Revisiting MATE

It was recently brought to my attention that my paper, Developing Multicultural Awareness Through English, was the topic of discussion in one of the meetings of the Greek Theoretical and Applied Linguistics (GTAL) research group at the University of Essex.

One of the group coordinators, Dr Sophia Skoufaki, was kind enough to forward me an overview of the discussion, and has graciously given me permission to post it here. I do believe that anyone interested in Greek ELT will benefit from the incisive comments made by the members of this group, just as much as from the article itself, and this is the reason why I wanted to make their commentary publicly available.

I have also taken the opportunity to interpolate some of my own thoughts, wherever I feel that they are at variance from my colleagues at GTAL. I have, most of the times justly, been criticized about my insistence on having the last word on any debate. My motives in this instance, however, are to show how my thinking has further developed in response to my colleagues’ helpful commentary, and –on occasion– to clarify points which I fear may have been misconstrued. In the text that follows, comments by the GTAL readers have been indented and italicised.

I. Do(n’t) working-class children spend their holidays in international camps abroad?

Page 13, first few lines. Some members questioned the validity of the claim that activities such as travelling abroad and visiting museums are typical of well-off people only and that working-class people have different cultural activities.

This is a helpful point raised by the GTAL readers, and I am inclined to agree that my wording may have been unhelpful in accurately conveying what I meant. I also suspect that part of the confusion may relate to different understandings of terms such as ‘well-off’ and ‘lower socio-economic strata’. In my article, the latter term was used in a restricted sense to refer to children whose families are struggling financially, and for whom many ‘high-brow’ cultural activities are simply not available.

I do wish to point out, however, that I did not actually write that “travelling abroad and visiting museums are typical of well-off people only” (emphasis added). Such a straw-man rendering of my position risks diverting attention from the facts that (a) different groups of people do tend to have different cultural values, and do tend to engage in different social activities; (b) such differences are associated (that was the word I used) with social class, although they are surely not determined by it; and (c) some of these activities, such as international travel, are prominently displayed in the learning materials, whereas others (those typically associated with the disenfranchised) are less visible.

II. Is MATE compatible with Foreign Language Learning?

Page 13. Some members thought that it is unnatural to speak about the traditions, myths, etc. of cultures which do not use English as their primary language in an EFL textbook / classroom. They suggested that including content about various countries’ cultures would be appropriate only in textbook chapters and classroom activities which were related to such content (e.g., a textbook chapter about the history/traditions of various countries). Others, by contrast, thought that English is a truly international language and can be used in this way in the EFL classroom.

[One participant] made the point that English language learning may become a more difficult task for EFL learners if teaching materials are about various cultures than about just a few. I think that if materials are about one or two cultures only, learners identify with people from that country/ies and use that dialect/dialects as their learning target. I think that if learners learn about various English and non-English speaking countries, they will become confused about which English dialect they should try to learn.

I definitely concur with the point raised here: if our objective is to teach English as a Foreign Language, there is (or there should be!) a clearly defined target language variety and a clearly defined target culture. The same, I would argue, applies to all instances of foreign language learning. In these instances, I believe that the risk of confusion seems to outweigh any sociolinguistic benefit gained from exposure to materials that are too diverse to be pedagogically useful.

That having been said, I am wondering whether it is time to supersede the English as a Foreign Language paradigm with one that is more inclusive and perhaps more appropriate (cf. Jenkins 2007). The entire point of MATE is that English should serve as a Lingua Franca, or contact language, that might enable Greek students and students from different cultures to communicate on an equal footing about those aspects of their life which are personally and locally most relevant. It is not about using a foreign language, but rather about appropriating English for new purposes: making it their own. For this reason, it is not obvious to me why learners should look outwards (to the UK or the US) for cultural models to go with their ‘target language’.

III. Isn’t (US) American culture global?

p.13, last paragraph of section 3. [a participant] thought that due to access to the mass media, all students in Greece, irrespective of their cultural background, are familiar with British and American culture. Therefore, the claim that textbook content about western culture privileges students with similar cultural background may not be realistic. Other members said that the circumstances of each student may differ, so that some of them are familiar and others are not familiar with western culture.

This is an interesting point indeed, and I will concede that most learners are likely quite familiar with American (and, to a lesser extent, British) culture. While I am not entirely sure that the opportunities to engage with such cultures in the media make for equal exposure across social strata, I think that there is much scope for research here, and I am looking forward to any empirical investigation that might enrich our understanding of how familiar learners are with mainstream western culture, and how this impacts their learning opportunities.

IV. Shouldn’t you be more sensitive?

p.13. The paragraph beginning with ‘A core characteristic’ suggests that students from various minorities and students of a traditionally Greek background could be encouraged to exchange information about their cultural heritage. A member said that perhaps there may be resistance from students of any background in getting involved in such activities. Members mentioned that the existence of local (e.g., middle Eastern) versions of international textbooks – where content which is considered inappropriate in certain cultures – indicates that there is a need for careful consideration of the cultural information which could be exchanged among students.

This is an excellent point. Perhaps a key contribution of MATE, properly implemented, would be that it would promote awareness of such sensitivities.

V. Educating the English Language Teaching professional

p.14, last paragraph of section 4. This paragraph ends with the idea that perhaps ‘education professional with a stronger pedagogical background’ would be better suited to teaching English in a way which promotes multicultural awareness. Most of the GTAL members agreed that they were not satisfied with the training they received in relation to language teaching when they were students of English or Greek language and linguistics in Greece or Cyprus.  They thought that if more focus was given on modules related to pedagogy in departments of language and linguistics, students with such degrees will be better educators.

I think that the readers and I are in essential agreement here. As ELT professionals in Greek are being entrusted with progressively more diverse pedagogical duties (including, in recent years, teaching 1st and 2nd grade pupils), the mismatch between their Initial Teacher Education and subsequent needs is becoming increasingly apparent. We also seem to be in agreement that there should be a greater emphasis on pedagogy in the Departments of English Language and Literature in Greece. I do find it interesting, though, that such increased pedagogical provision would have to come at the expense of the more technical Linguistics and Literature modules. Such a fundamental re-orientation of the curriculum would make it difficult, I think, to still think of these university units as ‘Departments of Language and Literature’.

Before signing off, I would like to state once more that I found the points raised by the GTAL members to be very constructive and helpful in further refining my thinking. I hope that readers have found it equally useful, and in the spirit of keeping this productive dialogue going, I’d very much welcome any comments readers of this blog would care to add.


Featured Image: Rob Ireton @ Flickr | CC BY

2 thoughts on “Revisiting MATE”

  1. Hello!

    First of all I really enjoy your page – so thank you for all the great posts! Second – I want to cite from your Developing Multi-cultural Awareness through English…would you mind telling me the year and city of the conference?
    Many thanks,

    Brenda

    1. Very glad to know that you that you’re finding my work useful Brenda! Here’s a full reference for the MATE paper, using APA:
      Kostoulas, A. (2011). ‘Developing Multicultural Awareness Through English: Reflections on culture and multiculturalism.’ In Argyriou, M. and Kambylis, P. (eds.) Arts and Education: Creative Ways into Languages Conference Proceedings, Vol. A, Theoretical and Research Papers (pp. 11-15). Athens: GAPMET and University of Athens.

      I’d love to read your work, and to let me know if there’s anything else I can to do help!

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