Language and Culture: Global Flows and Local Complexity
reviewed by Thomas T. Field - June 12, 2006
The foreign language classroom is one of the crucial sites where young people encounter serious discourse about cultural difference. Most of us would agree that few things are more important to the educational process, but we are not always in agreement about what it means to teach culture. Certainly, reducing intercultural education to the degree of instilling the notion of difference is inadequate: why should a young person care that the French put their bread directly on the table during a meal? As language teachers, we owe it to our students to provide the next generation with tools for making sense of the world, perspectives that will allow them to go beyond their lived reality, and not only curious anecdotes about others. One way of broadening students horizons, the traditional approach, is to expose them to great works of literature in the original text. Another is to afford them the opportunity to see the dynamics of cultural activity: how cultures work, how people elsewhere deal with conflict, and how world views are constructed.
Unfortunately, purism and nationalism reign supreme in the foreign language classroom, and such attitudes are among Karen Risagers targets in this book. In deconstructing language and culture from the perspective of L2 teaching, she shows that by rejecting multilingual phenomena, L2 functions of the target language, and globalizing cultural processes, we are giving the next generation a distorted notion of culture and are short-changing their education. This book is complex and theoretical, but it is a much needed corrective to traditional practice. Risagers approach is informed by sociolinguistics, anthropology, cultural studies, discourse analysis, and translation studies, a very rich mix that may not appeal to all readers, but which allows her to explore some central issues in an unprecedented way.
The author begins by arguing that our conviction that language and culture are inseparable is clearly false, at least in part: Linguistic and cultural practices change and spread through social networks along partially different routes, principally on the basis of transnational patterns of migration and markets (p. 2). The foundation of her approach is the understanding that language and culture are both involved in flow patterns that are conditioned by such factors as mobility, politics, and the marketplace. Building particularly on work by Ulf Hannerz, Michael Agar, and Claire Kramsch, Risager is interested in the borders of interconnectedness between language and culture. As she puts it, discourses and languages flow across each other (p. 140). Her illustration of what this understanding implies is a classroom vignette in which a group of students in a Danish secondary school class, studying German, engages in a complex series of L2 activities whose topic is the 1996 Tour de France, in which a Danish rider won the race as part of a German team.
After an introductory chapter that lays out the problems she intends to treat, in chapter 2, Risager offers the reader an illuminating discussion of what she terms the multidimensional relationship between language and culture. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the problematic concept of culture in a fairly full way, and they are followed by an introduction to the notion of cultural flow derived from Hannerz. The history of theoretical approaches to culture in chapter 3 is particularly useful. Chapters 6 and 7 take on language, problematizing the notion and constructing a more sophisticated view that has relevance for L2 teaching in a period of intensive globalization. Chapters 8 through 11 provide Risagers model of the relationships between language and culture. She proposes that one distinguish language from languaculture, by which she means the discourse/meaning relationships characteristic of first-language and early second-language speakers, and furthermore, that one distinguish discourse from the rest of culture. She shows how alternate perspectives deriving from a sociological view, a psychological view, and a systems viewwhich are too often confused in the discussion of cultureare possible at every stage. Chapter 12 emphasizes the extent to which language flows, discourse flows, and culture flows may be independent and considers the relevance of this understanding to language teaching. Chapter 13 introduces the notion of language-culture nexus, by which she means the intersection of these flows in the communicative event. The final chapter provides a summary and suggests the implications of her approach for language and culture teaching.
The intense theoretical focus of Risagers book is its greatest strength because it allows her to shake off the platitudes that pass for an explanation of the links between language and culture; instead, she replaces them with a framework that is both intellectually sound and instructionally inspiring. At the same time, this approach means that the book is a bit heavy with theoretical distinctions, each of which is worked into the overall synthesis and discussed in detail. Occasionally, one has the sense that the author has become obsessed with her own system: having established multiple distinctions and laid them out in chart form, she feels the need to find something to say about each and every cell, an exercise that is intellectually interesting but not consistently illuminating.
I would hope that teacher trainers and those who lead courses on culture would read this book and profit from it. Some teachers will find the book a bit too abstract for their tastes. Not that it is exceedingly difficult to follow, but one theoretical approach follows another in Risagers exposition with precious few examples of what the newly constructed synthesis implies for the L2 classroom. Still, the implications of this book are enormous. Risagers problematization of the language classroom demonstrates that language teaching is a kind of language and culture policy (p. 25), and that the language classroom itself is a locus of intercultural communication. As she puts it, The teaching sequence must not be thought of as a closed box inside which one learns German and where the subjects are merely a pretext for learning the language (developing communicative competence). It should be seen as a social practice among many others, as an element of certain more comprehensive dynamics and processes (p. 181). Furthermore, her critique of the ideological uniformity that dominates in L2 practice (p. 85) is extremely important. Teachers need to move away from the puristic, nationalistic approaches to culture that still dominate the profession. The bilingual discourse of the Puerto-Rican community of New York ought to be present in U.S. Spanish L2 classrooms. An understanding of the flows of culture and language ought to be a corrective for teachers who are accustomed to presenting Senegal as an un-nuanced Francophone zone.. As Risager puts it, the target for our teaching of culture is not the language area in a geographical sense but the worldwide network of the target language (p. 197). Similarly, in a world of intense globalization, the use of the target language by second-language speakers has to be part of the mix. The study of a specific language is not confined to specific discourses or specific thematic areas (p. 197). Risager argues for an integrative view of language, text, discourse, and the rest of society. Her perspective on the teaching of language and culture is challenging, but it is also exciting and promises new rewards for our students.