Language and Beyond: Cross-cultural Awareness Through Language Learning

Thierry Kakouridis & Myrna Magnan

In the European Union, some 320 million people from fifteen nations, speaking more than ten different languages, must now get used to living and working together, and to feeling they all belong together. Cross-cultural interaction is then a political, economic, social, and of course cultural priority. As the president of Saint-Gobain aptly suggests:

« The heart of the European challenge is to know whether in multinational firms, we will manage to deal with Europe’s cultural diversity as a « plus » in comparison with American or Japanese monolithism. […] changing what today is a difficulty, cultural diversity, into a positive factor of integration, this is the research to be undertaken ». 1

Quite naturally, language specialists across Europe are being called upon to make their fellow Europeans culturally competent. As language specialists, we believe it is both safe and cogent to think of foreign languages in terms of conflict. True, learning and using a foreign language is a task which many students find difficult, in some cases virtually impossible. Hence, they develop an antagonistic view of the foreign language and, in the process, of the people who speak it as their mother tongue. The most obvious manifestation of this attitude is the reluctance to speak the language in the language classroom, and later in a professional environment, especially with native speakers. In many cases, conflict fosters discouragement, frustration, sometimes anger, hatred, and … failure. Thus, the key to successful language learning, then to fruitful and successful communication in a foreign language, is to find ways of warding off conflict or of resolving it when it crops up. We will consider this as our basic premise. Now, it is important to pinpoint the reasons why conflict appears in language learning and, more generally, in a foreign language environment. It has occurred to us that in most cases traditional language pedagogics is at fault. Indeed, languages are far too often taught and learned regardless of the cultural contexts which underlie them and from which they have evolved. It has become clear that learning a language without being able to relate it to a cultural system makes it difficult to interact efficiently with difference or otherness, that is, first, to envision difference and otherness not as a source of conflict but as a source of potential mutual enrichment.

In today’s international, multicultural context, cross-cultural interaction is developing tremendously, both quantity and qualitywise. Quantitywise because the world is actually becoming a global village, and exchanges are increasing at a dizzying rate, and qualitywise because communication must be accurate 2 in order to be successful. When it comes to learning and using a foreign language, we can no longer be content with the clumsy piecing together of words and the automatic applying of strange rules that sometimes seem utterly irrational : we must now probe the cultural background behind the lexical and syntactical organization of each language, so as to get through to particular thinking patterns and mindsets. In other words, we must use the language to bring out, understand and interact with the less visible parts of a culture.3

Before discussing our experience, we feel that it is imperative that a few fundamental concepts be defined. Indeed, most of these concepts are so commonly used that we may wonder what they actually mean.

Key concepts

Culture : a set of material and ideological phenomena which distinguish a group, a nation or a civilization from any other group, nation or civilization. We consider the following as material and ideological phenomena : language, thinking patterns, mindsets, reference systems, religion, political and socio-economic systems (including educational systems), social behavior and interaction, uses and customs, the arts, clothing, food and cuisine. One must also consider an individual’s own psyche within the cultural group to which (s)he belongs as well as his/her way of relating to this group as essential components of culture, as does Zack Eleftheriadou :

« the relationship between the individual and his or her culture is an active and changing space; […] the in-between area of the internal and external – the space used by the individual, depending on their life experience and upbringing, which changes through time ». 4

We shall complement the above by stating that most of culture is « invisible », which means that thinking patterns, mindsets, value systems, and the like are difficult to come to grips with because they are abstract, diluted, as it were, in our being. The whole point of cross-cultural interaction, therefore, is to make culture visible so as to better interact with it. As we will see, language is the most visible part of a culture. As such, it can be used to unravel the intricacies of the less tangible aspects of that culture.

Trying to define culture has proved very arduous. No definition has yet proved entirely satisfactory. Indeed, as Michel Oriol and Francis Affergan suggest, « The notions of culture, identity and difference, which are most of the time closely related, cannot be clearly defined, and thus encompass several meanings ». 5 Authors often feel the urge to (re)define culture such as Clifford Geertz :

« Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning ». 6

Geert Hofstede refers to two types of culture: « culture one » or « culture in the narrow sense », that is « ‘civilization’ or ‘refinement of the mind’ and in particular the results of such refinement, like education, art, and literature », and « culture two » or « mental software » which he sees as a « collective phenomenon », and which includes « the ordinary and menial things in life: greeting, eating, showing or not showing feelings, keeping a certain physical distance from others, making love, or maintaining body hygiene ». 7

Self-awareness: people do not perceive their own culture in the same way as they do others because it is invisible i.e an intimate part of their being. Self-awareness is the ability for someone to perceive their own culture as if from the outside, and consequently to examine it critically. Self-awareness is a necessary key to understanding others. It makes ethnocentricity irrelevant by justifying and legitimizing otherness. Authors, quite appropriately, often place considerable emphasis on self-awareness as a necessary step toward cross-cultural interaction: Pierre R. Dasen points out that « One rule of overriding importance for effective cross-cultural communication is first and foremost to be aware of the conventions of one’s own culture. » 8

Cross-cultural interaction: functioning efficiently in another culture and interacting with a correspondant who can also function in yours, so that neither culture is at a disadvantage. Work is done on equal terms and to the mutual benefit of both cultures. A common language may be used to communicate, English for example, but both parties are aware of the limitations of this lingua franca and of the necessity of perceiving objectively, understanding, and respecting the other’s culture.

Language as a means of making students aware of cultural systems

Given the objective of a united European community, interdependent and interactive in its diversity, and taking into account the above definitions, how can the language teacher make his students competent in intercultural communication/interaction? In this paper, we will give a very personal response resulting from all the thinking we have done on the subject, and which we have put into practice in our classrooms.

It dawned on us, within the framework of our relationship with foreign colleagues, that the use of English, or any other language, by people who don’t speak this language naturally, does not lead to maximum accuracy in getting the message across, and can therefore lead to misunderstanding. To put it bluntly, we have attended meetings where participants did not understand each other though they were speaking the same language. English, which everyone used for reasons of convenience, in fact hid each participant’s own culture. We rapidly came to the conclusion that language alone does not transmit the message. Even worse, supposedly more convenient though it seemed, language alone could lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and… conflict. Obviously, people who use English as a lingua franca must refer to the culture beyond the language. Eva Hoffman, in her autobiographical novel Lost in Translation , speaks about the dislocation of personality and the self in the immigrant’s experience. She tries to come to terms with her new environment through writing, but has problems deciding which language to choose :

« Because I have to choose something, I finally choose English. If I’m to write about the present, I have to write in the language of the present, even if it’s not the language of the self ». 9

English teachers by background, and in the light of what has just been said, we have wondered about the specific relationship between the English language and Anglophone culture(s), and intuitively about how the language – grammar and vocabulary – can be used to probe, discover, understand, and interact with culture. We have come to the conclusion that a language is the mirror image of a culture ; as in photography, it is the developer of a way of thinking, mindset and insight into the world. Thus, studying a language within the context of cross-cultural interaction means, of course, not only learning grammar and vocabulary, but also and above all, through them, weaving one’s way to the way of thinking, which is the real medium of the message. It seems to us that learning the rules and vocabulary of a language automatically makes us understand a message not as it really is but as our own way of thinking makes us perceive it. Likewise, when it comes to producing a message in a foreign language, words and syntax are but a pale reflection of our own thinking patterns. How then can we understand the Other under such circumstances, and communicate i.e. really interact with her/him? This « really » is at the crux of our cross-cultural approach to language learning and teaching. We will give just a few examples where lexis and syntax highlight specific thinking patterns and ways of apprehending a phenomenon.

Regarding vocabulary, it is essential to supersede a strictly lexical approach with a more conceptual one. In other words, we must not be afraid of doing away with literal translations, such as the ones given in bilingual dictionaries; instead we have to seek a different meaning beyond the translation provided. Indeed, a dictionary will give, for instance « friend » for ami or amigo. Now, to believe that these terms express one and the same idea is a gross mistake. The fact of the matter is these words acquire their full meaning from the social interactions typical of each culture. To Eva Hoffman, friendship is « a word which in Polish has connotations of strong loyalty and attachment bordering on love [while] ‘Friend’, in English, is such a good-natured, easygoing sort of term, covering all kinds of territory ».10 Even straightforward substantives can pose problems : « The milk, homogenized, and too cold from the fridge, bears little resemblance to the liquid we used to drink called by the same name ». 11

The conceptual approach comes in handy for a host of words, especially in the socio-professional field. Teachers in an engineering school know that the word « engineer » in American English does not have the same meaning as the British « engineer », or as the French « ingénieur » or still the German « Ingenieur ». We could continue indefinitely with similar examples and relevant cultural areas. Curiously enough, the pre-eminence of the concept over the word is not revolutionary. Indeed, certain languages have borrowed numerous words and phrases from other languages, being wise enough not to translate them. Here again, we could give an endless list of examples. A few will suffice : the French fin de semaine is but inadequate for « week-end »; not so long ago, some in France tried to force through, albeit unsuccessfully, the neologism marchéage for the English « marketing »; the Spanish « aficionado » has no faithful translation when it comes to bull-fighting; almost all languages have made theirs the German « Leitmotiv »; English has imported French phrases like « deja vu », « bon vivant », « rendez-vous », « creme de la creme », « par excellence », etc. Why borrow verbatim from another language? The answer is simple : behind the word lies a cultural fact which bestows on it a precise meaning, which cannot be rendered by any other language. To complicate matters, within the same language community, French or English to mention but two, there are cultural variations that give different meanings to the same word. For an American the word « friend » does not have quite the same meaning as for a British person. The Quebecker uses the English word « chum » to express the French petit(e) ami(e) which in English translates « boyfriend » or « girlfriend ».

The cultural dimension of a language is equally present in its grammatical system. As is the case for lexis, translation offers at best an equivalent meaning, not an identical one. Take the verb, for example. Conjugation is a non-issue in English, where the verb stays almost unchanged from the first person in the singular to the last in the plural. What actually makes the difference between one person and another is the subject. We will see here a superb example of the emphasis that is placed on the person acting over the action itself. This is all the more obvious in the first person, where the I (Individual!) stands erect (like an I, in a manner of speaking) to vindicate his/her identity or specificity. How about Spanish or Italian, where the subject is completely effaced, where only the verb’s ending makes the difference? We could argue that in Latin societies, contrary to Anglo-Saxon ones, the individual (the subject), because of coming second to the group, counts less than the action. Still for the verbal system, it is wrong to consider the French « J’irai à Paris » as conveying exactly the same meaning as the English « I will go to Paris ». Indeed, French regards the future as a real tense and, therefore, as something real which is yet to happen, whereas English sees in the future what grammarians call « modality », a fact that is not yet real. More than a mere nuance, this is a fundamental difference in approach to time and events. The same applies to the present-perfect, which is used to establish a link between the past and the present. Compare the two following sentences : « He has been doing the same job for 20 years » and its French equivalent : « Il fait le même métier depuis 20 ans ». In the English sentence, the use of the present-perfect implies that the subject started doing his present job twenty years ago. The reference to the past is made explicit through the use of the present-perfect. On the contrary, in French, the link between the present and the past is irrelevant – only the present matters – so that the present tense is enough.

Another fundamental difference : English is an explicit language ; French an implicit one. When the latter says « Il marchait les mains dans les poches » (He was walking with the hands in the pockets), one immediately understands that the hands and the pockets belong to the person who was walking. English, because it leaves no room for doubt, ambiguity and misunderstanding, will say « He was walking with his hands in his pockets ». Paradoxically enough, English is both more explicit and more economical than French. This means that it is possible to reach extreme accuracy with a modicum of words. The best example of this is the use of phrasal verbs. Take, for instance, the following sentence : « The wire loops through the glass cylinder », which the French translates « Le fil (électrique) traverse [through] le cylindre en verre ». For a message as explicit as in English, which is hardly ever warranted in French, a French speaker would have to say « Le fil (électrique) traverse [through] le cylindre en verre en décrivant des boucles [loops] ». One will also notice here that French and English have radically different syntactical architectures : in English the idea of « looping » is contained in the verb whereas in French it’s optional and thus comes last. French considers more important the idea of « traversing » the cylinder, which the English mentions in second place after the verb proper.

The above remarks and examples bring to light the intrinsic pragmatism of Anglo-Saxon cultures, something that most Latin cultures are very uncomfortable with. Pragmatism means being precise, going straight to the point, saving time, being efficient, all of which are reflected by the grammatical system of the English language. Now, for, say, a French person to learn English without being fully aware of this fact, will inevitably lead to frustration, discouragement and failure because (s)he will try to communicate his/her own thoughts in a language that is not cut out to express them the way they are. For example, using an explicit language like English to express your own implicit way of thinking is both inadequate and misleading, hence the need to systematically refer to the particular mindset that underlies the language learned.

When it comes to complements, English and French offer structures that reveal opposite thinking patterns. French has only one type of complement, built around the preposition de. English has three, two of which are very difficult to grasp for a French person. Consider the following examples : « Tom’s twenty-year-old friend, John, made a sixty-day trip around the world on his twenty-foot-long boat « . In French : « L’ami de Tom, John, âgé de vingt ans, a fait un voyage de soixante jours autour du monde, sur son bateau de vingt pieds de long ». Besides the greater variety of complements in English, the problem is that, to fully understand and use each other’s languages, the Anglophone and the Francophone need to think backward. This is made clear by the above examples (Tom’s friend/l’ami de Tom) and the following one : « the frequency control dial/ le cadran de contrôle de la fréquence », which, with a few others, has been giving both our colleagues and our students a hard time. The most common remark that a Francophone will make about these and other similar structures is that English-speaking people do things à l’envers (the wrong way). Getting the French-speaking person to understand that Anglophones do things differently and not the wrong way is already a major step in the good direction.

We now come to one aspect of the English language that best illustrates the cultural concept of individual freedom. This does not mean that the French, Spaniards, Italians, etc. are not free people. We are simply trying to show in the following that the amount of individual freedom and creativity that people have with their language can bring out interesting aspects of the societal system that they live in. Indeed, why is it that French has only about 200,000 words while English has twice as many. The reason is that English is not so « reined in » as French, so that it is apt to develop faster. The French Academy has been the « protector » of the French language since it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1634. Today, there still are people in France who are crusading against the invasion of French by other languages, in pretty much the same way as Don Quixote fought against windmills. Obviously, these people have not yet realized that a language that does not evolve is on its way to the museum (department of antiquities). Fortunately, these people’s rearguard ideology and official instructions go unheeded : the French keep using foreign words to express foreign concepts, thereby making 20th-century French different from its 19th-century counterpart.

On a first trip to the U.S in 1979, one of the writers of this article was struck by all the « unacademic » turns of phrase that his hosts were using all the time, and which he had not been taught in school. He learned, for instance, that you could « okay » something or « wow » at it, which he rightly perceived to be the result of an almost limitless opportunity to create language when the need for new meaning is felt. True, Americans have long been « language smiths », playing around, sometimes tampering with the original English language. A few examples : some irregular verbs have been made regular (burn, dream, learn, etc.); adjectives are often used instead of adverbs (« I did things real quick »); and we have already talked about words and concepts imported from other languages. In the same vein of thought, we could consider the compilation of the first-ever dictionary of Asian English now under way. The former colonies have integrated the colonizers’ language, transforming it from a second or foreign language into their own primary one. New vocabulary translating the local culture has made its way into common usage. In the Philippines, the adjective imeldific, a word play on the former First Lady Imelda Marcos’ name, means excessively ostentatious or in bad taste. In Malaysia « half past six » means both the time of day and a disparaging remark for someone or something considered to be useless. Achar is fruit or vegetable pickle (as it is in French in the Island of La Réunion). The onomatopoeic word tuk-tuk has been coined by the Thais for motorbike taxis. Since British or American English cannot translate the realities of life in Asia, linguistic innovation allows Asian speakers of English to gear the existing language to the needs of their own culture, thus expressing their sense of identity and cultural independence.

We draw several conclusions from the way in which the English language has evolved through the years : 1/ creativity in language is in keeping with the basic concept of individual freedom and growth (the American educational system, albeit in a major crisis, is the only one, to our knowledge, that offers classes in creative writing); 2/ language is created or modified to convey new ideas; 3/ creativity in language causes ideas (and goods!) to flow more freely; and 4/ if English (American English) is such a free language, it does not matter all that much if you make mistakes. This last conclusion is our students’ favorite!

Now it should be clear that studying the fundamental features of Anglo-Saxon cultures through language will make students realize that it is impossible to speak a target language, and therefore try to get a message across with maximum accuracy while thinking in and referring to one’s mother tongue. When they realize that a language has structural/organic links with a particular thinking pattern, students somehow kill two birds with one stone : they not only learn the language but they also adjust to and interact with cultural elements that they would otherwise have stayed strangers to. In other words, students become aware that when using a particular structure in English, they do not mean exactly the same as when they speak French. Speaking a different language also means thinking differently while probing the native speaker’s own mindset. Being shown the whys and wherefores of the target language, students learn the art of accurate cross-cultural communication. They are made to understand that languages, and so mindsets, bear very little resemblance to each other, and that, accordingly, intercultural communication cannot rely on knowing a lexis and grammatical rules to be applied without thinking twice about it. They feel that ready-made recipes for how to approach cultural differences cannot safely be relied upon because they know that the meaning is somewhere beyond the language, and that the language as such is but a means to convey the meaning.

Understanding a people through their language is one of the means to attain accuracy in communication and, beyond that, mutual respect and a sense of necessary complementarity. Our method is not an easy one, in that it calls for a lot of reflection, investigation and even introspection; and it invites one away from systematic, or automatic learning. However, we have had evidence that it is bearing its fruits : students learn better because they feel they have a real opportunity to apprehend otherness with curiosity, intelligence, honesty, and … efficiency.

Moving on now to a more applied dimension of language, we show that being unaware of the intricate links between a language and a mindset/system of reference, precludes the foreign language learner from fully making it through a foreign culture. For this, we have chosen to speak about humor, as humor sheds light on the subtleties of a language and a culture : it is like a window opening into a particular approach to life. If understood and appreciated, humor makes you feel that you belong in that culture. Typically, English humor is something that a French speaker does not understand, much less enjoy. Because (s)he has no or little access to this essential channel of cross-cultural communication that is humor, the French speaker will not be able to fully reach out for his English-speaking interlocutors, even though (s)he may be operational from a strictly linguistic viewpoint. As John Mole remarks :

« There is an aversion to seriousness. Humour is expected at all levels, between all levels, and on all occasions. It is important to be entertaining on every possible occasion, public or private. […] In a culture where the direct display of feelings is suppressed, humour is a cover for embarrassment and aggression ». 12

Punning is the most obvious manifestation of humor through language. Studying British or American culture with our students, we like to introduce the issue of humor with a few puns and jokes, in order to assess their responsiveness or … lack of responsiveness. Very often the response, if any, is a sick smile!

Humor, like the cultural approach to syntax and lexis, makes it very clear that real cross-cultural interaction cannot depend on a set of rules to be learned out of context, or regardless of related mindsets and value systems. Even if students find that English humor, for example, is hard to appreciate and enjoy, they are made to realize that cross-cultural communication does not come down to speaking or understanding a foreign language. Humor certainly is the best tool to hammer home the idea.

Language and culture in practical situations

Language learning is no longer an end in itself. A significant proportion of our students will be doing part of their curriculum in a member country of the European Union and in the language of that country. Some of them will be working in industry or in research laboratories, doing their mandatory placement or project work. Others will spend an academic year following courses in the host institution, a year for which they obtain credit from their home institution and sometimes a degree from the host institution, too. Thus language and culture are not abstract notions. They are applied and used in every day life during the period of mobility.

Moreover our students do not have special classes as foreigners. They are totally integrated into academic, professional, social and student life in the language and culture of the host country. They are treated in the same way as local students and thus have to adapt to the local mindset, way of thinking, behaviour as much as possible.

Before departure our students have often had a taste of the host culture in the language class. Foreign colleagues who visit us for the coordination of our European programmes or for research collaboration are invited to intervene in the language class in their own language. They can introduce their institution, region and nation, lecture on their specific field, advise prospective exchange students. Their way of speaking and lecturing helps prepare students for a new approach both to everyday life and to their specific field of study. Through questions concerning lodging, French students realise that British students, for example, tend to live in student halls, or in flats or houses shared with fellow students. Life on campus encourages independance and interaction with others, as do the numerous sports and recreational facilities available. In France the majority of undergraduates live at home. There is less student social life. The family influence is still strong and it is not uncommon to receive phone calls from parents enquiring about specific aspects of the stay abroad.

As for academia, teaching styles vary, as do expectations for student assignments. Words such as essay, dissertation, etc. are intricately bound to cultural notions. The French cartesien mind assumes a dissertation will be structured properly as the form is at least as important as the content. A foreign student unaware of this cultural assumption could do very badly on his exams in France, as a foreign professor marking a French student’s assignment could find it too abstract and intellectual. Likewise oral presentations differ from one culture to another, be they in academic situations or in professional life. Anglo-Saxons are fond of humor, and it is not uncommon to begin a speech with a humorous anecdote or a joke. The audience or participants have a good laugh, relax and settle down to listen or to work. The Germans or the French do not react in the same way. The Frenchman gives you the outline of his presentation as an introduction, so that you know in advance exactly what he wishes to prove, and you can admire his intellectual verve, while the efficient German sticks strictly to his planned agenda, wasting no time on humor or superfluous comments.

Foreign exchange students present on our campus are also invited to the language class for introductions and then they act as resource persons for future consultation, often informally. This in fact both helps the integration of foreign students on our campus (our students approach them for information first, then they usually become friendly and include the foreign students in their activities) and prepares students for contact with the host culture -in France before departure and often in the host country when the foreign students have returned to their home institution and act as mentors for our out-going students.

During the academic year preceding their mobility our students have to do a research project in the language class. We encourage them to choose a topic related to the city, region, country of their destination and if possible to do a comparative study with their own country. They have several months to read up on the subject, preferably in English, and to interview foreign students and colleagues on campus to get first hand information. The students work in groups of two to four persons. A written report is submitted for correction (language, style, fluency…), is marked by the teacher and a corrected version, taking into account the teacher’s remarks, is handed back, so that students learn from their mistakes. There is an oral presentation in front of the whole class. Students share the fruit of their research with fellow students. Thus, everyone gets an insight into the host culture through the report, even though everyone does not partake in real mobility.

Our French students come from a system where there are a lot of hours spent in the classroom, lecture hall, or laboratory – 25 to 35 hours a week, depending on the programme. They have to absorb a great deal of information and have less time for independent study, especially as undergraduates. When they go to an Anglo-Saxon country where the contact time is much lower, we have to warn them that they are expected to read through bibliographies and to prepare their classes beforehand. On the whole, though, they adjust fairly well.

Foreign students coming to France, especially the ones not used to long classroom hours, balk at the mandatory attendance and the traditional lecturing methods of some of the teachers. It is particularly hard for them at the beginning of their stay, since their language skills may not be sufficient to cope with the situation. They are tempted to skip classes, thinking they will work on their own, as they would have done at home. Yet if they do not conform to the academic customs they are quickly marginalized. French teachers consider absenteeism as rude and will feel less inclined to help students who do not attend regularly. Since so much work is covered in class it is difficult to catch up and the foreign student, who may have already been feeling a bit left out, will in fact be excluded from the system. As advisers we must warn the students about these cultural differences and insist they go to all their classes, including the ones at 8 am!

In the Anglo-Saxon university and workplace our students are surprised by the more informal atmosphere. They appreciate the availability of the staff, the freedom they have to organize their work, the time at their disposal. They are proud of the trust employers place in them, the responsibilities they are given, and the leeway they have to get the job done. This often stimulates them to work hard and perform well, to prove they were worthy of this trust. Young students rarely have as much initiative in French firms in a similar situation. When they have had the opportunity to work in both cultures they certainly appreciate the difference.

Similarly students coming from informal systems have to be cautioned about invisible barriers that exist in French firms. Students from Quebec would not be expected to have problems adjusting in France as they speak the same language. Or do they? The French language has evolved differently in Quebec. Vocabulary dating from the 18th and 19th centuries is used in different contexts (jaser ). Anglo-American concepts have crept into the language (avoir du fun ) and new words have been coined as literal translations for English expressions (shopping : magasiner ). The Quebeckers’ mindset is North American. The educational system encourages students to be critical and outspoken. This can be quite disconcerting to the average French executive who is not used to being told by a trainee how to run his firm! Our role is to advise the Quebeckers to temper their critical ardor and to warn the host firms that cultural differences can explain « impertinent » behaviour. Thus, it is obvious that speaking the « same » language does not automatically facilitate cultural understanding. Quebeckers with their North American way of thinking are not used to the French hierarchical system. Their Quebec accent and different language structures surprise the unaware French person, who calls them affectionately our « cousins ». But the Quebeckers do not necessarily consider this to be a compliment. Why should they align their language to French academic norms? For them the French are the ones who have the strange accent. Without cultural awareness this situation can be explosive and lead to conflict.

One of the French expatriates’ common complaints is that they miss French food. Notwithstanding the more than 300 varieties of cheese and the exquisite wine, there is more to this than meets the eye, or rather the tummy! As in many aspects of French life there is a special ritual to a meal in France. Of course the choice of the food as well as the appropriate wines to accompany each dish is done with painstaking care. The order in which the different courses are served and the harmony of the meal as a whole are carefully planned. For example le trou normand, a refreshing sherbet soaked in alcohol (pear liquor in general), comes between the fish course and the main dish. A green salad is often served after the main course and just before the cheese. Both of these clear the mouth of previous tastes and prepare it for the next. Moreover, the traditional French meal is not just food to eat, but also food for thought. This is what the French call « art de vivre » (the art of living). Conversation over a good meal is a national pastime and can last for several hours. Many business lunches can go on till 3 or 4 pm, much to the dismay of « culturally unaware » foreigners. A refined meal in good company is one of the pleasures of life. A French host is honoring his guest by inviting her/him to lunch. He is not wasting time eating instead of discussing business. Business will be broached entre la poire et le fromage, literally between the pear and the cheese, at the end of the meal, once the essentials of life have been discussed! That is why the French miss their food so much and the ritual that goes with it when they go abroad. To get the real flavor of the above, one should read A year in Provence by Peter Mayle!

Undoubtedly, language is barely the visible tip of the iceberg Culture ; as such, it warns us that beneath the surface, there lies an incredibly huge, yet invisible mass which, if ignored, will present as great a danger to cultural interaction as the iceberg did to the Titanic. Our basic premise has been that language is generally taught and learned regardless of culture. Whenever language and culture are considered to be separate entities, conflict inevitably appears. As stated before, conflict fosters all sorts of negative reactions not only toward the Other but also, at times, toward oneself. Our duty as language specialists and promoters of international education, is to anticipate, stave off or resolve conflict by making our students aware of the organic link between language and culture. As we say in French, language is like « l’arbre qui cache la forêt » (the tree that hides the forest ).

Thierry Kakouridis, Agrégé d’anglais, directeur des relations internationales, professeur d’anglais. ENSPM, Domaine Universitaire de Saint-Jérôme, 13397 Marseille Cedex 20.
Myrna Magnan, Agrégée d’anglais, responsable des langues et des relations internationales. IUT d’Aix-Marseille III, Traverse Charles Susini, 13388 Marseille Cedex 13.

References

1. Gauthey, F and Xardel, D. (1993) Le management interculturel, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France (coll. Que sais-je ?), p.98.
2. Pedersen, P. (1996) « Recent trends and developments in cross-cultural theories: A critical review of the current models and theories of cross-cultural differences, and how these relate to working with international students », pp. 23-25 in S. Sharples (Ed.) Changing Cultures: Developments in Cross-Cultural Theory and Practice, London: UKCOSA.
3. Refer to Pouw, A. (1996) «Aspects propositionnels, relationnels et contextuels de la communication interculturelle» in G.M. Willems (Ed.) Issues in Cross-Cultural Communication, Nijmegen: Hogeschool Gelderland Press.
4. Eleftheriadou, Z. (1996) « Notions of Culture », p. 7 in S. Sharples (Ed.) Changing Cultures: Developments in Cross-Cultural Theory and Practice, London: UKCOSA.
5. Oriol, M. and Affergan, F. (1995) « L’altérité et les différences culturelles », p. 15 in C. Camilleri (Ed.) Différences et cultures en Europe, Strasbourg: Les éditions du Conseil de l’Europe.
6. Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, USA: Basic Books, A Division of Harper-Collins Publishers, p.5.
7. Hofstede, G. (1991) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, London: McGraw-Hill, p. 5.
8. Dasen, P. (1995) « Fondements scientifiques d’une pédagogie interculturelle » in C. Camilleri (Ed.) Différences et cultures en Europe, Strasbourg: Les éditions du Conseil de l’Europe, p.128.
9. Hoffman, E (1991) Lost in Translation, Toronto: Minerva, p. 121.
10. Ibid; p. 148.
11. Ibid. p. 106.
12. Mole, J. (1992) Mind Your Manners, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, p. 111.

Leave a comment

Your comment

*