Can different cultural belongings influence the learning of a second language?
this contribution, structured through key questions, the linguistic
and extra-linguistic sides of communicative competence and the problems
of inter-cultural communication will be discussed. My aim is to prove
that to foster the learning of a L2 it is necessary to take into consideration
the cultural variable, as it can influence the learning process to a
event also includes:
into consideration what stated above, learning a second language means
developing one's morpho-synctactic competence, one's phonological competence,
one's textual competence, but also one's pragmatic, socio-linguistic
and cultural competence.
4- What are the communication problems linked to non-verbal languages?
According to Balboni , we are more seen than listened to; 70/80% of information comes from the eye and only 10/15% from the ear. So, in understanding a message (and in communication) the non-verbal language plays a very important role. Let us consider the problems which can arise in intercultural communication.
smile: it is universally used to communicate positive messages, but in the Asiatic culture it is also used in situations in which a person feels uncomfortable (instead of disagreeing or answering no, Asians often just smile and keep silent, a situation that an Western persons will certainly interpret as a sign of approval).
a complex codification of timing, look direction- which varies according
to the context, the hierarchy, the intimacy, the sex of the interlocutors-
exists, and these rules varies from a culture to another. A well known
misunderstanding often occurs between the Italian teacher and the Chinese
pupil; the Chinese pupil who has been reproached stares down the ground.
This attitude is interpreted by the teacher as a sing of falseness,
or anyway of scarce repentance of the pupil; the teacher furtherly rebukes
the pupil telling him/her: "Look at my eyes when I am talking to
you!", while for the Chinese pupil, keeping his/her look down was
meant as a sign of respect for the teacher.
facial expression: expressions are quite universal, but their quantity and intentional control varies a lot. In the Mediterranean area people let emotions and feelings emerge quite freely through facial mimicry (we should consider separately the man who is not supposed to reveal his own "weakness"). In other areas of the world, especially in Asia, a certain control on one's expressions is required; this control on oneself gives us, as Mediterranean people, the sensation that Asiatic people are inscrutable, or at any rate that they feel less intense feelings than we do, which, of course, is simply not true.
arms and hands: probably the hands, together with the face, are the instruments of non verbal communication which are used and codified to the greatest extent; so it would be difficult to make a complete overview of the extreme variability, even from one area of Italy to another. Let us take into consideration, for example, how one's hands are used to greet, from palm rising to hand shaking, to the gestures meaning "come here", "what do you want", "go away", and so forth. Sometimes quite gestures having a positive meaning in a culture, as the American gesture meaning O.K., can be offensive in other cultures.
and feet: keeping one's legs crossed with one's ankle on one's knee
or taking off one's shoes may be a sign of relaxation in some cultures,
but on offensive gesture in others; showing one's shoes soles is very
offensive in the Arabian culture, as for us Italian taking off one's
shoes is a sign of scarce respect (but not in the Arabian culture, in
which to take off one's shoes to get in the mosque is necessary).
between bodies: each of us has got, more or less consciously, a sort
of "bubble" within which one feels safe. When someone crosses
the limit of this bubble, we feel his/her proximity as an aggression
and we feel uncomfortable. Let's give an example: more or less, in central
Italy and in a great part of Mediterranean countries, we think that
the "right" distance between two interlocutors, who of course
are not intimate friends, is about one arm. In Northern Europe the limit
of one's bubble is perceived to be at a distance of about two arms.
In Southern Italy and in the Arabian world, but also in other parts
of the world, the distance between two speakers may be less than an
arm, and touching one's interlocutor often occurs. It is clear that
the conversation between two people having bubbles of different size
is a cause of extreme uneasiness: who is used to staying at a two-arm
distance from his/her interlocutor feels the other's proximity as a
personal aggression, while his/her interlocutor will perceive the other's
keeping his/her physical distance as a sign of coldness, emotional distance
and scarce affective involvement.
clothes: "the cowl does make the monk", and the concept of elegance/formality, varies from a culture in this case, changing the Italian proverb a little, another, also within the Western culture.
people usually offer: offering something is always a sign of respect
for one's guest, as it is accepting it. But the rules about the objects
that one can offer and the way in which one can insist in offering or
refuse to accept vary. In Italy, for instance, we tend (luckily this
trend is weakening) to insist especially when we offer foods or drinks,
which makes people belonging to different cultures (as the Anglo-Saxon
one) and used to very different manners feel quite uncomfortable.
gifts: of corse a gift is a means to communicate respect, friendship, affection, but it can cause inter-cultural misunderstandings. Every culture has got objects that cannot absolutely be given as a gift in given occasions: in Italy, for example, we don't give chrysanthemums as a present, and we don't give flowers to a woman going to give birth (before the child has been born, they would be of bad omen). In Germany offering flowers wrapped in cellophane is offensive. Also the rule about whether to unwrap or not to unwrap a gift in the presence of the person who gave it varies; in the West people unwrap gifts in order to show they like them, while in several Eastern countries people thank without opening the gift.
5- What are the inter-cultural communication problems linked to the language?
There are some more specific linguistic aspects which can lead to inter-cultural accidents or misunderstandings:
volume and pitch: in Italy we speak in quite a loud voice. Various foreign people, especially from Northern Europe, told me they didn't understand why their interlocutors shouted: what had they done? Why were their interlocutors angry with them? If we also consider the fact that the distance between the bodies is shorter, that we gesticulate while speaking, we may understand their feeling uncomfortable, the sensation of being aggressed of our interlocutors who are accustomed to softer tones, controlled gestures and greater physical distance.
speed: speaking with a foreign person slowing down one's speech speed is a sign of respect for the person who is less competent. Not all of us act in this way, and this can trigger negative reactions in our interlocutors.
superposition of voices: Mediterranean cultures normally accept superposition of voices. It is even a sign of involvement in a discussion. Instead, in other cultures, a little time to reflect and answer is allowed. We can say that in Italy, as in other Mediterranean cultures, there is horror vacui, and for this reason the time between a cue and the following answer is always very short and there is low tolerance of silence (we use a range of pre-established sentences as fillings not to stay in silence). On the contrary, Scandinavian people are annoyed by superposition and require a rigid respect of turn-taking; in a conversation such fillings are not necessary and interlocutors don't feel uncomfortable with silence.
lexical choices: even without considering the problem of the possibility to translate a word from one language into another, there are other problems linked to lexical choices, above all in cultural exchanges, especially at a technical or scientific level. There is a contrast between Western people's request for exactitude and Eastern people "tolerance of ambiguity".
aspects: even not taking into consideration at this point the problem
of the differences between languages with a very rich verbal morphology
(as Italian is) and non-inflected languages (e.g. the Chinese language)
we momentarily focus on the use of some verbal tenses as future and
imperative. Without investigating the matter of the different conceptions
of time, we can say that non-Western interlocutors may be annoyed by
the certitude with which Western people talk about future: si Dios quiere,
if God wills, inshallah, Arabian people say, because future is in God's
hands: nobody actually knows what he/she is going to do tomorrow, and
to state it with certainty is mere presumption.
Interrogatives and negations: each culture has different codified rules to say no or to disagree: answering no to one's interlocutor's request or question, especially if he/she is a person of a certain influence, is practically forbidden in some cultures. When a teacher asks his/her Chinese pupil "Have you understood?", he/she can answer but "Yes", even if it is not true, because answering "no" would be an offence, it would be like telling the teacher "you haven't explained properly". The "yes" - when it should be a "no" - in Asiatic parents' and students' answers is not to be considered as a lack of respect, or as being taken for a ride; it is simply due to the fact that - in their opinion - if we ask a yes/no question, it means that we "want" them to answer yes, and they do so for respect.
Titles and appellations: each cultures has its own rules about highlighting or not a person's professional titles (doctor, engineer, professor, architect), as well as the way in which "mister", "mistress" and "miss" are used in different ways. Anyway, what can lead to inter-cultural accidents is above all the name and surname of people. In China you may not address to a person using his/her first name, but only using his/her surname-name or his/her surname preceeded by "mister x" or "mistress y". Even in family life the Chinese don't use their first name, but the degree of relationship; even wife and husband call each other using titles. It may happen that children don't know their granparents' first name, and even that of their parents: teachers can interpret this as a will to hide an illegal situation, while really children don't know their relatives' first name. If we consider that in the Chinese language there is a specific word to mean not only the degree of relationship, but also if a relative is a maternal or paternal relative or if he/she is older or younger, we can understand that that is possible (for example, there is a given word to mean the eldest maternal aunt or the eldest brother or even the youngest paternal uncle...).
formal - informal: without investigating the matter in depth, the various cultures use formal and informal registers in different ways, and there are different rules to establish when it is allowed to change from formal to informal and with which formulas. In Italy, to address somebody as "tu" (you) is quite frequent among colleagues, while it is more less frequent to address the head as "tu"...
structure: it is very important to remind that texts structure varies
from ones culture to another. Argumentative texts in Italian, German,
Slavish, Spanish go from a point A to a point B, through a series of
digressions and could be graphically represented as a broken line; Anglo-Saxon
and Scandinavian texts go straight to the point and all accessory information
is conveyed later; the Asiatic text and partially the Arabian one are
structured through progressive approaches to the point, following a
way that could be defined spiral-like.
· The socio-linguistic context, namely the fact that, in school, writing prevails on oral communication, rationality on affectivity and Culture on culture; these differences cause problems to students belonging not only to "other" cultures, but also to other social "classes".
· The historical problem, for instance having to learn the language of colonizers; a less relevant factor as far as Italian language is concerned (even if it is possible that it has an influence on learners coming from Ethiopia or Eritrea), it can be very relevant in learning French or English.
· Logic versus syncretism in the language: lack of tense agreement, juxtaposition of ideas, scarce coordination, lack of conjunctions providing logic links - in the Arabian language or in Turkish; approximation versus exactitude in the Eastern culture.
The status of language and writing.
The cultural dimension of time (linear vs polychronic time)
The time arrow : for instance, Moslim time is more oriented toward the
origin than toward the future - in the Arabian language the expressions
in front of and past have got the same stem QDM.
7- How does culture influence learning?
The cultural factor influences motivation, anxiety (social anxiety), self -esteem, emotional condition (uneasiness).
far as anxiety is concerned, we can distinguish between
· social anxiety, strongly connected to the fear of cutting a poor figure, which at higher levels causes learning problems.
As we can imagine, a learner with a low level of self-esteem, aware of belonging to a group with a low social status, coming from a traditional school education (or with no education) will feel a high degree of social anxiety.
Apart from cultural belonging, activities more or less anxiety-inducing exist.
The level of anxiety is higher in oral expression, as one has less time to plan and uneasiness due to pronunciation is more pronounced, while it is less so in writing and reading.
The most anxiety-inducing oral activities are those carried out in the presence of the whole class (making a report, role plaing, answering to the teacher), while the less anxiety-inducing activity is working in pairs or in small groups.
The more anxiety-inducing writing activity is writing one's own work on the blackboard.
Nevertheless, as the results of various researches have not given clear-cut and univocal directions, it is possible to distinguish
Facilitating anxiety (light state of excitement linked to involvement in the activity and to the desire not to make mistakes)
Inhibitory anxiety (avoiding risk, lack of involvement in the activities, stress) with negative consequences on learning.
8.What is cognitive dissonance?
To avoid uneasiness the subject either tries to reduce dissonance (namely, one looks for information reducing the dissonance, and avoids information increasing it, selecting, for example, the aspects which are common to the two cultures and concealing differences)
When such a dissonance is extreme, one looks for information increasing it (i.e. one chooses between A and B). For instance, a foreign boy who chooses the way of complete assimilation look for differences and increases the distance with his culture of origin, overestimating the Italian culture and understimating his culture of origin which will be of no use in decreasing the dissonance.
9 - What didactic strategies could be carried out to encourage the overcoming of inter-cultural communication problems?
the differences of habits, customs, communicative ways through examples
(videos, written dialogues, images) and /or direct experiences (maybe
also by using a tape recorder or a video-camera)
- Balboni P., Didattica dell'italiano a stranieri, Roma, Bonacci 1994
- Balboni P. Tecniche didattiche per l'educazione linguistica. Italiano, lingue straniere, lingue classiche, Torino, UTET 1998
- Balboni P.E., Parole comuni, culture diverse. Guida alla comunicazione interculturale, Venezia, Marsilio 1999
- H. Dulay, M. Burt, S. Krashen, La seconda lingua, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1985 (original edition in English: Language two, New York, Oxford University Press, 1982)