Silence and the relevance of differing discourse cultures in language teaching : a quest for strategies to enhance conversation in language courses
Zimmel, Christoph (2009-11-19)
Jyväskylän ammattikorkeakoulu JAMK University of Applied Sciences
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From the perspective of a German language teacher working at the language centre of the University of Jyväskylä, this report investigates the relevance of differing discourse cultures in language teaching. Based on frequent observations showing that particularly Finnish students are rather hesitant to actively participate in class conversations, I have reflected on the reasons for this noticeable reticence. Assuming that classroom discourse generally follows certain guidelines of established national curricula, I believe that we can find culturally differing discourse conventions, which are engrained in the enculturation process and promoted by the respective national education systems. A comparison between the German and Finnish education systems indicates that active participation and oral skills play indeed different roles in both countries. One major conspicuity is that Finnish students prefer discussions in pairs or small groups to an outstanding extent, while discussions in the whole class are seemigly doomed to failure. Beyond, presentation assignments frequently cause stress and anxiety among students. Thus, creating an invitational environment in the classroom is of utmost importance. The social and cognitive organization of verbal communication, including turn-taking or backchannel behaviour, will vary in different cultures and can lead to erroneous pragmatic interpretation; also in the intercultural setting of the language classroom. While the notion of the ‘silent Finn’ is today often assigned to stereotypical imagery, this is likewise a very interesting aspect worth exploring further and is therefore considered in this report. That reality is often different from the supposed ideal is exemplified by challenges concerning Grice’s cooperative principle. Even though teachers and students might have a vision of what classroom discourse should ideally be like, meeting everyone’s expectations can be difficult in practice. Very relevant in this respect is the students’ motivation towards attending compulsory language courses. A survey I have included in this work reveals that students’ intrinsic motivation is generally rather low and thus, teachers might face additional challenges. In order to develop students’ communicative fluency, activities for pair and group work; but also panel discussions and presentation exercises intended for the whole class are suggested. While trying to enhance communicative fluency in language courses, teachers should take differing speech conventions and the cultural context of teaching into account, and sensitise students to related issues.