Devil’s Advocate vs Hugh Dellar on Intercultural Communication

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

So the eighth victim on the hot seat is Hugh Dellar.

Hugh Dellar is a teacher and teacher trainer at University of Westminster, London. He has been teaching for almost twenty years, mostly in the UK, but also in Indonesia. He is the co-author of two five-level General English series, INNOVATIONS and OUTCOMES, both of which are published by National Geographic Learning. He has given talks and teacher development sessions all over the world and blogs at http://www.hughdellar.wordpress.com. He also runs a busy language-focussed site here. In addition, he is a life-long Arsenal supporter, obsessive hoarder of obscure 1960s vinyl and general bon viveur, as the photo bears witness to!

 

Chia:  Hi Hugh, thank you for taking time out to be here today!

Hugh:  Thank you for inviting me, Chia

Chia:  I have heard that you are not the biggest advocate for dealing with intercultural communication in the English language classroom. Would that be right?

Hugh:  Kind of, yes. Part of the issue for me is that I’m never really sure what is actually meant by things like ‘dealing with intercultural communication in the classroom’ . . . and I fear many people who bandy such terms around aren’t either!

I believe that the MAIN role of a language teacher is to teach language and that most other things are a distraction.

Chia:  Surely the role of a English language teacher these days is to help our learners become better communicators. And well, Hugh, as soon as you communicate with someone who is not from where you are from, you are communicating interculturally.

Communicating Effectively
ELTpics: Picture by @ij64

Hugh:  The way we help our students become better communicators is by teaching them better English.

Your definition of communicating interculturally just seems to me to mean talking to people!!

I think that the real issue is that students communicate better with each other when they share more language in common, and the more English students speak, the more they are able to communicate with each other and find both common ground and differences . . . and in a sense that’s the same whether you’re talking to someone from the other side of the world or from a neighbouring country. I just don’t see what the ‘cross-cultural’ part is supposed to be apart from providing language and opportunities for students to talk to each other . . .

Chia: First of all, Hugh, as a coursebook writer, you must agree with me that communicating is not limited to just speaking. What about writing, listening and body language?

Hugh: Well, of course, communicating includes writing, listening and reading yes. But those essentially involve linguistic knowledge and competence.

As for body language, well, that’s very personal and something that for me – unless it crops up in class, as admittedly it sometimes does – is certainly not something I’d go out of my way to ‘teach’.

Chia:  What you are saying is that when people can find common ground and differences and be aware of these, then they will become more successful communicators, right?

So therefore, if we can help them to become more aware of cultural characteristics of those with whom they will be communicating, can we not make the learning process more efficient by allowing them to become more aware of these common grounds and differences (and I include body language in that).

We’re training our learners to become better communicators, not just better English language users. Or do you see that differently, Hugh?

Intercultural Communication
ELTpics: Picture by @senicko

Hugh: I’m not even necessarily saying that you need to find common ground or difference, really. I’m saying people who have more language and can use that language more skillfully will be better communicators. It may be that you use that talent and that language to find common ground, if that’s what you’re interested in, or differences. It may also be, of course, that you use it to manipulate, abuse, sell to, etc. It depends on what you want from situations, doesn’t it? And what people want depends on them and the situations they’re in and who they’re interacting with. In life in general, I mean, not just in classrooms.

I’m very very wary of talk of ‘cultural characteristics of those with whom they will be communicating’, though, partly because it inevitably leads to over-generalisations and stereotyping of the ‘Germans are direct and blunt, Japanese value politeness and ritual’ variety; partly because who actually knows who our students will be dealing with outside of class in the rest of their lives and partly because people vary so widely. I’ve met super informal, sweary, drinking Japanese folk and far more formal ones, just as I have Germans, English and so on, and any smart person treats each person on a person to person basis – and the core of the way you negotiate that is through language.

Does intercultural training mean teaching dos and don’ts?

Chia: In no way do I mean we should teach dos and don’ts. And I agree that over-generalisations lead to stereotyping and essentialism. What I mean is – Should we not make our learners aware of how their communication styles can be interpreted by others, and how other people’s communication styles can be misinterpreted by them?

It’s about raising awareness of potential areas of difficulty and not about trying to overgeneralise certain cultures or nationalities. e.g. Many coursebooks have topics like ‘Work’ or ‘Jobs’ and have writing tasks involving the writing of a CV. In the USA, putting your date of birth on your CV could result in it being thrown in the bin as they don’t want to risk being accused of discrimination, but in Germany, not putting your DOB or photo on your CV could mean your application might not be considered. Shouldn’t learners be made aware of such things?

Hugh: I just don’t see how you think this works in class Chia. Some people might think you’re direct, others might think you’re not; some people might feel you’re talkative, others may be more talkative than you. How does knowing this benefit students? And is it really our job to tell them this? People learn what others think about them through interaction throughout their lives, and most people – if they’re adults – already have a fairly strong sense of their own self anyway . . .

If all you mean is learning conventions of how things like CVs are done in UK or US cultures, then that’s fine. I see that as genre awareness rather than cross-cultural differences. Though of course even this knowledge only really helps students if they’re applying for a job in the UK or US.

If a German is applying to an international company in Germany but sending a German-style CV in English, is it such an issue? I suspect not and I suspect it certainly won’t be what gets them the job or doesn’t get them the job.

All I do as a writer or teacher is present things like CVs in the standard way I’d expect them to be, but don’t make an issue of this being ‘cultural in any way . . .

And besides, at University of Westminster, we get 5-10 CVs a week coming though the door, almost all from native speakers, and are they somehow culturally consistent? Are they heck! They’re wildly diverse . . . so where then are cultural norms?

The way to write your CV

Chia: Let me first respond to your point on the adult learners’ sense of self.

Coming from someone who believes that we shouldn’t overgeneralise, you obviously know that our sense of self and the identity we portray changes from context to context, depending on the communities of practice we are in, the interlocutors involved, our past experience of that particular discourse community, etc. e.g. A career woman who has to adjust to the discourse styles and rules of the playground when associating with other mothers might choose to portray herself quite differently. If she doesn’t, she could risk being misunderstood. That is why it is always difficult when first adapting to the culture of a new company or social group we find ourselves in.

You also can’t deny that the culture in which we grew up in has a strong effect on the opinions we form. e.g. Would you agree that ‘the best form of decision-making is group consensus’ or ‘a person’s value is measured by their achievements’. Surely you must acknowledge that these are culturally loaded opinions. Would it not benefit our learners to reflect on how the way they see the world is socially constructed? And would it not be possible to do such reflection and awareness-raising in an English language class? Should we not be teaching our learners to become better communicators or not just better users of the linguistic features of a language?

The different roles we play and the different identities we take on

Hugh: in terms of the career woman, I’m not sure what your point is IN TERMS OF LANGUAGE TEACHING.

Yes, it might be a nice study to do for someone on a Sociolinguistics module on an MA TESOL or something to see how one person varies their own language use across contexts, but all that’d tell you is . . . how one person varies their language across particular contexts. It won’t tell you anything of value in an EFL class.

As for awareness raising of how culturally constructed our own sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s normal is, etc . . .I just don’t see that as our job as language teachers . . . and I’m not sure that it’s actually achieved through discussing things like whether or not you agree the best way to make decisions is through group discussion or through one leader telling everyone what to do etc .

I’m also not sure folk from one country will agree anyway . . . I don’t buy into the idea that these supposed ‘norms’ actually really exist that much. Maybe . . . MAYBE . . . if I was preparing a Business English student to go and do business in China, say, I might want to do ONE small exercise on things people say about China and the business culture there, with the proviso that these may or may not be true, and that really they’d be best going and finding out for themselves, but that’s about it.

I honestly don’t believe that if you put 100 Brits or Japanese or Russians or whatever in a room and did a test on them to ask, for example, if the best form of decision-making is group consensus or if a person’s value is measured by their achievements, you’d get agreement. People differ. Some Japanese people will agree with some Brits and Russians more than with some other Japanese.

Intercultural Training should not be about promoting stereotypes

Chia: In terms of the career woman, it is an example of how we need to adapt to new environments and to accommodate the new discourse communities and the new people we encounter, or else we risk being misunderstood and not portraying the image we want to portray. Some people are just better at accommodation than others…

I’m afraid you’re missing the point, Hugh. No one is expecting every Japanese or German to have the exact same values. As I’ve said above, it’s definitely not about giving learners dos and don’ts lists (which may only reinforce cultural stereotypes). It’s about making learners more aware of the values, beliefs and opinions THEY hold, which are culturally bound, and how to adapt and cope when dealing with situations of uncertainty where their interlocutor is clearly communicating upon a different set of beliefs, rules, opinions, etc.

Even if the 100 Brits or Japanese all have different answers, that is fine. Learners need to be aware of the fact that people are different from themselves and might not perceive them as they want to be perceived. If they want to become more successful communicators, they can’t just be dealing with lexico-grammar. We are not teaching a language like Latin that was used only in academic writing. We are teaching a language used for communication. How can you say that you don’t want to teach learners to become better communicators?

Is the gladiator a super-communicator?
ELTpics – Picture by @ij64

Hugh: Indeed, some PEOPLE are just better at accommodation that others – not some CULTURES! It’s all down to the individual. Our job is not to ‘improve’ students and turn them into what we imagine a better person might be. Our job is to teach them language. It’s up to them what they then do with it. Apart from telling students “we need to adapt to different discourse communities and the new people we encounter” – which they will have been doing all their lives in L1 anyway, where they all learn and grow and adapt through their encounters with others, as they grow up and become adults, I’m STILL not sure what you think we should be doing IN THE CLASSROOM to enable students to become these super-communicators?

As for missing the point . . . perhaps you’re making it very clearly! Are we having a cross-cultural breakdown here, Chia?

I’m not saying that anyone expects anyone to have the same values; just that you can’t predict or generalise about what values people may or may not have because of where they’re from.

I DO want my learners to be better communicators, by the way. I just think the way that this is achieved is by teaching more language. Not by telling them blindingly obvious truisms like “By the way, you do know, don’t you, that your own opinions are shaped by your own experiences and that others might not have had these experiences and therefore may have different opinions and thus it’s a good idea to tread carefully when dealing with people that are not you!’

Also, thinking about it, many of the most successful intercultural communicators actually do so by being totally themselves and of their own backgrounds and by making no concession to others on any level. I’m remembering a very hard-nosed Chinese Seamen’s union negotiator I taught last year.

Is Hugh building up a wall to keep inter-cultural awareness out of his classroom?
Is Hugh ignoring the cultural differences beyond the walls of his classroom?
ELTpics – Picture by @sandymillin

Chia: I think we might be having a cross-cultural miscommunication here, indeed. Let us define ‘culture’ for starts. You seem to be hung up on ‘culture’ as in ‘national culture’, when ‘culture’ does also refer to ‘corporate culture’, ‘family culture’, ‘social group culture’ etc, (notwithstanding the cultural filter through which individuals perceived the world)

I think you are still missing the point.

Hugh: Make it better then!

Chia: I’m not advocating we predict or generalise what values people may or may not have because of where they’re from.

I’m advocating that we help learners realise the issues that arise when they are communicating in situations with interlocutors out of their usual discourse community, and adapt accordingly.

e.g. I had some Latin American and Mediterranean students who were in the same class with several Koreans and Japanese students for the few months they were at International House. One day, we started talking about the way we take turns and how we hold the floor, and the Latin Americans and Mediterranean students at first were adamant that Oriental are just shy. Through discussion, they were surprised to realise that the Koreans found it rude to interrupt others, and in turn thought that the Mediterraneans were rude. The discussion seemed like a revelation to both groups, and is a clear example of how cultural differences could be glaring at you in the face, and you might still attribute it to interlocutor’s personality if you were not made aware.

So, what about discussing such issues in English instead of just talking about hobbies, holidays and the usual banal stuff you often find in course books.

 

Not banal – Fridge magnets showing us cultural differences!
ELTpics – Picture by @amfromz

Hugh: Obviously, only an idiot would say they don’t want their students to deal better with situations where communication breaks down, but in classroom terms, I still don’t see what you think we should be doing. It just sounds like you want us to give trite little mini-lectures to students and tell them to ensure they adapt when communicating with folk from different backgrounds! Isn’t this what people all do anyway? In L2 as in L1? I don’t buy the basic premise that these breakdowns even occur that often, to be honest. What I see happening in communications between folk of different cultures, whether they be national, local, company cultures or whatever, is people talking to each other, negotiating meanings (which the better they use English, the easier they find) and getting stuff done or having conversations . . . in terms of the Koreans and Latin Americans, where does that then get them? Did the Koreans all start butting in and interrupting and the Latin Americans waiting and hesitating? Almost certainly not! All that happened is they realised the mirror has two-way glass in it, but their view is still their view . . .

Anyway, . . . I’ve never advocated just discussing banal stuff, as anyone who knows my books will hopefully testify to, but I honestly think too much is made of these ‘breakdowns’ and that if students are given interesting things to talk about, anyone will talk to anyone, provided they have common language to allow that. My advanced class this term has 8 Chinese, eight non-Chinese, including two other Asians . . . German . . . Spanish . . . Colombian . . . today they chatted about religion in their countries, divorce and divorce laws, and much else besides. It was super interesting, brought about by materials that realised these issues . . . I pre-taught language to help these discussions and then taught more in response to things they wanted to say, but couldn’t. THIS is what I think we should be doing in class.

If you want ONE of these kinds of classes to be about how you start / end / enter conversations, fine  . . . but divorce and religion is at least as interesting!

Which would you choose as a topic for your classroom? Intercultural communication or divorce?

Chia: Fine, I’ll give you that. In a multi-lingual class, that might be very interesting. But how would you propose dealing with the same issues in a monolingual group?

Hugh: In a mono-lingual class students will still disagree about things like the divorce laws . . . maybe religion in their country won’t be such an issue, but monolingual NEVER means mono-cultural. Students will all orient themselves to topics in different ways, have different takes and different opinions. As a writer – and a teacher – those are the spaces I’m interested in exploring – and that I try to teach the language to facilitate discussion about.

Chia: Hugh, it looks like you’ve just agreed that teaching issues like this in class is important. Cogito ergo sum, we should integrate cultural issues into language training! Thank you very much Hugh. I’ve really enjoyed doing this DA with you!

😉

Hugh: Ha ha. I thought it was me who just heard what they want to hear! 🙂

Anyway, thank YOU, Chia, for your time, your questions and your (misplaced) enthusiasms!

What I did to Lindsay Clandfield during the Teach-Off I wanted to do to Hugh Dellar

Epilogue: Hugh’s views are his own and do not represent any organization he is associated with. Chia, this time, was not only playing DA, but was genuinely taking a stand about the topic in question. Hugh and Chia may have been engaging in many online fights lately, but rest assured they are still friends who are not adverse to the occasional rowdy debate in the pub.

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