How culturally appropriate is the communicative approach in summer school?

Evaluation of How culturally appropriate is the communicative approach? (Ellis 1995) in the light of teenage Chinese learners of English, attending short general English courses in mixed nationality classes in UK based English language summer schools.

Introduction

I will first attempt to summarise the main points of the article and describe how the author, given a working definition of the communicative approach, perceives it to be incongruent to Asian cultural norms and that a single definition of good teaching is not something teachers should adhere to. Finally, I will evaluate the research in relation to Chinese learners of English, attending short courses in UK based summer schools.

I will argue that the author’s definition of ESL and EFL is too narrow and that summer school, although present in the target language community, is by definition closer to EFL.

I will also suggest that the author’s conclusion of mediating to find a halfway point to work within an intercultural framework is valid given the challenges faced by Chinese learners, but only the first step towards acclimatising learners prior to their arrival at summer school.

Summary of the author’s main arguments

The communicative approach in an Asian setting

Within the framework of the argument, the author affirms that the theoretical understanding that underpins the communicative approach, suggests that “communicative competence is both linguistic knowledge and the skill in using this knowledge… [the] ability to apply knowledge in actual situations.” (Ellis 1995: 214).

Ellis’ argues the communicative approach is not in harmony with Asian cultural norms, broadly suggesting that such an approach is often viewed through a western prism as a panacea for all language settings. This imposition is rarely questioned and performed dogmatically, not taking into account learners who are not willing to accept or prioritise it. The Anglophone English language teachers who espouse such an approach imbue principles which have Western “cultural dimensions” (Ellis: 1995: 213), and are often at odds with a learner’s expectations. Contextual factors such as the role of the teacher, the value “communicative competence places on process as opposed to content [and] meaning over form” (Ellis 1995: 214-215), present significant obstacles which impede the viability of using the communicative approach in an Asian setting.

At the heart of the matter, “meaning systems exist across cultures which inhibit the transferability of particular pedagogical practices between them” (Ellis 1995: 213). In order for learners to benefit from such an approach, they are required to buy into the proceedings which requires them to change their “basic beliefs, values and consequent ways of acting” (Orton, 1990: 2, quoted in Ellis, 1995: 213). In acknowledging this gulf, without an acceptance of the approach, learners are likely to reject it thus disrupting any language they may produce and exasperating them in the process.

This shift towards meaning over form and process over content may appear alien to teachers who champion the proficiency of linguistic forms over all else. If culture forms the foundations of our own schematic understand of the world, a communicative approach in an Asian context imposes a western point of view which is largely at odds with cultural norms. The homogeneity within the “collectivist societies of Asia” (Hofstede 1986, quoted in Ellis 1995: 215), concludes that these fundamental aspects make a communicative approach unsuitable for Asian teachers and their learners in its current form. When the epistemic bridge between the communicative approach and more traditional methodologies are too broad, it is likely to “produce passive resistance or non-learning on the part of the student” (Ellis 1995: 214) as the communicative approach is biased towards Western cultural standards and is not sympathetic towards cultural discrepancies.

The author suggests in order to attune the communicative approach, teachers need to mediate between contradictory cultural standards in order to find “points of congruence” by lifting the proceedings from an ethnocentric view to “combine compatible elements from both cultures” which can fit within “the framework of a so called interculture” (Skutnabb-Kangas 1983, quoted in Ellis 1995: 217). Similarly, the capability to show cultural understanding would naturally suggest the mediator has “benefitted from extensive intercultural communication [possessing] an accepting and affirmative attitude towards cultural differences” (Ellis 1995: 217).

When these conditions are met, Ellis suggests “points of integration between Western and Eastern teaching practices can be jointly explored” and professional knowledge can then be applied (Ellis 1995: 218).

ESL and EFL teaching

Ellis delineates the differences between ESL and EFL in terms of circumstance and purpose. ESL occurs in an Anglophone community with the ESL learner having a greater need to use the target language as a means of authentic communication. EFL, on the other hand, is more likely to be part of the school curriculum and “subject to contextual factors” (Ellis 1995: 215) which, by the author’s estimations, may perform a disservice to the learner by focusing on oral skills, especially if the end goal is a written exam.

Chinese learners in summer school

Within an ELT summer school context, integrating Chinese learners into mixed nationality/multi-lingual groups presents significant obstacles.

Chinese learners’ written competence is rarely matched by their spoken abilities; it is not uncommon to have learner who can produce written discourse showing the complexity of organisation and cohesion and subtlety of register associated with B2 learners of English but who lack the spontaneity of oral production that many of their peers possess.

The concordance and repetitive nature of such occurrences gives credence to the notion that form and “underlying competences” (Ellis 1995: 214) are given precedence over spoken production. This may have validity within an education system which puts a strong emphasis on form and the written word i.e. all learners are tested through deductive grammar or written discourse. However this does not prepare learners when such institutions send their students to summer schools which sell courses on maximising spoken production in the classroom.

The importance of oral communication often causes great consternation amongst Chinese learners who feel hobbled when speaking with their European peers during class time. If too few Chinese learners are in a class group, they feel isolated and often complain they are being swamped by the demands of the teacher, or that their needs are not being taken into account. If their numbers are dominant in a class group, the reverse occurs with European learners complaining that their Chinese peers are reluctant to speak or have to be cajoled into speaking and that the lessons are generally slow and boring. It is clearly not enough to explain to learners on their arrival that they are expected to speak and accept the way things are done. It is similarly unreasonable for learners to expect summer school teachers should tailor their approach to the needs of one nationality group.

Although summer school teaching occurs in the target language culture the author’s binary distinction between ESL and EFL lacks nuance when we consider the environment many learners experience, which is relatively sanitised and inauthentic. Access to the target language community is limited, while genuine opportunities to communicate are largely reserved to other students who are living and studying in the same school. As much as there are opportunities to embrace the circumstance, the majority of Chinese learners do not, instead seeking solace within their own social groups, hermetically sealing themselves off from the wider community. Consequently, opportunities for language interaction are largely reserved to the classroom which affirms the author’s feeling that EFL “is always a cultural island” (Ellis 1995: 215).

Unlike in ESL, learners in summer school are rarely afforded opportunities to “test out or practice new language skills in authentic situation” (Ellis 1995: 215). For this reason, summer school should not be confused with ESL- even though courses are intended to develop communicative competence, but equally should not be equated with EFL and the constraints imposed by cultural norms, government policy and practical factors such as outcomes in relation to formative and summative testing, for example.

Conclusion

To meet the demands placed on Chinese learners in summer school, the process of finding “points of congruence between seemingly contradictory norms” (Ellis 1995: 217) would need to start prior to their arrival, to lay the foundations for what might be expected in terms of approach and learner interaction. Arguably, working within this interculture is merely the first step in adopting a position which fully supports learners wishing to study abroad. Meeting learners halfway should act as a stepping stone for them to acclimatise and be given practice of the skills which they would need on arrival in a summer school which adheres to a communicative approach to language teaching. It is, however, unreasonable to afford special dispensation towards one nationality group by continuing a negotiated approach given the multi-cultural dimensions of summer school.

On the other hand, summer school teachers should be given awareness training and support in the view of becoming mindful of the challenges which learners may face given the dimensions of working within a framework which champions communication over form. This is an aspect which is arguably missing from teacher education and should, in light of this article, be part of the ongoing professional development programmes summer schools offer their teaching staff. However, this understanding could never be more than complementary as there are limits to how many of the practical nuances a teacher can be expected to understand without having experienced it for themselves in an authentic setting.

In short, if a staged approach is taken, it does not by any means remedy all the challenges Chinese learners may face but a gradual adjustment may make it less likely that the communicative approach is rejected when learners are immersed in its setting.

References

Ellis. G. 1995. How culturally appropriate is the communicative approach? ELT Journal Volume 50/3 July 1996, pages 213-218. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hofstede. G. 1986 Cultural differences in teachings and learning. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 10: 301-20.

Skutnabb-Kangas. T. and Phillipson. R. 1983 Intercommunicative and Intercultural Competence. ERIC Document Reproduction Service. ED 353778.

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