Factors Affecting Students’ Perceptions When Learning Foreign Culture

When a man is born he or she is automatically placed in a given community sharing the same patterns of life and values. Parents, other family members, peers, media and teachers help to shape these individual “worlds”. Some modes of behavior, symbols and beliefs are anchored in their culture and any divergence creates discomfort and fear as the unknown seems filled with danger. And when it comes to learning a foreign language, everything is strange and provokes comparisons with a native culture.

The belief that people bring to the course no considerable knowledge of the English-speaking societies is not true, because each man approaches the language with a set of attitudes and stereotypes. As it has been pointed out by Stern (1992:215), one of the important factors of culture teaching is to help overcoming these prejudices which can successfully bias learners toward the target culture. The learners’ tendency to perceive the target culture within their own cultural patterns often leads to misunderstandings between members of two communities. This is the cultural studies’ aim to cope with these discrepancies and make the learners aware of various symbols and images, different lifestyles, cultural products and values.

Several sociocultural factors influencing acquisition of a foreign language and culture are listed below (according to Brown 1994 & Stern 1992).

• Attitudes.
Learners do not approach the new language with no general knowledge about its users. The true fact is that they bring with themselves certain presumptions, which may prevent them from “coming to terms with reality of the target language” (Stern 1992:205). These attitudes are being shaped by the society within the learners’ life. Their success in learning the target language is determined by types of the attitudes; whether they are positive or negative. If a learner has a good attitude towards the language and its culture, he or she is likely to be more motivated toward language learning than one who brings negative attitudes and is not willing to change them throughout the course.

• Stereotypes.
Defined as false beliefs, “oversimplification and blanket assumptions” (Brown 1994:166), stereotypes have their impact on foreign language learning. They may either encourage or discourage from attempts to study it. Brown (1994:165) concludes that “in the bias of our own culture-bound world view, we picture other cultures in an oversimplified manner, lumping cultural differences into exaggerated categories, and then we view every person in a culture as possessing corresponding, stereotypical traits”. They may do harm to the community which is the source of these wrong assumptions about their culture and bring about little interest in it. On the other hand, stereotypes may enhance the acquisition of a foreign language culture in a person who is able to recognize the positive effects of stereotyping.

• Social distance.
There is usually a gap between two cultures when they come into contact and this dissimilarity is called social distance. Stating after Brown (1994:176) this phenomenon refers to the “cognitive and affective proximity of two cultures that come into contact within an individual”. It has been proved (Schumann cited by Brown, 1994:178) that the greater the social distance, the greater difficulty the learner will have in learning the second language and culture.

Ironic as it may seem, there is also a danger of immersion into the second language culture. Although it appears to be on the other end of “social distance”, still poses dangers of culture clash. As Mead (quoted by Valette, 1996:179) puts it, students who saturate themselves deeply with the target culture are likely to put themselves in a superior position, “we-they position” where one language and culture become better than the other. In order to avoid this trap that bilingualism and biculturalism offer, students should study a third language which inevitably would neutralize all of the comparisons and superiorities.

These factors are the basic ones that affect learning a second language and it is the teacher’s duty to find means to cope with them and inspire learners about the target culture’s true picture. One of the solutions to remedy bias in learners’ perceptions is a successful implementation of adequate cultural goals into a language course.

References:

Brown, D., 1994. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall Regents.

Stern, H.H. (ed.), 1992. Issues and Options in Language Teaching. Oxford, OUP.

Valette, R., 1996. “The culture test”. In Valdes, J. M., (ed.) 1996. Culture Bound. Cambridge, CUP. 179-197.

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