In the 21st century the field of language teaching and learning has shifted from focusing on form and structure to give more attention to the integration of the culture of the target language. As meaning is usually created within a social context, culture is very important to understanding and interpreting words and sentences. As such, in order for language learners to effectively communicate with other speakers of the target language, they should not only master the language but also understand the culture of that language.
The questions of 1) whether we have experienced cross-cultural misunderstanding with respect to politeness, as well as 2) how to teach politeness and whose norms to teach, were raised in one of the classes a few weeks ago, but we did not have the chance to discuss that due to the lack of time. I kept thinking about it after class and would like to share my thoughts with you in this blog post.
It is wonderful how the same behaviour or situation is interpreted and perceived differently by different cultures and societies, and similarly, how the language used in any specific situation affects the way we interpret the meaning and the way we respond to it. It is known that some languages promote more formal levels of speech as an indicator of politeness when dealing with people. That makes it quite challenging for a second language speaker to know the ropes, because what is considered polite in one culture is not necessarily the same in another culture.
Having different cultural background from the host country’s cultural norms has put this issue into strong relief for me. Upon my arrival to Canada, I felt confused and not able to distinguish what is considered polite and what is not. For example, I was not always clear about when I should be formal and when informality was acceptable. Similarly, I did not always know when I should be direct and when it is better to be less direct. I believe that people in my culture tend to be less formal and more direct in more situations than people in North American culture, as far as my experience indicates.
Over time and with continued interaction with the Canadian people, I have started to understand some of the norms and the rules with respect to politeness. However, it can be hard for me to adapt to them. Sometimes even when I know what would be considered most polite in this society, I find it hard to do; this is especially true when the Canadian politeness rules conflict with the politeness rules in my culture.
On the one hand, I think it is really important for language teachers to present the topic of politeness among the other cultural subjects their students learn. These rules should be presented from the perspective of the culture of the target language as well as draw contrasts between these rules and those of other cultures. This is important in order to help students to develop a cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity.
On the other hand, since there is no universal standard for politeness, I believe that it is crucial for teachers to learn about their students’ cultural background in order to understand the behaviour of their students which will help teachers know how to best deal with their students. For example, language teachers might be trying to engage their students in class and get a lot of feedback from them, or discussion. However, when I was taking an ESL class, one of the teachers asked us to be very involved in the discussion and interrupt her any time with questions. One of the students, who was from Japan, however, told the class that this was very difficult for him (especially interrupting the teacher) because this was not part of his culture, and is the kind of thing that would be considered very rude in Japan.
In the end, I wonder how practical it is for teachers to learn about the different cultures of their students? Do you have any examples in mind of cross-cultural misunderstandings based on different politeness rules?