Some years ago, while teaching English in China, I was a member of a teachers’ discussion group.
Someone asserted that, in teaching English, we were teaching it as a tool for our students to use, something with which I agreed. However, another teacher responded with the following:
“I heard the ‘language as a tool’ phrase many times… I was vaguely offended by the idea and wondered where it came from – now I know. This man obviously hasn’t heard of the even more famous saying ‘When you learn a language you learn a culture’.”
Sad to say, this attitude seemed to be prevalent not only within the foreign teacher community, but also in the Chinese curriculum for the teaching of English as a second language.
I very much doubt the originator of ‘When you learn a language, you learn a culture’ was talking about a language taught as a lingua franca. To be sure, if we learn, say, Chinese, we must learn how to use it in a Chinese context and yes, understanding of the culture is thus essential. We will, after all, be using it pretty much exclusively in talking with Chinese people. However, that is not reflective of how English should be taught given its purpose.
Firstly, which culture? British? Australian? Canadian? American? And whichever we select, what is its value to a Chinese answering the telephone to a Peruvian, or to a Chinese from Xi’an talking to a Chinese from Hong Kong?
I used to be immensely frustrated when some overworked student approached me at a university’s English corner, having been driven through 90 minutes of cultural education, to ask me to clarify some trivial detail of the history of the city of Liverpool because he needed to know it to pass some inane examination. Odds on I wouldn’t know, and odds on I wouldn’t give a damn, so why should he? And why should some guy from Oman with whom the student will be discussing an oil shipment as a part of his job when he graduates give a damn either?
Frankly, I have become heartily sick over the years of Chinese Christmases and Chinese St. Valentine’s days and Chinese Thanksgiving Days celebrated by Chinese who know nothing of Ramadan, this in a land where native Moslems outnumber native Christians; Chinese who, in any case, have their own Lovers’ Day and Spring Festival celebrations. As for Shinto, what’s that? It’s not taught, but perhaps it should be with Japan one of China’s most significant trading partners.
Of course culture should be a part of these students’ education; they are learning English to speak to foreigners after all. But a healthy grounding in cross-cultural communication would be of far greater value to them in the real world, a world in which the majority of their dealings will be conducted not with native speakers, but with second-language speakers like themselves. They should be learning how to be sensitive to cultural differences as they come across them, to learn to expect the unexpected from their interlocutors and how to deal with it, not how to emulate the niceties of some native-English culture or another expecting others to do the same. I can think of nothing more demeaning than a Chinese pretending to be an American trying to have a conversation with a Japanese trying to be an
Englishman to the consternation of a passing Korean who is trying to act as if he’s an Australian.
I wanted my students to be the fully fledged individuals they already are, and they could only be that by being Chinese. At the same time, I wanted them to be sensitive to those with whom they will deal in later life, and they were not going to acquire that ability by knowing the history of Liverpool, the agricultural profile of Kansas or Jane Austen’s date of birth. They were going to acquire it by a broad understanding of world culture and cross-cultural communication.
So yes; English is a tool in this instance. It is a tool used to communicate across cultural boundaries. To have it conform to the cultural constraints of its originating culture – or cultures – is merely to saddle it with a lot of useless nonsense. It abuses not only the individuality of the students who will speak it, but also the individuality of most of those with whom they will speak it. I wanted my students to learn how to be Chinese when speaking English, and to know the best way to approach a person from Papua New Guinea, Holland or Mali. I wanted them to be able to express their own culture through a well-spoken ‘The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away’, not to talk about what mice do in the absence of cats.
I have a Chinese friend in Switzerland who has discovered – to her considerable benefit – that she can not only be herself more easily with the use of Chinese phrases in English, but also that she shines more brightly in company for so doing. That is unsurprising – it is her culture, rich in history, steeped in its own idiosyncracies. That she is more real, more interesting in talking in that way is inevitable.
Those learning English as a language which to do business should adopt the language as their own and adapt it, colouring it with their own culture as much as they are able without interfering with its ability to communicate. Instead, too many feel that they are merely borrowing it, that it is not their own, and that they cannot be themselves when using it.
English should be a European language, an Asian language, an African language. Beyond those parameters required for mutual comprehension it should not be standardised. Above all, it should not be used as a vehicle by which the standards of English-speaking cultures are carried abroad. Such things should be exorcised from the language and from its teaching as far as possible.