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When I Hear the Word ‘Culture’ …

7113768205_0728435aaf_zThere’s a debate going on in our department at the moment over teacher evaluation forms. The current questionnaire asks students to rate their instructors on whether they “ignited an interest in the language and corresponding culture.” Some people in the English department argue that the question isn’t appropriate for our courses. They have two reasons. First, which culture? Our staff is peppered with Americans, Australians, Brits, Indians, South Africans and even a German or two. And our students are looking to study or work in all of those countries and more. It’s a question, I suppose, for English instructors at every level, and I’d be curious to know how others tackle it. Do you stick with the English-speaking culture you know best and try to interest your students in that? Or do you skim across a wide variety?

The harm in the first approach is that American instructors spending a lot of class time on American culture might alienate Anglophile students (for example). I’d argue a version of that can be a problem any time you’re linking up language and culture, which is both a moving target and a matter of taste. I partly blame my abysmal Spanish on a teacher who forced telenovelas on us. But the more generalist approach can be awfully patchy and, well, general, leaving students with a pale painting of the English-speaking world rather than a vibrant invitation into it.

My colleagues’ second concern is more pertinent for foreign-language learning in higher education. A representative sample of the classes we offer includes “Academic Writing,” “English for Automotive Engineers,” and “Communication Skills for Medical Practitioners: Dealing With Sensitive Issues.” In other words, we’re teaching English at a high enough level that the question feels off-target, or at least poorly phrased.

This is not language learning that teaches you to get by on vacation in a foreign country, or even on a semester abroad. Our students are preparing for professional lives that will play out almost entirely in English. And so perhaps the “culture” we should be teaching is of, say, a German engineering firm (where all written documents are in English); or an international boardroom (in which English is the lingua franca); or an Italian chemistry lab (which submits journal articles written in English).

Our situation may be unique, given we are at a technical university where English is just as much the language of learning as German. But I wonder how language professors in the U.S. do it … at what point is a class’s subject encompassing enough in itself (French philosophy, Chinese politics) that imbuing students with an interest in the “corresponding culture” feels infantilizing, or at least beside the point?

Geoff Pullum wrote a few weeks ago about how his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle prevented him from learning German. I might have experienced a (slightly less rock ‘n’ roll) version of that if not for the magazines here: There were so many interesting-looking articles that I finally put my nose to the grindstone and started sorting out my der’s, die’s, das’s, den’s and dem’s.

I’d love to hear from readers what catalyzed their foreign-language learning — partly because these are usually fun stories, like hearing where you were for New Year’s 2000, and partly because I’d like to steal a few ideas for my next class. Forget teaching to the test; this is teaching to the teacher-evaluation form.

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