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Dr. Troy B. Wiwczaroski
Agrotechnical Languages and Communication Studies Department
The Native Speaker in the (Inter)Cultural Classroom: Cultural Consciousness Raising to Students in 'Broken Cultures'
This article evolves out of almost a decade of experience teaching an 'American Culture and Civilization' course to Hungarian students learning English-Hungarian technical translation. The author explores the need to ensure that students' understanding of the value of their own culture is developed and strong, before teaching a class on a foreign culture. Students lacking a psychologically healthy view of their own society will too easily fall back on stereotypes and overgeneralizations in learning about any other. More poignantly, they might present their own culture as being inferior to the one presented to them in class. For these reasons, especially native speaker teachers working abroad need to cultivate positive thinking in their students not only about the culture under study, but equally about their students' own culture, in order to avoid creating new or perpetuating already existing misunderstandings. This is because the weight of the native speaker teacher's words and opinions, indeed the very status of such a faculty member in the students' view, are disproportionately great and can cause more damage than good.
A native speaker and an American, the task of teaching the department's 'American Culture and Civilization' Course naturally fell to me. A simple enough, straightforward assignment, one might assume. Not so. Having lived as an expatriate in Hungary for almost ten years, I have come to realize two things:
the content of such a course was something to be chosen carefully, and
my subjectivity/objectivity in presenting content material needed more attention than one might assume necessary.
I came to this realization after analyzing the negative output of my students' generally overly passive reception of the course material. My first concern was centered on how my students were approaching, reflecting on and reacting to the cultural differences and similarities I was presenting them in class. They tended to 'give the native speaker carte blanche', to not try to evaluate or interpret the subject material, but to assume that what I was teaching was off limits for critical discussion, as it was from a native of the culture under study. My greater concern evolves from this first problem. In the essays they were regularly writing and the oral presentations they were giving in class on cultural topics - and this applies to the majority of my students - instead of reacting to the background readings, the students were simply 'regurgitating' the material they had read. Secondary, more disturbing patterns arose when some students actually attempted to react to what they had read: the students tended to grossly misinterpret the material in their discussions, by falling back on stereotypes and overgeneralizations of American culture. Even more frustrating was the preconception used by each of these students in comparing their own culture to the American; namely, their arguments that although America had no culture, it was somehow vastly superior to Hungarys.
Where did such a notion come from? I had certainly neither taught, nor accepted such a misunderstanding. And yet, year after year, my students arrived at their American culture and civilization class with the same fundamental preconception. There had to be a basis for their attitudes, and my department head and I explored the how? and why? of it in several long discussions. Out of these talks, I realized that I was facing a quite different phenomenon with my Hungarian students, than I had when teaching a similar course in Germany or a German Culture class to Americans back in the States. Although some of my students in Germany had made similar comments about America as lacking culture, they had not completed their criticism with any denegrating remarks about the status of their country as opposed to that of the United States. I could understand their attitudes toward America (although I rejected them), as they reflected those often expressed in German media. Although there was some similarity on this point to the views of some of my Hungarian students, there were more important differences between the two groups. The key differences were that my students here:
lacked any real concept, much less any definition, of the basic terms culture or civilization,
were ignorant as to how a particular cultural groups culture-specific understanding of these terms colored its evaluation of its own culture,
were, therefore, uninformed of how vital a culture-specific understanding of these two terms is, in order to intellectually explore the differences in cultural thinking between nations.
I would like to immediately turn my attention to the first point. Historians have long been aware of how importent culture-specific definitions of culture and civilization truly are. In 1930, the reknowned French historian Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) wrote the study On the development of the word and the concept of 'civilization, in which he demonstrates how the understanding of the word civilization itself not only underwent a dramatic, long evolutionary process spanning the mid-18th century, but how its continual changing interpretation in the mind of the French speaker reflect the Frenchman's understanding of what it meant to be French, in France and the world. As Febvre elucidates, there are two fundamentally different meanings of the word civilization.
The first refers to the "totality of traits which delineate for the average observer the collective life of a specific group of human beings". Here, one understands material, intellectual, moral and political lifestyles or, as he terms it, social life. This first meaning defines a more objective interpretation of a society, or culture, and what makes it different from any other. It is a truly ethnographic look at a civilization. The second meaning, a subjectively constructed definition, refers more to how a society evaluates another culture. As Febvre writes, members of a particular society, in evaluating a foreign civilization,
. . . assume that the civilization in question its own is in
and of itself somehow something great and beautiful, even
something superior, comfortable, moral, and both morally and
materially better than that which it subjectively is not: wild,
barbarian or half-civilized. We build our subjective view
of other cultures on the understanding that our own, its
members and supporters, users and those who spread it to
others being us ourselves, are all collectively clad in value and
honor. Our own is such a collective Good, that other civilized
societies may enjoy it. But it is also an individual priviledge,
that each of us as members may proudly use for our own. (2)
There is a further point Febvre makes later in his text, and it is particularly important to keep in mind today when teaching a culture to members of a different one. He shows how long it took for especially European societies, whether French, English or German, to develop a concept of civilizations to replace the notion that there be but a single civilization in their own languages and, indeed, understandings of their own places in the world.(2ff.)
When we examine the term culture, we see that it means many things to different people. Some argue, similarly to the mode d'emploi we saw with Febvre, that there are in fact two main usages of the word culture in e.g. the English-speaking world. With the first of these, one denotes a set of characteristics which set one group apart from an other. The second usage refers to a set of phenomena which differ from (and which the control group itself may also consider to be superior to the set of any other group) an other set of phenomena within an other group. (Compare Wallerstein 1990: 33) This understanding largely mirrors Febvre's ethnographic and Social Darwinistic definitions of civilization.
Culture, of course, also includes such elements as way of life, mythology-symbolism, modes of etiquette, or even social-specific consumption. However, in interpreting the importance and, especially, the value of such behavioral elements found in a culture, the projection of our own culture-specific attitudes onto the culture under review, our inculturated subjectivity is the most determinant factor. Therefore, we study culture foremost as these differences between groups, such as national or ethnic cultures. I would refer to such cultures as macrocultures. We cannot however ignore the existence of hierarchy within cultural groups, which make up the microcultural element most often lacking in students at the beginning of their education in an other culture. Here, I refer to practices and tastes of individuals belonging to, for example, different social classes, a specific subregion (e.g., Wales, Texas, Bavaria) within a microcultural (e.g., linguistic, national or ethnic) boundary.
Whether one prefers to refer to it as the study of civilization or culture, cultural studies involve the unavoidable element of distinction, or how one distinguishes differences and hierarchies. Distinction in itself means difference, points to a preeminence, and points to the fact of the existence of a relation between the two. It is at this point in examining culture that the factors of race, ethnicity, nation, social class, gender and religion become focal. Some would argue that the factor of international order also be included among these. (See and compare Barber 1996, Crystal 1997, Tomlinson 1991, Tonkin n.d., Grünzweig & Rinehart 1998)
I would argue that, while intellectuals and political thinkers in many Western societies do in fact view their own cultures as only one of many valuable societies (i.e., intercultural pluralism), the idea that an other culture can be of equal (much less even superior) value to the world is not one most average people truly possess. I base my argument on the charge that the overwhelming majority of the world's population lives in gross ignorance of how the average citizen of an other country lives on a day-by-day basis, much less of that other's values, belief systems, opinions or self-image. This ignorance has a pervasive effect on the teaching of culture to foreign language students.
In order to demonstrate why this is so problematic, I would now like to examine the second of my original points, i.e. that my Hungarian students were ignorant as to how a cultural-specific understanding of the terms culture and civilization affected a groups evaluation of the value of its own culture. Above, I discussed several definitions of these terms, and the way members of a particular cultural group use them especially in subjectively evaluating a different cultural group. Most important in making such an evaluation is that a group is forming its opinion of another groups work with a recognized standard, a 'measuring stick', against which it tests all the other cultural groups it evaluates. This 'stick' is the evaluating group's (oftentimes utopian) image of it's own self. This is particularly the case when one group is criticizing another because the latter does not meet the expectations the former sets for itself.
To use a simple example to illustrate my argument, the supporters of one football team, a championship winning team, look down on supporters of any other team playing in their team's league, as the latter group of fans support losing teams. There is a clearly understandable standard the first group of fans uses to make its distinction between greatness and failure. The champion team's supporters then go on to form their own heirarchy, a ranking of best to worst, based on a team's performance during the season.
The same simple test applies when members of a particular culture evaluate those of any other culture. Macroculturally speaking, one nation would then form an opinion of an other nation based on a the former's perception of the history of the other nation's successes and failures. The criteria used may include such historical bases as the outcome of a revolution, the success or failure of repulsing an invasion, the success or failure of launching one's own invasion of a neighbor, the ability to form a solid middle class, GDP or per capita income growth of both nations over a comparative period, or even the increase or drop in birth rates. Microculturally, the evaluating party might criticize individual elements within the macroculture of the group in question. For example, one might look highly on the people living in Great Britain in general, but strongly criticize its aristocrats, or generally like the citizens of the United States, but take great issue with what some perceive to be a racist South.
Regardless, in each of the cases mentioned, the group making the evaluation always sets itself above the evaluated group. The outcome of the comparison or criticism is almost assuredly positive for the critic, because he works with a respected set of standards from the cultural group in which he is a member. However, my students here have largely gone against the grain when making similar evaluations. When making such comparisons, they overwhelmingly chose to relegate their own group below the one under evaluation. I have spent considerable time and discussion in finding out why this is the case, and I have come to what I feel is one major reason for this deviation from the expected norm.
When I confront my students with questions, such as: "What does it mean to you to be Hungarian?", "In what ways are you proud to be Hungarian?", and especially after discussing with them in what ways an American would respond to such questions, "In what ways do Hungarians feel different about Hungary than Americans feel about America, and why?", I inevitably receive replies about how 'terrible' everything is here, in comparison to the situation in the United States. If I prod the respondant to illustrate through examples how such an opinion could be true, then I am given a stereotypical, mythical image of America from Hollywood, in which every family lives e.g., on a perfectly tended tree-lined street, in a 6-bedroom house, with a three-car garage. When I tell the student that his image of America simply does not reflect the truth in at least 80% of the cases, I am not believed. When I then point to the beauty and reflected success stories I see in Hungary, when I visit neighborhoods sporting proudly-built new home after new home, when I point to the often dramatic improvements I have witnessed since first coming here in the 1980s, again in 1993, and as a permament resident since 1995, the students often reject my impressions with statements such as: "And what about in the villages?". Yet, they have never seen a small East Texas town, visited the shacks of rural Mississippi or experienced a drive through parts of practically any major inner city in America, where derelict buildings, garbage and endemic poverty and hopelessness may be found in abundance? My students in Debrecen also fail to perceive the difference in quality of life they have over their student counterparts in America's second largest city, Los Angeles. When did my students here ever have to pass through a metal detector or be subjected to a body and bookbag search, or even a drug test, in order to be able to simply sit in a classroom to learn? I do not want to paint my students a dark, grim picture of my homeland. What I want them to realize is that even in the 'Land of the Free', there are millions of people who live much more miserable day-to-day existences than thay have ever seen in Hungary. Most importantly, I want them to know that they too have much for which they can be proud.
All my examples point to a looming gap in their cultural development. My students are lacking a deep-seeded, positive understanding of their own culture and its 'measuring sticks'. They can discuss what cultural elements distinguish them as Hungarian citizens from, for example, those of Italy, but they cannot say what is great about being Hungarian that that Italian cannot say about himself. This is what led me to develop the third of my points, namely, that my students seemed somehow unaware that their fellow students in, for instance, Germany or the United States definitely had formed concepts of what culture meant to them. More importantly, they had formulated at least a basic understanding of what they thought their own culture was, and how to use their understanding to relate to foreign cultures.
I had great difficulty explaining, even to myself, how this disparity between my students here and abroad could exist at all. Historically, all three countries in question had more than enough experience with problems of national, cultural impact. The Germans had their experiences from 1933-1945 to serve them as a mirror of who they once were, and who they did not want to be again. Their post-war, intellectual confrontation with how they should redefine what it means to be a modern, civilized nation forced the Germans to become increasingly conscious of what it meant to be different - to be, as it were, foreign. More noteworthy is how this domestic, inner-social conflict also led the Germans to explore what it meant to be Germans. Americans went through the great social upheaval of the 1960s, with the culmination of the first wave of the Civil Rights Movement with Rev. Martin Luther King, the cultural impact of his words and especially of his assassination. They began to go through the process of creating a true cultural 'melting pot'; a process which, like that of the Civil Rights Movement, has yet to come to fruition. I refer to such examples as the still controversial 'mixed marriage', or the continuing debate on 'affirmative action'. More impacting on the social fabric of the United States has been the progressive waning of truly single ethnic neighborhoods made up of immigrants and their descendants in most American cities, with the exception perhaps of Mexican-American barrios and some Asian immigrant communities. Where did these people go? Nowhere. They simply moved out of the old neighborhood, married descendants of immigrants from other cultural backgrounds, and became Americans. All the examples I cite point to the neverending saga of Americans' search to define what being American means. Yet, despite the differences, there is indeed a unifying link, and I am not referring simply to the power of English as the language of commerce or government. This link one finds best in the common thread which runs through the many colors of the American social quilt: the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the civil liberties given to the people by the Constitution.
Hungarians, too, have a unique − if not related history of uniting ethnic groups into one nation. The durability and uniqueness of the Hungarian language has been perhaps one of the greatest defining marks of what distinguishes one as being Hungarian. Historically speaking, the inherent power of using a national language to define who belongs to a nation has been the defining factor in the Carpathian Basin for individuals to choose Hungarian as their nationality, regardless of their ethnicity. More importantly, becoming Hungarian was a matter of will, a conscious choice by individual Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Ruthenians or Swabians (to name but a few) to call themselves magyar. As with their American counterparts, their ethnicity lived on in their names or choice of religious denomination, but these Hungarians were fiercely proud to call themselves one of their chosen nation.
Thus, the fact that my students here are somehow unaware of how central a positive understanding of what it means to be Hungarian truly is for understanding their worth as members of a particular cultural group among many other valuable groups is a kind of riddle for the observer trained in history.
Historically, Hungary underwent many transformations over the past centruy, and most of them took a turn for the worse. The disasterous years following World War I, when Hungarian culture and political life were turned on their heads, a condition reflected by the fact that Hungary went through a bloody period in which it was the first country outside of Russia to have a communist dictatorship, that it lost two-thirds of its size and a large percentage of its population and cultural heritage in the Trianon Peace Treaty, that Hungary was subjected to exist in the double paradox of being ruled by an Admiral with neither navy nor access to the sea, as well as by a government which called itself a kingdom, and in a land without a king. World War II brought first the Nazis to Hungary, and then the Soviets. Both groups terrorized millions and murdered hundreds of thousands, while burning, raping and pillaging the country. The communist regime that took power after the war, which reasserted itself in the mass executions, disenfranchisements and deportations following the failed Uprising of 1956, and stayed in control until 1990, worked with its Soviet leadership to destroy any pride the Hungarians had in themselves as a nation. In fact, the official government line was that it was a bad thing to be a Hungarian. The citizenry had to adopt the mask of the 'Soviet Man', and to cast off its true Self. It is no wonder to me that my students have the cultural identity crisis I see reflected in their responses in my classes; the same behavior is reflected in modern Hungarian politics and everyday life. My students' grasp of themselves and Otherness reflects the fact that Hungary's is a broken culture.
Any change will take generations, and must come from within. Hungarians must learn ways of rediscovering themselves and to reshape a cultural image with which they can live comfortably. Unfortunately, as long as my students do not possess more than a shallow understanding of what (their own) culture is, they will continue to lack the required self-respect needed to properly learn about the foreign culture of a country such as the United States. Proof lies in, as only one example, their insistence that America could be cultureless, and yet somehow culturally superior to Hungary, which has a highly developed and valuable culture, only the students cannot tell me what that culture may be. This last point, although raised earlier, brings my argument full cirle to point four. It is more than a challenge to teach such students to ponder the differences in thinking between cultures, when they do not understand how or why they have their own cultural-specific mentality.
In the following section, in reflection on the arguments I made above, I would like to briefly explore some of my ideas on what constitutes cultural teaching, as they relate to theories on this matter in the professional literature. Taken generally, the teaching of culture comprises the use of units describing or depictingfor example, cultural values and norms, in order to provide students with an extensive picture of the way of life of a specific society. Units may cover anything from dialects, gestures, daily routines, taboos, and political structure, to geography, prejudices and etiquette. Regardless of what elements one includes in designing such a course, it is of primary importance that one presents the students with as true a representation of the target culture as possible. Material should, therefore, also serve to clarify ignorance, explain away stereotypes and assist in ridding groundless prejudices the target students have about the culture they are studying. This need has been continually raised in the literature since 1918, when a generation of educators recovering from World War One scrambled to find solutions to cultural misunderstanding through education. As Stern discusses, foreign language teachers at the time called for improving knowledge about other countries and their peoples through foreign language teaching.
The problem I have been experiencing with my students is where to start. Logic would dictate that the student must first possess a fundamental understanding of his own culture. As the Ancients taught us, Scito te ipsum - Know thyself, and then you can know others. Experience tells me that my Hungarian students fail to satisfy this requirement, and that the root of this problem lies in the splintered society which characterizes, for instance, modern Hungarian politics especially as pertains to defining what it means (or should mean) to be a Hungarian today. Making matters worse, at least for my Hungarian students, is what Tonkin refers to as the flow of language learning from the bottom of the economic pyramid . . . to the top. Hungary, presently finding itself more at the bottom end and, particularly when coupled with the relatively small number of native Hungarian speakers, is fighting the same struggle as most of the world's countries: how to preserve its language in the face of the dominance of ever fewer internationally usable languages of communication. Yet, as increasingly more people worldwide are finding themselves having to utilize a second language from the pool of major international languages (e.g., English, Spanish, or Chinese) in order to survive economically, already present identity crises can worsen. Individuals who already suffer from low national pride or a lack of understanding of what why they should be proud of their heritage may look at the growing dominance of, for instance, English, and misinterpret such a circumstance as the decline of their own culture as a whole. This is exactly the same phenomenon that I have been witnessing in my culture classes.
So what can a teacher of culture do to reverse such a negative and, in my view, intrinsically harmful trend in thinking among Hungarian youth, especially if the one being taught is American or British, in the face of the increasing importance of English as the linguistic Microsoft of Globalism? This is where the native speaker needs to be extra insightful, and carefully negotiate the placement of cultural items in a lesson plan. Singhal (1998) recommends the use of what he calls a 'Culture Check', in which students are "presented with a list of twenty-two behaviors and are asked if these occur in their country of origin or in North American society". Situations he mentions include people kissing friends on the cheek in greeting, asking others about their income or the social acceptance of teenage dating. He does not discuss how he actually uses them in class, but mentions how they "can lead to interesting class discussions and further insight about other cultures and one's own".
I take this exercise at least one step further. It is obvious that teachers of cultural units in foreign language should use a culture check-type exercise not only to show difference, but similarity. However, they should also add the element of explaination. Why does the member of an other culture act in the given situation in the way one does? Context is vital for students to truly understand why people are different, and how that difference may engender or endanger, e.g. a business meeting or friendship with someone from abroad. How and why would an American make a request, ask for help, give directions, agree or disagree, complain, be friendly or seemingly rude to a student or pay a compliment? The use of stereotypical illustrations of for example a German tourist's behavior while on holiday in Spain might evoke laughter, but these hardly contribute to learning about how that same German behaves at home. Indeed, it is the latter case which is the one most needed to be understood to function in an intercultural environment.
In closing, teachers and departments should always keep in mind that their students have their own pasts, and that these must be considered when designing and teaching culture courses. Students are often not well-read or interested enough in culture or society to know who they are and why it is vital to know that before learning about others, because they have yet to experience the proper encouraging impulses to do so. Individual maturity also most certainly plays a role here, and not simply a collective cultural or political history. Regardless, the teachers real job in a culture class is not to teach the target culture, it is rather to ensure that the students become aware of the phenomenon culture at all, that they begin to give serious thought to the impact culture has on identity, global conflict and peace, and especially intercultural communication.
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