Language as culture: a new L2 paradigm

Author:  Patrick Boylan

© Patrick Boylan, University of Rome III, Italy <>


This presentation describes a university ESL (English as a Second Language) module entitled "Seeing and Saying Things in English", currently taught at the University of Rome III (Italy) and based on a new L2 learning paradigm: Language as culture.  The pedagogical, linguistic and epistemological justifications of this paradigm, plus alternative versions of the activities described here, may be found in Boylan 2004 (as well as in the texts listed under Related Links). This presentation comments the photo slides shown at the 2004 Cilt/LLAS Higher Education Conference. They illustrate the basic five steps of the beginner-level module (CEF A2/B1).

Click to begin

Slide 1. Introduction


Kelly & Jones (2003), New landscapes for languages:

"Since specialist study [of languages] is
 currently experiencing sharp decline, it is
 ... most in need of curriculum innovation."

To innovate we need to:

1. redefine our need-to-know  (tertiary vs. industrial economy);
2. question basic concepts ("language", "university lecture"...);
3. seek foremost to change
Instead of concentrating primarily on contents or methods, to innovate radically we should concentrate on changes in the relations among the entities involved:

student><teacher,     student><student,     student><knowledge.

Slide 2. Innovation in three steps


The 1st step:  Redefining our need-to-know

Tertiary societies export knowledge


From an industrial economy


a tertiary "knowledge economy".

Ordinary "communicative competence", such as that described by the Common European Framework, is sufficient in an industrial economy that produces TV sets: and computer hardware. This is because specifications speak mostly for themselves.


"Communicative-cultural competence", on the other hand, is necessary in a tertiary "knowledge economy" that exports TV programs and networked workload schemes. Here the value of these intangibles must be expressed in terms that the "other-culture interlocutors" can relate to.

Slide 3.


Thus, given the new demands of our tertiary economies,

L2 (second language) competence = knowing how to:

- relate to others in an L2 (more than just explaining concepts)
- share values  --  theirs, then ours  --  through the L2.

This new "need-to-know" requires L2 specialists.
(Language Centres can't produce them)

Slide 4.


The 2nd step: 
Questioning basic concepts

Here are my definitions of 7 basic concepts
based on rethinking communication in a tertiary "knowledge society":

Communication = establishing a relationship
Language = one's will to mean 
(produced by one's will to be)
A language = a behavioural matrix 
(a sedimentation of instances of willing to mean in specific, concrete communicative events)
English = a Métis family of idioms 
(with divergent wills to mean)
Knowledge = a volitive state  (it is cognitive only post hoc)
To learn = acquiring such a state
To teach = "getting out of the way and letting students learn*

*...after creating a learning environment they respond to" – Maria Montessori.

(For an explanation of these definitions, see Related Links)

Slide 5.


The 3rd step:  Seeking foremost to change relations*

*student><teacher,   student><student,   student><knowledge.

Students doing the module "Seeing and saying things in English" at Rome III:

What relations hold between students/teacher/fellow students/knowledge?

Slide 6. Practical example:
            the module Seeing and saying things in English


The various modules for learning
English for intercultural communication
are based on 5 activities
repeated cyclically, from module to module.

The following slides show the 5 activities for the beginners' module
"Seeing and saying things in English".
Note: the last activity calls into question the work done so far;
this inevitably leads to a different set of 5 activities in the next module.

Slide 7.


Activity 1 (traditional): GROUP RECORDING SESSION
to learn how to acquire "English" ethnographically

- Presentation of texts:
  ethnographic methods: Byram
  2001, Roberts et al. 2001)
- Form groups 4-8
- Divide up texts
- Review discussion
  style guidelines*

*Repertory of turn-taking techniques, gambits, etc. used in formal discussions in English international settings (Pöhacker 1998)

Slide 8.


Activity 1 (traditional): GROUP RECORDING SESSION
to learn how to acquire "English" ethnographically

- Group recording
- Students teach each
  other text (to learn how to
  teach themselves in future)

- Leader assigns marks*

*Content, clarity, form (number of interruptions, gambits, discourse markers etc., that respect the conventions given in the handout)

Slide 9.


Activity 1 (traditional): GROUP RECORDING SESSION
to learn how to acquire "English" ethnographically

- Class discussion
- Way of saying things =
  seeing things = being
- Students choose their
  L2 double (alter ego)*

*Any L2 speaker, even marginal, that they'd like to be for a day, from real-life or from one of the films in the language laboratory.
The films feature such national, regional, ethnic and class based varieties as: Ebonics (the Black American English of Do the right thing), Texan (Sugarland Express), Jamaican patwa (Rebel Music), Estuary English (Secrets and Lies), Lancashire dialect (Raining stones), Dubliner (The Commitments), etc.

Slide 10.


to learn to identify his/her values and expressive style

-values = cultural polar-
ities (Trompenaars 1993)
-interactional style = CA
account (Sacks et al. 1974)
- Formulation of maxims*

*Rules of behaviour that, together, form a cultural mind-set.
The transcriptions, descriptions, maxims are marked by teacher. Note that the other activities are corrected by the group leaders, who are given guidelines and who rotate. The teacher raises or lowers only their marks, for exceptional perspicacity or patent favouritism. Leaders usually correct assignments with their group to allow everyone an opinion. Students thus learn the arbitrariness of marks. They also learn to judge their own performance by first evaluating that of their peers. Finally they learn to define the learning objectives of an activity in terms that are meaningful to them. Thus, in Activity 5, they are able to propose alternative activities closer to their felt needs..

Slide 11.


by spending a day at home as one's L2 double

- Before entering,
  bracket L1 values
- Repeat L2 maxims to
  introject L2 values
- Repeat conventions*

*"I'm Naomi Campbell, who has learned Italian perfectly, and I'm temporarily a boarder here. The family calls me Daniela, their run-away daughter, and to humour them I respond to that name."

Slide 12.


by spending a day at home as one's L2 double

- Living L2 values
  unmasks L1 values
- Ethnographic account
  writing (Jordan, 2002)
- Leader evaluates and
  summarizes accounts
- Discussion: nature of
  critical incidents

Students generally consider this activity the most instructive all all. Although they use Italian at home (as their double),they claim to learn more English than in a typical day in Britain as an ERASMUS student. For they finally grasp language as a mind set producing a particular will to mean. In addition, the cultural estrangement helps them internalize their double's value system better in the following activities.

Slide 13.


with an L1 speaker of the chosen variety of English

- Find a subject in
 Rome -- easy for
 mainstream varieties

- Bracket L1 and introject L2 values
- Decide modality of contact*

*Interview, participant observation, questionnaire, conversation...
Here Eva chose to converse with the Indian owner of an International Phone Calls centre, fully aware that each interactional modality has its shortcomings in ascertaining communicative intent: uncertain verification procedure, imposition of worldview schemes, observer's paradox, etc.

Slide 14.


with an L2 speaker of the chosen variety of English

- 1. Breakdowns:
 monitor empathy
- 2. Breakthroughs:
 note co-construction

- 3. Write account
 (leader evaluated)*

*Were successes and failures due to verbal repertory, culture, both?
Eva chose to converse while while keeping in mind (or putting aside) the Indian maxims she had prepared in Activity 2. In other words, she varied her degree of internalization of Indian English/culture. This permitted her to see if the relationship improved (convergence theory) or worsened (rejection, should Eva seem affected, disrespectful or intrusive).

Slide 15.


used in Activities 1-4; search for alternative models

- (left) Group discussion (as L2 doubles): critique of syllabus*
- (right) Class discussion: the sense of the sense made
- Cycle repeated**

**"Try again...  fail again...  fail better!" -- S. Beckett

*Criticism inevitably falls on the artificiality of the discussion in English (Activity 1), the inadequacy of CA transcription (Activity 2), the insufficient technical preparation to carry off Activities 3 and 4 successfully, the artificiality that many of the students still manifest in speaking as their double (in Activity 5). To meet these objections, the next cycle uses different activities (some are listed in Boylan 2004) and different tools (Sprangley and Agar instead of Byram, Merk instead of Trompenaars, etc.).

Slide 16. What the module teaches


Thus ends the first cycle. What has it taught?

Certainly the Common EU Framework abilities:
Activity 1:
B2 listening, speaking, reading ability
Activity 2: C1 listening ability
Activity 3: B2 writing ability
Activity 4: B2 listening, speaking, writing ability
Activity 5: C1 reading ability

But also:                                                                      
- what language is (English is NOT using English words
to say what one would have spontaneously said in Italian)

- a critical understanding of own and other cultures;
- the relationship between thought and language;
- ethnographic skills in text/speech analysis and, of course,
how to use English for intercultural communication.

Slide 17.


Finally, in pedagogical terms, students learn:

-to avoid making false divisions between culture and skills (they do not study an L2 mechanically in a Language Centre and then "apply it" to literature, area studies or journalism; they study the L2 as an academic discipline of its own -- the acquisition of new mind set -- of enormous worth to future intercultural mediators;

-to view more creatively the relationships that they build between themselves and other students, the teacher and knowledge;

-to redefine their learning needs in the light of new found interests, new socio-economic conditions, recent scientific discoveries and to gain confidence in defining their goals and assessing their progress.

Slide 18. Conclusion


This example of L2 teaching has claimed that:

 to innovate means to go beyond the tired equations:

- today's L2 needs = CEF (Common European Framework) definitions
- language = words
teaching = instructing

 going beyond these misleading equations enables us to rethink our role as teachers;

      it also enables us to understand the causes of the frustrations we encounter (so that we can eliminate them).

Slide 19.


For if realize that today's L2 needs go beyond the CEF definitions, then we know why:

(Clearly it is time to take our teaching beyond the CEF definitions.)

Slide 20.



If "languages do NOT equal words", then we know why our students take so long to learn L2s (and why they keep stereotyping the L2 culture -- Coleman 1998). We've been teaching them only words!

If "teaching does NOT equal instructing", then we know why our students consider L2 studies menial (and why so many graduate uneducated -- Jack & Phipps, 2002) -- we've been treating speech as rule-governed processing of structures and thus L2 learners as instruction processors (instead of as explorers and creators)!

Slide 21.


Lastly, if our rethinking leads us to conclude that

 - "L2 studies are NOT a curriculum add-on"
   to literature, linguistics, area studies curricula... and
 - "L2 studies are NOT complementary technical skills"
   taught in Centres run like private language schools,

then we may legitimately conclude that L2 studies ought to be seen, in their own right,
- as a full-fledged curriculum, drawing on various subaltern disciples (such as literature, linguistics, cultural anthropology...)

- and as a new area of neo-Saussurian research (speech linguistics vs. system linguistics).

Slide 22.


This would enable us to produce graduates qualified as:

- adaptive front-line immigration personnel able to pick up their interlocutors' pidgin or creole and relate to them culturally;

- translators, localizers and dubbing supervisors able to adapt L2 texts culturally to the needs of local markets;

- Intercultural Communication trainers for global mangers or SMEs yet to export, who need above all the ability to adapt their communicative style to culturally diverse partners;

- critically-aware foreign correspondents and news analysts for the media (with philological + interactive skills);

- diversity experts for UN/EU agencies (used wisely, diversity increases economic growth: e.g., USA, France). (GB?)

(5 fields in which Rome III graduates have found employment.)

Slide 23.


To conclude, Kelly & Jones (2003), New landscapes for languages:

"Specialist study [of languages] is ... most in need of curriculum innovation."

My proposal:   Give students a grasp of language
as an intentional matrix.

This change in focus will


Boylan, P. (2004). Seeing and saying things in English. Paper given (in a shortened form) at the Pedagogical Forum organized by LLAS 4th annual IALIC conference, The Intercultural Narrative, Lancaster University, 14-15.12.2003. Visible here.

Byram, M. (2001) Developing Intercultural Competence in Practice. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters,

Coleman, J. (1998) Evolving intercultural perceptions among university language learners in Europe. In Language Learning in an Intercultural Perspective, M. Byram & M. Fleming (eds), 45-75. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Jack, G. & Phipps, A. (2002). Mistaken consciousness: revolutionary exchanges on languages. In Cormeraie, S., Killick, D. & Parry, M. (eds) Revolutions in Consciousness: Local Identities, Global Concerns in Languages and Intercultural Communication, 43-53. Leeds: LMU Centre for Language Study.

Jordan, S: (2002). Writing the other, writing the self: transforming consciousness through ethnographic writing. In Cormeraie, S., Killick, D. & Parry, M. (eds) Revolutions in Consciousness: Local Identities, Global Concerns in Languages and Intercultural Communication, 339-348 . Leeds: LMU Centre for Language Study.

Kelly, M. & Jones, D. (2003) A New Landscape in Languages: A report commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation. 2003,London: The Nuffield Foundation

Pöhacker, Karin. (1998). Turn-taking and gambits in intercultural communication. (Diplomarbeit zur Erlangung der Magistra der Philosophie). Graz: ECML (European Centre for Modern Languages) Web Research Papers: (downloaded 6.6.2003)

Roberts, C., Byram, M., Barro, A., Jordan, S. & Street, B. (2001) Language Learners as Ethnographers. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., and Jefferson, G. (1974). A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation. Language, 50/4: 696-735.

Trompenaars, F. (1993). Riding the Waves of Culture. London: The Economist Books.

Related Links

Patrick Boylan's home page -- Click on the word TEACHING to see current and past modules at the University of Rome III. Click on the word RESEARCH to see publications, in particular (1983), (1996), (2001), (2002), and (2003).