PRINCIPLES OF INTERACTIVE LANGUAGE TEACHING , WILGA M. RIVERS
Principle 9: Language Learning is penetrating another culture; students learn to operate harmoniously within it or in contact with it
Language and the cultural values, reactions, and expectations of speakers of that language are subtly melded. Gattegno brings this out when he says that "only when one is really imbued with the literature or soaked in the environment of the people using the language can one express oneself in speech or writing as a native would. It is the spirit of a language that has to get hold of one's mind." Not even consciously realized by the culture-bearers themselves, these values, expectations, and presuppositions (what Nostrand has called "the culture's 'ground of meaning'") frequently pass unperceived by the learners of the language, who bumble and fumble their way through relations and contacts with native speakers, quite unaware of their cultural faux pas and unintentional offensiveness. Plunged into the culture, they suffer from depressing shock and stress and confidence-destroying frustrations that affect their ability to interact harmoniously with those with whom they come in contact. Not infrequently they end up loving the language, but hating its users.
Unfortunately being fluent in the language is not enough. As Cortese expresses it: "If the social compact requires the observation of pretty, polite techniques for the avoidance of conflict" (these are frequently taught to the learner), "it is also, at a deeper level, built on negotiation of and respect for individual values and traits. It is to this level that a formative language learning process must reach, both in the sense of helping the individual to shape his [or her] own values and in the sense of comprehending different value orientations;" this, she says, distinguishes "production performance" from the mere "imitation of politeness norms."
We develop our students' ability to interact initially with those who are linguistically and culturally different by teaching social amenities that oil wheels and open doors of acceptance (Cortese's pretty politenesses), but these merely provide opportunities to advance further in understanding. As we proceed, we need to understand culturally diverse interaction styles, and, in many cases, adopt these ourselves, if we are not to find our progress arrested by misunderstandings. We need to learn different pragmatic routines _ ways of opening and closing conversations, taking turns, and so on. As we come into closer contact with the other culture through these outer doors, we begin to recognize systematic patterns of beliefs and behavior, soon finding that what may appear to be exotic, discrete acts or ways of expressing oneself are in fact manifestations of societal subsystems (e.g., maintaining a hierarchy of respect or rejection of discriminatory distinctions; dislike of vanity, bombast, or servility; deep-seated needs for individualistic expression or a tendency to take refuge in group conformity).
These linguistic and pragmatic reactions, even in the form of verbal formulae, cannot be learned piecemeal; they need to be acquired in culturally probable situations. When actually living and working with native speakers is not a possibility, they may be observed in films, plays, novels, soap operas, or radio talk shows, as well as in newspapers or magazines. The teacher, being more experienced, acts as a guide to interpretation, however, since students will tend to interpret this raw material from the point of view of their own culture. Practice in interacting with people of different cultural viewpoints may be gained also through acting out problem situations within the culture, as in Di Pietro's interactive scenarios. Students work out possible, culturally appropriate solutions as they are simulating interaction within the culture, facing up to the unpredictable and making decisions as native speakers might do. Later discussion brings out areas of cultural understanding and misunderstanding that surfaced during the interaction. Here again explanations and advice from a person with intimate acquaintance with the culture is essential to avoid misinterpretations based on the students' own culturally determined viewpoint.
Seeking to understand from her own experience "ease of interaction" in new social and cultural situations, Robinson draws four conclusions. that help us to understand our pedagogical task. She found that emphasis on cultural differences divides, whereas commonalities bring people together (in other words, we combat stereotypes more effectively by bringing out cultural similarities than differences); that understanding, in the sense of getting over barriers to communication, is not just derived from the ability to anticipate culturally different events, but comes through all modes of perception _ physiological, emotional, kinesthetic, tactile, as well as cognitive _ that is, the experience of the culture in all its richness must be integrated with attempts to describe and explain, something that is more possible in this age of interactive multimedia and ease of travel by people of both cultures (see also Principle 7). She also emphasizes the fact that new cultural experiences are not 'add-ons', rather they are interpreted through and integrated with the learner's previous experience (the students are thus enriched in their experience of the world and their viewpoint is changed); and, finally, genuine intercultural understanding takes time. As Kramsch warns us: "The difficulty of understanding cultural codes stems from the difficulty of viewing the world from another perspective, not of grasping another lexical or grammatical code"; this is a process of simmering, not of rapid boiling.
Through our attempts to understand the cultural-linguistic behavior of others, we come to understand our own value systems and our own culture-laden language use. As a result, we emerge enriched, as we broaden our experience of human ways of thinking and behaving; we develop a tolerance for difference, even within apparent similarity; and we learn to interact harmoniously and comfortably with others from different backgrounds, within our own and other societies, without confusion of our own sense of identity.
Such a result does not come of itself; it requires hard work, hard thinking, patience, and persistence on the part of both teacher and learner.
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