In the past three decades attention has shifted from communicative competence to discourse as a frame for understanding the challenges faced by language learners. Yet, the question of how stereotyping in language teaching can be avoided seems as unresolved as ever. Is it enough to instruct teachers to avoid stereotyping?
This question crossed my mind a couple of weeks ago when I was teaching a reading passage titled ‘Culture Shock’ to a number of EFL learners in Isfahan as part of their obligatory reading syllabus. Originally written in 1998 by a New York writer, the text recounts the experiences of Tamara Blackmore, an Australian exchange student in the USA. The following lines are taken from the passage in question:
In Australia, students and teachers have little contact outside the classroom. It’s a formal and depersonalized relationship. College is a place you go for a few hours every day and then go home. Your social life and school life is separate.
Going to school here [in America] is a lifestyle, whereas at home [in Australia] we’re just a number. We attend school to get a degree so we can graduate, get a job, and . . . .
Another pleasant shocker was the close and open relationships American students enjoy with their teachers. It is a sharp contrast to Australia . . . .[In America] students go out to dinner with their lecturers . . . . We just don’t do that [in Australia]. (‘Culture Shock’ by B. Weinstein, in Lee & Gundersen, 2000, Select Readings Intermediate, pp. 27f.)
In the first place, one might wonder why learning about ‘culture shock’ has to be part of an EFL curriculum seeing that EFL students mostly study English to use it in their native contexts. Even for ESL students who study English in the USA, reading about the experiences of another English speaker, who by definition does not face the challenges of language learning, seems irrelevant. Transposing the reading from an ESL to an EFL context such as Iran, it becomes an exercise in alienation.
Having read the text, students are required to discuss a series of questions, including this one: “[W]ould you rather study for a year in Australia or the United States?” For my students, the answer was, almost unanimously – and unsurprisingly –, ‘in the United States’! Obviously, the text had not made Australia sound particularly attractive. By contrast, the text is extremely positive about American universities. Indeed, one of my students summed up her interpretation of the text as follows: “Australia means culture shock and I don’t like it!”
As a bit of an Australia-fan, I did my best to turn the tide by sharing my daily experiences in Australia with my students but I failed miserably. For them, a text that bore the stamp of “a New York journalist” was much more reliable than the personal experiences of their teacher! Some even criticized me for having spent time in Australia.
Considering that TESOL and study abroad are two markets where Australia and the USA compete for students and thus market share, it’s hard not to read an ulterior motive into this passage, originating as it does in the USA. In this context, and unbeknownst to them, EFL learners such as the students in my class are turned from learners into an audience for advertising. What does that mean for language pedagogy? And where does it leave me as an EFL teacher if I have to teach to a syllabus with a not-so-hidden agenda?