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Cultural Pluralism vs. Cultural Hybridity

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Both cultural pluralism and cultural hybridity attempt to move beyond traditional nativist conceptions of the superiority of the language and culture of the "Self" and the presumed inherent inferiority and deficit-oriented view of the "Other." Both phenomena incorporate postmodernist notions of cultural relativism, but they do so in different ways. While cultural pluralism respects and values differences among cultural groups, it still places individuals in traditionally bounded cultural spaces and for this reason has been criticized for essentializing culture. On the other hand, cultural hybridity allows for the transcendence of traditional cultural zones and their boundaries by transforming individuals into culturally sophisticated members of a global community who have control over the formation of their own identities by selecting from an almost unlimited number of distinct cultural elements drawn from their inherited culture and the cultures in which they interact (or perhaps even cultures in which they come into only tangential contact yet willingly choose to adopt). Thus, whereas cultural pluralism places individuals into honored yet confining cultural spaces, cultural hybridity seeks to liberate individuals and their cultural identities from predefined cultural compartments, allowing them to move beyond traditional cultural spaces into highly-individualized "third spaces" forged out of their own unique cultural experiences.

Although the idea of cultural hybridity is seductive, I find it more problematic than cultural pluralism. I believe that what might be conceptualized as the weak version of cultural hybridity, that all cultures are hybrids and that all individuals have hybrid cultural identities to the extent that no two individuals exist in the exact same cultural space, is as unproblematic as it is obvious. However, the strong version of cultural hybridity as proposed (essentially as a postcolonial solution to cultural nativism) seems somewhat oblivious to the socioeconomic realities of the modern world. While cultural hybridity supports personal liberation from traditional and confining cultural spaces, only those privileged individuals with the means to move from one cultural area to another (à la Pnina Werbner's "gorgeous butterflies in the greenhouse of global cultures") can take full advantage of its liberating power. And so while cultural hybridity may be a liberating phenomenon, relatively few (as Kumaravadivelu has pointed out, it is "fairly limited to the globe-trotting citizens of the world") can avail themselves its benefits, despite its lure. On the other hand, while cultural pluralism may lack some (or even much) of cultural hybridity's philosophical attractiveness, it is a solution to nativism that is readily available to all. I personally believe that all cultures should be honored and valued, and while Kumaravadivelu (2007) has criticized even this liberal interpretation of cultural pluralism as essentialized, I am comfortable accepting the continued existence of ethnic, racial and national boundaries so long as we respect them as legitimate, valued and coequal manifestations of human cultural diversity.

Turning to model pedagogical approaches for teaching language learners about cultural hybridity, I find the Australian approach of Intercultural Language Teaching (ILT) particularly compelling. The ILT approach's attempt to create a holistic linguacultural learning experience (through the inclusion of the student's native linguaculture and the target linguaculture as pedagogical elements to be contrasted) and the development of intercultural competence through learning about cultures, comparing cultures and exploring them can empower students to see themselves as more than just language learners. I believe that this type of empowerment can motivate learners to become more deeply invested in the learning process as they experience the challenges, frustrations and joys of personal cultural development, exploration and growth in addition to simple language acquisition/learning. I would incorporate the approach's "three dimensional" teaching methods into my lessons to explore not only the how and what of language use (i.e., language structures, functions, vocabulary, etc.) but also the why (such as the cultural beliefs and values that are intertwined with and drive language use). An example of this type of teaching strategy would be the exploration and comparison of the verbal and non-verbal rituals involved in specific culturally-driven language functions (such as apologizing or responding to compliments, both of which can vary greatly from linguaculture to linguaculture but tend to be ritualized) in both the native and target linguacultures so that learners can understand and appreciate what cultural elements motivate language use in these types of personal interactions and how they do so.

Debunking Myths about English Language Learners

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In some cultures, students are embarrassed to speak in front of others, so I take this into account and don't call on these students in class.

This commonly-held belief about English language learners is particularly relevant to language instruction. I personally find the belief to be so unfounded (specious, really) as to be almost laughable for the reasons I will outline below. First, the belief is premised on the fallacy that there actually are (some) cultures where students are generally embarrassed to speak in front of others. Because individuals usually do not speak when alone (of course, there are exceptions as we do sometimes mutter to ourselves, but I would hold that even those who fervently support this belief would agree that most speaking takes place in the presence of others), if this premise were true, then there would have to be some cultures where individuals either never speak (except perhaps while alone and only to the mirror) or are always embarrassed when engaged in conversation. While the world is, admittedly, populated by thousands upon thousands of distinct cultures (many linguists posit that there are currently around 7,000 different languages spoken throughout the world), I have never heard of any culture where individuals do not speak at all when in the presence of others. Such a culture would seem to be completely at odds with human nature. Second, even if there are cultures where some individuals tend to feel anxious when speaking in front of groups (in fact, I would argue that in all cultures there are some individuals who are embarrassed to speak in front of others), this belief is built on a such a broad and sweeping generalization that it is almost impossible for it to be true, especially since the supposedly embarrassed students are completely unqualified (that is, in the numerical sense: not some students, many students or even most students). As Dr. Kris Gutierrez aptly pointed out, "there is more variation within groups than between groups" and so we would expect that within any cultural group, we should find individuals who run the gamut from timid and reticent to unreserved and garrulous, with all shades in between. Based on my personal experience, individual personalities play a far greater role in determining who sits in his chair looking down and who raises her hand trying to answer every question than do cultural tendencies. I have had students from societies in which our putatively easily-embarrassed students hail (such as China) who have talked my ear off and others from societies often stereotyped as outgoing and talkative (say, Italy or Brazil) who would hardly utter a word in class. I hope, then, that I have managed to deconstruct and demolish the first part of this "belief": it is inherently illogical and involves such an extreme overgeneralization that it cannot possibly reflect reality. Some might say that the belief is based on a grain of truth, but I have looked for that grain and cannot find it.

Next, I would like to turn to the second part of this belief to address the wisdom of not calling on students who may be embarrassed to speak in front of others, because such students do of course exist, even though they are more-or-less evenly distributed among cultures. I believe that this part of the belief is fundamentally flawed in at least two respects. First, even if some students do feel anxiety or become embarrassed when speaking in front of others, they must nevertheless be given meaningful opportunities to practice the language they are learning; otherwise, without practicing and producing the language, it will be impossible for them to acquire it and so the entire project will fail. If language instructors do not address the needs of all students (including those with performance anxiety), then the ignored students might as well not even show up for class, since completely ignoring students is tantamount to banishing them from the classroom altogether. Second, as we learned from Steele and Waters, many students are able to "rise to the challenge" when presented with challenging yet attainable goals and encouraged in effective ways (such as being told in a genuine manner that they have the ability to meet the challenge before them).

Contact or Contagion? The Impact of Globalization on Culture

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The Impact of Globalization on Culture

After considering the three theories presented by Kumaravadivelu (i.e., cultural homogenization, cultural heterogenization and cultural "glocalization"), I am most convinced that the conceptualization of cultural homogenization best explains the impact of globalization on culture. I believe that the competing theories of cultural heterogenization and cultural "glocalization" fail to adequately account for, or perhaps come to terms with, the fact that globalization is, as much as anything, the result of unequal power dynamics at play on the world stage. Twenty-first century globalization is really just the modern, technology-driven equivalent of an age old phenomenon: cultural contact. What we are seeing now is a drastic acceleration and enhancement of the same basic process that has been at work for thousands of years.

Since there has been human civilization, there has been cultural contact, and in most instances of cultural contact, the power relations between the two (or more) cultures in contact are unequal, with the culture of the politically, economically and/or militarily stronger group exerting a greater influence on the culture of the weaker group. The power differential has oftentimes been so great that the weaker cultural group eventually loses cohesion (culturally, politically, economically, and/or socially), sometimes even collapsing or being absorbed by the stronger power.

Contact or contagion?

Consider three well-known instances of cultural contact (or contagion) from the ancient and modern world:

Akkadians and Sumerians: In the mid third millennium before the Common Era, the politically and militarily stronger Akkadians moved into Sumerian territory in southern Mesopotamia. The Akkadians admired Sumerian culture and even wrote the Sumerian language long after it had no remaining native speakers, but the cultural influence of the Akkadians (who eventually became Babylonians in the south and Assyrians in the north) was so great that eventually the Sumerian language became completely extinct, Sumerian religion died out, and the Sumerians ceased to exist as a cultural group. Sumerian culture left an impact on the Akkadians (for example, the Akkadians kept the Sumerian writing system, even after they stopped using it to write the Sumerian language, and Sumerian religion definitely influenced Akkadian religious beliefs), but in the end the culture of the stronger group prevailed. No one speaks Babylonian or Sumerian anymore, but Babylonian hung on a lot longer than Sumerian did.

Romans and Etruscans: Despite the fact that Etruscan culture was by all accounts more "advanced" than Roman culture during the approximately five hundred years of cultural contact between the two peoples (after all, it was the Etruscans who taught the Romans how to write, and Etruscan art forms, including theater, had reached maturity at a time when the Romans were still just a few thousand rubes farming the hills of Latium), the eventually greater political, economic and militarily might of the Romans resulted in the complete absorption of the Etruscans into Roman society. No one speaks Etruscan anymore (in fact, the language can only be partially read at present), but hundreds of millions of people speak Romance languages.

English and Irish: During much of the European Bronze Age, speakers of Celtic languages likely outnumbered speakers of all other European languages. Spread from Iberia in the west all the way to Anatolia in the east (the Galatians of New Testament fame), the Celts were the dominant cultural group in Europe. Eventually, however, due mainly to encroachment by Germanic tribes in central and northwestern Europe, and the eventual rise of the Roman Empire in the rest of Celtic-speaking lands, Celtic languages were "pushed" to the extreme western coastal periphery of Europe (I use "pushed" in quotation marks here because it's not that the Celtic peoples themselves were pushed, at least not for the most part, but that most Celts stopped speaking Celtic languages, worshipping Celtic gods, and generally practicing Celtic culture because they adopted the languages and cultural practices of the stronger cultural groups with which they had come into contact). Today, there are only a few million speakers of Celtic languages left and almost all of them are bilingual, speaking Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic or Breton as a "grandmother" language. The cultural influence of the English was so great on the Irish people that today, there are at most 30,000 remaining monolingual Irish speakers, when in the eighteenth century almost everyone in Ireland spoke only Irish. Today, just about everyone in Ireland speaks English.

I could go on and on, as there are literally thousands of examples that prove my point, from ancient history (iron-bearing Bantus and so-called Pygmies in central Africa, see to the modern day (Russians and the Ket, see When two cultural groups come into contact, human nature, as borne out by the whole of human history, often results in one group culturally dominating the other (especially when there is a significant power differential between the two groups), with cultural extinction frequently the sad result. Mutual exchange (as suggested by cultural "glocalization") or a strengthening of cultural identity (as posited by cultural heterogenization) may happen rarely when unusual or fortuitous circumstances are involved, but I do not see that happening with globalization today.

The spread of English (some might say like a virus) seems uncontrolled, and uncontrollable. American cultural dominance is the contagion and the internet and modern transportation technologies are the vectors of transmission. The assumptions made about individuals and society by the cultural heterogenization camp (essentially that local, dominated cultures can somehow muster the strength to resist the rising tide of so-called Westernization or the push by other dominating cultures, which has already become a tsunami in many parts of the world, by force of will alone) and those defending the utopian vision of cultural "glocalization" (that dominant cultures and their peoples are receptive to influence from local cultures at anything other than a superficial level--handicrafts or conversation pieces to adorn their upscale lofts, the latest fad in exotic cuisine or a short vacation in some tropical locale excepted) seem wholly unwarranted to me when compared against full length of human cultural history.

The assumptions of cultural homogenization seem to me to be those warranted by history: that local/dominated/minority cultures adopt the language and customs of dominating cultures because it is ultimately in their economic and social best interests to do so, or at least because they believe that it is in their best interests to do so. In terms of economic interests, the call center outsourcing example given by Kumaravadivelu is a case in point: accepting/adopting the language and even the false persona of an individual from the dominating culture produces tangible economic benefits for many members of the dominated culture, even if those economic benefits come at a personal cost. Tollefson's example of the Filipina ESL instructor further supports this view.

As far as the implications for English language education and English language teachers are concerned, the first and third viewpoints seem to anticipate the further spread of English and additional opportunities for those working in the field, while the second viewpoint (heterogenization) anticipates resistance to the further spread of English, although as I have indicated above, I find this eventuality unlikely. English language instructors would do well to develop a sensitivity toward the perhaps unfair lingua-cultural dynamics at play, as the spread of English is a double-edged sword--while it brings opportunities to some, it may oppress others, including those who do not have the opportunity or means to learn English or who do not have access to quality ESL instruction. A critical analysis of the ongoing spread of English and the opportunities it both bestows and denies to those in affected cultures will serve English language teachers well, as we develop an awareness of these issues and empathy for those affected.

Understanding Communication in Second Language Classrooms

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That which is public in second language classrooms includes everything that we can perceive, including our students' use of language, our (the teacher's) use of language, and to a more limited extent our students' knowledge of language. Although patterns of communication in the second language classroom may also be largely visible (public), the discourse of the classroom is complex, multifaceted, and problematic and therefore requires more than simple observation to comprehend with any depth. That which is hidden (i.e., not obvious or visible based on mere observation alone) includes but is not limited to our students' frames of reference, our (teachers') frames of reference, the way we as teachers and the way our students perceive classroom discourse and interaction, and of course the cultural baggage that both teachers and students bring to the classroom.

This understanding characterizes classroom communication as multilayered (visible or "public" vs. not visible or "hidden"), multifaceted (the socially-constructed product of individuals' perceptions, backgrounds, frames of reference, language and real-world knowledge, personalities, cultural identities, and so much more), complex (requiring more than mere observation to understand) and problematic (unable to be adequately characterized by a simplistic framework and requiring theory and rigorous investigation to untangle). These realizations have important implications for language instructors. First, they inform us that the dynamics of communication in second language classrooms are often (perhaps always) more complex than they may appear--no matter what we see (or think we see) on the surface, there is far more beneath, driving what is above, that remains impenetrable to the naked eye (or ear). Moreover, our assumptions about communication and interaction in the classroom, largely determined by our individual and culturally-constructed "frames of reference," strongly influence our own communicative strategies, decisions, and patterns, even though we may be barely aware of them. We would therefore do well to investigate and better understand those assumptions.

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