Learning Culture: Responding to Difference
By Abdelkrim Mouhib, WLC
“Your English is great!” is the kind of thing that learners of English frequently hear from friends and colleagues. Despite the appreciation I feel when I hear such things myself, as a language learner that I am, I must admit that such laudatory remarks also bother me a bit. The word “English” used in this compliment means nothing more than its phonology, morphology and syntax. But where is the culture? In my mind, language, be it English, Arabic, French, or even Tamazight, and culture are closely intertwined. I do not see learning a foreign language uniquely as a way of conducting business with the speakers of that language. I feel that it is also a way of looking at the world. Most of my friends and students know about my advanced English language level; however, few of them are aware of my high level of “cultural competence”.
According to Milton J. Bennett’s developmental model of Intercultural Sensitivity, which aims at making learners citizens of the world, I am in the advanced level when it comes to English. This model refers to a process of culture learning that results in learners shifting from ethnocentrism to ethno-relativity, or from seeing one’s own culture as the center of the universe to seeing that there are many views of the universe. According to this model, there are six sequential stages, three that are considered ethnocentric and three that are considered ethno-relative. They range from denial where one is isolated and separated from other cultures to integrated where empathy and pluralism have led to a constructive relationship with another culture.
Each of these stages is represented by a particular learner’s attitude or outlook toward cultural differences, as the diagram illustrates. In order to move from ethnocentrism to the beginning stages of ethno-relativity, Bennett argues that learners need to make a “paradigmatic shift” where the outcome goes beyond adaptation to a specific culture and which involves learners’ development of an ethno-relative outlook on cultures and self. I strongly believe that I am in the integration stage where learners are considered advanced in intercultural sensitivity as they gain a “constructive marginal” identity which enables them to evaluate cultural behaviors, events, or perceptions in a relativistic manner that relies on context.
Bennett, as well as others, confirms that one does not need to be advanced in the target language in order to become advanced in intercultural sensitivity. Here at Salem State University, thanks to the high importance professors at the department of World Languages and Cultures give to cultural studies, most of our students, regardless of their target language level, have already shown their positive responses to cultural differences. Have you ever said, “It depends on the culture” when asked to reflect on any cultural practice or perception? If so, you have already boarded the ship towards citizenship of the world. Keep up the good work as the world is in need of you.