Some aspects of intercultural training of Bulgarian learners of English

Written by: Bistra Vasileva, Asst. Prof., MA, SU “St. Kliment Ohridski”, DLTIS, Sofia

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The ability to communicate effectively in English is a well-established, traditional goal in the communicative language classroom. A lot of adult Bulgarian learners can identify personal needs to use spoken and written English and a great number of younger students are aware of the future necessities for trans-cultural communication, related to the issues of career pursuit, life-long learning and mobility. In the quickly changing and globalising world we can see that people with different cultural and linguistic identity need to take up contacts with other groups. This phenomena is analysed in Byram`s study of the issues of Intercultural Communicative Competence where he describes …” the state of the world…as such that societies and individuals have no alternative but proximity, interaction and relationship.”(Byram1997: 2) In this respect the teachers of English have to work towards building of a reasonable potential for a successful English language communication, including knowledge of the cultural dimension in the target language. It means that students need to be prepared for “inter-lingual and inter-cultural experiences”(Byram 1997: 4) of the contemporary situation. To be able to operate effectively in diverse cultural contexts, students should be exposed to plenty of opportunities to practise language in situations which stimulate them to express personal needs, ideas and opinions. Therefore we have to stimulate an improving capability to use English to communicate with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, to acquire, develop and apply knowledge, to think and solve problems, to respond and give expression to various experiences. Within these contexts we need to develop and apply an ever-increasing understanding of how English is organized, used and learned. All these objectives can be summed up in T.Hedge`s conclusions that “ …in our classrooms, where possible, language practice should resemble real life communication with genuine exchange of information and opinions.”(Hedge: 2000) But in order to have natural communication we should make our students aware of the intercultural element of every true speech act. This means that our major task is to assist students in becoming “transcultural” language users who are confident speakers of the foreign language across a range of contexts.

According to the findings of methodologists as Chris Rose, Claire Kramsch and many others intercultural learning is a process in which students become more aware of their own culture and begin to understand other cultures around the world. In this process of accummulating experience about their own cultural identity the aim of the intercultural learning is to enhance cross-cultural tolerance and understanding. In our article we are going to use the term “intercultural awareness” in the sense which C. Kramsch attached to it, which is the ability to understand the “cultural relativity following reading, writing, listening, and speaking.” (Kramsch:  1993) In this respect we can quote further from her research that:

“If language is seen as social practice, culture becomes the very core of language teaching. Cultural awareness must then be viewed as enabling language proficiency…Culture in language teaching is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing.”
(Context and Culture in Language Teaching, OUP, 1993)

Assuming the idea that language is defined by culture we believe that we cannot be competent in the target language if we do not appreciate the culture that has shaped it. Therefore in order to learn a foreign language we need to have an awareness of the foreign culture and how it relates to the native culture of the learner. In his study of the Intercultural awareness Chris Rose points out that having cultural awareness is not enough – it is working towards gaining intercultural awareness that should be emphasised. Following on Kramsch`s ideas, Chris Rose suggests looking upon the intercultural awareness as a collection of skills and attitudes that can be called a competence. In this sense Intercultural Competence includes raising students` awareness of their own culture thus helping them understand and interpret other cultures as well. We can conclude that IC comprises a set of practices requiring knowledge, skills and attitudes. Chris Rose lists them as the following:

  • observing, identifying and recognizing
  • comparing and contrasting
  • negotiating meaning
  • dealing with or tolerating ambiguity
  • effectively interpreting messages
  • limiting the possibility of misinterpretation
  • defending one`s own point of view while acknowledging the legitimacy of the others
  • accepting difference.

Many of these are similar to what we teach but it is the raised awareness of what we do that makes the intercultural communicative competence a more attainable goal. These vital skills can be developed by designing materials which have cultural and intercultural themes and tasks. The role of the teacher is to help students become more aware of the diversity of the world around them and to interact with it in a better way. In this respect teachers can be considered to be mediators of cultural relativity. “Cultural awareness” is not seen for advanced learners only, but as a fundamental feature of language and an integral part of language learning important at all levels. In his articles dedicated to the issue Chris Rose advises teachers to analyse the notion of intercultural awareness as consisting of several different perspectives. He suggests that we should enable our students to:

  1. have a good understanding and awareness of their own culture
  2. know how their own culture is seen from outside, by other countries and cultures
  3. understand or see the target culture from its own perspective (i.e. understand and be aware of what other people think of their own culture)
  4. be aware of how the target culture is seen.

There are numerous ways how to deal with each of these steps. We may encourage students to produce posters and webpages for visitors to students` town or country, in which famous places are described and basic information for the tourists is provided. Cultural references and explanations might be used to give visitors some ideas about what can be done there.These tasks will involve students into research, critical reading, selecting and processing the information and in general their work will have value higher than the purely linguistic one. Then we can ask students to look for some sources (books, newspapers, magazines or websites) written by people who have visited the students` town or country – materials from the newspaper The Sofia Echo, for example, because it is meant for foreigners who live and work in Bulgaria and is issued every week. It is very useful because it gives us an immediate access to different viewpoints, attitudes and responses to current issues in Bulgarian society. They can read and compare commentaries and analyses related to vital social realities of Bulgarian life.While accomplishing such projects students will inevitably practise the four basic skills and hopefully improve on their linguistic competence. Every time when they work on the task of organizing the accommodation and stay of English-speaking visitors to Sofia besides the basic vocabulary and grammar structures revision they learn a little more about Bulgarian cultural reality and customs as well.

At the same time we should systematically provide students with sources of information about the target culture. We can use articles from magazines or newspapers as authentic reading materials, recorded interviews, and podcasts as additional input.  When we choose them we have to consider the level of our students in relation to the linguistic potential of the text and its intercultural content. We have to find readings or videos

of suitable difficulty but of high interest so we can motivate students to participate fully in the tasks. A lot of teacher-trainers have made their case for using authentic reading materials in the classroom after careful selection and some simplification to answer the individual needs of students. In his work dedicated to discourse analysis beyond the sentence level Scott Thornbury comes up with a list of criteria which ensures a reasonable balance between authenticity values and teaching purposes.

He advises teachers to consider carefully the potential of texts applying what he calls “comprehensibility ranking of texts” (2005: 116), which includes the following factors:

“Top-down” factors:

  • topic familiarity, including background knowledge
  • context familiarity
  • cognitive complexity, e.g. density of information
  • visual support, e.g., pictures, maps, diagrams
  • length
  • layout and signposting
  • organisation of the text
  • internal cohesion, e.g., linking of sentences.

“Bottom-up” factors:

  • sentence length and complexity
  • grammatical familiarity
  • lexical familiarity and idiomaticity
  • lexical density.

The challenge facing teachers is to alleviate text difficulty and make it comprehensible for students using text adaptation and task design strategies. In his work S.Thornbury lists a number of text adaptation strategies as shortening of the text, segmenting, simplifying, co-textualizing and glossing. To reduce the length of the text is one way of easing the processing load but we need to be careful about keeping the overall coherence. When we segment the text it means that we split it into shorter sections and deal with them step by step. We might employ jigsaw activities work when pairs of learners have two different texts which they read and report on, doing related tasks. If necessary, we can provide maps and pictures to the text or give explanations of some specific lexical items. S.Thornbury suggests replacing low-frequency, specialized or idiomatic vocabulary with high frequency words. Another way of simplifying texts is to reduce the length and complexity of the sentences, for example by making dependent clauses into independent sentences.

The reading material we are going to look into focuses on learners using the target language to read and discuss concepts of culture differences and modern taboos. The web page is http://news.uk.msn.com/21st_century_taboos.aspx and the title of the article is 21st Century Taboos by Ian Jones, MSN Homepage Editor.

We have chosen that text because we believe that working with it will contribute to raising awareness among learners of issues of culture and diversity. It encourages them to form and express views, to compare and contrast the target culture with their own, to discover similarities and disparities. We need to warn that relying on a single example can lead to stereotyping or to taking a “tourist view”, and these aspects should be highlighted. Moreover, we, as teachers, should be careful not to force our interpretations on students. Here is the full text:

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21st century taboos

We live in a world where, for good or ill, certain things have become off-limits. No-go areas. Notional cans of worms.

To dabble in them is to invite at the very least a raised eyebrow or pursed lip; at worst, complete social opprobrium.

Moreover, these affectations are peculiar to our time. A generation or so ago, they were considered normal. Indeed, some of them would be thoroughly welcomed. Now, though, they have become unmentionable, untenable, unacceptable.

They are the 21st century taboos. How many have you broken so far today?

1) Giving money to beggars

Once there was no stigma attached to the practice of handing over loose change to somebody asking for money on the street. The equation was clear. They were down on the luck; you could do something about it. Now there’s a morass of moral mazes to negotiate, all of which inevitably lead to the implicit assumption: walk on by. Voices in your head are now conditioned ring out the likes of: “It only encourages them”. “It isn’t helping”. “You’re only making things worse”. “You’re adding to the problem, not the solution”. But when did giving someone ten pence for a cup of tea become an epic ethical conundrum?

2) Speaking to a stranger on a bus or train

Woe betide the person who dares to essay a conversation with someone they don’t know on public transport. Once, such an innocent pastime was considered the height of good manners and to be encouraged. Nowadays such actions are treated as the product of a disturbed mind and someone up to no good. They might as well paste up a new poster alongside the no smoking signs: Button Your Lip.

3) Holding a door open for a woman

At some point in recent history this noble gesture of courtesy got redefined a shocking act of chauvinism. It’s not clear when precisely this happened. Perhaps Mrs Thatcher was to blame. Perhaps it was The Young Ones. Whatever, Britain went into the 1980s with its sense of etiquette intact and came out of it engrossed in an emotional free-for-all. Heaven help anyone, meanwhile, who compliments somebody – male or female – on their appearance.

4) Saying that ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon is rubbish

There’s speaking ill of the dead, then there’s speaking ill of a dead Beatle. A multi-millionaire asks us to imagine no possessions. He does it in as dreary and tuneless a manner possible. Then he gets his wife to sit next to him in the video looking insufferably smug. Then they exchange a horribly intimate kiss right on camera. But never mind all that business, because the multi-millionaire died in tragic circumstances, and ‘Imagine’ sounds a bit sad and soppy, so let’s regularly vote it the best song in the world ever!

5) Complimenting a friend/relative on their children

A real taboo, this. On no account must you venture even the mildest of observation about somebody’s kids. Society dictates even the vaguest, most throwaway of remarks is tantamount to a confession of something dangerously sordid, if not criminal. Physical contact is even worse. Teachers suffer more than most because of this, unable to pat a pupil on the back for fear of being landed with a lawsuit from a vengeful mob of school governors. Something has gone terribly wrong when fear of child abuse – which has always been around and, sadly, always will – becomes so all-pervasive that we end up living our lives on a paedophile’s terms rather than our own.

6) Owning up to drinking full-fat milk

It’s still readily on sale in shops across the land. But do you ever see anyone admitting to enjoying a cup of tea made from proper milk (let alone with a couple of lumps of sugar)? There’s a corollary to this, which is…

7) Asking for a cup of tea in an upmarket cafe

If you do this, you are treated like a fool. Clearly you’re off your head to even enter a branch of Starbucks, Costa, Cafe Nero or any other well-known high street purveyor of beverages and have the temerity to ask for something as ordinary as tea. Why, implies the look of disgust on the face of everyone around you, are you not ordering a tortuously-named exotically-tinged cumbersomely-prepared brand of coffee – despite the fact tea is advertised up there on the board as being able to select, buy and consume?

8) Being irreverent about Princess Diana

If they still sent people to the Tower of London, the Daily Express (for one) would be petitioning for anyone who dared besmirch the name of this self-appointed Queen of Hearts to be dispatched there forthwith. She’s been dead for almost a decade, yet there remains an astonishingly priggish attitude towards the idea of questioning the woman’s life. While other members of the royal family are deemed ripe for abuse, Diana’s legacy is patrolled in a vicious fashion. This is likely to only get worse as the 10th anniversary of her demise approaches.

9) Arguing that taxes are good

They pay for things that need to be paid for. Yet to even breathe a word of argument in favour of taxes, never mind the idea of putting them up, is to single you out as variously a) insane b) a communist c) a threat to the nation d) sick. The equation, again, is simple. More taxes = more money for schools, hospital, public transport, the environment and the wellbeing of the nation in general. Yet somehow this relationship has come to be classed as invalid, or defunct, or simply intolerable. Everyone – the public, politicians, the media – needs re-educating about tax, rendering the link between what you pay in and what you get in return utterly self-evident and incontestable.

10) Contesting that England has a third-rate football team

Never mind, runs the argument, the appalling track record in competitive tournaments, the woeful efforts at penalty taking, the innumerable preening egos, the thunderously mediocre management, the hysterical coterie of hangers-on and the patronising attitude towards each and every foreign team – England still won the World Cup!

*41 years ago

An opinion piece by Ian Jones, MSN Homepage Editor

The genre is easily recognizable, a magazine-type article, and is segmented into 10 distinct pieces, each with its own subtitle summarizing the main points and supported by pictures. The text is linguistically very dense, there are metaphores, figurative language, culture references and high idiomaticity. The sentences are complex, with emphatic structures which may present some difficulties to the learner. It is up to the teacher to decide which parts can be shortened and to what extend to simplify the lexis. Besides the activities related to the pure reading, speaking and writing tasks it is attractive to students because of its cultural load, sense of humour and parody. It presents an opportunity to introduce the notion of taboo in more general, even lighter terms and relate it to modern societies. This has to do with their awareness of what language and topics are appropriate, what should be avoided and what can be treated in a more light-hearted manner. When students communicate in English for daily purposes in contexts where it is the native language, it is important to understand both taboo language and taboo topics, but at the same time they should not feel afraid to have a different view. Nowadays students are constantly exposed to them so we as teachers have the responsibility to guide them through.

In the table that follows I am going to offer a list of activities and tasks that aim at linguistic exploitation of the text as well as culture difference exploration.

Lesson Title: 21st century taboos

Class: General English

Language level: (B2-C1)

Duration: 90 min

Aims:

  • To stimulate intercultural awareness – students need to recognize that cultural differences should be considered when choosing a topic for conversation with native speakers.
  • To enhance communicative competence

Language focus:

  • Structures: emphasis, complex sentences
  • Active vocabulary: collocations, phrasal verbs, idiomatic expressions, synonyms

Skills focus:

  • speaking
  • reading
  • writing

Course book: an article from http://news.uk.msn.com/21st_century_taboos.aspx

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Procedure

Activity One: Class discussion

We can start by showing the pictures illustrating some of the topics in the article and provoke an exchange of commentaries and opinions in students.

Objectives:

  • (e.g. To warm up students, recycle some of the vocabulary necessary for the discussion, detect some problems which can be clarified, pre-teach some lexical items,  revise structures used when we need to make a point or state an opinion )
Stages
(Give a detailed description of each stage of the activity.)
Materials Time Interaction
Patterns
(e.g. S-S, T-SS)
1. Students look at the pictures and describe them pictures 3 min S-S
2. The teacher helps them clarify the notions with additional questions pictures 5 min T-SS

Activity Two: Reading for global understanding and matching subtitles to pictures.

Objectives: Students are introduced to the notion of taboo.

  1. Giving money to beggars
  2. Speaking to a stranger on a bus or train
  3. Holding a door open for a woman
  4. Saying that ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon is rubbish
  5. Complimenting a friend/relative on their children
  6. Owning up to drinking full-fat milk
  7. Asking for a cup of tea in an upmarket cafe
  8. Being irreverent about Princess Diana
  9. Arguing that taxes are good
  10. Contesting that England has a third-rate football team

Stages
(Give a detailed description of each stage of the activity.)
Materials Time Interaction
Patterns
(e.g. S-S, T-SS)
1. Students read the ten subtitles and match the relevant ones to the pictures. Check their matches. subtitles 5 min S-S
SS-T
2. Students read the title and the introduction to the article. Brainstorm predictions. Title and  the introduction 3-4 min SS
T-SS
3.The teacher makes culture-eliciting questions to clarify the notion of taboo. (e.g. Within your own culture, when you do not know someone well, what topics do you choose to discuss?; What would you not discuss?) Students can be asked to find expressions from the introduction related to the idea of taboo. The teacher should help them put the interpretations right and check the meaning of the problematic items. A definition of taboo 5 min T-SS
SS-T

A suggested definiton of taboo: If there is a taboo on a subject or an activity it is a social custom to avoid doing that activity or talking about that subject, because people find them embarrassing or offensive.(Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner`s Dictionary)

Stages
(Give a detailed description of each stage of the activity.)
Materials Time Interaction
Patterns
(e.g. S-S, T-SS)
4. Students make predictions about the probable interpretation of the subtitles. 10 texts 4-5 min S-S
SS-T
5. Students read the ten passages and match them to the subtitles. 6-8 min SS

6. Students check in pairs and then with the teacher if their matching was correct. 2 min SS – T

Activity three: Reading for details.

Objectives: Detailed understanding of the passages, dictionary work, successful conveying of the ideas expressed in the texts to the rest of the group.

Stages
(Give a detailed description of each stage of the activity.)
Materials Time Interaction
Patterns
(e.g. S-S, T-SS)
1. The teacher divides the group into 5 pairs, each pair has to read two passages and check the new vocabulary and structures. Students need to find expressions that the native English speaker exaggerated in order to emphasize the point. Dictionaries

texts

5-6min SS-SS
2. The teacher asks comprehension questions and supports each pair´s performance to the rest of the group. texts 10 min T -SS

Activity four: Round-off discussion and writing

Objectives: Students identify and contrast features of the target culture with their own culture.

Stages
(Give a detailed description of each stage of the activity.)
Materials Time Interaction
Patterns
(e.g. S-S, T-SS)
1. The teacher stimulates a discussion around the topics, provoking students to attempt a comparison of the topics with popular attitudes in their own culture. He/She can ask them to express ideas how these statements would change if they occurred in their native culture. texts 10 min S-S
T-SS
2. The teacher asks pairs to produce their own writings about taboos in Bulgarian culture. 8 min T-SS
3. Pairs read out their suggestions and discuss them with the rest of the group. 8 min SS-T

Here are some of the writings that were produced by students on the topic of taboos in Bulgarian society:

1. Owing up to listening and really enjoying pop-folk music.

There is hardly a party or a celebration with your colleagues which doesn´t end with wild dancing and singing of pop-folk songs. Nevertheless, not all who had fun would admit it on the following day.

Albena, 26 and Miroslav, 34.

2. Escaping from domestic violence.

This topic is becoming more and more popular in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the number of abused women and children is growing too. A lot of families experience domestic hell but the majority of the victims can´t summon enough courage to make a step towards getting help.

Diana, 25 and Tatiana, 40

3. Freely talking about being a gay.

People in Bulgaria have to catch up with the rest of the world in this respect. Despite some TV shows  which address the theme in a light-hearted way, average Bulgarians do not have warm feelings towards people with unorthodox sexuality.

Deliana, 23 and Svetla, 21

4. Roma people – punish them or not?

When we watch TV reports about the gruesome conditions of life of Roma people we might feel sympathy and urge to do something about it, but when we are out in the street, the dominant emotion is fear, distrust and hostility, and a desire to get away as soon as possible.

Bulgarian people find it difficult to alter their attitude towards this minority group, and what is more, do something to help them change their situation.

Vasil, 27 and Silvia, 34

5. Eating pork with sour cabbage and garlic

A much-loved and everybody´s favourite on mama´s list of best dishes, nowadays it is hardly ever mentioned among fashionable dietic and non-fattening food, advertised profusely on TV, in magazines, on the Internet. Money, social status and success, which require a lot of energy and ambition, are associated with such modern trends as consuming balanced food, doing a lot of exercise and having a healthy lifestyle besides heaps of hard work and excellent timing.

Kristina, 36 and Nora, 28.

We need to add that at some point of their learning students should try to look at societies as researchers, which means that they have to develop skills for cultural understanding and observation. Rather than giving them the information, we need to design lessons where they will look for it and thus develop the ability to link cause and effect, to balance disadvantages and advantages, to find historic, economic or geographical reasons for habits and ways of life.

In conclusion we can say that developing Intercultural Competence is a process of sharing knowledge in which we have the possibility to transcend the limitations of a singular world view. Contacts with other worldviews may lead to a shift of perspectives, together with an appreciation for the diversity and richness of human beings. As language educators, we may have a significant role in that process. A concern with cross-cultural effectiveness and appropriateness along with a foreign language development will lead beyond tolerance and understanding to a genuine appreciation of the others. To make this happen, we need to develop the awareness, attitudes, skills and knowledge that will turn us into better participants on a local and global level, able to comprehend and empathize with other individuals.

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REFERENCES

  1. Byram, M. (1997) Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, Multilingual Matters Ltd
  2. Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner`s Dictionary 2003, HarperCollins Publishers
  3. Fantini, A. (1997) New Ways in Teaching Culture, Bloomington: Pantagraph Printing
  4. Hedge, T. (2000) Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom, Oxford: OUP
  5. Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and Culture in Language Teaching, Oxford: OUP
  6. Rose, C. (2005) Intercultural Awareness -1 and 2, British Council, Italy
  7. Rowlands, G. (2006) Culture in the Classroom, British Council, Bahrain
  8. Thornbury, S. (2005) Beyond the Sentence-Introducing Discourse Analysis, London: Macmillan.
  9. Widdowson, H.G. (1979) The Authenticity in Language Data in H.G. Widdowson: Explorations in Applied Linguistics 2, Oxford: OUP.
  10. Williams, E. (1984) Reading in the Language Classroom, London and Basingstroke: Macmillan.
  11. Internet sites used: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/methodology http://news.uk.msn.com/21st_century_taboos.aspx

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