Dr. Khalid Al-Seghayer
Recently, some local Arabic newspapers reported that some Saudi families had registered strong complaints about a Saudi university’s including inappropriate pictures and the components of Western culture in selected English textbooks. This, again, revives the controversial issue of teaching the English language along with or without the English culture in which it operates. As a result, educational stakeholders who are responsible for English programs, especially in the higher education sector, mandate that international publishing companies produce what are called Middle Eastern English textbook versions for use in the Kingdom.
The view of those who call for not incorporating cultural elements in the teaching of English is that teaching cultural values is a form of cultural invasion or, more accurately, a form of linguistic globalization that emanates from cultural globalization. These individuals feel that teaching Western values to Saudi students will result in eroding their identity. Those opposed to the teaching of English culture instead call for including only Islamic and local cultural values in textbooks used by English programs in the Kingdom. In examining this highly sensitive linguistic topic, two questions need to be asked: What is so significant about teaching culture, and why is culture such an important element to consider in the foreign language classroom?
Let us first state what most language educators believe and then answer the aforementioned questions. It appears that culture, as an ingrained set of behaviors and modes of perception, is highly important in foreign language learning. Language is a part of culture, and culture is a part of language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture.
The world in which we live requires people who can communicate effectively in at least one other language and who have related cultural insights and understanding. This cannot take place unless the culture of the language being taught is fully integrated in the curriculum in a systematically planned way.
Without cultural insight and skill, even fluent speakers can seriously misinterpret messages they have read, and the messages they intend to communicate can be misunderstood. This is because students do not fully comprehend the essential framework in which language functions, namely culture; as a result, cultural competence should be encouraged at all stages. Related to this point is that learning English without its culture often results in learning meaningless linguistic symbols, and in using English inappropriately or in the wrong cultural context.
Another aspect that makes teaching culture a vital element in the foreign language setting is the attitude of students toward the culture of the target language. The success of students in acquiring a foreign language is related to how they view the culture of the language they are learning. Students who have positive attitudes are more highly motivated, which strengthens the likelihood that a variety of desired behaviors will emerge, such as greater class participation, continuation of language study, and better retention of language skills. Attitudes affect not only students’ motivation to learn the language but also their willingness to learn about and to participate in acculturation. The degree of acculturation determines the competence of language learners, and without acculturation, language competence will be incomplete. Consequently, teaching culture helps students to shape their subjectivities, enhance their social experiences, challenge their cultural assumptions, and alter their modes of thinking.
Furthermore, language and culture are connected in various ways. Language acquisition does not follow a universal linguistic sequence but rather differs across cultures. The process of assimilation into society involves the exchange of language in particular social situations: The native learner, in addition to learning the language, acquires linguistic patterns in his or her culture. Therefore, language and culture cannot be separated. Foreign language teaching should work toward language-in-culture and culture-in language teaching rather than seeking ways of teaching culture as a separate skill. Language and culture should be seen as constituting a single domain of experience. If we put aside the above technical and linguistic matters to consider the expected negative consequences of allowing thousands of Saudis to study English in its natural context, we would see no detrimental effect on their identities or on their own cultural values and traditions. Past Saudi English learners are now assuming leading positions in the country, and no one can claim that being exposed to Western culture while studying English instilled in them undesirable values that are diametrically opposed to Saudi Arabia’s deeply rooted cultural features. Objectively speaking, these Saudi English language learners often direct our attention to some aspects of Western cultural values that we should adopt and, at the same time, warn us against accepting those values that seem harmful. This view is in line with several cultural studies which have found that teaching the cultural values of the learned target language does not necessarily lead language learners to adopt the cultural values associated with that language.
Again, teaching English cultural values merely raises the English language learners’ awareness of the culture’s social practices so that they can behave accordingly when relevant sociolinguistic situations occur. The practice of teaching English along with its culture is expected to widen the horizons of English language learners by exposing them to a new culture. This allows them to be more informed, in a better position to compare and contrast their own cultural values with those of others, and able to teach their own cultural values to others and defend them whenever needed.
Teaching English along with its culture is in line with the announced goals of teaching English to Saudi students, i.e., to prepare Saudi citizens to be intercultural speakers or cross-cultural literates who are knowledgeable of different cultural practices and world views. Therefore, the call to remove all cultural references from the English language textbooks of international publishing companies, the call to teach English in isolation from its culture, and the call to include only local cultural references while teaching English are all unwise and unreasonable. In fact, making such calls indicates a lack of knowledge about what it takes to learn English as a foreign language as well as a lack of awareness about the close intertwined relationship between language and culture along with the negative effects of teaching English without its natural cultural context.
The writer is a Saudi academic who can be reached at email@example.com.