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Culture and Second Language Acquisition Relations

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Language and culture interrelationship has been the center of focus for quite many years in a variety of disciplinary perspectives (Firth & Wagner, 1997). It has brought scholars from several fields of discipline such as linguistics, sociology, anthropology and psychologists together to try and understand the complex interrelationship. The second language (L2) acquisition and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in particular is seen as one area that needs to be looked at. Some observers see social language as a social tool and this makes several roles of factors come into play such as the realm of life or the purpose for which the learner acquires the knowledge (Kichiro, 1998). However, when it comes to real life situations, that is, outside the classroom, a somewhat different role relationship comes into play. This different role relationship may be termed as “external environment”. This paper will look at the role of external environment in the process of second language acquisition.

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Introduction

The relationship between language and culture has been the center of focus for quite many years in a variety of disciplinary perspectives (Firth & Wagner, 1997). Researchers in several fields of discipline such as linguistics, sociology, anthropology and psychologists have strived to understand whether and how culture affect some of the human behavioral aspects in the learning process such as perception, cognition, language, and communication (Ellis, 2000; Firth & Wagner, 1997). It is critical to note how cultural factors have played critical role by attracting the interest of both theoreticians and practitioners alike.

Lately, the concept has significantly played out and intensified especially in the second language (L2) acquisition, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in particular. Cumming (2004) advise that cultural practices and local contexts must be brought into play in the process of examining key issues of teaching English to speakers of other languages. Then what is the role of social factors and of input (interaction) in L2 acquisition? This paper critically analyzes the role of external environment in the second language acquisition, especially through Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), with Japanese native speakers’ case perspective.

Background

In order to understand how learners acquire their second language, it is important to first give a clear definition of what is meant by ‘acquisition’ despite the fact that many researchers are yet to agree on a unifying definition.

In essence, acquisition can have several meanings: Condon (1982) gives the definition of acquisition by distinguishing it from ‘learning’; the former refers to the subconscious process of ‘picking up’ a language through exposure; while the latter to the conscious process of studying it. This view could be interpreted to mean that it is possible for learners to ‘acquire’ or to ‘learn’ rules independently and at separate times (Cumming, 2004). Even though this definition may have a lot of valid recipe for teaching, its shortcoming is evident since it is not easy to identify whether the knowledge the learner has is ‘acquired’ or ‘learnt’. Hofstede (1986) considers knowledge that has been ‘acquired’ to appear from the learner for the first time. Probably this is why Foley & Thompson (2003) advanced a general definition as “any language that has been acquired after primary language”. Whatever the definition, acquisition may still interchange with learning, at least in the context of practice rather than academics.

In the innovative approaches to emphasize the use of second language as a social tool, several roles of factors come into play such as the realm of life or the purpose for which the learner acquires the knowledge (Kichiro, 1998). In this case, Foley & Thompson (2003) explain that the teacher can be the ‘producer’ and the learner ‘actor’. However, when it comes to real life situation, that is, outside the classroom, a somewhat different role relationship come into play, that Powell & Anderson (1994) describe as ‘mentor’ and ‘apprentice’. This could be interpreted to mean that even an informal learning process (learning from environment) may differ from that found in natural setting.

The nature of these external roles is likely to influence that level and type of proficiency that develops in the process of learning (Scollon, 1999; Robin, 2002). However, unlike informal setting, classroom learners are likely to develop insufficient functional language ability (Powell & Anderson, 1994). In essence, this could explain the predominant ‘knower/information seeker’ role set in classrooms, considering the fact that other factors play their role too; for example, the overall contact with the target language will influence the learner’s ability to grasp the second language (Hidasi, 2003; Hidasi, 1998). A case in point is critically highlighted in Tarone (1994) study which revealed the complexity surrounding the Japanese trying to learn English as their second language. In this study, Tarone (1994) observes that while some improvement has been seen among the Japanese learning English as their second language, (i.e. improvement in English Language Teaching (ELT) and English Language Learning), there is still a serous problem for this effort that manifest in both teachers and learners.

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Nunan (1991) observes that Japanese language is relatively more difficult to acquire for speakers of English than to acquire other foreign languages like Spanish and French. So whereas Japanese native will struggle to learn English, an English speaking learner will also struggle with Japanese language to an extent that much surpasses the presumed difficulties arising from typological differences of the two languages or the inward ability of the learner (Nunan, 1991; Robin, 2002).

What could be the reason behind this phenomenal difficulty? Robin (2002) argues that whiles the reasons behind this could be manifold; one often neglected aspect of the difficulty is the cultural difference in communication techniques of teaching and of the learning side, shaped by the environment. Rampton (1997) hypothesize that there exist a strong interdependence of communication techniques and strategies of teaching/ learning strategies, both that are acquired during childhood as part of the native culture.

The moment native teachers insist on operating classroom learning in their own digital way of communication strategies and subsequently demand from learners to follow learning strategies separate from what their environment has shaped them to, the performance of analog learners cannot be expected to improve substantially, since their precious energy get wasted with copying of the comprehension and learning of new strategies, than on the language learning process (Robin, 2002). Likewise if the Japanese teachers try to operate in language classes by application of their own (analog) strategies and at the same time demanding from learners to follow learning strategies separate from what they have been oriented to (digital), the performance of digital learners will not improve substantially, since much of their energy is wasted in coping with and comprehending the analog approach (Robin, 2002). This critical concept determines the learning strategy Vs external environment.

From the above conceptual approach, it is prudent to advise that Japanese native teachers should teach Japanese learners of English, and English native teachers should teach English native learners of Japanese (Foley & Thompson, 2003). This is to ensure the learners do not waste time to adapt to the “new culture of communication” and the “way of teaching”. This issue of teaching-leaning is even more complex due to the fact that whereas English and other European languages are considered to be digital, Japanese is considered analog language as Foley & Thompson (2003) proposes an alternative for the difficult approaches. Some critical questions that may be presented are whether a more analog language culture like the Japanese should be taught with the digital language culture of English and vice versa? What of English-a digital language is taught in a digital context? And what will happen if it is taught in an analog environment? Johnoson (1992) observes that English language more often than not would follow digital way of usage: which means that “efficiency is given preference over considerateness, directness over indirectness, and straightness over circumscribing”. This does not mean there is no possibility of using English in an analogue way, but once it is, it sounds rather odd” (Robin, 2002). The above questions should be used to analyze the importance of culture in the external environment context.

Conclusion

There is a considerable amount of evidence that sees the distinction between the natural setting and educational setting. This evidence suggests that learners who have access to natural settings achieve greater functional proficiency than those limited to the educational setting (Foley & Thompson, 2003; Rampton, 1997). Obviously, there is a clear need to further investigate how these external environmental factors work in greater detail to establish the best way of acquiring English as a second language.

With these complexities, it is prudent to recommend that Japanese native teachers should teach Japanese learners of English, and English native teachers should teach English native learners of Japanese (Foley & Thompson, 2003; Rampton, 1997). This would ensure the test of “language cultural shock” is eliminated and a more language friendly environment of language is adopted to facilitate second language acquisition. If this is done the learners are not likely to waste time to adapt to the “new culture of communication” and the “way of teaching” (Nunan, 1991). This will considerably increase the adaptability of the English as a second language with ease and consistency. The education system should also adopt a system that will facilitate natural environment for learning; for both the learners and teachers, to purposefully enhance cohesion as evidenced in several researches.

Reference List

Condon, E. (1982). Cross-Cultural interference Affecting Teacher- Pupil Communication: Intercultural communication. Belmont: Wadsworth.

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Cumming, A. (2004). Alternatives in TESOL research: Descriptive, interpretive, and ideological orientation. TESOL Quarterly 28, 673-703.

Ellis, R. (2000). Editor’s statement. Language Learning 50, 3, XI-XIII.

Firth, A., & Wagner J. (1997). On discourse, communication, and some fundamental concepts in SLA RESEARCH. Modern Language Journal 82, 83-90.

Foley, J., & Thompson L. (2003). Language Learning. London: Arnold.

Hidasi, J. (1998). Fuzzy Logic in Communication- The Japanese Case. Nyelv-stilus Irodalon, Budapest: ELTE, 245-250.

Hidasi J. (2003). On the capacity to communicate in Intercultural Settings: Reflection on apanese Communication Strategies. Human Communication Studies, Vol.31. 81-90.

Hofstede, G. (1986). Cultural differences in Teaching and learning. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol.10.301-320.

Johnoson, M. (1992). Approaches to research in second language learning. New York: Longman.

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Kichiro, H. (1998). How to Create Effective Dialogue between Digital and Analog Communication, Manuscript, Master Workshop, SIETAR Congress 98, Tokyo.

Nunan, D. (1991). Methods in second language classroom-oriented research: Acritical View. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 13, 249-274.

Powell, G., & Anderson J. (1994). Culture and Classroom communication, Belmont: Wadsworth, 322-331.

Rampton, B. (1997). Second language research in late modernity: A response to Firth and Wagner. Modern Language Journal 81, 329-333.

Robin J. (2002). Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You. Tokyo: Kodansha Interrnational.

Scollon, S. (1999). Not to waste words or students. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 13-17.

Tarone, E. (1994). Analysis of learner language: Alternative in TESOL research. TESOL Quarterly Special Issue, 28, 676-678.

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