Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Intercultural Language Activities: book review

This originally appeared in IATEFL lit sig

Culture is always a tricky area to delve into with students.  In fact many textbook writers are so cautious about getting stuck in the mire of culturally awkward topics that PARSNIP (short for no politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms or pork) exists to guard against it.  John Corbett’s book attempts to break the PARSNIP or at least bend it to some extent. It also provides teachers with tools and materials to promote intercultural language teaching which can be seen as focusing on more than merely the nuts and bolts of the language. 

Like other Cambridge handbooks the book is easy to dip-into in order to supplement courses and lessons.  It is thematically organised into fourteen sections and clearly laid out with a boxes detailing the content and focus of each activity.  There is also an introduction to each section highlighting the aims and hoped outcomes of the activities.  The book also comes with a CD-ROM containing printable versions of the activities.   The CD  ROM material is great.  Having instantly available worksheets that can be printed out is really useful.  It would have been even nicer if Word rather than PDF had been used and thus the materials were adaptable.   The material is not locked though and so can be copied onto a Word document this does however often cause the formatting to disappear.

There are many useful activities in this book and I think most teachers, particularly those in multi-lingual classrooms would find something useful.  The early section dealing with setting up an online community comes in for special praise.  I have tried several times with varying success to do this and Corbett’s book has very interesting ideas for improving the process.  I am quite keen to try some of these out.  There is also a section on using the British corpus for teaching.  I hadn’t been aware of this site previously and used this instead which doesn’t provide such detailed results.   Most importantly the activities are quite often light hearted and fun. 

There is a tension however, at the heart of this book.  Two of the largest influences on a culture are its politics and religion and as the adage suggests, they should be avoided in polite company.  The book seems to come unstuck at this juncture as the author realises the importance of these topics but at the same time, and for practical reasons, knows that these areas are best avoided as discussions about religion and politics which start with comparison may quickly lead to evaluation.   The result is a section on controversial topics with the controversy largely removed.  The section on politics (216) for example has an activity in which students look at a politician's body language (219) ; the stated aim being “persuasion and body language”. Like other activities in these sections, the controversy is tangentially present, -a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

As mentioned in the introduction the book is anti-parsnip and this is both its strength and its weakness.  PARSNIP is not used by overly-cautious publishers who enjoy producing anodyne course books but is adhered to out of strict necessity and business sense.  Students don’t like to feel uncomfortable in classrooms and won’t want to use books which produce this effect.  Cambridge, the publisher of Corbett’s book, know this and so the references P and R that appear in the book are first diluted and then swaddled in protective warnings which appear throughout these two sections, -even at one point advising teachers to get written permission to try certain lessons in certain contexts. (227)  It is impossible not to have sympathy with any author writing in this area though, -the interesting stuff, the things not to be mentioned at dinner tables which shock, excite and disgust us about other cultures are included at an inversely proportional rate to number of people willing to buy and use the book.   

There are also certain elements to the book which were confusing, for example, it wasn’t clear if the author wanted students to evaluate each other’s cultures or just learn about them without comment.  This confusion stems from the stated aim of the book as a place for “observation, description and evaluation of different cultures” (1) which seems to contradict a latter claim that the debates should “ideally be characterised by principles of empathy and respect for others”. (5)  This seems somewhat problematic as evaluation and respect may be incompatible at times.  Corbett himself touches on this problem when he notes:

Multiculturalism has been criticised for going too far the other way by treating all cultural values as equally acceptable, and therefore, for example, tolerating oppressive practices against women or minority groups.(5)

So whether students should critically evaluate unpleasant, racist, sexist and homophobic views or be respectful about them and find learning about them “mutually enriching” (5) is not clear.   The Intercultural classroom supposedly will help to promote “genuine understanding and respect.” (5) The problem being, that where polar opposite views exist mutual respect probably cannot.

The author does suggest that these activities should not lead to “uncritical acceptance of the values and beliefs of others” (6) however the message is slightly undermined by the material.  The notion that students don’t have to accept other cultural norms and the usefulness of debate is somewhat contradicted by the lengths the book goes to avoid debating sensitive issues and causing offence.   The treatment of women and minority groups are not one of the issues dealt with in the book. 

It is possibly because a large number of my students come from Saudi Arabia, China, Taiwan and Kurdish Iraq that I am aware of just how contentious even seemingly straight forward issues can be.  Including “Taiwan” in a list where other countries are mentioned (71 & 30) might even be enough to scupper an activity before it began.  Seemingly uncontroversial topics like “your national dish” (199) might again cause problems for Taiwanese students and even arguments among Kurdish and Turkish students.   Another potential problem is that, it is hard to see how useful this book would be in a monolingual classroom.  Exploring other’s cultures only works as long as there are enough cultures to explore.      

One criticism levelled at learner centred teaching is the idea that whereas before the teacher was ordering students to listen to him, now he’s ordering them to listen to each other.   The same could be said of intercultural communication.  Rather than forcing students to conform to NS norms and imagined norms of particular NS cultural context we may be forcing them to conform to ELF and to “respect” other cultures, whether they want to or not.  Corbett sees intercultural learning as a possible “substitutes” (1) for the target of native speaker norms though it is not at all clear whether non-native speaker students coming to the UK or the US wouldn’t really rather learn about the cultures of the country they chose to go to.  Another problem with the presentation of intercultural learning as an alternative to native speaker norms is that it seems even less of a tangible thing to teach. 

In short, as a resource it is a fun book that could be used in many class rooms to great effect and that has a large number of useful activities that have not appeared in other publications.  As an argument for making intercultural learning the focus of EFL education it was less appealing. 

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