Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp

By Dan Isaac Slobin; Julie Gerhardt et al. | Go to book overview

27
ON TEACHING LANGUAGE IN ITS SOCIOCULTURAL CONTEXT

John J. Gurnperz
University of California, Berkeley

After many years when second language teaching specialists were primarily concerned with instructional technology, the question of introducing cultural content into second language instruction curricula has once more begun to receive a great deal of attention. A frequently heard argument is that, in today's global economy, where international organizations proliferate and multinational organizations have come to assume ever increasing importance, mere instrumental control of foreign languages is no longer enough. Increasingly, individuals who grew up in different parts of the world under historically and culturally quite distinct circumstances must work together and cooperate as equal partners-in the same enterprises. It can readily be shown that (a) cooperating in a foreign language requires more than just knowledge of grammar and lexicon, and, (b) to the extent that cultures differ, communication tends to become more and more problematic ( Gumperz, 1982). Thus interlocutors should have at least some understanding of their audience's cultural background to make themselves understood. Yet so far foreign language courses have made no systematic efforts to deal with this issue.

Language and Culture is one of a series of topics brought up in a special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which brings together a number of articles concerned with "strengthening our language teaching capacity to meet current national needs" ( Lambert, 1987). Some of the program improvements proposed there have been criticized because, while they call for more attention to native-like verbal ability in the foreign language, they take an overly instrumental, technical approach to teaching and fail to take account of the real difficulties that language curricula encounter when faced with our pervasively monolingual ideology and the resultant ambivalence towards the immigrant languages in our midst. I agree with such criticisms. It is difficult to see how culturally sensitive foreign language teaching can flourish in an "Englishonly" atmosphere which, while paying lip service to tolerance and social equity decries the linguistic and cultural heritage of our immigrant past. Language teaching cannot be divorced from intrasocietal issues of linguistic diversity. But, assuming we accept this point and decide to incorporate culture into our foreign language curricula, what do we teach? With a very few exceptions, the literature on language pedagogy is of very little help here.

If we consider the innovations proposed in the Lambert volume, it becomes evident that, in spite of many shortcomings, discussion of purely linguistic matters such as

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