Culture by proxy

This is a follow-up to my last post about inauthentic authenticity in language.

As well as prioritising NNNS (Non-non-native speaker – yep, I might as well stick with it, I can’t think up any better alternatives for now!) teachers for their alleged ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ language, another related aspect that was mentioned in the comments to my last post is that NNNS teachers are also seen as having cultural capital.

But, what do we mean by having knowledge of a target language culture and is it really so exclusive in our 21st century hyper-connected world?

The idea that teaching language is so intertwined with teaching culture is inescapable for some of us. On the surface, English teachers are just supposed to be ‘language’ teachers, but for NNNS, at least, this seems impossible because of who they are. Maybe NNS are allowed to be just ‘language’ teachers and maybe some of them are, but as a NNNS I am made to feel that I have this extra dimension that I am expected to provide and that seems difficult to get away from. It might be interesting to try, but I think that my cultural background and NNNS status are so synonymous (in the minds of students) of who I am and what I do, that it would be difficult to do without being rude or dismissive.

I don’t actively (or at least consciously) put that much cultural input into my lessons when I’m preparing worksheets etc, but students DO ask a lot of questions and I also offer (voluntarily) cultural information and asides during the natural course of a lesson. If it helps with student motivation and makes the language more meaningful and ‘real’ or ‘alive’ for the students I suppose it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure that my students realise that my cultural perspective is only ONE cultural perspective that is becoming more and more distant and less authentic the longer that I am away from that culture.

As an EFL teacher, I have been living outside of my home culture since 2002 (all of it in Japan), which in our fast-moving, digital age might as well be 1902! The last time I was in the UK, absorbing the culture and unknowingly filling up my well of cultural capital (which after 14 years has pretty much run dry!) there was no Facebook or Twitter, no Skype (I used to charge up a phonecard to call home), Youtube didn’t exist until 2005 and internet blogs were just getting started (WordPress started in 2003). No Netflix or iPlayer and online presence for most newspapers and media outlets was restricted and still very much one-way. Tony Blair was the UK Prime Minister, same-sex marriage was illegal in Britain, England had a nearly half-decent football team (this is debatable of course!) and you could smoke in restaurants and pubs!

Over the last 14 years television, music, art, politics, literature, food, values, customs, social mores and even language itself have all changed immeasurably. My pre-millennial cultural knowledge is anachronistic and irrelevant to my first year university students who were barely out of nappies when I was last a genuinely culturally and linguistically pure authentic NNNS.

I do try to keep up with what’s happening in the UK of course, but my consumption and understanding of contemporary British culture comes solely from the Internet these days, which anyone in the world can also access! So, either I am a fake/proxy British culture expert or anyone with an Internet connection can be an equally valid culture expert or cultural commentator, which makes a nonsense of the supposed cultural capital of the NNNS.

Not only that, but as with forcing our own narrow version of ‘authentic’ language on our students, by doing the same with culture we may be doing them a dis-service. By presenting one (most probably outdated) specific set of cultural norms as ‘English/target language culture’ we may be narrowing their scope of references and making it more difficult for learners to communicate effectively with the people they meet in English, who will inevitably inhabit a diverse range of cultural backgrounds. At the same time, by adopting some imagined sense of target language cultural norms, students run the risk of divesting themselves of their own unique cultural (and linguistic) background, which is a part of who they are.

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