10 octubre 2016

The role of language teachers raising cultural awareness in the EFL classroom

In accordance with my classmates' opinions, reading the booklet of the subject Education, Language and Democracy and all the knowledge that the teacher shared with us, I realized that indeed it is possible to raise the students’ level of cultural awareness through the union of their life experiences and believes, and the combination of activities which promotes critical thinking, such as respectful discussions and debates in an environment allowing them to feel autonomous in expressing their thoughts and feelings, accepting their own identity and cultural diversity. This is where language teachers play an important role, because inside of the classroom, students entrust us with our guidance so they can participate in meaningful assignments about social issues.
As a university teacher, it is essential for me to promote within my students projects where the use of language is a vehicle to address cultural issues. When learning a foreign language, it is important that teachers have an intuition, or eventually develop it, in order to balance linguistic matters and the cultural aspects of the language that is being taught. As the American Standards indicate ‘the true content of the foreign language course is not the grammar and the vocabulary, but the cultures expressed through that language’ (ACTFL 1996: 43). Unfortunately, it is to my belief that many of my co-workers consider cultural issues should not be discussed in class, they seem afraid to address those topics because it could raise controversy and discomfort among parents, students and members of their community. It is perceived amongst traditionalist teachers, or those teachers who think that is above their paygrade to make a difference in their classes, that university students are not mature enough to hold a discussion, share their thoughts and feelings, and make comparisons about cultural matters.  
From my point of view, many teachers are not willing to make changes in their teaching method or practice for the reason that it would demand a lot of time and effort. Consequently, some language teachers have ignored to teach about culture, or have relegated it to a secondary role (Tseng, 2002), because on in this essay it could be seemed as a propagandize a foreign culture, but it is provable, that it works.
Some teachers are leaving behind their students´ expectations and necessity towards gaining practical experience and knowledge related to cultural matters.  As an observer of these teaching practices, it comes to my mind, most teachers are not aware (or won’t acknowledge) the massive impact in the combination of the culture and language could have in their students’ way of thinking, in their behaviour and how they might treat people surrounding them.
As Starkey (2005) stated “Education in general and education for citizenship in particular, provide the mechanism for transmitting those core shared values that are essential if just and peaceful democratic societies are to be developed.” (p.23). On my broad point of view it is the teacher's responsibility to prepare students to become perceptive and knowledgeable citizens who will preserve democracy in the future. If we, the teachers, are aware of the importance of these teaching practices, even though it requires a lot of work, it is not an impossible task to undertake.
According to Paterson & Coltrane (2003) students seem not be able to really masters a language until they have also master the cultural contexts in which the language exists. Having experienced it myself, language can be a starting point to involve students in an interchange of beliefs, thoughts, actions and knowledge. However, I have been in the presence of teachers who find troublesome to include in their syllabus activities that promotes students´ cultural awareness because they are convinced that language and culture need to be taught in separate ways, quoting what Gladstone, 1980, p.19 said “language and culture are inexorably intertwined”. I strongly belief, teachers need to accept this kind of responsibility and undertake actions to help our students to come in contact with sensitive issues in order to to build intercultural awareness and acknowledge diversity.
Nevertheless, it is our responsibility and our commitment to make sure that our students become “intercultural speakers”, due to the fact that we have been in contact with other cultures, they can count on our inside point of view about other customs, education and lifestyle, synthesizing what a civilization is, because we know, we can make the difference and make us and them better. As Kramsch (2002) stated when students are intercultural speakers they become tolerant and open-minded, they are able to interact with other cultures acknowledging their cultural differences. These are some of the values that, as teachers, we want our students to acquire through language classes.
Something that caught my attention is when Kim, Chin & Goodman (2004) talked about “informal critical dialogs”, in which they ask their students to leave their judgments behind in order to increase their cultural awareness when learning a foreign language. From my point of view, in the EFL classrooms, it is the teacher's responsibility to create an environment where the students are able to feel at ease in leaving behind the stereotypes and prejudices, to understand the different points of view and assumptions in which their classmates might have, while addressing sensitive cultural issues. Here, is where teachers need to be role models and leaders that share democratic values and principles to their students through meaningful activities. As Ellis (1992) states, “teachers are not in the classroom to confirm the prejudices of [their] students, or to attack their deeply held convictions”. He adds that the teachers´ tasks is to stimulate students´ interest in the targeted culture, and to help in establishing the foreign language classroom, “not so much as a place where the language is taught, but as one where opportunities for learning of various kinds are provided through the interactions that take place between the participants”(p.171).  As I read and try to understand what he meant by quoting him, it gives me an opportunity to say, or state that we should help our students to gather and understand all the information as much as possible (on cultural matters) as a mean for raising their levels of social responsibility and be able to take actions when they want to take part in the democratic process when they reach the legal age to do so.  As Osler (2005: 19) stated “Preparing young people to participate as cosmopolitan citizens, capable of shaping the future of their own communities and of engaging in democratic processes at all levels, has become an urgent task. The nation state is no longer the only locus for democracy. The challenge is to develop democratic processes at all levels from the global to the local”, so they need to be in contact with what is politically happening in the country, creating a need to worry about the future that we once had, but no longer seems to be present, because our forefathers created a false sense of security so that actual youth can have the freedom to express themselves without worrying about the world is globalizing and expanding cultures, and we can not ignore the fact that there are more foreign integration in different countries, such as ours.
In my classes, I have used many teaching resources, to give an example, movies, games, songs, textbooks, cartoon, documentaries, drills, among others; I encourage my students to make comparisons, make them have a personal posture about sensitive issues and organize debates about topics like: endangered indigenous cultures, obesity, video games addiction, healthy and unhealthy eating habits around the world, historical places in danger such as the Taj Mahal in India, the Galapagos Island in Ecuador and the Great Pyramid in Egypt, the advantages and disadvantages of a fat tax, the process of voting in Colombia, bullying, the consumption of tobacco and alcohol in teenagers, GMO foods (genetically modified organisms), etc, and by doing this, I can help my students to link cultural issues to linguistic content.  
Thinking in my educational process, back then when I was in high-school, I am sure that I never had a class that raised my cultural awareness levels, or at least  a class that taught me, as an growing up individual, how to respond or react in a society where being branded meant, and still does, an important part of the education and the culture around the world. I would have liked to have teachers, while I was studying in highschool and university who could taught me how to be more involved, or even understand social situations, and to participate in an active way in the matters of the community that I lived in. For example, I never understood the process of voting in my country and how important this process is for our society.  As I was studying to get my undergraduate degree at Uninorte where this type of topics caught my attention, and I started to go to symposiums and conferences or lectures addressing topics like this, and it was then, when I really understood the impact that cultural issues could have in someone's life and even in my own.
Language teachers need to be completely aware of how crucial their teaching role is, only then, it would be reachable for their students to be involved in activities where they can discuss and communicate their perspectives and attitudes about cultural issues, and they need behold the whole situation regarding in how to treat people with different culture and education, and do not make indiscretions that may result in insult, or something more serious.
The design of appropriate materials to raise cultural awareness it is not an impossible task to handle for these teachers, they just need to inform themselves and be willing to develop them, up to this point is more a matter of a lacking acceptance towards the future.  If language teachers are not willing to plan their own materials, they can obtain ideas from books like Global Issues (Sampedro and Hillyard 2004) and Intercultural Language Activities (Corbett 2010), because they are good examples in how communicative language teaching can be combine with content related to culture and citizenship (Peih-ying Lu & John Corbett  2012). We live in a world so technologically connected, and any kind of teaching resources would engage our students attention and raise their motivation levels toward cultural matters using language to share their opinions and knowledge.
While planning the the material and the educational resources, teachers need to address matters that are relevant to the students lives and interests, keeping in mind the community where they were raised in, their different cultural backgrounds and the cultural aspects of the language in accordance with the language they are learning.
I am aware that not all language teachers are experienced about the culture of the language they are teaching, it is important to come in terms with the purpose of the tasks and the teaching resources that they are designing, and be able to help students to foster meaningful competences, abilities and skills when they are participating or taking an active role in the issues of their community. If our students are able to make respectful judgements, have the ability to tolerate other people's points of view, compare their beliefs with other members of their community, become active citizens (in political and civil matters) I could say for sure that we are making an enormous contribution to the society in which we are part of, and ultimately, the world.  I agree with what Paterson & Coltrane (2003) stated about how the students cannot really masters a language until they have also master the cultural contexts in which the language exists. It is important to be aware of the crucial role that we play as teachers, keeping in mind that it is in our hands to increase the cultural awareness of our students through language teaching.

As long as the teachers are familiarized and well-informed about cultural issues that are relevant for their students, or even if it is to be interpreted as appropriate, still more those who belief that by doing this could be promulgation for other cultures or undermine our own culture because they don’t know better, they will be able to create a respectful and fair environment where the students can undertake a series of language projects and tasks that eventually will help to avoid their frustration and possible failures in their life as active citizens, sharing their knowledge with  parents, teachers, classmates and members of their community.


Álvarez, J. A. & Bonilla, X. (2009). Addressing culture in the EFL classroom: A dialogic proposal.  PROFILE, 11(2), 151-170.
Ellis, R. (1992). Second language acquisition. Oxford University Press.
Gladstone, J. R. (1980). Language and culture. In B. Donn, English language teaching perspectives (pp.19-22). London: Longman.
Lu, P. & Corbett, J. (2012). An intercultural approach to second language education and citizenship. In J. Jackson (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Language and Intercultural Communication (pp. 325-339). New York, NY: Routledge.
Rojas, J. (2008). ELT and citizenship: basic principles to raise social awareness through language teaching. HOW , 15, 63-82.
Starkey, H. (2010). Language learning for Human Rights and democratic citizenship. In C. Ross i Solé & J. Fenoulhet (Eds.) Mobility and localization in language learning (pp. 79-106). Oxford: Peter Lang.
Tseng, Y. H. (2002). A lesson in culture. ELT Journal, 56, 11-21.

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