Proficiency Plus: The Next Step. ERIC Digest.
by Kramsch, Claire
While literary studies are diversifying their literary base and often
renaming themselves "cultural studies," language study is increasingly
viewed as providing not only points of contact with native speakers but
privileged access to their way of thinking--to their culture. Nostrand
(1991) wrote that proficiency in a foreign language means "effective communication
[which] involves not only exchanging verbal messages but "creating rapport,
eliciting respect and good will." He goes on to say that this requires
"accurate as well as fluent language...[supported by] (1) a knowledge of
the culture and society expected of the outsider by a native speaker...;
(2) a knowledge of how to observe and analyze a culture...; and (3) the
sociolinguistic ability to interact, to perceive nonverbal messages." Underlying
these abilities is an essential prerequisite that Nostrand calls "empathy
toward other cultures and perspective on one's own."
EMPATHY VS. POLITENESS
Clearly one of the goals of learning a foreign language is to be able
to communicate--to understand and be understood by native speakers of the
language. For that, linguistic accuracy is not enough. One would hope that
learners could develop the "capacity to participate in another's feelings
or ideas" and gain empathy toward members of another culture, but empathy
is a personal feeling of solidarity, not a social capacity. When we talk
about culture, we are talking about the ability to understand and be understood
by others as members of a given discourse community, not as isolated individuals.
Rather than the personal term empathy, the correlate social concept of
politeness is used here to discuss the ability to see the world from another
person's perspective. The notion of politeness stresses the social nature
of interpersonal relationships and their cultural relativity: what might
be polite behavior to Americans may have a very different value for the
French or Germans, even though they may all be empathic individuals.
To illustrate, Judy, a young American student returning from a stay
with a German family, complained that she never found out how to say "I'm
sorry" in German. For instance, she would enter the living room where the
father was sitting, and he would ask her to close the door. As she would
go to close the door, she would feel like saying, "Oh, I'm sorry," as she
was used to doing at home, to show her sensitive attention to the other
family members' needs. However, "entschuldigen Sie bitte (please forgive
me) seemed inappropriate, "Verzeihung (excuse me) seemed too conventional,
and "Es tut mir leid (I'm sorry) seemed excessive. So what should she say?
In English, Judy intuitively sensed that the situation called for "I'm
sorry," but she felt awkward replicating the text of prior similar situations
in her own family. This situation seemed to call for a different response
Because closing the door is not part of a clear-cut set of conventional
social rules in American society, the situation Judy found herself in clearly
required in English a more personal "I'm sorry." But Judy was in Germany,
and she sensed that the German situation did not call for personal attention
to another person's feelings or needs. Rather, closing the door behind
you when you enter a room seemed to be the socially appropriate thing to
do in Germany. Thus, a personal expression of concern could indeed have
been viewed as inappropriate, and the father would have interpreted it
as a puzzling expression of guilt on the part of a foreigner. But Judy
wanted to be polite and considerate.
Now one could argue that by treating the context as personal rather
than social, Judy was inserting a text from a different context of culture
into the new situation--in effect, switching genres. She was making a breach
into a view of German culture perceived and presented by the father as
a monolithic consensual social affair. By personally excusing herself for
having left the door open, the student was making a statement about the
relative distribution of person-oriented vs. societally-oriented behaviors
in German speech communities and, thereby, for a fleeting moment, changing
the cultural equation. It could thus be argued that it was legitimate for
her to behave as an American in this German situation (Kramsch, 1993a).
This microexample shows what is at stake if one sets out to teach politeness
in a foreign language. Whether in contacts with foreign cultures abroad
or through encounters with foreign cultures at home, our students will
not be spared Judy's unsettling experience of realizing that their personal
and social self, which they had up to now viewed as nicely welded together,
can be dissociated. This realization is the first step to understanding
the arbitrary and socially constructed link between language and culture.
The question is of course: How do we enrich linguistic competence with
cultural competence? Or, more broadly stated, now that our students can
talk, how do we make sure they talk "politely?"
WHAT IS POLITENESS?
For foreign language teachers, as the example illustrates, the concept
is culturally relative. The French "poli" may be the semantic but not the
social equivalent of the German "hoflich" or English "polite." Polite behavior
in one culture may be viewed as impolite in another. Because it represents
the way in which people in conversation co-construct the social context
in which they are operating, it must be defined in interactional terms
and cannot be codified in advance.
As a "cognitive ability, politeness is related to a knowledge of customs--social
conventions of verbal and non-verbal behavior--as well as an understanding
of what constitutes the memory of a people and its history. This ability
refers both to the target and to one's native culture. In fact, many aspects
of one's own culture can only become apparent through contrast with another.
As an "affective capacity, politeness entails the ability to see oneself
and others in a decentered perspective. One can "know one's place" only
in relation to other places that others occupy and that one could have
occupied. A decentered perspective allows one to objectify and thus have
a grasp on the more universal dimensions of politeness identified by Brown
and Levinson (1978): power, distance, and degree of imposition and how
they are differently realized in different discourse communities.
Finally, as a "behavioral phenomenon, politeness is a certain pragmalinguistic
competence based on a mutually agreed upon definition of the situation
and a personal decision to abide by the rules or to flout them.
Cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of politeness constitute
what foreign language educators call cultural competence. Each of these
components has its own mode of acquisition. Cognitive ability can best
be developed via observation and analysis, given the appropriate linguistic
and ethnographic tools to do so. A decentered attitude can be fostered
through interpretation skills and training in the critical reading of spoken
and written texts. Behavioral competence is best exercised in face-to-face
interaction with native speakers or opportunities for social performance.
In all its facets--cognitive, affective, and behavioral--politeness
is an interactional ability, to shape and activate contexts of language
use that either perpetuate or change the social status quo.
By building a cultural politeness mandate at every step in the acquisition
of lexical and grammatical forms, the organizing principle of the language
curriculum is redefined. No longer does the grammatical structure nor the
functional-notional speech item form the basis for curricular progression,
but the interaction of these forms with context determines their use. Some
might argue that this is what language pedagogy has tried to do in the
last 20 or 30 years: move the learner from habitual learning (learning
forms in single contexts of occurrence) to skilled learning (the ability
to adapt to different contexts of use). In both cases, language pedagogy
has traditionally viewed context as a fixed, stable affair that is separate
from language. If, however, we accept that language is more than linguistic
forms, and context is more than just a frame that surrounds talk, then
it is more appropriate to take a sociolinguistic view of language as a
kind of social practice that both constructs world knowledge and reflects
Rather than a straightforward grammatical or functional syllabus, we
should think of a contextual syllabus, one through which learners gradually
acquire not only the ability to produce and understand the forms of the
language but the capacity to reflect on how the choice of these forms in
spoken and written discourse both defines and is determined by personal
relationships, social situations, and cultural presuppositions.
One could envisage sequencing pedagogic tasks in order of increasing
contextual complexity. At every step, however, language instruction must
be viewed as the exercise of a social practice whose purpose is to bring
to consciousness the relationship between the foreign language students'
use in class and their own social environment as well as the relationship
between the foreign language and the social environment in which it is
spoken by native speakers.
Language teachers often feel that such a conscious reflection cannot
take place in language classes because students do not have the necessary
linguistic ability in the foreign language. The difficulty is not really
a linguistic one, but rather the near total lack of experience among both
teachers and learners for talking about talk, and the disciplinary conspiracy
of silence surrounding the idea that language actually constitutes social
IMPLICATIONS FOR TRAINING TEACHERS
In Europe, as in the United States, the foreign language teaching profession
is anxious to enhance the cross-cultural awareness of language teachers.
A project, sponsored by the European Community organization LINGUA, is
currently comparing the cultural training of French teachers in England,
France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and the United States. What impact does
the institutional culture of the various school systems have on the cultural
assumptions of language teachers? How and from what sources have language
teachers developed their understanding of the target culture? What tools
can be made available to them to analyze their and their students' representations
of francophone societies? The final report should offer teachers guidelines
as to how to enhance their understanding of the link between the language
and the culture they teach.
The Goethe Institute has sponsored cross-cultural seminars that bring
together teachers of French, German, and English from the United States,
Germany, and France to compare the cultural materials they choose to represent
the target culture. These seminars provide a fertile ground for future
research into the resolution of cross-cultural misunderstandings across
languages (Kramsch, 1993b).
In the United States, the Committee on Cultural Competence of the American
Association of Teachers of French National Commission on Professional Standards
has been working to define a common core of cultural competence.
There is much more to cultural competence than linguistic proficiency.
So much more, in fact, that some foreign language teachers throw up their
arms in despair and yearn for the days of the canned dialogue and the pattern
drill. Rather than look back, the time has come to take the next step.
The proficiency movement has had the great advantage of providing a social
context for students' utterances; now is the time to make students aware
of what they are doing and of the power they have to contribute to or to
change that social context. The next step on the foreign language educational
agenda is: Politeness--a social and cultural construct that requires cognitive
and affective maturity, and the concomitant ability to make behavioral
choices. Politeness is another term for cultural competence: a combination
of knowledge of the world and of one's own and others' places in this world,
a decentered attitude vis-a-vis one's own and other cultures, and a type
of behavior that both conforms to social conventions and creates its own.
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1978). Universals in language usage:
Politeness phenomena. In E. Goody (Ed.). "Questions and politeness: Strategies
in social interaction" (pp. 56-311). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kramsch, C. (1993a). "Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Kramsch, C. (1993b). Foreign language study as border study. Report
on a cross-cultural teacher training seminar. In B.A. Lafford & M.
Shockey, (Eds.), "Culture and content: Perspectives on the acquisition
of cultural competence in the foreign language classroom." Monograph Series
No. 4. Tempe, AZ: SWCOLT.
Nostrand, H.L. (1991). The levels of cultural competence. In E.S. Silber
(Ed.), "Critical issues in foreign language instruction. New York and London: