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Culture In Intercultural Communication In College English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3326 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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It is widely accepted that culture is one of important components of language teaching and learning. Particularly, culture becomes a key issue in ELT (English Language Teaching) when communicative approach becomes worldwide popular while traditional teaching approaches (mainly form-focused approach) are widely criticized and reexamined. With the appearance of numerous documents concerning the intercultural communication and language teaching (e.g. Sowden 2007; Dlaska 2000; Gudykunst ed. 2003; Hall, 2002; Byram and Esarte-Sarries 1990; Kramsch 1993), educators and instructors have been increasingly aware of the important role of culture in language classroom. Having a glance at textbooks and other teaching materials in markets in China, we can find that western cultures especially the American and English cultures are largely represented and introduced in these English learning materials. Professional observations also show that students’ communicative competence in English has been highly improved by reinforcing the teaching of cultural knowledge of English world, the introduction of advanced teaching approaches such as CLT (communicative language teaching) and TBI (task-based instruction), and the aid of multi-media technology.

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However, this paper does not argue the necessity of integrating culture in language teaching, nor how to teach culture to promote foreign language learning. It aims to explore a common phenomenon existing in intercultural communication in China, that is, the speechlessness of Chinese native culture. By this it means that students, especially Chinese college students can express western cultures in English well but show their incompetence ‘in presenting the cream of their native cultures, such as Confucianism and Taoism when inquired by curious foreigners, which is by no means helpful to successful intercultural communication’ (Zhou 2009, 7). It is beyond the reason of learners’ linguistic level, but caused by a long-term asymmetrical cultural education in English language acquisition. Therefore, it is meaningful to analyze the factors causing this issue by focusing primarily on the aspects of economy, teaching materials, testing, and teacher. Moreover, some suggestions and pedagogical implications will be presented. Before the reasons are examined, we need to look at some theoretical knowledge in terms of intercultural communication.

Theoretical knowledge of intercultural communication

cultural and language

The term culture has been defined variably from different perspectives of disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology and ethnology. According to Sowden (2007, 305), ‘Traditionally, the term culture was used in an anthropological sense to refer to a collection of social, artistic, and intellectual traditions associated historically with a particular social, ethnic organisational group.’ Therefore, culture is associated with social not individuals. By this, we often refer to so called Chinese cultural, Indian culture, American culture or Muslim culture and the like. Another characteristics of culture is that it is inheritable. But how can people successfully maintain and inherit culture? One important means or instrument is language. Language could be treated as the carrier of culture because ‘communication is rarely culture-free’ (Cortazzi and Jin 1999, 197). Language and culture is so inseparable intrinsically that learning a language involves the learning of cultural knowledge and differences in beliefs, values, norms, social customs, experiences, notions of time, and concepts of the universe, all of which contribute to intercultural communication.

Intercultural communicative competence

Gudykunst (2003, 163) refers intercultural communication as ‘communication between people from different national cultures’. He draws a distinction between intercultural communication and cross-cultural communication. The latter ‘involves comparisons of communication across cultures’ (2003, 1). However, the theories of the two concepts are so similar that linguists normally regard cross-cultural communication (the name of early stage) as intercultural communication (the popular name of present). As a matter of fact, the Chinese translation of both terms is the same thing.

The purpose of integrating culture in language teaching is primarily to develop learners’ intercultural communicative competence which has been the focus of a number of studies. Chen and Starosta (1998, 241) define intercultural communicative competence as ‘the ability to effectively and appropriately execute communication behaviours to elicit a desired response in a specific environment’. The ‘specific environment’ can be understood as to involve the interlocutors who come from different countries or ethnic groups and speak different languages. The components of intercultural competence include ‘knowledge, skills and attitudes, complemented by the values one holds because of one’s belonging to a number of social groups, values which are part of one’s belonging to a given society’ according to Byram and Stevens (2001, 5). Knowledge, the core of intercultural competence, is referred to ‘our awareness or understanding of requisite information and actions to be interculturally competent’ (Gudykunst 2003, 195). The ‘requisite information’ should entail the target cultural knowledge and source cultural knowledge (one’s native cultures) as well.

The speechlessness of Chinese native cultures

In foreign language teaching, source cultures are often neglected in classroom since learners are assumed to know their native cultures well by growing up in that context. However, knowing one’s native cultures does not essentially know how to express them fluently in target language, especially when the topic concerns a deep discussion of a particular culture. For instance, more and more foreigners have visited China and always showed their curiosity in Confucianism or Mencius thoughts with which Chinese people, the educated and uneducated, are very familiar. They come and enquiry these Chinese classical cultures, but often leave with some disappointment or even confusions with different versions of answers. Very few teachers in universities can explain clearly these questions in English even if their spoken English level is high enough to talk about Shakespeare, not alone their students. This embarrassing situation, which is called the ‘aphasia of Chinese native culture’ by Professor Cong (2000), is due to the asymmetrical cultural input in foreign language teaching.

More and more instructors and linguists in China have been aware of the serious issue in foreign language teaching. For example, Zhou (2009) conducts a survey to investigate English-major students’ intercultural communicative competence in English in Jiangsu University in China. Through interviews and questionnaires, she finds that ‘the majority of students seemed to have neutral attitudes towards English society’, which means that there is ‘no significant over-evaluation of western culture’ (2009, 9). However, 68% students ‘declared they found most difficulties to express [Chinese culture] in English (2009, 9). Furthermore, over half of students chose English style (i.e. ‘westernized discourse principles and patterns’) to carry out intercultural communication (2009, 10). More depressing statistics is that 79% and 82% informants ‘were usually unable to describe Confucianism and Taoism’ respectively (2009, 10). Confucianism and Taoism are part of the most common cultures in China. The reason for the shocking results could be that ‘English-culture-oriented English learning marginalized [students’] native culture’ while they constructed themselves ‘a sound framework of English cultures’ through long-term English learning(2009, 10). Zhou’s conclusions are backed up by other relevant documents, such as Zhan (2003), Zhan, Mi and Sun (2009) and Cong (2000).

Wei (2005, 55) asserts that Chinese culture should be well integrated with TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) in English learning classroom so that it ‘may help overcome the difficulties that can not be overcome in traditional English teaching’. The difficulties can be interpreted that students feel not confident with their intercultural communicative competence when they fail to express Chinese culture in English fluently, which greatly demotivates their English learning. Two overt negative effects of the speechlessness of Chinese native culture can be observed easily. One is that students’ intercultural communicative competence would be prevented to further development. The other one is that some misunderstandings on Chinese culture could be caused by different learners’ inaccurate interpretations according to Cong (2000).

Analysis of factors

Economic factor

Since the implementing of reforming and opening policy, the development of economy in China has been the focus. Thus, the intercultural communication has been accelerated. In order to do business with foreign countries, the needs of knowing English language and its cultures are crucially increasing. To some extent, the learning of English is the learning of cultures of English-speaking countries. The media has magnificently advertised or introduced western cultures entailing the products, films (especially Hollywood movies), customs, religion beliefs, literature, fast food culture such as McDonald’s and KFC. Under such a context, more and more Chinese students are going abroad to further study the advanced science and technology in developed countries, such as U.S.A, the UK and other European countries, Australian, Canada and Japan. When some of these students finish their study and come back to China, they have constructed a framework of foreign cultures and thoughts. One of their contributions to Chinese society is to make more Chinese people know better about developed countries. Gradually, those who can speak English and talk about the cultures of foreign countries have been highly admired and respected. Meanwhile they may have more opportunities and advantages in employment and career development.

Cultures of English-speaking countries, especially America, have been highly valued in China. Although China is still far from the threaten of western cultural imperialism which is referred to as ‘the exalting and spreading of values and habits – a practice in which economic power plays an instrumental role’ by Tomlinson (1991, 3), the influence of economic power from America and other developed countries has dramatically contributed to the wide spread of their cultures in China. The economic strengths of developed countries have decided the predominant role of their cultures in intercultural communication. It follows that Chinese culture has been marginalized, even ignored when Chinese people communicate with foreigners in English.

Teaching materials

The education usually serves the development of economy. College English teaching and learning has also been influenced significantly by the development of unbalanced intercultural communication in China. To examine this, textbooks can be regarded as mirrors as Cortazzi and Jin (1999, 199) argue that ‘a textbook can be a teacher, in the sense that it contains material that is intended to instruct students directly about English-speaking cultures’. For a long term, teaching materials for tertiary English language teaching, primarily the textbooks, have been designed and developed with a heavy load of target cultures in China. We will have a close look at the teaching topics in a set of college English textbooks named New Horizon College English (henceforth NHCE) which have been employed in the majority of universities for non-English major undergraduates presently in China.

NHCE ‘is designed to conform to the requirements set forth by the National College English Teaching Syllabus’ according to the introduction of NHCE on its website. NHCE is a set of comprehensive textbooks covering four skills and containing four levels. Printed books, CD-ROM and online materials are available for both classroom teaching and self-study. In each Reading and Writing Textbook of NHCE, there are ten units and three reading articles in each unit which focuses on specific topics. The following table is about the categories of topics in each unit in Reading and Writing Textbook 3 of NHCE.

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The categories of culture in the table above follow Cortazzi and Jin’s (1999) classification of culture in intercultural communication except ‘neutral culture’ item. Target culture here refers to the topics concerning social problems, customs, holidays, personal experiences, laws, public services (such as transportation and medical service), particular buildings and the like which are all related to English-speaking counties. The source culture concerns contents on Chinese culture. The neutral culture is related to the topics on scientific knowledge such as earthquake, nature, environmental protection, medicine and diseases, and geography. Only two topics in Unit 3 are not included. One is about the comparison of decision making between western and Japanese people; the other is about Japanese culture, which could be classified to international culture according to Cortazzi and Jin (1999). As the table illustrates, in this book over half of thirty topics belong to target culture. Twelve of thirty topics are about neutral culture. It is depressing to find that no topic is related to Chinese native culture. It seems that the source culture in this book has been completely neglected deliberately. Because of the size of this paper, the other three textbooks would not be examined closely. Having a glance at them, very few contents are found to be connected to Chinese culture. Therefore we can assume that the serious asymmetrical cultural input would inevitably result in college students’ incompetence in expressing their native culture in intercultural communication.

Textbook plays a crucial role in college English classroom as Cortazzi and Jin (1999, 199) argue that ‘for many teachers the textbook remains the major source of cultural content, because in their situation supplementary materials on target cultures are simply not available’. To be worse, teaching materials on source cultures are much less available in China.


According to Tomlinson’s (2005, 39) view, the purpose of language testing is to ‘provide opportunities for learning’ both for learners and professionals. In this sense, testing can promote learning in the process that learners prepare for tests. For example, learners would spend more time and energy on their homework and reviewing possible content seriously. Teachers would prepare their lessons more thoroughly. Therefore, language testing is often taken as a means to drive learners to study; no matter they enjoy or suffer. Alderson and Wall (1993, 115) pointed out that ‘tests are held to be powerful determiners of what happens in classrooms’. By this, they mean testing could cause washback effects, positive and negative. Their views can be proved true with the evidence of CET (College English Test) which is a national wide test for all non-English major undergraduates in China.

CET is divided in to six bands. But usually, only Band 4 and Band 6 are run twice a year, and nearly all relevant students are encouraged to take it. Usually, teachers and students call it CET4 or 6. The certificate of CET has been crucially important for students because many employers take it as a major means to measure job interviewees’ English level. Those who passed CET6 might have more employment opportunities than those who just passed CET4. The test is so important that it has influenced what and how to teach in classrooms. Therefore, it is necessary for us to examine what is to be tested in the papers of CET.

Take CET4 Paper December 2009 as an example. This paper is composed of six parts: writing, two parts of reading comprehension (read in skimming and in depth), listening, close and translation. Because of the limitation of size of this paper, only five passages for reading comprehension and close questions will be examined (see Appendix 1). The topic of each passage will be classified into three categories as discussed in Table 1 above. The topic of passage one, about views on the value of financial aid in several universities in America, is classified to target culture. Passage two is related to neutral culture, which is about a scientific study on the influence of parents’ speeches to their children’s. Passage three argues about black women’s image in America and the expectations for American persistent Obama’s wife. Passage four discusses the importance of fund-raising to heads of some universities in Europe and America. Passage five, arguing the importance of investigation into the education of old people, is about neutral culture. No topic concerning Chinese culture is detected in the five passages. For the whole paper, only writing task is about creating green campus which sounds close to students’ life.

CET Papers are designed based on textbooks for college English, such as NHCE and New College English. The tests and textbooks, interacting each other, eventually, decide what would happen in classrooms. Other well-know tests such as IELTS (International English Language Testing System) and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) which have great influence in academic English education in China, are also based on target cultures.

Implications and conclusion

So far, the intercultural communication in China has largely relied on the input of target and neutral cultures other than the balanced input of Chinese and foreign cultures, which has resulted in the speechlessness of Chinese native culture in intercultural communication. In English language teaching and learning, students’ are often required to adapt to target culture but ignore that intercultural communication requires a two-way communication. That is, Chinese people should study and adapt to foreign cultures, meanwhile, they should transmit and spread Chinese cultures so that more and more foreigners would know China and its cultures better, which could benefit both China and foreign countries. This is the really purpose of intercultural communication. Therefore, Chinese culture should be integrated into EFL classroom. Designers of language teaching materials should enhance their awareness of the balanced intercultural communication, including the comparison of both target culture and source culture.

To sum up, the paper has reviewed the relationship between culture, language and intercultural communicative competence. It has also fully discussed the major factors causing the speechlessness of Chinese native culture in intercultural communication. However, other possible factors such as teacher, teaching approaches and education policies have not been examined. Some instructors also claim that teaching Chinese cultures in English should be regarded as an important task in foreign language instruction in future. However, what kind of Chinese culture should be taught and how? To answer this question, more empirical researches should be carried out.

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