Language Learners as Ethnographers

Language Learners as Ethnographers


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This book looks at the role of cultural studies and intercultural communication in language learning. The book argues that learners who have an opportunity to stay in the target language country can be trained to do an ethnographic project while abroad. Borrowing from anthropologists' the idea of cultural fieldwork and 'writing culture', language learners develop their linguistic and cultural competence through the study of a local group. This book combines a theoretical overview of language and cultural practices with a description of ethnographic approaches and materials specifically designed for language learners.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853595028
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 11/01/2000
Series: Modern Language in Practice Series , #16
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.76(w) x 8.42(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Celia Roberts is a Senior Research Fellow at King's College, London,  Michael Byram is Professor of Education at the Durham University,  Ana Barro is at University of Passau, Germany,  Shirley Jordan is a Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and Brian Street is Professor of Language Education, King's College, London.

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New Goals

Language Learners

In recent years, language learners have come to be described in terms of 'cultural mediators', 'border-crossers', 'negotiators of meaning', 'intercultural speakers' and such like. Language learning is becoming increasingly defined in cultural terms and these new names and targets for language learners imply a reconceptualisation of the language learning endeavour. In this book, drawing on the developing frameworks for cultural studies in language learning, we add a further name to the list: language learners as ethnographers.

Ethnography can be broadly described as the study of a group's social and cultural practices from an insider's perspective. It is both a method involving the detailed observation and description of particular forms of behaviour and a written (and sometimes audio-visual) account based on social and cultural theories. So, it combines both an experiential element in which ethnographers participate in the life of a community, and an intellectual element, in which theoretical concepts are used and then developed, in order to 'write culture' (Clifford & Marcus, 1986).

The attraction of ethnographic principles and practice for language learning lies in this combination of the experiential and intellectual which are so often presented as dichotomous in language programmes. As Kramsch (1993) suggests, language learning has not been helped by dichotomies such as content versus skills, teacher versus learner centredness, and indeed, language versus culture. She advocates, instead, multiple options and, along with the recent literature on cultural studies in foreign language learning, a multidisciplinary approach.

An ethnographic approach to language learning is multi-disciplinary in that it draws on social and linguistic anthropology and aspects of sociolinguistics. Conceptual frameworks are developed for observing and understanding daily life in an environment where the language in question is spoken by native (and other) speakers. This approach also implies training in methods of observation, analysis and writing which engage learners in a process of encountering 'otherness' and representing that experience not as a set of facts but as one interpretation mediated through their own cultural understandings.

The ethnographer goes out into 'the field' – a cluster of huts on a small atoll or the kitchens of a neighbouring housing estate – in order to participate in the lives of a specific group and learn about their everyday affairs and what gives meaning to them. Given that language learners will often visit a country or countries where the language they are learning is widely used, they too have a 'field' in which to participate and observe. The opportunities for some period abroad as a visitor, on a school exchange or as part of a university course are increasing (Freed, 1995). This is not only evident in Europe, with European Union student mobility schemes, but in many other parts of the world including the USA, Japan, Latin America and Australia.

The idea of using such periods abroad as an opportunity to develop cultural learning by undertaking an ethnographic project is the theme of this book. The programme developed at Thames Valley University, Ealing, in London, as part of a modern languages degree, is used as a case study to illuminate the notion of the language learner as ethnographer and to illustrate how this idea can be realised within the constraints and opportunities of an undergraduate degree course. A somewhat similar approach has also been developed at university level (Jurasek, 1996), for upper secondary school level (Byram & Morgan et al., 1994; Baumgratz-Gangl, 1990), for teacher education purposes (Kane, 1991; Zarate, 1991), for lower secondary school students (Snow & Byram, 1997; Dark et al., 1997), and for younger learners in a bilingual setting (Heller, 1994). There are also interesting connections with the general idea of the student as ethnographer in a range of educational settings, not specifically concerned with second or foreign language learning (Heath, 1983; Egan-Robertson & Bloome, 1998).

The case study is focused on advanced language learners – undergraduates who spend a compulsory year abroad as part of an applied languages degree. Both the intellectual demands of the ethnography course and the level of linguistic and communicative competence required to undertake and write an extended ethnographic study in the foreign language pre-suppose a certain level of linguistic and educational sophistication. However, the experience of the project suggests it is clearly possible to adapt aspects of the ethnographic approach to upper secondary school level and to other levels, and we hope that this book will act as a stimulus for further creative adaptations. We leave the notion of 'advanced level' deliberately vague since there is no particular stage language learners must reach before they are ready to take on the ethnographic approach. Our experience and those of others (Jurasek, 1996) is that those students with the most advanced language skills do not necessarily undertake the most interesting ethnographic projects or produce the best ethnographic assignments.

Nonetheless, although there is no self-evident relationship between level of language skill and cultural learning, the central message of this book is that language and cultural learning are not separate areas of learning: cultural learning is language learning, and vice versa. Moreover, it is no accident that the cultural component of language learning should have begun to receive some attention at a time when issues of language and culture and their relation to notions of identity are being radically re-thought. At a practical level, the evidence of the case study presented in this book suggests that introducing an ethnographic approach can contribute to enhanced language learning.

Although the approach in this book focuses on modern language students and the period of residence abroad, we live in complex and turbulent times when cultural learning is an experience for everyone. The multilingual, multicultural environments which are typical of urban sites in late modernity provide a continuing source of intercultural contact and learning.

New Times

A group of writers within the tradition of cultural studies coined the expression 'new times' in their analysis of the dispersal, fragmentation and conflict experienced in the political, economic and cultural life at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. In the 'new times' in which we live, the old certainties around particular social class, ethnic, national and other groupings and identities have fallen apart. In their place are new alliances and the formation of new identities. As boundaries are crossed and new maps of social and cultural life are drawn and redrawn, so there is more turbulence, more ambivalence and more negotiation is needed.

This cultural analysis of change and difference in late modernity can be added to the widely reported changes in the economy, in communications and in the linguistic and cultural elements of urban societies (cf. Kress, 1985). The 'global village' and the internet superhighway have created networks of communication throughout the technological world. The market economy and the enterprise culture lead business to sell to ever more varied markets. And most fundamental of all, the increasingly multiethnic, multilingual urban communities which are a commonplace of the late twentieth century world create rich resources for encountering and learning about otherness (Hallam & Street, 2000). But they also produce conditions for marked social stratification and inequality. Issues of diversity and difference within power relations, of contested identities and of the need for tolerance and mutual understanding are the stuff of both everyday and academic discourse.

The quest for tolerance and an understanding of diversity are, of course, part of a general liberal ethic of harmony and equality. This is reflected in many recent language curricular statements and is seen, increasingly, as a necessary goal of language learning. The 'new times' studies add an intellectual analysis to the understanding of difference and otherness. In particular, the studies on 'race' and ethnicity (Bhabha, 1990; Hall, 1992) critique the stereotyping of national groups and the commonly held assumptions that national groups speak one language and have one culture. The idea of groups having fixed and essential characteristics are challenged as new solidarities within multilingual societies are formed (Street, 1993). The experience of living with difference as part of everyday life, of using ethnicity as a means of highlighting or down-playing a particular aspect of social identity, is a significant part of youth culture in most urban settings (Hewitt, 1986; Rampton, 1995).

One purpose of this book is to claim the experience of difference and dispersal as a central element in the process of learning for advanced language learners. Many language learners already speak several languages or are growing up in multilingual societies where language and ethnic differences are a part of youth culture. They can draw on these experiences in developing a foreign language, and as they interact more in the foreign language and with speakers and writers of it, so their own identities and sense of self may be further challenged. The traditional binary divide between 'them' and 'us', which may already be put in question by the multilingual society in which they live, comes under further pressure as they move towards bilingual competence.

The idea of new solidarities and of living with difference can, therefore, be extended to the experience of using the foreign language and interacting with those who speak it. Language-and-culture learning involves a repositioning of the self both intellectually and at the level of 'felt reality', the apprehension of relationships and material reality and their impact on us as thinking, feeling beings (Althusser, 1971). In this way, becoming part of another group's way of looking at the world, by learning some of their language varieties, combines more traditional priorities of cultural harmony with a more recent cultural and critical analysis of changing boundaries and identities in the 1990s and the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The global economy and the rapid pace of change in international and intranational communications have raised many questions about the use of a lingua franca. Many language students will be learning a new language in order to communicate with others who may be native speakers of it or who are also using it as a second or foreign language (Pennycook, 1994; Clyne, 1995). In contexts where a second language is used as a local lingua franca, for example in certain domains in Francophone Africa or the use of English in Southern India, there is a strong case for curricular content and textbooks which reflect styles of speaking and sociocultural knowledge appropriate to such contexts. But other learners are developing the foreign language in order to communicate internationally. Tying language to culture, it has been argued, is irrelevant in these contexts. The argument is that what learners need is a 'culture-free' language which can be used as a neutral tool with speakers from a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. We argue, here, that there is no such thing as a neutral culture-free language and that what students need is more cultural sensitivity and understanding, not less. In other words, for many language learners, one of the main goals is intercultural communicative competence.

The idea of 'interculturality' acknowledges that communication is always a cultural process and that communicating in a foreign (and in some contexts a second) language involves mediating and establishing relationships between one's own and other cultures. Byram (1997a) suggests that such mediation means that learners need a point of reference outside their own local practices in order to compare and contrast their own ways of interacting and signifying meaning with those outside their own social group. The issue is what points of reference should be chosen? In developing language learners as ethnographers, a range of different cultural contexts are used, selected on the basis of how well they illustrate the key concepts and methods of the course. For example, students may learn about the housewives in a small village in the Valloire region of France, about the system of patronage in southern Spain, or about the structure of meal times in a British working-class community. The goal is to develop 'critical cultural awareness' (Byram, 1997a) through a process of comparing and contrasting so that when learners come to use the foreign or second language as a lingua franca, they can acknowledge, and have some measure of understanding, that a common language does not iron out differences and may, indeed, cause further misunderstandings that do not come to light in a supposedly neutral code. Speakers bring their social identities and their learned ways of using the lingua franca to any intercultural encounter; they do not bring a neutral tool. For this reason, whatever the purpose of language learning may be, the cultural and social dimensions are an essential part.

To sum up, the conditions of late modernity require new qualities of the language learner and so a new curriculum, one in which intercultural communication and understanding are given priority and students develop intellectual tools to understand the 'cultural diaspora' (Hall, 1990) of which many are themselves a part. Not surprisingly, this is reflected in recent policy statements. The notion of 'cultural learning', 'cultural studies', 'sociocultural competence' and 'intercultural communication' are included in policy initiatives on language learning in the UK, in France and Germany and a number of other European countries, the USA, Canada and Australia, and in the documents of international bodies such as the Council of Europe, and UNESCO (for example, Delors, 1996; Standards for Foreign Language Learning, 1996; Stern, 1992; van Ek & Trim, 1991). Important though these statements are, realising them as practical action has only just begun. This book is a contribution towards that goal.

Language Learning as Social Practice

The increasing interest in the social and cultural aspects of language learning marks a new turn in theory and research on second language learning and second language acquisition (SLA). Language within the SLA research tradition has tended to mean grammar, and acquisition has been defined in cognitive and psycholinguistic terms (Ellis, 1994; Klein, 1984). Although there has been research on language use in social interaction, it is largely seen as a means of understanding aspects of the learners' linguistic code (Gass & Varonis, 1985; Hatch, 1983; Long, 1983). Recently, there has been more interest in pragmatic and sociocultural theories in SLA (Kasper, 1994; Lantolf & Pavlenko, 1995; Lantolf, 1999) and it may be that at least one strand of SLA will conceptualise the language learning process as a social practice. If this interest continues to develop, then the kind of theories of language learning which underpin this book will connect more closely to at least some approaches within SLA.

Some aspects of SLA have drawn on the social psychology literature. But the issues of social identity and 'acculturation' from this literature tend to deal either with the motivation of individual learners to acculturate or with generalisations about groups divorced from any 'insider' perspective on their social relations and interactions (Gardner, 1985; Giles & Byrne, 1982; Schumann, 1978). The central concern, therefore, with cognitive models of SLA and psychological models of integration has tended, until recently, to sideline language as social and cultural practice.

The assumption has been that what is important is what is going on in people's heads, as if language development was a private and individual achievement. Yet recent studies of language and literacy learning show it is a social endeavour, often most effective when it is the result of activities in actual situations. This 'situated learning' (Lave & Wenger, 1991) can be contrasted with much foreign language learning. Although survival skills are taught at basic and intermediate levels, at more advanced levels, the foreign language experience becomes increasingly cognitive. Students know a lot about French, German, English or Japanese but the learning no longer connects with the social practices of their everyday life in their first or dominant language. An obvious exception to this is communicative language teaching at advanced levels, to which we shall return in a later chapter. However, communicative approaches tend to take a sociolinguistic rather than a sociocultural perspective, focusing on language behaviour without considering the practices and knowledge which give meaning to this behaviour. So whether language learners are studying grammar, appropriate language use, translation, political institutions, the economy or the literature of the 'target' language and culture, there is little opportunity to relate these activities to their habits of thinking, feeling, interacting or valuing associated with their own everyday language(s) and communities. Using a foreign language is not experienced as a social practice until students find themselves in an environment where the language is all around them, usually in a foreign country.


Excerpted from "Language Learners as Ethnographers"
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Copyright © 2001 Celia Roberts, Michael Byram, Ana Barro, Shirley Jordan and Brian Street.
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Table of Contents

Part I Language Learning and Ethnography: Theory and Practice,
1 New Goals, 3,
2 Introducing Cultural Learning into the Language Curriculum, 18,
3 Theoretical Issues in Language and Cultural Practices, 44,
4 Representations, Discourses and Practices, 64,
5 Ethnography for Linguists, 88,
Part II The Ealing Ethnography Project: A Case Study,
6 Teaching Ethnography, 101,
7 Developing the Principles for an Ethnography Course, 116,
8 The Ethnography Class, 151,
9 The Student Ethnography Projects, 185,
10 'The Year Abroad': An Ethnographic Experience, 210,
11 Conclusions and New Perspectives, 229,
Bibliography, 248,
Index, 261,

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