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Intercultural Communication in EFL Classes

ABSTRACT. The question is the following: how content of the EFL texts affects students’ perception of the world if at all. Two students reading the same text may respond to the information differently because critical evaluation of the content is subjective. Student's education and background, their ethics, and the amount of time for the activity all play part in how learners may perceive the information and the ideas they infer from the text while reading.

EFL classroom observation reveals that content of the texts may widen students’ horizons by bringing new facts to their attention. It may also show the necessity to be tolerant to other people’s opinions and judgments. Analysis of the writer’s arguments may help student develop their self-confidence. It is an effective way both to learn to prove one’s point of view and to learn to be open-minded. Another factor that can also affect student’s personality is the amount of reading: the more they read the more they are getting used to the variety of ideas and opinions. As a result the chances for critical self-assessment are much higher which, in turn, leads to more objective judgment of other people’s opinions and arguments.

And finally, communication with their classmates, critical analysis of their arguments, may be an additional factor in teaching tolerance, patience and respect to other people’s opinions.

Introduction. The aim of this paper is to address to the possibility of changing students’ narrow view of the world or at least triggering such change in students’ perception of the world whenever they face the variety of opinions and cultures with the help of EFL courses. To make such change possible we need to consider the content of EFL courses, the methods applied to EFL teaching and the effect of cultural bias on the perception of new ideas and views. On the one hand it is clear that students when join the Universities are mature enough to express their point of view and to support it with some argument. On the other hand their attitude to life, world, family and friends is predetermined by their cultural background. Therefore, many aspects of life are taken by them for granted. University students in their majority are not tolerant to other peoples’ opinions and judgments. Their cultural prejudices do not let them open-mindedly and objectively review the situation and respond correspondingly to other students’ opinions and arguments.

The present system of education in Universities require students to be able to read and in many cases to write well in English. After all, almost all reference lists are in English. This means then, that if students are not competent in reading in English they may not fare well in class. In this context many researchers and practitioners in EFL tend to assume that EFL major objective is to teach critical reading of academic literature with the elements of summary writing. This can clearly be seen reviewing literature in the tendency to discuss mainly methods of teaching, approaches to text analysis, or talk about discourse-semantic representation. The issue getting less or no attention at all is the personality of a student who reads the text and the way he or she perceives the information and often misses the implications or writer’s intentions.

Reading comprehension in English for our students is one of the forms of intercultural communication because the writer and the reader come from different cultures. Accepting the fact that first-year students lack the skill and experience of logical argumentation and critical reading, I have chosen to adopt a strong position: I will assume that freshmen are obstinately prejudiced to other peoples’ opinions and ideas. Cultural or personal bias does not let them look at the problem in question beyond their stereotypes. To help them view the world in its complexity and people in all their variety is one of our purposes.

The outline of this paper is as follows. First, I will describe the basic phenomena of interest: i.e. content of EFL readings and student’s perception of it. Next, I will review research that emerges from what is called “the intercultural communication approach” where the goal is to try to generate a set of principles that help in developing open-minded personality through readings and discussion in EFL classroom setting. In the third section I will consider evidence from classroom observations suggesting that university studies is a crucial period in student’s life which may affect their future both in career achievement and world multiplicity vision. This section also considers whether cultural differences and the differences in opinions may lead to tolerance and easiness in communication.

Reading in a Foreign Language and Culture. The research on reading in EFL is guided by one of the major questions in methodology: how it happens that some students using the same reading strategies come to correct conclusions while others misinterpret the information of the text. I assume that our students possess individual potential and experience which affect their ability to comprehend academic texts in English. And such factors as personality of a teachers, atmosphere in the classroom may be of secondary importance. Some researchers argue that the instruction might be unclear, vague or confusing. If this is the case, the students usually try out whatever strategy they know to get the information from the text. Mainly they read for facts translating the text word by word missing the logical connection between the ideas and often misinterpreting the facts of the text. Other researchers claim that cultural bias is to blame. The reason students have problems with critical reading is that there is a heightened chance of cultural misinterpretation and misjudgment. No language is neutral (Weaver, Eubanks, and Winterowd).

Reading in a foreign language presupposes differences in culture between the writer and the reader. The greater (and deeper) the differences are, the greater the risk of comprehension errors will be. But this sort of ethnocentrism is not the only problem related to reading. The biggest problem is non-linear connection between comprehension of the information and perception of the ideas of the writer. Thus, multiple examples of women emancipation or case studies which show different teachers’ attitudes to female and male students in USA sound as extreme and sometimes even absurd in other countries, i.e. Israel. Therefore, we argue that students’ success in academic reading is determined not only by their language proficiency but by their cultural tolerance and manifested through their linguistic comprehension of the author’s ideas and combined with their life experience. Under the circumstances, cultural education may be one of the major crucial factors to their success in critical reading of scientific texts in English.

Intercultural Communication Approach. Communication is the medium by which we come to know things (B.Mulvaney, p.224)

Virtually all communication theorists agree that language is subjective. Transferring the definition of intercultural communication given by Richard Porter and Larry Samovar about a message producer “as a member of one culture and a message receiver as a member of another culture” (R. Porter& L. Samovar, p.15) to the situation in the EFL classroom, we may argue that we are constantly facing the situation of intercultural communication in our lessons. And as a consequence, the reaction of our student readers may happen to be full of prejudice, bias, and illogical rejection of the information of the text. One of the explanations is associated with the worldview, one of the basic elements of intercultural communication. An example often used is a comparison between Euro-American and Native American relationships to nature. While the Native American views the human relationship to nature as one of unity (being at one with nature), the Euro-American views the world as human-centered. By teaching not to assume that all people are the same, we may help our students become more sensitive to the fact that people values and goals may differ. Conversely, awareness of societal preconceptions and stereotypes which portray the other culture as “different” can help our students avoid such stereotypes.

Attitude change seems to be part of students’ learning experience, and how it happens has become the subject of considerable research. Some studies focus more generally on the changes of students’ values and attitudes in a variety of educational circumstances. For example, Lottes (1994) examined changes in socio-political attitudes at an elite university, looking at the influences of gender, fraternity and sorority membership, years in college, and religious background. She reports that seniors scored higher on measures of social conscience, liberalism, tolerance toward homosexuality and feminism than they did as freshmen with no significant differences in the degree of changes between male and female students, religious affiliation or membership in fraternities-sororities. Bryant (2003) found that students’ traditional values decline during college, the result of academic engagement, women’s studies courses, the relevance of peers, and experiences of diversity.

This study focuses on perception of text information culturally related to Western tradition by the mixed Israeli classroom population. Three samples of students (both religious and secular) from Hebrew University were included in the survey. The samples were (a) students of European origin or having parents of European origin, (b) students of both European and non-European origin (both Jewish and Arab students), (c) students of non-European origin (Arab female students). Including samples from these three very different University groups provided an opportunity to assess whether the degree of bias attitude varies as a function of the immediate intergroup communication. Given the family background and general educational climate promoting egalitarian values, the first group of students could be expected to relate to the information of the text with greater understanding and agreement. The racially mixed students’ group should be expected to express less cultural tolerance while discussing hot issues of the readings. According to Stereotype Content Model (SCM) (Tiane L.Lee, Susan T. Fiske, p.754), national origin of a subgroup will guide other members’ perception of them. Perceived warmth leads to perceived competence. Aggression may lead to rejection and avoidance. Therefore, perceived warmth and competence may help an individual differentiate stereotypes and become tolerant to other people’s subjective reactions to the information of the text or the opinion of the classmate. Research recognizes two styles of interaction: avoidance and dominance (Oliver Klein and Mark Snyder). We would add one more - tolerance.

The survey included items to assess students’ response to the information of the text and to their classmates’ opinions. One section of the survey questionnaire contained questions about the content of the texts they read in class. In completing this section of questionnaire, respondents were asked to report their perception of the opinion of the other students on the issues discussed in the texts. I believe that people’s family background most directly influence their perception of the information and their reaction to other students’ response. This paper uses several texts currently used in EFL Department of the Hebrew University as a basis for our analysis.

An effective teaching and learning environment must be inclusive, and thus require the use of instructional material and classroom practices which reflects the diversity of cultures and life experiences that students deal with everyday in class. This is especially important in the second or foreign language classroom which, as Dlaska (p.200) explains, ‘offers ideal conditions for raising cultural awareness”. As it was stated above, three groups of students participated in our survey. The texts were not specifically written for EFL courses. They were chosen by the instructors to satisfy the major goal of the course: to practice reading comprehension of academic texts and to teach summary writing. It was interesting to see how the content of the texts would affect the student’ self-image and their perceptions of other people and the world around them. The relevance of the topics to students’ diverse life experiences and need for superior critical thinking skills was also analyzed.

Researchers list several types of cultural and gender bias, such as linguistic bias, stereotyping, authority bias, group majority bias and some others (Sadker and Sadker (2001) . The study includes only stereotyping and group majority bias in the EFL environment. Stereotyping is described as portraying one set of people exhibiting one set of values, behaviors and roles (Elavie Ndura, p. 4). Stereotyping is reflected in the author’s subjective attitude to the issue in questions. The fact that the author belongs to a different culture, (we are talking about EFL classroom environment), should be the starting key point for the classroom discussion and analysis. For example, female American authors write a lot about equal opportunities, carriers, about successful female managers pursuing the idea of social equality. The reaction of our students to such information differs according to the cultural bias of the groups we surveyed. The first group with students of European origin accepted the idea of female and male equality with greater tolerance. More ambivalent reaction was in the second mixed group. And the whole approach was not even perceived as possible in the third group of female Arab students. For them the whole idea was wrong because the life of women in the Middle East differs greatly from the life of European or American women.

Another example of misunderstanding is the case of passive smoking discussed in one of the texts for nursing students. The research findings based on the samples collected in Egypt show that girls with fathers smoking are more affected than boys. The researchers concluded that girls spent more time at home with their fathers and boys played outside. Students perceived the information as showing gender differences. They did not noticed how culture affected the results of the research. The crucial parameter was the time spent by a child (no matter, a boy or a girl) in the smoking environment and not the biology specific to females.

Scientific articles which discusses directly or indirectly religion and its influence on people’s attitudes and behaviors require special attention. Not only nursing students and social workers as professionals should know other people’s tradition and treat them accordingly. Society in general should pursue this respect to other people traditions and customs. Talking about tradition, exchanging opinions, sharing their views with the classmates will help students understand others and better understand themselves. For example, in Israel December is a month of Holidays for all three religions. It is common when Muslim students wish their Jewish classmates ‘Happy Hanukkah” and they, in turn, wish Christians “Happy Christmas”. Readings about education (the text: Genesis of a Modern Toy) and their discussion in class help compare students’ views on family education, family tradition and corporal punishment. Opinion articles often present only one interpretation of an issue or situation. Discussion may bring other points of view and attitudes. The task of a teacher is to direct such discussion in the way that will help students see the prejudice of the author and the bias of the text. The texts raising current hot issues, such as daily tensions and conflicts caused by intolerance and discrimination, local and international wars are very difficult to discuss in a culturally mixed group. However, the teacher should not avoid them. Omitting the issue does not serve good to our students.

If it is not a comparative study, the author would be culturally biased. And the students will learn, for example, that female researchers and specialist are not treated equally in America and the rest of the Western world. They will learn that American teachers are biased towards their male, more dominant students, and neglect female students. In such situations the teachers’ task is to show this bias to the students, to discuss other approaches and other traditions that exist. The wider the scope of readings is the better for the students will be. Such practices give the students the opportunity to confront and overcome the challenges of the modern life, to learn to be tolerant, to learn that there are other people with their own opinions and their own problems.


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Радионова Е.С.

Омский экономический институт

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