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Discourse analysis as an approach to intercultural competence in the Advanced EFL classroom


Author - Dr Sue Norton


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To my own intellectual delight, I have recently discovered the truth of what researchers such as Michael McCarthy, Ronald Carter, and others have suggested extensively: that the Advanced EFL classroom is an excellent forum for teaching discourse analysis. [2] Since discourse analysis hones critical thinking skills, it offers language learners useful, practical, and, in indirect ways, perhaps even marketable skills. [3] It need not, in other words, be thought of as a strictly ‘academic’ or theoretical subject area, beyond the remit of the EFL classroom, since it clearly offers those familiar with its tools highly concrete ways of interpreting contemporary culture and its signs. Learning to negotiate the complex and mixed messages of the media, for instance, is certainly practical. Equally so is learning to identify the ideological slant of a newspaper or magazine article, or to detect racial or sexual bias in a seemingly innocuous business report. Indeed, such linguistic ‘undercover’ work is especially useful and suitable to those foreign language students who are learning to function in a target culture, not just acquire a target language. I began teaching elementary aspects of discourse analysis [4] to EFL university students in Ireland, mostly because necessity is the mother of invention. I lecture on what is known as the Joint Degree in International Business and Language at Dublin Institute of Technology. It is comprised of four ‘major language streams’ – French, German, Spanish, and, most recently, English. Students in the second year of the degree take a course in translation, but because the EFL students come from multiple language backgrounds, they share no L1 on which to base translation practice. Thus a kind of compromise course was needed, and what emerged was a hastily formulated but ultimately satisfying alternative called ‘cultural translation’ which, if custom tailored, might easily lend itself to any number of other learning contexts.

The students concerned – four French, four Austrian, one Basque, one Swedish, and one Burundian – were disappointed at the loss of a proper translation course and were, for a while, rather disgruntled. As business students they are inclined to favour the acquisition of skills with a clearly practical edge, such as, quite sensibly, translation. They are disinclined to embrace anything seemingly abstract or ‘academic’. Thus I was careful not to use the phrase ‘discourse analysis’ until I had warmed them to the idea that, while this next-best-thing course would not help them to mediate between languages (except incidentally), it would (I hoped) help them to mediate effectively between cultures. That is, it would help them to mediate between their home cultures (France, Burundi, etc.) and their host culture (Ireland). The plan was, over the course of two terms, to examine samples of written discourse drawn from both ‘host’ and ‘home’ cultures and, applying the tools of discourse analysis even-handedly to each, to consider not just their textual features, but their sub-textual ones.

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