Cultural Background Knowledge and English Teaching
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Knowledge and English Teaching
Cultural Background Knowledge and English Teaching
Cultural Background Knowledge and English Teaching
I. Problems aroused by different cultural backgrounds
A. Some difficulties in communication caused by different cultural backgrounds
B. Brief illustration of relationship between language and culture
C. Problems in English teaching and teaching material caused by neglect of cultural background knowledge
II. Importance of cultural background knowledge in language teaching
A. Necessity of cultural background knowledge in aural comprehension
B. Necessity of cultural background knowledge in oral English
C. Necessity of cultural background knowledge in reading
1. From the respect of allusions as illustration
a) Old allusions from history, religion and literature
b) New allusions
2. From the respect of idioms as illustration
D. Necessity of cultural background knowledge in writing and translation
1. In translation
2. In writing
a) Differences in Chinese and English writing styles
b) Necessity of knowing these differences
III. How to carry out the teaching of cultural background knowledge
A. Selecting proper teaching material
B. Encouraging wide reading
C. Paying attention to proper wording in the classroom
D. Using native English video tapes and films
E. Encouraging communication with native speakers of English
F. Holding lectures about culture
IV. Conclusion: It is necessary for teachers to pass on cultural background knowledge to students.
Once an American was visiting the home of a Chinese. As the
visitor saw the host‘s wife, he said,― Your wife is very beautiful.‖ The host smiled and said:“ Where? Where?”—which caused the American’
s surprise, but still he answered: “ Eyes, hair, nose„”—an answer that
the host found a bit puzzling. The surprising was caused by different cultures. “Where? Where?” meaning “哪里： 哪里：”in Chinese is
a kind of humble saying. But the American understood it as ―Which parts of the body are beautiful?‖ So, the reason for both sides‘ misunderstandings was differences in customs and habits. Each was expressing and understanding what the other said according to his or her culture.
Events like these are fairly common when people of different languages and cultures communicate. Because of cultural differences, misunderstandings may arise, although the language used in communication may be faultless. The same words or expressions may not mean the same thing to different peoples. Because of cultural differences, a serious question may cause amusement or laughter?a harmless
statement may cause displeasure or anger. Because of cultural differences, jokes by a foreign speaker maybe received with blank faces and stony silence. Yet the same stories in the speaker‘s own country would leave audiences holding their sides with laughter.
Language is a part of culture and plays a very important role in it. On the one hand, without language, culture would not be possible. On the
other hand, language is influenced and shaped by culture; it reflects culture. In the broadest sense, language is the symbolic representation of a people, and it comprises their historical and cultural backgrounds as well as their approach to life and their ways of living and thinking. Language and culture interact and understanding of one requires understanding of the other.
Cultures differ from one another. Each culture is unique. Learning a foreign language well means more than merely mastering the pronunciation, grammar, words and idioms. It means learning also to see the world as native speakers of that language see it, learning the ways in which their language reflects the ideas, customs, and behavior of their society, learning to understand their ―language of the mind‖. Learning a language, in fact, is inseparable from learning its culture.
However, it has been given not enough care to in our teaching for a long time. Although many students have acquired four skills—listening,
speaking, reading and writing according to the demand of our traditional syllabus, they often make mistakes in application of language to real life, because our teaching and teaching materials attach importance to language forms but ignore the social meanings of language forms and language application in reality. We can see the following dialogues in many textbooks:
1. A: What‘s your name?
B: My name is Li Hong.
A: How old are you?
B: I‘m twenty.
A: Where do you come from?
B: I come from Nanjing.
2. A: Where are you going?
B: I‘m going to the library.
3. A: Are you writing a letter to your parents?
B: Yes, I am.
A: How often do you write to your parents?
B: About once a week.
All the above dialogues are roughly the combination of Chinese thinking and English form. Although such forms are correct, they are not appropriate. Except for hospitals, immigration offices and such places, it‘s unimaginable for someone to ask a string of questions like: ― What‘s your name?‖ ― How old are you?‖ ― Where do you come from?‖ The natural reaction of English-speaking people to the greetings like: ― Where are you going?‖ would mostly likely be ―Why do you ask?‖ or ―It‘s
none of your business.‖ Questions like ― Are you writing to your parents?‖ would be though to intrude on one‘s privacy. Our teaching material seldom pays attention to differences between cultures, so our students are usually ignorant of the factor of culture and they can only
mechanically copy what they have learned.
So in language teaching, we should not only pass on knowledge of language and train learners‘ competence of utilizing language, but also enhance teaching of relative cultural background knowledge.
In teaching of aural comprehension, we find many students complain that much time has been used in listening, but little achievement has been acquired. In order to improve competence of listening comprehension, some students specially buy tape recorders for listening and spend quite a few hours every day on it, but once they meet new materials, still, they fail to understand. What is the reason? On the one hand, maybe some students‘ English is very poor and they haven‘t grasped enough vocabularies, clear grammar or correct pronunciation, or maybe the material is rather difficult, etc. On the other hand, an important reason is that they are unfamiliar with cultural background of the USA and England. Aural comprehension, which is closely related to the knowledge of American and British culture, politics and economy, in fact, is an examination of one‘s comprehensive competence which includes one‘s English level, range of knowledge, competence of analysis and imaginative power.
Maybe we have this experience: when we are listening to something familiar to us, no matter what is concerned, usually we are easy to understand. Even if there are some new words in the material, we are able
to guess their meanings according to its context. However, when we encounter some unfamiliar material or something closely related to cultural background, we may feel rather difficult. Even if the material is easy, we only know the literal meaning, but can‘t understand the connotation, because we lack knowledge of cultural background.
Here is a sentence from a report: ―The path to November is uphill all the way.‖ ―November‖ literally means ―the eleventh month of year‖. But here refers to ― the Presidential election to be held in November‖. Another example is ―red–letter days‖—which is a simple phrase and is
easy to hear, meaning holidays such as Christmas and other special days. But students are often unable to understand them without teacher‘s explanation.
Below are two jokes often talked about by Americans:
1. A: Where are you from?
B: I‘ll ask her. (Alaska)
A: Why do you ask her?
2. A: Where are you from?
B: How are you. (Hawaii)
A may think B has given an irrelevant answer. But if A knew something about geographical knowledge of the USA, and the names of two states of the USA—Alaska and Hawaii, he would not regard
―Alaska‖ as ―I‘ll ask her‖, or ―Hawaii‖ as ―How are you‖.
In view of this, the introduction of cultural background is necessary in the teaching of English listening.
Likewise, speaking is not merely concerned with pronunciation and intonation. Students can only improve their oral English and reach the aim of communication by means of enormous reading, mastering rich language material and acquaintance of western culture. Therefore, in oral training, teachers should lay stress on factuality of language and adopt some material approaching to daily life, such as daily dialogues with tape, magazines, newspapers and report etc., because the material is from real life, and it helps students to be well acquainted with standard pronunciation and intonation, to speak English appropriate to the occasion, to understand western way of life and customs etc. Otherwise, misunderstanding and displeasure are inevitably aroused. Let‘s look at
Many fixed English ways of expression cannot be changed randomly. For example, the answer to ―How do you do?‖ is ―How do you do?‖ When asking price, people usually say, ―How much, please?‖ instead of: ―How much do you charge me? Or ―How much do I owe you‖; When paying bill, ―Waiter, bill please.‖ Instead of ―Excuse me, sir. We‘re finished eating. How much is it, please?‖ When asking the other one‘s name on the telephone, ―Who‘s speaking, please?‖ or ―Who is it, please?‖ instead of ―Who are you?‖ ―Where are you?‖ ―What‘s your surname?‖ or
―What is your unit?‖
In English, there are so many euphemisms that sometimes it‘s hard to know the other one‘s actual mood. So we should pay attention to our answer. For example, when one ask: ―How do you like the film?‖ and the
other answer: ―I think it‘s very interesting‖, it shows he doesn‘t like it very much instead of the literal meaning ―very interesting‖. When one asks: ―What do you think of my new coat?‖ and the other answers: ―I think the pocket is very nice‖, it also shows his dislike. In America and England, usually people don‘t say unpleasant words to one‘s face, they always say pleasant words to the full or evade direct answering, saying ―I don‘t know.‖ For example, when one asks, ―Do you like our teacher‖, you may answer: ―Well, I don‘t know him very well.‖ Sometimes out of his politeness, when meeting unfamiliar people, he may conceal his true feelings. For example, A asked B: ―How are you?‖ Although B had got a bad cold, his answer was ―Fine, thank you‖, but not ―Not very well, I‘m afraid ‖, or other similar answers.
During oral communication, speakers need standard pronunciation and intonation, as well as the suitable use of language for the occasion. There are numerous examples that we could cite of expressions that are correct according to grammatical rules, but unsuitable for the occasion.
Once, after a student gave a lecture, he asked a foreign visitor for his advice. He said like this, ―I am desirous of exploring your feeling on the
lecture‖—which caused the foreign visitor‘s surprise. He said: ―You English is too beautiful to be true.‖ But the student refused to accept the comment. He said the sentence was extracted from the book. The visitor explained that phrases like ―desirous of exploring your feelings‖ were not fit for spoken language, which should be replaced by ―I‘d like to hear your views on the lecture‖ or ―May I have your views on the lecture?‖
A person comforted a bereaved young wife, ―I‘m terribly sorry to
hear that your husband has just died, but don‘t let it upset you too much. You‘re an attractive young woman. I‘m sure you‘ll find someone else soon.‖ Although the words accord with grammatical rules, they cannot be applied in communication, and at the same time, they betray the social customs.
As peoples are diverse, customs are diverse. It is only natural then that with differences in customs, differences often arise in using of language. For example, when someone praise your English is very good, American and Chinese replies to compliments are different. According to Chinese customs, they generally murmur some reply about not being worthy of the praise, while according to American customs, they tend to accept the compliment with the pleasure. The reply like ―No, I don‘t
speak good English‖—Americans think which seems to criticize the other side, is impolite.
Reading English articles requires a certain language basis, but the