Making it strange: literature and culture shock

The experience of learning a foreign language inevitably involves an encounter with different cultural contexts and with different ways of conceptualising the world. This can be disturbing or invigorating, depending on our attitude to the foreign culture. Literature often employs deliberate strategies of defamiliarisation that replicate this sense of strangeness, taking us on voyages of discovery or making us look afresh at our everyday surroundings. Genres which typically displace the reader in this way include historical fiction, science fiction and utopian (or dystopian) fantasies. There is also a growing body of literature in English reflecting the immigrant experience and the rich diversity of increasingly multi-cultural societies. This paper explored ways in which such intra-cultural texts can be used in the language classroom to promote greater inter-cultural awareness.

Fantasists, science fiction writers and satirists may take us ‘out of this world’, but they do so only to bring us back to it. The value of such writing for learners of language-and-culture is the way in which it may encourage them not simply to observe the difference in the Other culture, but to become less ethnocentric and more culturally relativist – to look at their own cultural environment through fresh eyes. Once students have got the idea of ‘making strange’, they could try their hand at writing their Martian anthropology or futuristic archaeological notes. To build a bridge in the classroom from the literature of cultural third places to the learner’s own inter-cultural experience, students could be asked to experiment with various kinds of textual intervention (see Pope 1995) and imitation. They could be invited to ‘re-centre’ an immigrant narrative from the host community’s point of view, to imagine dialogues, not included in the original text, between representatives of the two cultures, to imagine themselves as immigrants in their own society, and so on.
Satire, fantasy and inter-cultural narratives can help learners to adopt fresh perspectives on their own environment, as well as making them more tolerant to the different forms, the different meanings and the different distributions that they are bound to encounter when they come into contact with a foreign language culture. One of the reasons we read is recognition: it is always reassuring to find that someone else has shared our experience and to find that they echo our thoughts and feelings; another reason for reading is just the opposite – to enjoy a kind of armchair travel – into someone else’s experience. By exposing students to defamiliarised versions of social and cultural reality and by asking them to become defamiliarisers themselves, we may open the way to making them more successful inter-cultural learners.
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