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 3 of:
Lo Bianco, J., & Crozet, C. (Eds.). (2003). Teaching invisible culture: Classroom practice and theory. Melbourne: Language Australia Ltd.
As Lo Bianco mentions in Chapter 2 of this book, due to the complexity of defining culture, teachers can make the mistake of thinking that culture is inherently unteachable (p. 30). Crozet seeks to contradict this thinking by offering a framework that teachers can use to broach the topic of culture with their students. By introducing this framework at the beginning of the year, teachers can refer back to it whenever a point of cultural contention comes up. Asking students to map themselves and their own culture in terms of a spectrum which includes both their culture and the foreign culture seems to be a good way to help students (and teachers) avoid the tendency to “other” the foreign culture.
The five axes that Crozet proposes are:
- importance of speaking
- approaches to personal relationships
- approaches to understanding politeness
- level of ritualization
- expression of emotions and feelings
At the end of the chapter, Crozet quotes Hymes in saying “The key to understanding language in context is to start not with language but with context” (p. 48). This line of thinking has helped me come up with the idea of flipping my language classes to focus on the socio-cultural contexts in which my students will use Japanese rather than sticking slavishly to a grammatical or even communicative curriculum.
To that end, here are my interpretations of how English and Japanese compare and some ideas of how I could include use these elements to create “context” in my Japanese classes.
1. Importance of Speaking
I would say that (Canadian) English has a fairly high acceptance of verbosity and that Japanese has a lower acceptance. It is common for foreign English teachers in Japan to be frustrated at students’ inability to express themselves — in English or Japanese. English culture values opinions, and chattiness is thought of as a generally positive trait (to an extent), whereas a more reserved approach is thought of as desirable in Japan. One way that I could approach this issue when teaching Japanese would be to have students explore how pronouns are used differently in the two languages. For example, the pronoun “I” is very common in English, but the word “watashi”, which is its semantic pair in Japanese, is not as commonly used. We could also look at how opinions are expressed in both languages (the topic of my unit plan in Assessment 1). Japanese also tolerates longer periods of silence between utterances so this is something that could be explicitly taught in the language class.
2. Approaches to Personal Relationships
I would say that Japanese culture values distance, hierarchy, and consensus. Canadian English culture values proximity, equality, and consensus. There are many topics that lend themselves to the discussion of personal relationships in Japanese culture. In particular, I could introduce the ideas of distance and hierarchy when teaching about the polite form vs. the plain form of verbs. I could also talk about the idea of “yobi-sute”, or leaving off honorifics such as “san” or “chan” when addressing someone. Consensus can be broached when introducing the particle “ne” that goes at the end of the sentence to solicit approval.
3. Approaches to Understanding Politeness
Japanese culture is very sensitive to politeness and the concept of “face”. I would say that Canadian English culture is less worried about protecting the face of others and more worried about protecting its own face. In the Japanese language classroom, the topics of politeness and face can be addressed in classes about keigo (polite form — used to raise the other person up) and kenjougo (humble form — used to lower oneself down). There could also be a class on how to flatter people and how to accept compliments, including a talk about how it can be perceived as unseemly to be overly praiseful of people in your own circle (e.g. your husband, your children, etc.).
4. Level of Ritualization
Japanese culture has a high degree of ritualization and Canadian English culture values a much lower level of ritualization. In the language class, we can discuss this when learning new set expressions such as “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (please) and “shitsurei shimasu” (excuse me). These expressions are used at specific times in specific contexts and for someone NOT to use them when they are expected can be jarring for Japanese speakers. On the other hand, English values creativity in expression, so people in my culture have a tendency to try to be funny or creative in their interactions. This presents problems for Japanese learners of English who want to know THE set expression for particular situations and find themselves disappointed to find out that there are no set expressions. It can also be difficult for English learners of Japanese to resist the urge to be creative and just say what is expected of them.
An example of how this works in the two cultures can be explained by talking about funerals in the two cultures. There is a set expression for conveying grief at a funeral in Japanese (go shuushou sama), whereas mourners are expected to come up with their own individual way of expressing empathy with the family of the deceased in Canadian English. (It is fine to say, “I’m sorry for your loss”, but it is not fine for everyone in the whole room to use exactly that expression every time.)
5. Expression of Emotions and Feelings
I would say that Japanese culture has a low degree of emotional ethos and that Canadian English culture has a slightly higher (but not extremely high) degree of emotional ethos. This can come up when discussing relationships in Japanese. When students learn how to say “I love you”, they will discover various limits to displaying emotions in Japanese culture.
I can also relate the anecdote of being called “childish” by my Japanese homestay sister. She said that when I first arrived in Japan, I was childish because I seemed to be either really happy or really angry all the time, and not able to keep my emotions on a more even keel. I believe that she was basing her evaluation on my conversation style, which is quite animated and expressive. Eventually, I learned to be more reserved in my talking style (at least sometimes!), so that, in her opinion, showed that I grew up, or started acting more like a proper adult.
Of course, it is important for me not to let this framework serve as a structure to hang stereotypes on. Whenever the topic of culture is introduced, I need to remember not to focus on the differences, but on the similarities, in an effort not to inadvertently teach students to “other” Japanese people and culture. The most important point of including culture in language classes is to make students more culturally sensitive, not less so.