitute looking at these as different cultures. And a book I read by accident helped me to see that. Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner specialize in culture and business and they provide some important insights into culture just with their approach. I ordered one of their books,  Managing People Across Cultures, thinking it would be a collection of tidbits on how to get people from different countries to work well together, but it is much more than that Actually, they have some earlier books that explain their theories more comprehensively, but the book I ordered deals more with the application of those theories in a business setting. In widening that idea of culture to look at the cultures of organizations and the people who work for them, this book helped me to see culture in a different way. It made me think that this is another important learning point about culture that I think our teacher participants might benefit from knowing. It is contained in this quotation from the book:

Culture is the pattern by which a group habitually mediates between value differences… Cultures can learn to reconcile such values at ever-higher levels of attainment, so that better rules are created from the study of numerous exceptions. From such reconciliation come health, wealth, and wisdom. But cultures in which one value polarity dominates and militates against another will be stressful and stagnate. (pg. 23)

The shift of thinking here is important. There is a focus on cultures within an enterprise, rather than a focus on specific national cultures, to be sure, but this has much wider applications. There is  a conceptualization of cultures as being interconnected. We are connected by our differences and our similarities. The differences and similarities can  be leveraged if we just are able to see them for what they are. By reconciling cultures within an organization  we thrive; if we push our cultures on others, we deny ourselves the chance to thrive. Ultimately, culture learning means living with the reality of cultural patterns that may or may not be different, understanding who we are and where we are going as individuals and as parts of a greater whole. This lesson applies to small groups of individuals, larger groups like teams and classes, and huge groups like cities or nations.

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