Week10.Articulating.the.relationship_1997_

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Unformatted text preview: Articulating the Relationship Between Language, Literature, and Culture: Toward a New Agenda for Foreign Language Teaching and Research DANIEL SHANAHAN Department of English Groups HEC 78351 fauyenjosm France Email: shanohrmfibgwsmtp hegfir Today, uniVersity teachers of foreign language (FL) in the US. face a pedagogical envirorr merit in which two camps have developed, one basing its emphasis on communicative competence, the other on the importance of exposure to culture and, especially, literature. The reliance of the former on data from empirical studies often conflicts with the feelings of the latter that nonquantitative, intuitional a5pects of language learning are essential to language acquisition. However, much research into the role of culture and literature in language learning remains to be done so that these feelings may be articulated and applied systematically to the development of materials, syllabi, and curricula. Areas in which such articulation might take place include: (a) the extent to which language itself is laden with affect that may be catalyzed as an inducement to learning; (b) the extent to which the affective element is embedded in the nature of symbolic expression—and thus metaphor, myth, and literature; (c) the specific ways in which language and literature may encode culture and have an affective impact on learners in the classroom. Research already exists that lends itself to a close examination of these areas. By taking advantage of that research. FL teaching in the US. could establish the importance of literature and culture in the language classroom in ways that would solidify its role in an environment fraught. with transformation and change. IN AN EXCEPTIONALLY THOUGHTFUI. AR- ticle published in the ADFI. Bulletin in the Win— ter of 1993, Henning attempted to confront what may be one of the most pervasive and yet perennially unresolved dilemmas faced by uni, versity teachers of foreign language (FL) in the U.S. today.-i The complexity of this dilemma is revealed by the difficulty one has in stating it in a satisfactory way. Formulated by a management The Modem Languagajtmmat, 81, ii (1997') 00263902/97/1647174 $1.50/U @1997 The Modern Langimgejtmrmn’ professor, it. might go something like “How can FL departments justify offering literature courses when our students can‘t speak the lan— guagc well enough to carry on a routine set of business negotiations?“ Formulated by a re, searcher in applied linguistics, the question might be “What does literature contribute to language learning when communicative com— petence must clearly be our goal?” Expressed by a member of a F1. department whose degree work was in literary studies, one might hear any/7 thing front “Why can‘t these people see that literature is as central to language learning as management vocabulary and rlozc tests?" to ”Should [ go on heating my head against this Hamel .S't'irmafian wall or take my brother’s offer to join his real estate firm?"2 All these questions are, of course, over— simplified characterinations of the more exi treme positions in the debate. that we are trying to desm'ibe.‘ However, I doubt that anyone fa- miliar with the debate would fail to recognize the tendencies and biases that each characteri~ zal‘ion represents. Moreover, it is revealing that all the questions asked in these characteriza- tions (except, perhaps, for the last) are rhetorii cal, for it is quite clear that the debate has at least the undercurrent of adversarial perspec- tives, well staked-out territory, and, as is often the case in crossidisciplinary disputes, conflict— ing premises, 'l'hose premises will be discussed later in this article. Professor Henning (1993) tried to address the problem as an administrator situated in a language and literature department, who is sympathetic to the concerns of all sides. She offered. what one might call a functionaf structural solution, asking what functional goals we have for students and what structure will allow them to reach those. goals. Site also argues. rightly, that culture must be woven into the curriculum and that. literature is one fea- ture among many- in the cultural domain that provides what one might call “added value" be- yond the level of language acquisition. “Through literature," she says, “students can develop a full range of linguistic and cognitive skills, cul- tural knowledge and sensitivity" (p. 24]. in other Words, her article suggests that one can offer a curriculum that satisfies the practical concern-i held by some while serving "larger,“ more luinuinistically based purposes at the same tune, The solutions offered in Henning’s (1993) ar- ticle are important ones, and they highlight as- pects of the dilemma that. are all too often igi norcd bf. both sides: the need for a clearly identifiable set. offunctional goals, for instance. and the need to recognize the added value that the study of literature—wit): literaturew—brings with it. However, ifthere is a weak point to Hen- uing‘s article, it is its failure to confront an underlyiiig—and l suspect largely unexaunined-— assun-iption about the means and ends of lan- guage learning, which is implied in much of today s d.scussion about the place of literature in the curriculum For while she argues—again, rightly—that language teachers should relin- quish their defensive posture and adopt a more assertive one, she does not really challenge or recast the premise that has forced thosc teach- if)?! ers onto the defensive: the prevalent attitude in the U. S. that F1, learning is fundamentally an exercise with utilitarian (i.e., career) goals and that those goals should be the predominating factor in the development of the language cur- riculum, especially with regard to methods and materials.4 Although it is rarely stated so baldly as this, no one in or close to the profession is likely to disagree that the environment sur- rounding the teaehing ofFL is heavy with such reductively utilitarian logic. Henning’s article cites several illustrations of that logic at work: the fact that FL texts tend to take a touristic rather than a cultural approach; the fact. that management (and, one should add in fairness, many other) departments are often at the fore- front of demands to increase students’ commu- nicative skills; the fact that it is the changing global and economic situation (not the inher— ent value placed on language, literature, or culi ture) that may allow language teachers to be come more assertive about their importance. This last example, especially. underlines the shortcomingsilet us say the incompletenessk of any functional-structural solution to the di— lemma faced by teachers of language and literai ture today. Although it may be heartening to see that the climate of opinion seems to be changing in the favor of language learning, at. least for the moment, few would be foolish enough to think that this climate reflects an enhanced appreciation of the importance of liberal education. Nor can one be justified in thinking that increased interest in language ace quisition by those outside the language teach— ing profession makes a structural-functional approach to pedagogy the best. or most com, plete—although it certainly does make it an im— portant. tool in curriculum development. The danger of taking too much comfort. from the favorably changing environment is that it. may distract us from a question that is far more cen‘ tral to our own profession and to its premises: What is it. that convinces us that literature has, in and ofitself, something deeply significant to contribute to the process of language learning, whatever the ultimate goals of the learner may be. and how do we articulate that “something” in a way that establishes us on firm ground in the contemporary professional environment? Clearly, the problem of the contemporary professional environment is a formidable one. Not only do we. operate in a profoundly util- itarian society. but the last 30 y ‘ars have wit- nessed an explosion in research into language learning that is based largely on nonforeign lair ltiti guage teaching (i.e., English as a second latt- guagelliSLI} and premised on the belief that databased research is the rrrost valid means of developing and applying a language teaching rattonale. in such an environment, the lan— guage and literature teacher may understanda- bly feel like an alien from another planet bee cause ta) he or she believes intuitively in the value of literature and (b) data-based rationales seem completely inapplicable to that intuition. With respect to the second of these points, we must. I think, temper any hopes of an easy rec— onciliation of views. at least in the short term: Data—based research on literature’s itnpact just dot s not seem to work (though this might even— tually change if we establish firm ground upon which it could be conducted). and the premises oi the two camps—data—based and literature— are not likely to find ntany overt points of agree- rnent without a further articulation of premises on the part of tire. latter.5 This brings rrte to the first point of my argument: Although the litera- ture camp {one should say. perhaps. literaturo cultur'e camp because the two, when taken to mean “the ‘in/ri-rxintrigspizdt' oi a whole way oflife" (Williams. 1982, pt 11), are. often closely linked in pedagogical practice) may not yet be able to offer convincing data—based research for the im— portance of literature in the learning of a FL. i believe. that it can do a better. more comprehen- sive, and more svsternaticjoh of explaining the underpinnings of the intuitive conviction that literature nines have an important impact on de— veloping conununicalive competence in the lan— guage learner. Furthermore, we must not flinch at am of the irrtplications of that articulation once it has been undertaken One -Dl the first impediments to he sur- mounted if we are to develop a clearly article lated ra'ionale lor the impact of literature on language le‘.-1rners is the fact that the intuitive nature ol'our beliel‘in the value ofliterature for the language learner (which itself springs in no small part from the fact that much of litera— ture‘s impact takes place at a subliminal level) sometimes spills over into our notions of how that impact cart he articulated. That is to say, in a utilitarian environment, we feel the need to resist the utilitarian tide, and l have heard many a good language teacher express t't‘5i57 t'ance to explaining his or her intuitive convic- tion of literatttre's contribution to language learning in terms that are‘ or seem to therrr to he‘ ronnterintuitive. However, one must avoid t.t)1]l'|l5ll1I-_{ the issues here: The fact that intus itions about the impact of literature do not The Mario-rt l..utgurrga[uurrrnt 8! (1997) seem at first glance reconcilable with the. nrore empirically based premises of data—based re- search does not mean that one cannot develop a rationale for those intuitive beliefs. even a highly detailed and systematic one. As students of literature, we believe in the value of analyzing intuitive forms of knowledge; we should rtot hesir tate to use those same analytical skills to deepen our understanding of so central an aspect of our own world view as literature’s impact on the language learner. How do we begin? Where. do we uncover a rationale in the endless volumes that have been written on the nature of literature and. if possi— ble, match it with what we have learned in the, relatively recent past about the nature of larr— guage learning? I think we. can bttild on two things: (a) our own personal encounters with literature and (h) a gap of significant proporv tions in current. second language acquisition (SLA) research with respect to the role of af- fect. Let me address the first of these by re— counting a personal experience that, although it does rtot specifically reflect. the language learning setting. illustrates all the same an imi portaut aspect of the nature of literary encoun- ters and, especially, some of the cultural fea- tures they embody Shortly after finishing graduate school. I had the opportunity to conduct a travel—study tour ofthe People’s Republic ofChina. At the time, I was involved in studying ideological back- grounds to literature, especially Marxism, and was anxious to discover what the flavor of life might be like in a country where Marxist thought had been institutionalized. However. during the. trip itself. Marxism fell into the background as 1 found myselfsttbrnerged in the East-West fNorth—South encounter that a trip to China represented: the impact of the cultural experience far outweighed any ideological iu~ sights i might have had. Moremer, a month af— ter tny return. I accepted a yearlong Fulbright fellowship on the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia, and very quickly. my 2 weeks irt (lhina became a distant‘ dream-like memory. Five years later. while preparing for a course. on literature across cultures, i picked up an English translation of Dream of Red t'lfum'z’nm, the classic 18th—century Chinese novel. and began to read the first chap- ter. Suddenly, after only a few paragraphs. 1 iotmd myselfawash in the sensations of my trip 5 years before: Here. after so long, was China, the mysterious. definitively noanestern entity that i had experienced so intensely but with which i had lost touch. 11 was like tasting I )0 me! Siltrtttrtltrt n Prottst's tnadelctwwith an alntost hallucinogenic intensity. Yet almost immediately, I was brought. up shott by the logical inconsistency of these sensations. [ had visited 20th—century, post- Mao, Marxist (Shina; how could an l8th-century novel about aristocratic China trigger the flavor of that experiem e so intensely? There could be only one answer, ofcoursc: the power ofliterary language and the complex coding of culture that is embedded into it. The language of Dream of Red .lrlmtst‘cmsia mere half dozen paragraphs in translation“-¥was acting much like a holo- graphic plate, reproducing vivid and complex imagery that had been encoded into the me- dium and that lay there dormant until acted upon In an appropriate agent—namely, the reatler.‘ This episode will appear to some as a digres- sion into unveriliable subjective experience, and I h at that l have little to say that will refute. such oltiections, at least on their own terms. Howevt 1', anyone who has enjoyed literature will understand that (a) literature is a powerful vei hiclc for all kt mils of evm'sttive material, (b) that material is released in a moment of catharsis when tl'c reader is exposed to it, and (c) mttch literature carries with it strong undercurrents of the Line and place in which it was written— ttnderctn'rents that haveiust as much etnot ional itnpact when they are released as do such fete tun-s ol literary production as character, struc- ture, pat ing. and the like. No one who has genu— inely exposed himself or herself to a work by Dickens can claim to be a stranger to the world ol l‘:ltl1--‘cnturv Britain; no one who has read Dante can \isit contemporary Italy without a s'cttse ot dtjiri tit. These are aspects of the study of literature that we take for granted. However, because they involve experience that is heavily laden with emotion—“affect" in psychological parlatm-enand because that may make them ~nspcct when scrutinized in a formalistic re- seart h sell tng, we often fail to see them for what they are: "data" —malbeit ofa different kind than the \tort: normally implies——-t.hat is, clear evi- dence that there is a feature ofthe literary espe— t'lt‘llt c that goes beyond aesthetics, at least in its more narrowly defined sense. Most language teachers who have been trained in literature feel that this “data" reflects the fact that litera- ture represents a means of powerfully energize ing the l( artnng of language. Let us shift for a moment to the question of data-based research in SLA. Research in ap— plied linguistics has experienced an exponen- tial leap during the last fill years, thanks to 157 which we now know much more about the lan— guage learning process and are much better able to prepare teachers of language to do their jobs well. I-lowwer. when one surveys the land? scape of language pedagogy through examina- tion of such features as textbooks designed for teacher training programs in language study, one is struck by a glaring gap in research about. the extent to which the affective side of the lan— guage learning experience may be an inducement to the learner‘s success. It is true that such methods as Suggestopaedia and the Silent Way play to a greater or lesser extent on the positive emotional aspects of the learning process, but they are not infrequently relegated to the mar- gins of SLA theory: A glance at the index of almost any contemporary text for teacher train— ing under “affect" or “emotion" reveals entries such as "affective filter“ or “emotional blocks to learning.” in other words, there is a strong tendency to see the affective side of language learning primarily as an obstacle," and one finds almost no discussion of how language it— self may be laden with affect that can be turned to the learner's advantage. Yet the affective element of language clearly has a profound ability to engage us, to motivate us, even to move us deeply. We are riveted by certain kinds of utterances: a Martin Luther King booming "Free at last, free at. last." a Robin Williams manically spewing out free— association one-liners, or 3 Richard Burton intoniug “Burgen and water . . . burgen and wa- ter." Such utterances combine music and mean— ing, sound and sense, to draw tts into language anti may be every bit as strong in their impact as any resistances associated with producing speech. Language is one ofthe means by which \ve engage in those most human of activities, expression, and communication; these activ— ities, by virtue of the fact that they are human, contain affective elements, whether they are un- dertaken: in our native language or in another tongue. However, current SLA theory, particularly theory that springs from data-based research, rarely engages the question of how the positive. features of linguistic affect may be brought to bear on language learning. There is, to be sure, no fault in; the fact: Applied linguistics, by its very name, implies attention paid to the practi— cal aspects of language. Learning is one of them, and resistance to language learning looms large on the landscape, especially in the American environment. Whatever the. vehicle, the squeaky wheels tend to attract more atten- 168 tion than those that spin effortlessly, and thus it. is only natural that the learner’s resistances leap to the frn‘efront of the researcher's field of vision. Practical obstacles to language learning, howi (‘\-'I.‘t, represent only half the story of the affec- tive aspects of the learning process, as research into first language acquisition is beginning to show (tug. Ochs, 1985; Locke. 1995}. We need to know much more about how to invoke the affec— tive domain as an inducement to learning, espei cially with respect to the ways in which the affec~ tivc loading inherent in language can be turned to the learner's advantage There‘ is a need for a close and systematic: look at. this side of lan- guage learning and for the development of a model that would help us better understand how it. works. Moreover, I would argue that such r‘est-=.;1rtli, when combined with a systematic ar- ticulaton of some ofthe intuitive beliefs oflan— guagc teachers whose background is in litera~ tine. and culture, could form the basis of a new agenda for examining the relationship between language lt'-arning, literature, and culture. The premises upon which such an initiative would be based are quite. simple: i. There is a clear gap in current SI..A theory and res...
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