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'target culture(s)'?

Tuesday 20 August 2019

I have been busy analysing and marking samples of the new SL Oral Individual Interview. This is in preparation for a suite of pages to be published shortly, illustrating the range of performances and marks likely under the new oral assessment procedure.

In the process, I have noted that a significant element of the new SL Criterion B1: Message—visual stimulus is that a whole bullet point is devoted to assessing how well the student “makes links to the target culture(s)”. As it happens, in the samples currently available to me, there are virtually no references to ‘target culture’, even in otherwise excellent performances. This of course results in a certain penalty in marks – as you will see when I publish the samples.

This has left me wondering why ‘target culture’ is generally assumed to be important for language learning. The truism is that you learn language through culture, and culture through language, and that the two are deeply symbiotic. But is this actually true?

In terms of TOK, there are indeed arguments which might support the claim. All languages divide up and label reality in different ways, to greater or lesser extent, and so the culture, or world-view, of each language will be different. But how different? In which respects, dealing with which aspects of reality? These are complex, subtle questions – how much help are they in basic language learning?

Then there is the useful distinction between ‘high culture’, meaning mainly the expressive arts of a culture; and ‘anthropological culture’, meaning the daily rules, customs and traditions of a society. How do these two help with learning a language?

Well, ‘high culture’ doesn’t help much… or at least until you’ve reached a pretty high level of proficiency anyway. There are nuances and overtones in sophisticated language which can only be grasped if you recognize the quotes or references – but how often is this of practical use? You can grasp the significant idea behind “To be or not to be” with just a basic command of grammar; you don’t need to know anything about Shakespeare in general, or ‘Hamlet’ in particular. On the other hand, there is the view that the greatest writers in any language have created and expressed unique views of the world – and thus demonstrate the special value of that language’s culture. The problem with this is that ‘great’ writers are by definition atypical – they are beyond the common normal writers who are more truly representative of the target culture.

So what about ‘anthropological culture’? Arguably, some idea of social structure and relationships in a society of the target language definitely helps to use the language properly. For instance, you can only use the language of politeness if you have some ideas about when, and to whom, politeness is appropriate. And what about interruption? To have an effective discussion, you need to know when you can interrupt (and more importantly, how to interrupt without irritating people!) The problem here, though, is that such socio-linguistic skills are best learned by experience, over time, in the target society – basic ground rules learned in the classroom are all very well, but they need to be practiced.

The significance of ‘target culture’ in language learning, then, is at least questionable. So what are we to make of the SL Criterion B1 which insists on “links to the target culture”? What kind of ‘links’ can students make between the stimulus image and this vast and nebulous ‘target culture’? The short answer is that the stimulus image needs to provide some sort of reminder of some ‘target culture’ element that has been discussed in class… but I’ve got another page on the way which discusses this.


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