“Surfing” the Pages of Identity

Written by: Tsvetelina Ilieva

Introduction

The presentation focuses on the role of the foreign language teacher as mediator between cultures, as a professional who is able to guide his/her students through the meanings of the cultural practices that take place within the foreign and the native framework. Therefore, it attempts to turn attention to the necessity of consistent intercultural training of student teachers of foreign languages.

The paper explores the relationship between foreign language learning and cultural observation based on the usage of advertisements from British and Bulgarian teenage girl’s magazines and suggests ways of broadening the cultural context of English lessons to include critical understanding of both the learners’ own culture and the target culture.

This article is an outcome of my diploma paper entitled “Teaching Cultural Representations through Ads “ written under the supervision of Leah Davcheva, Head Cultural Studies, the British Council, Sofia.

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Finding a Third Place

The future teachers of English, who are themselves learners of the foreign language, encounter the culture of the language they are going to learn and teach as foreign. However, being influenced by their native culture, which has shaped their standards for perceiving and evaluating reality, the teachers’ perception of the foreign culture has only indirectly to do with the foreign culture reality because it is “partial and filtered through the way they see themselves”/Kramsch 1993:209/. Aiming to interpret “otherness” the student teachers have to find another, third place from where they will be able to “look at both [cultures]”/ Kramsch 1993:223/ – a third place that will serve as a bridge between cultures and that will enable them to see the world from the point of view of the representatives of the target culture. Yet, the finding of this third place will be possible only when the student teachers learn how to approach culture. They should be given the chance to exploit different materials, to devise lesson plans and imagine what these lessons will be like through the eyes of their students. Or said in other words – these future language teachers have to be guided to explore the foreign culture and to be stimulated to investigate “otherness” which will enable them to see themselves as “mediators between two frameworks and the cultural practices which take place in them”/Byram 1997a: 61/. Furthermore, they will realize that they have to “teach culture as it is mediated through language, not as it is studied by social scientists and anthropologists”/Kramsch 1998:31/.

Unfortunately the training of foreign language teachers as teachers of culture is underestimated in our Bulgarian universities and the future teachers don’t fully understand their role as teachers for intercultural communication. In the next section I attempt to outline some of the challenges for intercultural teacher training.

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Growing Demands for Culture and Language Education

The introduction of a subject as Teaching Cultural Studies in the curriculum of the students of English Philology in three Bulgarian universities /among which is the University of Veliko Turnovo/ is only one of the ways for the development of the intercultural sensitivity of students. In fact this subject enables future teachers of English not only to develop an understanding of the culture in question through the work with a variety of materials but makes it possible for them to get to know their native culture better. Moreover, being aware of their own and the foreign culture, they will be able to develop such awareness in their students.

Among the arguments for the necessity of intercultural training of future teachers of English, is the fact that culture education is making its way into Bulgarian schools. The design and the usage in the English lessons in Bulgarian schools of the Branching Out: A Cultural Studies Syllabus /designed and written by 60 Bulgarian teachers of English at English Medium schools all over Bulgaria, a publication managed and supported by the British Council – in Reid – Thomas, Pulverness and Davcheva 1998/ is only one of the challenges for intercultural teacher training for future teachers of English who will be able to use it effectively in the classroom and who will be able themselves to search for materials and design lessons with which they will teach culture.

The introduction of British Cultural Studies and Cultural Studies courses in the curriculum of English philology higher education although “knowledge oriented and strictly theoretical in nature” /Netnews – the Newsletter of the Cultural Studies Network in Bulgaria, Feb.2000, issue 8,p.13/ offer the students an insight into the problems of cultural studies and introduce them to the foreign cultural practices, ways of thinking and evaluating the world. Therefore, Cultural Studies can serve as a stimulus for the future teachers to start developing their own attitude towards the teaching of culture and be a prerequisite for the development of the intercultural training of the future teachers. Moreover, the interest in culture teaching, which is represented by numerous events, both international and national, by many publications on the topic, is another factor influencing the necessity for such type of training.

All these arguments make me claim that the future teachers of English have to be able to answer the demands for culture teaching in the foreign language classroom.

Aiming to develop further the idea of integrating language and culture education, I have directed my attention to only one of the many aspects of culture nowadays – advertising – because it offers great opportunity for research in terms of multiplicity of cultural representations and of ways for their implication in the teaching of culture.

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Advertising – an Approach to the Teaching of Culture

The potential of exploring advertising material and adapting it for use in the foreign language classroom is infinite and depends entirely on the choice and academic pursuits of the teacher. Moreover,  ads pervade all sorts of media and it is easy to provide plenty of them to illustrate the lesson and at the same time they present a cultural phenomenon students are familiar with since adverts are among the most important cultural factors “moulding and reflecting our life today”/Edginton and Montgomery 1996:81/.

But what makes ads a really thrilling and motivating material for usage in the foreign language classroom is the fact that advertising belongs to the collective forces that shape and construct one’s personal identity and that imposes on consumers styles for dressing, image and appearance. Having in mind that foreign language learners are young people and thus young consumers who are “more adept at and more willing than adults, to experiment with their identities, no matter what boundaries /whether they be class, gender or race/ of identity, may appear to constrain them” /Journal of Youth Studies, Vol.1, No1, 1998, p.83/, students will willingly explore not only the language of advertising but also the relationship between consumption and the framing of young peoples’ identity in both cultures.

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Advertisements and Independent Learning

However, ads will serve not only the purposes of teaching and acquiring intercultural competence in the foreign language classroom but will provide the basis for independent learning, which according to Michael Byram is a consequence of previous training that allows the foreign language learners to “continue to reflect upon as well as develop their knowledge, skills and attitude”/Byram 1997b: 69/. This suggests that cultural learning will take place outside the classroom rather than inside once the learners have acquired “explicitly the underlying principles of the skills and knowledge they are taught, and the means of generalizing them to new experience” /Byram 1997b: 69/. And since we encounter ads in our everyday life, they are one of the perfect ways to provide independent learning. This point raises important questions about approaches to teaching and assessing intercultural competence because it is no longer relevant to ask the question of where the learning has taken place but what kind of learning has been taught and acquired. So, it comes clear that ads are not only challenging as material to work with in the foreign language classroom, but also as a way of planning the curriculum for teaching and assessing intercultural competence.

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The Exploration of Cultural Representations in Ads – a Way of Getting to Know Otherness

Led by the ambition to reveal the multiplicity of cultural representations in ads, I directed my attention to the exploration of gender subjectivities and teenage girls’ sexuality presented on the pages of British and Bulgarian magazines for teenage girls and women. To analyse and interpret the body of advertisements and the various cultural meanings that they convey I made use of both cultural observation and the means of textual and non – textual analysis alongside with some theories of representation.

The exploration of the two frames for the construction of teenage girls’ identity provides and idea of the different perspectives of creating images in the two cultures and of the difference in their meaning and significance. Moreover, the study of the meanings and messages communicated through body gestures, eye contact and relationship among human actors in ads illustrates the difference in the socially learned and conventionalized cultural codes and the difference in the production of images in cultures.

Focusing attention on such phenomena as “multi – ethnicity” in advertising and the publication of foreign ads in Bulgarian magazines allowed me to provide the image of young people as tolerant to and receptive of culture and ethnic diversity, as people who are aware of the processes of globalization of culture and cross – cultural exchange. Besides, the actual teaching of the sample of lessons that I had designed outlined clearly that our Bulgarian students are open minded, eager and willing to learn more about the foreign culture. This again poses the question of the need to develop consistent classroom methodology for intercultural competence.

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The Impact of the Studying of Ads on Students

The action research of the impact of this approach to the study of culture on students clearly proved that the introduction of cultural learning in the foreign language lessons “double[s] the usefulness of the lesson, not only in adding another dimension, but also in making the lesson more interesting and therefore more easier to learn”/Valdes 1990:21/.

The three lessons that I prepared have one and the same theme, i.e. Cultural representations in advertising. Although their topic is the same, the lessons approach cultural representations from a different perspective. The first lesson is structured around the exploration of the language of advertising and the layout of ads as conveyors of cultural representations. The second lesson focuses on the effects of colours in advertising and the third is based on the comparison of cultural representations in adverts for cosmetics and for drinks excerpted from British and Bulgarian teenage magazines.

Due to the fact that the lessons are designed to be taught in series they have a different degree of exploration of culture differences and similarities. Therefore, their aims, objectives and skills are nearly the same. They aim to raise students’ awareness of cultural differences and similarities, to familiarize them with the language of advertising and to develop students’ understanding of how ads are constructed and how cultural representations are incorporated in them. The lessons also encourage students to develop skills for cultural observation and analysis: comparing and contrasting, decoding images and meanings, recognizing and interpreting culture – specific representations and developing tolerance. Besides the above – mentioned skills I expected to practice learners’ skills to express opinions and to work cooperatively.

What is essential to add is that the lessons aim to show students the “multi – perspectivity” of culture, and respectively of advertising, and to give learners the opportunity to take the leading role in the learning process by expressing opinions, taking part in discussions and developing interest and curiosity in the foreign culture.

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Feedback from Students

The evaluation techniques that were used were mind maps /at the beginning of the first lesson/ and questionnaires. What is important to note is that students were not conscious of the idea that advertising conveys culture specific representations, values and meanings at the beginning of the first lesson. But that was not surprising because learners have to be introduced to the foreign culture, they have to be sensitized to the nature of different cultures and to be provided with the means to interpret cultures and to communicate successfully across cultures. Actually the evaluation of the students’ answers shows that the lessons have made students realize that the exploration of cultural issues in the foreign language classroom can facilitate both understanding of otherness and of one’s own culture.

The results of the research suggest that that the training of teachers as teachers for language and culture should continue. Being themselves cognizant of the cultural nature of language teaching they will be able to develop students’ consciousness of their own cultural practices and to guide them through the meanings of the cultural practices that take place within the foreign framework. Seeing themselves as intercultural speakers, the foreign language teachers will be able to develop such consciousness in their students.

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Conclusion

This paper is based on the belief that it proves the benefit of the integration of the teaching of language and culture. Presenting the exploration of advertising for pedagogical purposes it attempts to serve as a stimulus and generator of novel and innovative approaches to language and culture education and indicates the demands that contemporary education puts on teachers enabling them to become “classroom researchers and intercultural material designers” /Culture and Language Education Symposium, Feb. 2000, The British Council, Sofia/

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Bibliography

Byram, M. /1997a/, “Cultural Studies and Foreign Language Teaching”, in Basnett, S.,  Studying British Cultures, An Introduction, Routledge, /1997/, Ch. 4
Byram, M. /1997b/, Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, Clevendon: Multilingual Matters
Culture and Language Education Symposium, Feb. 2000, The British Council, Sofia
Edginton, B. and Montgomery, M. /1996/, The Media, The British Council
Kramsch, C. /1993/, Context and Culture in Language Teaching, Oxford University Press
Kramsch, C. /1998 /, “The Privilege of the Intercultural Speaker”, in Byram, M. and Fleming, M. /1998/, Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Ch.1
Netnews – The Newsletter of the Cultural Studies Network in Bulgaria, Feb. 2000, issue 8
Reid – Thomas, H., Pulverness, A.  and Davcheva, L.  /1998/, “Working Towards a Syllabus for Cultural Studies”, in Teaching Towards Intercultural Competence – Conference Proceedings, ed. by Ruth Cherrington and Leah Davcheva, The British Council, Bulgaria, publ. by Tilia, 1998, pp. 123 – 136
Miles, S., Cliff, D. and Burr, V., “ ’Fitting in and Sticking Out’: Consumption, Consumer Meanings and the Construction of Young People’s Identities”, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol.1, No 1, 1998,  pp. 1 – 97
Valdes, J. /1990/, “The Inevitability of Teaching and Learning Culture in a Foreign Language Course”, in Harrison, B. /ed./, /1990/, Culture and the Language Classroom, ELT Documents: 132, Modern English Publications and The British Council, 1990, pp. 20 – 30

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