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文化背景与英语教学

更新时间:2009-5-14:  来源:毕业论文
文化背景与英语教学
IV. Conclusion: It is necessary for teachers to pass on cultural background knowledge to students.   
  
 Once an American was visiting the home of a Chinese. As the visitor saw the host’s wife, he said,“ Your wife is very beautiful.” The host smiled and said:“ Where? Where?”—which caused the American’s surprise, but still he answered: “ Eyes, hair, nose…”—an answer that the host found a bit puzzling. The surprising was caused by different cultures. “Where? Where?” meaning “哪里! 哪里!”in Chinese is a kind of humble saying. But the American understood it as “Which parts of the body are beautiful?” So, the reason for both sides’ misunderstandings was differences in customs and habits. Each was expressing and understanding what the other said according to his or her culture.
Events like these are fairly common when people of different languages and cultures communicate. Because of cultural differences, misunderstandings may arise, although the language used in communication may be faultless. The same words or expressions may not mean the same thing to different peoples. Because of cultural differences, a serious question may cause amusement or laughter;a harmless statement may cause displeasure or anger. Because of cultural differences, jokes by a foreign speaker maybe received with blank faces and stony silence. Yet the same stories in the speaker’s own country would leave audiences holding their sides with laughter.
Language is a part of culture and plays a very important role in it. On the one hand, without language, culture would not be possible. On the other hand, language is influenced and shaped by culture; it reflects culture. In the broadest sense, language is the symbolic representation of a people, and it comprises their historical and cultural backgrounds as well as their approach to life and their ways of living and thinking. Language and culture interact and understanding of one requires understanding of the other.
Cultures differ from one another. Each culture is unique. Learning a foreign language well means more than merely mastering the pronunciation, grammar, words and idioms. It means learning also to see the world as native speakers of that language see it, learning the ways in which their language reflects the ideas, customs, and behavior of their society, learning to understand their “language of the mind”. Learning a language, in fact, is inseparable from learning its culture.
However, it has been given not enough care to in our teaching for a long time. Although many students have acquired four skills—listening, speaking, reading and writing according to the demand of our traditional syllabus, they often make mistakes in application of language to real life, because our teaching and teaching materials attach importance to language forms but ignore the social meanings of language forms and language application in reality. We can see the following dialogues in many textbooks:
1. A: What’s your name?
B: My name is Li Hong.
A: How old are you?
B: I’m twenty.
A: Where do you come from?
B: I come from Nanjing.
2. A: Where are you going?
B: I’m going to the library.
3. A: Are you writing a letter to your parents?
B: Yes, I am.
A: How often do you write to your parents?
B: About once a week.
All the above dialogues are roughly the combination of Chinese thinking and English form. Although such forms are correct, they are not appropriate. Except for hospitals, immigration offices and such places, it’s unimaginable for someone to ask a string of questions like: “ What’s your name?” “ How old are you?” “ Where do you come from?” The natural reaction of English-speaking people to the greetings like: “ Where are you going?” would mostly likely be “Why do you ask?” or  “It’s none of your business.” Questions like “ Are you writing to your parents?” would be though to intrude on one’s privacy. Our teaching material seldom pays attention to differences between cultures, so our students are usually ignorant of the factor of culture and they can only mechanically copy what they have learned.
So in language teaching, we should not only pass on knowledge of language and train learners’ competence of utilizing language, but also enhance teaching of relative cultural background knowledge.
In teaching of aural comprehension, we find many students complain that much time has been used in listening, but little achievement has been acquired. In order to improve competence of listening comprehension, some students specially buy tape recorders for listening and spend quite a few hours every day on it, but once they meet new materials, still, they fail to understand. What is the reason? On the one hand, maybe some students’ English is very poor and they haven’t grasped enough vocabularies, clear grammar or correct pronunciation, or maybe the material is rather difficult, etc. On the other hand, an important reason is that they are unfamiliar with cultural background of the USA and England. Aural comprehension, which is closely related to the knowledge of American and British culture, politics and economy, in fact, is an examination of one’s comprehensive competence which includes one’s English level, range of knowledge, competence of analysis and imaginative power.
Maybe we have this experience: when we are listening to something familiar to us, no matter what is concerned, usually we are easy to understand. Even if there are some new words in the material, we are able to guess their meanings according to its context. However, when we encounter some unfamiliar material or something closely related to cultural background, we may feel rather difficult. Even if the material is easy, we only know the literal meaning, but can’t understand the connotation, because we lack knowledge of cultural background.
Here is a sentence from a report: “The path to November is uphill all the way.” “November” literally means “the eleventh month of year”. But here refers to “ the Presidential election to be held in November”. Another example is “red–letter days”—which is a simple phrase and is easy to hear, meaning holidays such as Christmas and other special days. But students are often unable to understand them without teacher’s explanation.
Below are two jokes often talked about by Americans:
1. A: Where are you from?
B: I’ll ask her. (Alaska)
A: Why do you ask her?
2. A: Where are you from?
  B: How are you. (Hawaii)
A may think B has given an irrelevant answer. But if A knew something about geographical knowledge of the USA, and the names of two states of the USA—Alaska and Hawaii, he would not regard “Alaska” as “I’ll ask her”, or “Hawaii” as “How are you”.
In view of this, the introduction of cultural background is necessary in the teaching of English listening.
Likewise, speaking is not merely concerned with pronunciation and intonation. Students can only improve their oral English and reach the aim of communication by means of enormous reading, mastering rich language material and acquaintance of western culture. Therefore, in oral training, teachers should lay stress on factuality of language and adopt some material approaching to daily life, such as daily dialogues with tape, magazines, newspapers and report etc., because the material is from real life, and it helps students to be well acquainted with standard pronunciation and intonation, to speak English appropriate to the occasion, to understand western way of life and customs etc. Otherwise, misunderstanding and displeasure are inevitably aroused. Let’s look at some examples.
Many fixed English ways of expression cannot be changed randomly. For example, the answer to “How do you do?” is “How do you do?” When asking price, people usually say, “How much, please?” instead of: “How much do you charge me? Or “How much do I owe you”; When paying bill, “Waiter, bill please.” Instead of “Excuse me, sir. We’re finished eating. How much is it, please?” When asking the other one’s name on the telephone, “Who’s speaking, please?” or “Who is it, please?” instead of “Who are you?” “Where are you?” “What’s your surname?” or “What is your unit?”
In English, there are so many euphemisms that sometimes it’s hard to know the other one’s actual mood. So we should pay attention to our answer. For example, when one ask: “How do you like the film?” and the other answer: “I think it’s very interesting”, it shows he doesn’t like it very much instead of the literal meaning “very interesting”. When one asks: “What do you think of my new coat?” and the other answers: “I think the pocket is very nice”, it also shows his dislike. In America and England, usually people don’t say unpleasant words to one’s face, they always say pleasant words to the full or evade direct answering, saying “I don’t know.” For example, when one asks, “Do you like our teacher”, you may answer: “Well, I don’t know him very well.” Sometimes out of his politeness, when meeting unfamiliar people, he may conceal his true feelings. For example, A asked B: “How are you?” Although B had got a bad cold, his answer was “Fine, thank you”, but not “Not very well, I’m afraid ”, or other similar answers.
During oral communication, speakers need standard pronunciation and intonation, as well as the suitable use of language for the occasion. There are numerous examples that we could cite of expressions that are correct according to grammatical rules, but unsuitable for the occasion.
Once, after a student gave a lecture, he asked a foreign visitor for his advice. He said like this, “I am desirous of exploring your feeling on the lecture”—which caused the foreign visitor’s surprise. He said: “You English is too beautiful to be true.” But the student refused to accept the comment. He said the sentence was extracted from the book. The visitor explained that phrases like “desirous of exploring your feelings” were not fit for spoken language, which should be replaced by “I’d like to hear your views on the lecture” or “May I have your views on the lecture?”
A person comforted a bereaved young wife, “I’m terribly sorry to hear that your husband has just died, but don’t let it upset you too much. You’re an attractive young woman. I’m sure you’ll find someone else soon.” Although the words accord with grammatical rules, they cannot be applied in communication, and at the same time, they betray the social customs.
As peoples are diverse, customs are diverse. It is only natural then that with differences in customs, differences often arise in using of language. For example, when someone praise your English is very good, American and Chinese replies to compliments are different. According to Chinese customs, they generally murmur some reply about not being worthy of the praise, while according to American customs, they tend to accept the compliment with the pleasure. The reply like “No, I don’t speak good English”—Americans think which seems to criticize the other side, is impolite.
Reading English articles requires a certain language basis, but the competence of reading comprehension is not entirely related to one’s language level. Knowledge of cultural background is also important. Reading is a process affected by integration of one’s language knowledge, cultural background knowledge and other professional knowledge, and a process of continuous guesses and corrections according to available language material, cultural background and logical reasoning. Generally speaking, Chinese people study Chinese without the difficulties aroused by cultural background. Chinese proverbs like “只许州官放火,不许百姓点灯”, “平时不烧香,临时抱佛脚”, “差之毫厘,失之千里” will not influence our understanding of article. The connotation of such new words as “改革开放” “大腕” “追星族” are easily understood, too. However, when we read English articles, differences between Chinese and western cultures often bring us many difficulties.
Following, effect of cultural background on reading will be discussed, with some common terms or expressions in reading material, which is often not understood by Chinese learners unfamiliar with western culture, as illustration.
Many allusions drawn from history, religion, literature etc., often appear in English works and have become common household terms. But without the knowledge of western culture and history, such allusions are not always easy to understand, and without understanding there can be little appreciation .For example:
a Herculean task—task requiring great power of body or mind. Hercules was a powerfully built hero of ancient Greek mythology. As punishment for a serious misdeed, he was ordered to do twelve virtually impossible tasks. Hercules succeeded in doing all and was rewarded with immortality. Example: It was a Herculean task, but he managed to do it.
David and Goliath (from Bible)—David was a shepherd boy; he killed the Philistine giant Goliath with a shot from his sling and later became king of the Hebrews; in metaphorical use, David and Goliath stand for a contest between two persons, enterprises, countries, etc., in which one is much smaller and/or weaker, but in which the smaller/weaker one wins out.
a Horatio Alger story—any “success story”, often considered a myth, of a poor boy who works hard and finally rises to the top, becoming rich, successful, famous; Horatio Alger was a writer whose stories generally had the same such plot. His best-known books are the Ragged Dick series and the Tattered Tom series.
Some of these allusions may be looked up in the dictionary, but with the continuous development of society and language, new allusions have appeared. Unless one is well acquainted with developments of a certain country, one would be at a loss about the meaning and connotations of terms or expressions such as those below:
a Rambo—Rambo is the character made famous by American movies around the mid-1980s. He is a tough soldier of the Vietnam War, resourceful, taciturn, lonely, somewhat “odd”. Rambo gets involved in numerous risky adventures or in one violent situation after another. He makes miraculous escapes from impossible situations by shooting, knifing, bombing or burning his way out. Unbelievable as his feats may seem, and repugnant as some of his violent actions may appear, he is the current hero of many American boys and young men.
a Pepsodent smile—A smile showing beautiful white teeth; from advertisements for Pepsodent tooth paste, one of the better-known brands in the USA.
Idiom is an important part of the language and culture of a society. They are often hard to understand and hard to use correctly. They are almost impossible to understand from the meanings of the individual words. And with English idioms, even the same words may have different meanings as in the examples blow:
So, first of all, a student should learn not to look down on such idioms just because they’re made up of such simple and easy words. He should look out for identical phrases with different meanings and look them up in a dictionary if he’s not sure. He’s bound to run into a lot of trouble when he first uses them, but he shouldn’t give in, much less give up. If he keeps trying and keeps at it long enough he’ll make out and things will turn out well in the end.
Though the passage is short, it includes ten idioms: look down, made up of, look out for, look up, run into, give in, give up, keep at it, make out and turn out (well).
It is thus clear that difficulties in reading cannot be completely solved by one’s language knowledge, because works of a people cannot be separated from the people’s cultural tradition. So, in teaching reading, a teacher should explain grammatical difficulties as well as expound cultural background.
Similarly, writing and translating cannot be separated from cultural background knowledge.
In translation, even the very simple expressions cannot be dealt with without any consideration of specific context and customs.
We shall take the word “dog” as an example.
To English-speaking people, the dog does not carry the same associations as it does to Chinese. The dog is considered to be derogatory, for example, “癩皮狗” “丧家之犬” “走狗” “狗急跳墙” “狗头军师” etc. are often used to describe disgusting people. But dog in English, especially in proverbs, is a commendatory term.  If we translate dog into Chinese “狗” without exception, we may make jokes. For example:
1. Every dog has his day.
2. You are, indeed, a lucky dog., 
3. Last night my father came home dog-tired.
Because some learners are not well aware of the cultural differences, they take it for granted that the three sentences should be translated into the following:
1.每条狗都有自己的节日。
2.你真是一条幸运的狗。
3.昨晚我爸爸回到家中像狗一样得累。
In fact, the right translations are as follows:
1.人人皆有得意时。
2.你真是个幸运儿。
3.昨晚我父亲回到家中非常累。
In writing, cultural background knowledge is also important. Why is it that the English writing of Chinese students read so much like translations of Chinese? Why is it that one can fairly easily tell whether an article was written by a Chinese or by a native speaker of English? On the one hand, it is probably because most Chinese students have not yet mastered the language; On the other hand, it is probably because of differences in Chinese and English writing styles that reflect cultural differences.
Narration and description in Chinese seem to be a bit more ornate, or “flowery”, than in English. The following passage from a student’s composition is typical of this kind of faulty writing in English:
“I walked joyfully along the path that was lit up by the golden rays of the morning sun. Beautiful flowers of many colors were blooming. How fragrant they smelled! Little birds were singing in the trees, as if greeting me ‘Good morning! Good morning!’… my heart was bursting with happiness…”
One of the common faults in this matter is the tendency of Chinese students to use too many adjectives. Adjectives, of course, are necessary in good writing. But if not used with care, they can have the opposite effect—quickly kill interest and produce boredom. www.lwfree.cn
Chinese and English-speaking people seem to look differently on the use of set phrases and expressions. Good English writing discourages what are called “clichés” or “trite expressions”. Chinese writing, on the other hand, gives its approval to well-chosen “four-character expressions.” To a native English-speaker, the following sentence would be frowned on as an example of poor writing: He slept like a log and woke up at the crack of dawn, fresh as a daisy.
Trite expressions and clichés originally caught people’s attention precisely because they were and are so colorful and express an idea so well. But overuse caused them to lose their charm and freshness.
In persuasive writing such as social or political essays and editorials, English-speaking writers tend to be less militant in tone and language than most Chinese. The idea is to let the facts speak for themselves. In other words, the facts themselves should be able to convince the reader. Thus in such types of writing, one finds rather sparing use of such phrases as we must, we should not, it is wrong to, it is absurd, cannot be denied, resolutely demand. The tone is usually restrained; the language id generally moderate. In present-day Chinese social and political writings, facts are of primary importance, of course, but considerable stress is also laid on militancy, on making one’s stand clear. This difference in attitudes is an important one. Experience has shown that a hard-hitting essay or editorial in Chinese does not always have the effect intended when translated into English. Instead of convincing people, the blunt tone and language often antagonize people or arouse suspicion that the writer does not have a strong case and must resort to fiery language, rather than rely on facts and reasoning.
Besides the three points of differences mentioned above, there are others. If we couldn’t be acquainted with these differences, we would not write a standard English composition.
From what had been said, it is clear that cultural background knowledge is necessary in language teaching. Teachers should help students to solve the difficulties in language as well as in culture. Thus, further improve our quality of teaching.
It is not easy to teach cultural background knowledge. Firstly, teachers must be acquainted with the differences between the two linguistic cultures. Teachers can provide cultural information, as well as make students express themselves correctly in different occasions, and the latter is more important.
Firstly teaching material is important. A proportion of foreign material and authentic material should be used, especially dialogues, because it’s more authentic and reflects cultural behavior followed by speakers. Authentic material refers to material selected from authentic activities concerning social factors. Next, teachers should explain cultural factors involved in the material with purpose. Below is a dialogue between two English persons:
Helen: Hello, Susan.
Susan: Hello. I’m going to get a magazine and some chocolate. Would you like to go with me?
Helen: OK. Let’s go to that newsagent in the corner. I want some cigarettes.
Susan: I want to go to the one down the road. I’ve got to send off this parcel and there is a post-office in that one.
This dialogue tells us in England some newsagent’s shops not only sell sweets and cigarettes, but also install post office where people can send off letters and parcels. But in China, there are not such shops. If teachers don’t give the explanations, students may feel puzzled.
Secondly, encourage students to read extensively, including novels, magazines, and newspapers etc. To most Chinese learners, acquisition of knowledge of western culture, mainly depend on reading material, while literal works is the most rich material through which we can know something about a people’s psychology, cultural characters, customs and habits, social relations etc. Teachers should guide students to accumulate relative cultural background knowledge when reading material. Through enormous reading, students’ understanding of culture will become ripe and complete.
Thirdly, in the classroom, teacher should pay attention to proper language forms as well as suitable use of language. One way of classroom teaching is to ask students to make similar dialogues to the text. A student inevitably needs to play a role and carry on a conversation according to a certain role. Teacher should attract the student’s attention to his role and point out his expressions which are improper for his character or the occasion. Furthermore, remind students to pay attention to details such as pronunciation, intonation, countenance wording, gesture etc.
Fourthly, use good native English videotapes and films in teaching, and then organize discussions. When watching videotapes or seeing a film, students and teachers should pay much attention to the scene of daily life, such as conversations between shopkeepers and clients, dialogues on the telephone, chat in the street, etc. After that, teachers and students may exchange views and replenish each other.
Fifthly, encourage students to communicate with native English speakers. But so far, we haven’t carried out such activities enough. In contact with native speakers, students can be deeply impressed by the differences between two cultures at first hand. Moreover, in such relaxed conversations, students can learn much knowledge, which cannot be learned in the classroom.
Sixthly, hold some lectures about cultures and customs, comparing Chinese culture with western culture.
In teaching, teachers should attach importance to cultural differences and study these differences. As English teachers, we should not only help students to learn a foreign language, but also to learn social and cultural background knowledge. Only so, students can widen their knowledge and thus further learn English well.                           ( 4,168)
 
 
Bibliography
 
I. Books in English:
 Deng Yanchang, and Liu Runqing, Language and Culture, Foreign Language Teaching & Research Press, Beijing, 1989
 Liu Daoyi, and N. J. H. Grant, Junior English for China, People’s Education Press, Beijing, 1994
 
II. Books in Chinese:
 胡文仲         《文化与交际》,外语教学与研究出版社,北京,1994
 贾冠杰         《外语教育心理学》,广西教育出版社,广西, 1996 
 王才仁         《English/">英语教学交际论》,广西教育出版社,广西,1996
 王福祥、吴汗樱 《文化与语言》,外语教学与研究出版社,北京,1994
 
III. Dictionaries:
 Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English with Chinese Translation, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, London, 1984
 The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, Oxford University Press, London, 1970
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