Response to Lo Bianco (2003): Culture – Visible, Invisible, and Multiple

This post is from a course that I took. I had to make blog posts for the course and I decided to move the posts over here when the course finished.

Chapter 2 of:
Lo Bianco, J., & Crozet, C. (Eds.). (2003). Teaching invisible culture: Classroom practice and theory. Melbourne: Language Australia Ltd.

The phrase that had the most impact on me in this chapter was “learning about the culture of another society is the highest purpose of language teaching” (p. 11). This is in line with the idea that intercultural language learning should be conducted in a way that teaches students to “use language in culturally aware and sensitive ways” (ALPLP, p. 2).

While my experiences in Japan have helped me understand the importance of learning the language as a gateway to learning about the culture, before taking this subject, I hadn’t made the shift in my mind towards thinking about the language learning class as the primary conduit for learning about culture, and therefore, developing a broad international mindset. I had a tendency to think of culture as something that you teach when, and if, you have time after the “real” lesson rather than something that warranted the same amount of attention as grammar and communication skills. This represents a real shift in my thinking.

When I think back to my experiences learning French in grade school, I can now see that my classes lacked a cultural foundation. They mainly focused on grammar and I can’t recall the textbook even having short blurbs about Quebecois or French culture. I now recognize this as a failure of that method of teaching, and will be careful not to replicate that in my own classroom.

I think there is an important distinction to be made between the high culture Matthew Arnold defines as “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (p. 15) and the kind of culture that we need to grapple with in language classes. While my Japanese classes should certainly include discussions of Noh theatre and tea ceremony, they should also include a look at what the average Japanese person might eat for dinner, or how an enkai (party) is likely to play out.

While talking about various Japanese customs and mannerisms, however, I believe it is important to emphasize the similarities over the differences. I learned about the Freudian expression “the narcissism of the small difference” from a blog post on why Americans should seek to work overseas. I think this phrase does a good job of capturing the average person’s disproportionate level of incredulity over the little things that people from other cultures might do differently. After living abroad for less than a year, I remember thinking to myself that it was the similarities that were more remarkable. Japanese people have their own internally consistent understanding of the world and it is as valid and relevant to them as my worldview is to me. I want to spend some time thinking about how I can pass on this kind of thinking to my students. Most of the students will probably not have had the chance to travel abroad for extended periods of time by the time they come to my class, so I would like to reflect on how I can help them get over this “narcissism of the small difference” through their language learning.

This chapter also mentions the idea of emic (insider) and etic (outsider) understandings of experience (p. 18). This concept of there being different interpretations of a particular situation or experience depending on whether you are an insider or an outsider is very important. If students can develop an understanding of this concept, they will be better equipped to resist “othering” people from different cultures. I need to consider ways to teach students how to develop an “emic eye” for looking at Japanese culture.

Another statement that I appreciated from this text is:

Linguistics often ignores culture, inter-cultural study often ignores language, and both linguistics and inter-culturalism often ignore teaching (p. 27).

These words resonated with me because I have a background in linguistics, I have a good understanding of inter-culturalism, I have a reasonable grasp on a foreign language (Japanese), and I am a teacher, and yet I had not considered the intersection of these domains. For shame!

I believe that the way forward is to incorporate both linguistic and socio-cultural aspects (p. 33) into the learning objectives of my lessons. I remember meeting a Japanese man who had excellent spoken English, but who managed to annoy almost every English speaker he met because he did not have a good understanding of how the culture of English speakers differed from his own. On the other hand, I have a good Japanese friend who has very a very low level of English, but who manages to communicate very well with English speakers due to his keen observance of the socio-cultural aspects of the interactions between his English-speaking friends. In designing my lessons, I need to remember the importance of the socio-cultural aspects of language and not relegate them to the “if-time” corner of my lesson plans.

Also referred to:

Asian Languages Professional Learning Project (ALPLP). Getting started with intercultural language learning: A resource for schools. Retrieved April 15, 2010, from