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In: M. Bondi, & N. Maxwell, Cross-Cultural Encounters: Linguistic Perspectives, pp.59-67.
Roma: Officina Edizioni, 2005. ISBN 88-8750-90-6 pp.312.

Usages, Competence and Understanding in the Transcultured Speaker

Patrick Boylan

Department of Linguistics, University of Rome III

1. Introduction

In an influential paper written some years ago on learning languages “interculturally”, Claire Kramsch (1993: 181) encouraged language and linguistics teachers to "separate knowledge about the culture" from "experience of the culture", only the former being the proper object of classroom instruction. This paper will argue that in fact such a separation impedes effective language learning, which -- it will be claimed -- must be holistic and experiential to be successful. Indeed, the dichotomy is a false one, used consciously or unconsciously to preserve the centrality of one's own linguistic system and cultural heritage -- one's existential bulwark -- while seemingly admitting the validity of other systems on purely intellectual grounds.

Kramsch has subsequently modified her views -- see for example Kramsch 1998:27 -- but her original formulation continues to influence the teaching of language as culture (see for example, Roberts et al. 2001: 231). It is therefore the earlier vision which this paper will attempt to refute.

2. Arguments/Counterarguments

Kramsch sums up her arguments under three headings.

Let us begin by examining the last assumption, i.e. that “competence” (in particular, critical, conceptually-framed competence) produces “performance” and not vice versa. From there we shall move backwards to consider whether one can assess “critically” an experiential reality that one has not experienced “as a native”. Finally we shall consider whether attempts at cultural assimilation produce acceptance or rejection.

The relationship between “competence” and “performance” has been hotly debated by linguists since Chomsky's 1965 enunciation of the distinction and Hockett's 1968 rebuttal. Psychologists subsequently joined the fray and have managed to give some empirical validity to these two concepts.

Generally speaking, competence -- whether that of an accomplished polyglot or that of a medical diagnostician -- is a performance-specific cluster of abilities and dispositions, mobilized (brought into being as an entity) through social interaction (Leplat, 1997, Palincsar, 1998). What we call “performance” is therefore not so much the effect of competence as its cause: repeated performance brings a certain mental clustering into being. Sophian (1997) speaks of “competence shaped by performance” just as much as the other way around. As for “competence” in the original Chomskian (linguistic) sense -- the black box in the mind, existing from birth and containing the rules for well-formed sentences -- such an entity cannot be said to exist, except as an idealization of the general cognitive abilities which constrain the mind when operating linguistically (not dissimilar to those abilities which constrain logical or mathematical thinking and which cause people everywhere to see approximately round forms as “circles”). In other words, competence as the seemingly rule-based knowledge we ascribe to polyglots or medical diagnosticians (or anyone who speaks a language or understands concepts such as “circle” or “straight line”), exists only through “motivation-led” constrained interaction with the environment to satisfy felt expressive (or other) needs (Patel, Kaufman & Magder, 1996). “Motivation-led” means that the mental clusters are not only cognitive, but also (and perhaps principally) volitive and affective. For most psychologists, then, Piaget's genetic epistemology (Piaget, 1947) -- or a variant of it -- seems to furnish the best explanation of competence: a performance-acquired performance potential, constrained (not imposed) by the mind.

Thus, when we speak of Issac Stern's "competence" in playing the violin and the demonstration of that competence through his more than adequate "performance" during a concert, we are speaking of the same psychic domain (clustering) from two viewpoints. We are seeing it: 1. as a state of readiness -- motivationally-led and socially-acquired within the constraints of our human perception of harmony -- to process musical information in a certain way; 2. as the activation of that state according to the dictates of a given situation (a musician plays differently to different audiences).

In philosophical terms, the psychic reality we call competence is a deliberative faculty. “Deliberative” (Gadamer 1975) means that it is volitionally directed, although cognitively justified, and can be defined operationally as an internalised state of readiness to act optimally in a given situation, acquired through reflection upon repeated (but not mechanical) motivation-led performances.

If the "cultural competence" that Kramsch describes were of this kind, then "cultural performance" would obviously ensue. That is, if Kramsch's "cultural competence" consisted of a repeated volitional, affective and cognitive mobilization of the psyche according to a certain community's Weltanschauung and thus the internalisation of a disposition to speak and act in a given situation in ways people of that culture find normal, then one could confidently say that adequate "cultural performance" would necessarily ensue from the "cultural competence" acquired through motivation-led performance. That is, learners would undoubtedly be able to act spontaneously and convincingly in function of the newly internalised world view, adapting it to the dictates of each unrepeatable situation. (We must of course still discuss whether it is desirable that they be able to do so.)

In Kramsch's usage, however, "competence" does not designate an internalised state of readiness to act optimally. It is a purely cognitive state (“epistemic" in Aristotle's terminology: Nicomachean Ethics VI, 1140a). It is therefore unclear how her "cultural competence" can lead to adequate "cultural performance." For adequate "cultural performance" is not the mere application of conceptualized rules; it relies on an intuitive “knowledge of the unique” (Gadamer 1975) and, as described above, calls for a creative ad hoc mobilization of abilities. Moreover, even if "cultural performance" were the application of rules (like Aristotle's techne) to make “culturally authentic utterances”, the rules to be applied are not simply cognitive, but above all volitional (“beliefs”, “wants”, “intents”: Wermus 1997) . This contrasts with the kind of competence described by Kramsch, which is purely cognitive and highly critical of attempts to assimilate the affects and volitional states of one's interlocutors.

But even ordinary experience shows that purely cognitive competence does not, of itself, lead to any kind of effective performance: Italian schools and universities, for example, have turned out generations of graduates with an "epistemic" competence of a second language -- both grammatical and cultural, when all goes well -- who are incapable of adequate "technical" performance. Even when pupils receive an adequate technical preparation (through, for example, hours of drill work in the language laboratory or pair practice in the classroom), they do not always know how to adapt their rote knowledge to what a given intercultural communicative situation calls for. In a word, conceptually-framed declarative knowledge about the other language and culture is not the only kind of critical "cultural competence" we should be trying to give students, if what we want from them is critical "cultural performance".

Aristotle defines the kind of knowledge needed for performing optimally in intentional situations and calls it phronesis (insightful procedural knowledge, wisdom, expertise). Like techne (“know how”) or ordinary competence, phronesis is deliberative and thus both cognitive and volitional. But while techne is the application of technical rules to making things, phronesis is the competence that enables one to act with discernment. Great diplomats have it, as do winning negotiators, innovative scholars, and language students able to say the right thing at the right moment (situationally, psychologically, socioculturally, etc.) in their acquired idiom. Learning a language routinely is techne; acquiring the ability to communicate interculturally is phronesis.

The refusal to teach phronesis (considered techne and therefore beneath the dignity of a university professor) has produced floods of language graduates who, when they speak, produce utterances that jar -- utterances that create intercultural misunderstandings instead of reducing them. Students such as these return to their home country with, if anything, reinforced negative stereotypes about the culture they were immersed in for a semester or two -- and they may very well represent the majority of exchange students (Coleman 1998).

The solution, on the basis of what precedes, obviously cannot lie in increasing the number of descriptive linguistics courses or cognitively oriented “intercultural” courses given to students propaedeutically.

The solution that this paper proposes is:

3. Learning to be

How can this affective/volitional knowledge be taught within the constraints of institutional (university) language and linguistics courses? Example of lesson plans can be found on the web site www.boylan.it -- see, for example, the module English for Intercultural Communication aimed at Italian first and third year university students.

These courses are all based on ethnographic projects (as in Byram 2001) but with a twist. The projects are not limited to the mere ethnographic description of native speakers of English (which students seek out in the pubs and exchange student programs in Rome); the projects go far beyond and include:

  1. a preparatory experiential demystification of the students' native culture;

  2. the search for a common code enabling the student and his/her English-speaking interlocutors to assign meaning to the words they use;

  3. the definition and introjection of the value system of one of the interlocutors, whom the students choose as their “double” in the target culture. The students willingly undergo a "transformation of the self" in order to feel their double's values -- and then speak as a consequence. This can involve returning to experiment on their original interlocutors their newly acquired way of speaking and being (Boylan & Mari, 1998).

If we take this kind of teaching as a point of departure (or any of the other methodologies described by Byram, 2001), then it is easy to question Kramsch's objections to making "authentic" performance a legitimate goal of second language (henceforth, “L2”) teaching. Let us review these objections.

Will students be better understood (and accepted) if they make this effort? There is evidence that they will (Bianconi 2001, discussed further on). But the real goal of the kind of teaching described here is another: it is to give students a feel for what language really is. Languages are not lexico-grammatical systems used to say (or even to think, to feel, or to want) what one could have just as easily said (thought, felt, wanted) in one's native language. This perception of language as a mode of being is of enormous benefit to the students, whether they be future translators, literary critics or international negotiators.

The claim that, to judge a culture critically, one must stay outside it conserving one's quant à moi -- or, as Kramsch suggests, creating a "third space" of elective common values with one's L2 interlocutors -- sounds suspiciously like an excuse for not admitting one's defensive grip on one's native culture. This paper takes the opposite view: before talking critically about the taste of strawberries, one ought to eat some and learn to enjoy them. Before talking critically about Piaf's music, one ought to have savoured it. And the same goes for French culture... or any culture. For knowing is, in the final analysis, an act of love and intermingling. Vico argued that one knows something only if one has made it (or lived it, even through imagination). For Gadamer as well there can be no understanding (even of the seemingly purely cognitive kind) that is not based on phronesis and therefore a will to enter actively into the reality of the other. Yes, indeed: critical knowledge should by all means be our goal. But third spaces are unconsummated marriages. Our students deserve more.

4. How the acquisition of cultural values affects communication

While L2 learners who do not sincerely identify with the target culture tend to sound false and even unreal if they imitate target culture expressive habits, L2 learners whose introjection of the target language and culture is sincere appear to their interlocutors to be someone who "talks their lingo" and who "understands where they're at". Not only is communication facilitated, but the students manage to convey their original "native selves" to their foreign interlocutor much better than if they had tried to convey it using the L2 as an Esperanto. This should come as no surprise. Translators know that to render a work communicatively it is often necessary to make considerable cultural adaptations: strict semantic translations betray the original.

Some empirical evidence that this is so may be gleaned from a dissertation presented recently by a student from the University of Perugia (Bianconi, 2001) and based on videorecorded interviews of Italian learners of English sojourning in the U.K., together with appraisals of the videos by 40 British subjects socioculturally similar to the Italians (students at London University College). Both the subjects and their judges were given the IPIP-NEO Personality Inventory (Buchanan, Goldberg & Johnson, 1999) and a cultural inventory of the subjects was obtained using Rokeach's (1973) Value Survey.

The first result of the data analysis was unsurprising: those Italians who showed greater convergence toward British cultural values were rated more highly; linguistic proficiency and especially accuracy did not seem to affect the final judgements.

What was surprising, however, were the results obtained by comparing the cultural inventory of the Italians with the data from the judges' questionnaires. The analysis suggests that those Italians who adapted most to British values were able to get their original Italian self across best. Those Italians who adapted less to British values were simply misunderstood. Their original Italian values did not come through as such; they were distorted and perceived as the corresponding negative countervalue or stereotype.

5. Conclusion

Kramsch's three arguments against seeking "authenticity" in an L2 through cultural assimilation do not seem to bear scrutiny. The opposite view in fact seems more likely: to be effective in an L2, one should internalise the culture as well. This implies undergoing a "transformation of the self", to acquire a feel for what is real for the members of the target culture. One accomplishes this by means of an experiential mode of learning which privileges all three components of knowledge (volitional, affective, cognitive), thereby enabling rote competence to become phronesis. Student ethnography, for example, is carried out not as the bureaucratic annotation of the speech/behaviour of natives, but rather as participant observation in which students, having bracketed their own value system, learn the natives' value system. Student dramatisations are carried out not as solipsistic projections of one's own world on the characters/plot of a foreign-language play, but rather as the introjection of another world, reconstructed à la Stanislavski.

Language learners who undergo a "transformation of the self" do not loose their identity: indeed, by being able to express themselves with feeling from within the new culture, they are able to make themselves understood far less ambiguously than if their knowledge of the target language/culture had been essentially cognitive. From this privileged vantage point, they are better able to appraise -- critically -- both their native and their acquired cultures.



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