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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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Benefits of the course

One of the immediate benefits of a course such as cultural translation is that learners, without really trying very hard, simply acquire a small wealth of knowledge on the current affairs and cultural habits of other nations. They do so through their Internet culling, their advertisement collections, their scanning of international newspapers, their class presentations, and their many informal discussions about the happenings and habits of other countries. Their intercultural awareness (and that of their lecturer) just grows and grows.

Another benefit of such a course, with its emphasis on critical thinking skills, is that what learners take away from it transcends their immediate use for the language. Given the current debates taking place in English Language Teaching (ELT), perhaps this is no small payoff. As emerged at the IATEFL Conference in 2001, there are many of us who are unsure about how to proceed in the classroom without unconsciously imposing Anglo-centric values on our learners, especially if we come from Anglo-centric backgrounds ourselves or find ourselves using Anglo-centric text materials, as is often the case. And then there are also a number of us who believe that the sooner we manage to involve our students in Anglo-centric modes of thought, the better off they will be since so much of the world’s business and cultural transactions take place through English. Whatever our orientation, it is probably safe to say that most of us wish our students to think and speak critically and reflectively, not just to think and speak English. So by offering them the more-or-less ‘neutral’ tools of discourse analysis, we give them the practical skills and intellectual resources to negotiate the ideological undertow of written English discourse and, indeed, of discourse in any language. It’s a complex world out there. They will thank us for it.

And who knows? We may make converts of them all. We are very well placed to do so. At an address to participants at a Modern Language Association Conference in 1999, John Romano, a former English professor and current television screenwriter, made a plea to academics in literary studies to widen their professional briefs by taking their pedagogy outside the ivory tower. He argued:

The indefinable sophistication about language and culture that an education in the humanities develops is exactly what’s lacking in the public discourse. As you [academics] get smarter and smarter in your quarterly journals, more skeptical of current pieties, more deft in interpreting the culture through its signs, the public is getting dumber, intellectually clumsier, more naïve about just the same sort of things. This is television’s fault, surely, but it is also yours: the fault of those who might usefully be addressing the public and instead are locked in conversation with one another.

(Franklin 1999: 35)

Many of us in ELT are, tactically speaking, so much better situated than our colleagues in the Academy proper. Our learners are not, in most instances, receiving an education in English literature or linguistics. They are probably not receiving an arts or humanities education at all. Their motivations for learning English are likely to be ‘practical’ and oriented towards coping with the world at large and with the business-related expectations of a global economy. This is likely to be true whether our learners are adolescents, young adults, or working professionals. They are, as Romano says, ‘the public’, and we, therefore, have such a golden opportunity. When we choose to deliver advanced English language instruction in ways that are not merely communicative or transactional, but which prompt or reinforce critical, reflective, or analytical thought, we are reaching those who might otherwise have received more narrowly utilitarian types of education. We are reaching those who have chosen the self-classed ‘practical’ disciplines of Business, Engineering, Computer Science, and so on. We are reaching many of those who, like my business students in the cultural translation class, insist on the purely functional, and who just don’t know yet how ‘functional’ certain branches of the arts and humanities can be. Despite its fairly artsy origins, discourse analysis has plenty of utilitarian aspects all its own, especially for language learners. And for those of us who find a suitable context in which to teach it, it offers rich rewards as well.

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