Cultural Differences in English Language Training Nguyen Van Do, M.A. ...
Cultural Differences in English
Language Training
Nguyen Van Do, M.A.
Language teachers and learners must develop sensitivity to socio-
cultural differences.
Cultural differences admittedly cause much trouble in
represents. Understandably, the governments of these
language training. But are there any remedies for prob-
Asian countries share the concern that English is some-
lems caused by these differences?
how corrupting their societies, with reasons varying
When writing about the relationship between “lan-
from the social to the historical—for example, English
guage” and “culture” in 1949, Sapir tried to separate
may have been the language of colonialism. The practi-
them. Up till now many attempts have been made to
cal importance of English is recognized but the learning
describe this complicated and sophisticated relation-
of Western cultural values is not considered important
ship; the right answer has not yet been found.
or even desirable. This gives rise to an interesting point
Nevertheless, it is agreed that language is a reflection of
of contrast with traditional Western views of language
culture. Words, of course, always reflect detached cul-
learning. For example, the Australian government, in
tural elements, but the relationship between the form of
encouraging its citizens to learn an Asian language, is
language and the form of cultural elements (thought and
more than likely assuming that this will make its people
activity) is practically impossible to detect.
culturally as well as linguistically literate.
One might say that culture is the highest achieve-
The fear of Asian governments that the learning of
ment that humanity naturally reaches in the conscious-
English will lead to cultural hegemony has been echoed
ness of self during the development process of civiliza-
by Western scholars. Robert Phillipson argues that the
tion. Language, then, is the trace of this process. The lan-
worldwide teaching of English leads to linguistic impe-
guage is contained in the culture, and the language itself
rialism. Alan Williams, arguing from the perspective of
contains almost everything that one says about the cul-
teaching English to speakers of other languages, urges
ture. Without the form—language—the culture cannot
practitioners to find the right balance between the
be explicit.
acculturation of students and support for students’ cul-
Obviously, language cannot exist outside the social
tural values.
context, so the relationship between culture and lan-
These fears are, in my view, decreasing as the need
guage must be put into that social context. This rela-
to use the language for communication increases. In
tionship is expressed in the following diagram:
East Asia, English is now commonly used as a lingua
franca between Asians. For example,Thai and Japanese
businessmen in Vietnam use English with each other.
The cultural baggage of English becomes irrelevant
as regional varieties of English develop. What becomes
important is the culture of the people to whom one is
speaking and not the culture of the language in which
one is speaking. Japanese people who are learning
English in order to speak to Thai people do not need
Teaching Whose Cultural Values in the
culturally Western language teaching materials. They do
Language Classroom?
not need to know about Charles Dickens or Norman
Mailer or E.B. White; they do not need to know about
It is important to note that in some Asian countries,
Big Ben, the Empire State Building, or the Sydney Opera
including Vietnam, there is a common desire to separate
House; they do not need knowledge about Westminster
the English language from the culture (or cultures) it
Abbey or Congress. What they do need is some knowl-
Teacher’s Edition
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October 1999

edge of the culture of the people they are dealing with
of offense. There is obviously less risk of causing
and they need to be aware of their own cultural norms.
offense, for example, in not being able to buy a bus tick-
In other words, they need English language teaching
et than there is in standing too close to someone or
materials that contrast Japanese cultural norms with
arriving late.
those of the people with whom they will have contact.
The following examples illustrate miscommunica-
tion that can occur as a result of lacking sociocultural
Teaching Sociocultural Competence
As we use English to communicate cross-culturally,
Example 1
errors caused by a lack of sociocultural competence will
V = Visiting professor, non-native speaker of English
inevitably occur. Communication takes place beyond
H = Head of department, native speaker of English
the level of the verbal message, and despite fluent and
accurate use of language, there is the risk of commu-
V, a visiting professor, has asked members of his host
nicative breakdown in the area of sociocultural compe-
department to complete a very lengthy questionnaire
tence. It is acknowledged that these errors may be less
as part of a research project he is doing. H, the head
tolerated than grammatical mistakes or lexical insuffi-
of the host department, has indicated that he will com-
ciency. Of course, people who have the experience of
plete the questionnaire, although he is unable to do so
operating in different cultural contexts know that mis-
immediately. In any case, V will be around for anoth-
takes are often forgiven, but they would also hope to
er month, so completing it is not a matter of immedi-
avoid causing offense in the first place. So it is impor-
ate urgency. V expresses his gratitude to H, and as a
tant to help our learners reduce the risk of causing
way of reassuring V and of terminating the exchange,
offense, or indeed, perceiving offense where none is
H says, “I’ll try to do it before you leave.” V replies, “Yes,
please do so.”
According to Jan van Ek and John Trim, sociocultural
competence consists of two categories. The first is that
Example 2
of universal experiences concerning matters of every-
S = Student, non-native speaker of English
day life—for example, meal times, types of food, opening
A = Adviser, native speaker of English
hours, living conditions, relationships, and degrees of for-
mality—and major values and attitudes about, for exam-
S, a graduate student in the United States, is at the
ple, politics and religion. The second concerns social
beginning of her course and goes to see A, her adviser,
conventions and rituals which may be expressed to a
about the choice of courses. She enters A’s office and,
lesser or greater extent by language. Examples of non-
after an exchange of greetings, remains standing,
linguistic social conventions include personal space and
being uncertain of the protocol of student-staff behav-
body distance between speakers in different cultures, as
ior in these circumstances. Confused when A says to
well as eye contact, gestures, and touching. This catego-
her, “Why don’t you take a seat?”, S remains standing.
ry also includes punctuality and visiting rituals, such as
knowing whether or what to bring as a gift, and when to
In the two examples above, there are misunder-
leave. Examples of more linguistic social conventions
standings between the speakers and hearers due to dif-
include tone of voice, use of reciprocal speech, use of
ferences in cultures. In the first example,V just wants to
politeness conventions, use of silence, and the overall
express his gratitude, but he violates the standard norms
structure of conversations.
(repeated imposition) of H, who would feel uncomfort-
The aim here is not to give the learners a mass of
able and irritated. Confusion occurs in the second
culture-specific information to be used wherever neces-
example when S misinterprets the true import of A’s
sary, because it is impossible to identify all the target sit-
uations in which the learner would use his or her newly
Having established some of the confusion generated
acquired competence. I am, however, concerned with
by sociocultural differences, it would be useful to con-
the coverage of areas of potential differences that may
sider the kind of activities we can use to develop our
cause embarrassment or offense.
learners’ sensitivity toward these differences. One activ-
The two categories above are clearly quite distinct
ity is to ask learners to re-read a passage which they
not only in their coverage but also in the potential risk
have perhaps already used for reading comprehension,
and to see what sociocultural information they might
Teacher’s Edition
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October 1999

find there. It would seem possible that the process of
This transmission of knowledge has clear implica-
consciousness-raising about sociocultural differences
tions for methodology. The standard method of convey-
can begin on a very simple level in the language class-
ing information is for the teacher to transmit and the stu-
room, and can focus on the singularity or humor of
dents to receive. There is little interaction between stu-
cross-cultural comparisons. Even on the level of a single
dents, or between students and teachers, in these types
word, there is a scope for helping the learner to become
of classes.
sensitive to differences. For example, one activity would
These two characteristics—a belief that knowledge
be to ask learners to note any words which they associ-
is comprised of a “canon” and a methodology that pre-
ate with recently taught lexical items. The simplest lex-
scribes an “I’ll talk and you listen” technique—clearly
ical item may have strong sociocultural connotations for
influence teacher-student roles, and both would appear
the learner.
to hinder language learning. Language has no “canon” as
such; contextual considerations often make the “right
Perspectives for Vietnam
answer” impossible to identify out of context. And it is
hard to see how a language can be learned without
What method can we use to teach English and soci-
some form of interaction. Yet English in Asian schools is
ocultural competence? There are no easy answers.
commonly taught in classes where there is a great deal
In Vietnam today, English is being taught at different
of teacher-talk, and where students expect the course
levels of the educational system, from primary and sec-
content to be immutable and able to be received pas-
ondary schools to colleges and universities, not to men-
sively. Students feel that as long as they listen to their
tion hundreds of English learning centers, as well as “dis-
teachers and remember what they are told, they will
tance training” programs sponsored by foreign organiza-
learn the subject well.
tions. It is worthwhile mentioning that because of the
Communicative language teaching is clearly based
influence of Confucian tradition, teaching and learning
on assumptions completely foreign to those outlined
in Vietnam, as in other Asian countries, is different in
above. Far from being a “transmitter” of knowledge, the
many ways from teaching and learning in Western soci-
teacher is a “facilitator.”
Far from having minimal
eties. For example, those who have been fortunate
teacher-student interaction, a communicative classroom
enough to teach in Vietnam will know how highly teach-
holds such interaction to be indispensable. Far from
ers are regarded. On the contrary, many teachers from
believing that knowledge is immutable, communicative
Asian cultures are distressed when they arrive in
English teaching is determined by the context. Context,
Western countries, as students do not seem to respect
then, not fact, determines appropriateness. The “right
the teacher.
answer” for one situation becomes the “wrong answer”
Clearly, the relationship between teacher and stu-
in another. It is little wonder, then, that many English
dent provides an insight into cultural attitudes and
teachers in Asia are extremely uncomfortable with com-
assumptions about knowledge and learning. For exam-
municative language teaching methodology.
ple, the relationship reflects beliefs about the nature of
Furthermore, many teachers are not considered—by
knowledge and the way knowledge is passed on by
themselves or their students—to be “experts” in their
teachers and gained by students. In a typical Asian soci-
subject. In other words, they are not native speakers.
ety, where teachers are expected simply to transmit
This can put intense pressure upon the teachers. In a
knowledge to students, knowledge is seen as being
society where the role of the teacher is to transmit the
something that can be handed down. In such circum-
“canon,” a teacher who demonstrably is not an expert in
stances, knowledge takes the form of a “canon” that is
the subject finds himself or herself in an unhappy posi-
transmitted by the teachers. And it is the “canon” that is
tion. It is no surprise that many non-native teachers of
examined. Students who fail the exam might accuse
English in Asian countries rely on textbooks and prefer
their teachers of being inadequate “transmitters.”
those that appear to provide “right answers.” A non-
The relationship between teacher and student
provides an insight into cultural attitudes and assumptions
about knowledge and learning.
Teacher’s Edition
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October 1999

native speaking teacher cannot always know when an
utterance or statement may or may not be contextually
Such teachers depend on “right
Phillipson, Robert.
Linguistic Imperialism.
answerism,” a further reason why they feel so uncom-
University Press, 1992.
fortable with communicative teaching.
van Ek, Jan, and Trim, John. The New Threshold Level.
Teaching Suggestions
Council of Europe, 1990.
Based on the relationship among language, culture,
Williams, Alan. “TESOL and Cultural Incorporation: Are
and society, and the peculiarity of the teaching and
We Doing the Devil’s Work?” TESOL in Context 5 (1),
learning of English in the Vietnamese environment, I
pp. 21-24, 1995.
would like to offer the following suggestions for lan-
guage instructors, both Vietnamese and expatriates.
Suggested Readings
First and most important is that language learning
programs must negotiate their way between sociocultu-
Do, Nguyen Van.
“On the Study of Politeness in
ral stasis and flux. In other words, they must provide
Linguistics Journal (National
students with a solid basis for participating in diverse
Linguistics Institute, Hanoi), pp. 51-58, 1995.
social practices and settings that draw on skills and
knowledge grounded in the past and present, as well as
Do. Nguyen Van. “Politeness in Communication from a
provide access to learning that prepares students for a
National Culture Identities Point of View.” Language
changing world and futures that may be very different
Journal (Hanoi Foreign Languages College), pp. 37-40,
from their prior experiences. This is especially true dur-
ing the current period of burgeoning globalization and
technological change. In countries such as Vietnam,
Kirkpatrick,A. “Language, Culture and Methodology.” In
nationals are suddenly interacting with many foreigners
Language and Culture in Multilingual Societies.
from social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds very dif-
Edited by M.L. Tichoo. SEAMEO Regional Language,
ferent from their own.
Second, make students aware of the fact that behav-
ior in their own culture is not always transferable to sim-
Leech, Geoffrey. Principles of Pragmatics. Longman,
ilar situations in other cultures.
Third, prepare students to use English in a variety of
cultural contexts, especially where English is used as a
lingua franca between non-native speakers.
Nguyen Van Do (M.A., Sociolinguistics, Hanoi University
Fourth, for expatriate teachers, develop an aware-
of Foreign Studies) is Senior Lecturer in English at Hanoi
ness of the learners’ culture, which is the first step to
Foreign Studies University (formerly Hanoi Foreign
developing a sensitivity toward the cultures of others.
Languages College), where he has taught for 25 years.
He has also completed additional studies at Canberra
University, Australia. He is a co-author of the
Methodology Handbook for English Teachers in
In conclusion, an important aim of teachers of
Vietnam, published by the English Language Institute
English as a foreign language should be to expose the
learner to other cultures as much as possible, and to
develop an awareness of their own culture. It will not
be possible to give learners extensive cultural-specific
Your thoughts on teaching and
information because there are too many potential situa-
stories from the classroom are
tions to cover. But we can help learners to become sen-
welcomed to our “Reflections
sitive to the possibility of causing or perceiving offense
where none is intended, to be aware of the possibility of
on Teaching” feature. See the
differences in behavior, customs, beliefs, and attitudes,
Writer’s Guidelines on page 3.
and to acquire the linguistic tools to ask about them.
Teacher’s Edition
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October 1999