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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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The term ‘subtext’ itself offered an attractive starting point. Students were drawn to the notion that they would be uncovering potentially hidden meanings, ‘reading between the lines’, unveiling the subliminal. Such skills sounded not only practical, but mildly subversive as well. Using undergraduate textbooks from Ronald Carter’s and Angela Goddard’s Intertext Series, designed inclusively for native and non-native learners alike, we began to build up a glossary of terms: narrattee/narrator, connotation/denotation, sign and signifier, intertexuality, interpretive community, and so on. Students were given a detailed syllabus of weekly topics and were asked to use Internet or print sources to collect, if possible, two similar ‘real world’ texts, one Irish and one from their native language, which reflected the discourse principle or linguistic device under consideration that week. They were to provide a gist translation of the foreign text for the benefit of the class. We began with advertisements and our project was twofold: we sought to analyse the various linguistic components of each ad, and to note the ways in which it imbibed some aspect of culture or ideology, two terms which in themselves prompted much critical analysis.

Over time, the group became highly adept at ‘unpacking’ the ideological content of any given ad and then considering how that content depended upon the shared values of a particular interpretive community (such as a nation, a culture, or a sub-culture) to achieve its aims. Interest levels were high, not only because so many ads are clever and engaging, but also because, as Chi-Kim Cheung convincingly argues in ‘The Use of Popular Culture as a Stimulus to Motivate Secondary Students’ English Learning in Hong Kong’, authentic popular material, such as songs and advertisements, does indeed connect with students’ own personal and social identities and prompt satisfaction (Cheung 2001: 60).

My Burundian student, for instance, was especially keen to analyse the ways in which advertisers not only ascertain but also seek to shape African consumer values in order to exploit them. In an African political and business magazine, written in French, he found a Western Union ad bearing the caption, ‘Millions of people trust us to send money home’. Our task that week was to consider the ways in which advertisements use carefully chosen ‘signifiers’ to appeal to their ‘implied readers’. The Western Union ad showed an African man’s hand holding an open wallet containing a photo of a young, smiling African woman in native head-dress, holding on her knee a smiling African boy in Western clothing. In my student’s end-of-term portfolio, he wrote:

The ad did perfectly what it was intended to do. The picture suggests a scene that catches the reality of many Africans living in Europe. The way I quickly interacted with the picture was by seeing the hand holding the wallet, which signifies money, as mine, and the woman and child in the photo inside the wallet as direct members of my family, to whom I will one day be expected to send money. The mother and child’s smiles are symbols of how the money sent by her man from Europe through Western Union safely reached its destination. Through the traditional head-dress and the boy’s western clothing, the photo signifies the desire of many Africans to acquire western wealth, while still keeping the old customs. The woman’s smile is a visual sign confirming that she received the money, as is her clothing, which looks expensive. Together the mother and child signify family. This advert was designed to appeal to African men abroad. They are the implied readers. Many African cultures still hold the man as the breadwinner. It is the man who is supposed to be in Europe, working and sending money to his family (wife and children and parents) back in Africa. [5]

In another ad for the magazine Business and Finance aimed, by contrast, at an Irish financially minded readership, the same student identified the photo of a tiger as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ of the Irish economy and noted how the caption, ‘How many lives does he have left?’, used a widely known but still culturally specific idiom (about cats having nine lives) to prompt anxiety in an implied Irish reader who may fear an end to the current economic boom.

In his bi-culturally informed but, of course, still subjective opinion, my student argued that there is something in the aspirational African character that responds to a message of hope or optimism, such as in the Western Union ad, and something in the upwardly mobile Irish character that is easily made fretful. Perhaps. But more importantly, the contrastive approach he took to the two ads helped to foster a wider classroom debate about cultural difference, and about the ways in which creators of texts seek to determine their readers’ viewpoints. In keeping with that wider debate, one of the French students later used the topic of ‘point of view’ to demonstrate how a progressive French Insurance Company sought to challenge the reader’s perspective with an ad caption that read, ‘Heterosexual couples, the MAIF insures you too’. She noted how the ad used irony to undermine widespread societal assumptions about sexual norms, and she asked the class to consider whether such an ad would have been effective in an Irish context. [6]

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