Education Insight| Developing Language through Cultural Bridges

As an English teacher with rich experience in my field in England, but new to teaching and now working and living in China; Brian Friel’s play ‘Translations’ has really been resonating with me recently. One main character, Maire, exclaims, “Oh my God, that leap across the ditch almost killed me”. This reminds me of the challenges we face in preparing our children to build bridges of cultural understanding in order to help them develop English language proficiency.

Language is the system by which we convey understanding, but it is also deeply and intrinsically linked to culture. Just as I have had to learn about Chinese culture in order to thrive in Hangzhou, our pupils also need to understand and learn the deep cultural elements behind our language in order to become bilingual.

In order to help pupils understand classroom content, we use techniques such as drawing, acting out concepts, repeating instructions and using concept checking questions (CCQs) to ensure that our messages become embedded. We then need to dive deeper and explore the cultural connotations of the language and concepts we are teaching. Through leaping across this ‘ditch’ we are forging links between the concept that we are discussing and linking this to a real-world reference, before finally introducing the representation of that concept (the word or symbol).

The semiotic triangle. (Adapted from Ogden & Richards, 1923, p. 14)

The symbol, either the word or the written form, is related to an internalised representation (their idea of what something represents such as a thought or feeling) which they are trying to convey to another person.  The reference is then conceptualised to create this internal representation and expressed as a symbol. From an understanding point of view, the receiver of the information can deconstruct the symbol to find the representation and interpret the reference. Where there is a limited amount of shared reference or symbolism, it is translated to pupils finding tasks difficult or else communicating poorly.

The Semiotic triangle can represent this process, but perhaps it would be even more effective to add another point to the triangle or maintain awareness of the intelligence and cultural background of our learners.

In Chinese, mountain is 山 (Shān) and this pictorial representation is based on a mountain itself; similar to 象 (which looks somewhat like an elephant). Whereas in English, the word elephant comes from the Greek word elephas (ivory) and then later the French word ‘elefant’ before arriving on our rocky shores with a different spelling. Relating this back to the Semiotic triangle and our leap across the metaphorical ditch, we must link the concept of an elephant to the Chinese symbol and vocabulary because the idea of an elephant is universal. Therefore, we must teach that the Chinese symbol and name for the elephant is different in Chinese, but an elephant is an elephant, regardless of what you call it. The concept is already known (more often than not) and now we must almost knit the different words and language styles to what is already known.

We must also remain aware that the implications of a word differ across cultures. For example, most people know what a dog is, but how we treat dogs or value them in society will differ greatly between cultures. This is also important to remember when teaching a language. Words contain culturally constructed ideas, such as perceptions of masculinity and gender. Is it appropriate to refer to a mixed gender group of people as ‘guys’? Chinese only uses the pronoun ta, meaning this awareness must also be taught as well as the word for he, she, his, hers etc. This is something that even lifelong learners for whom English is a second language seem to struggle with. In response to this I am continually correcting and encouraging pupils to always consider a person’s gender when speaking. Though the written pronoun (ta) is different for ‘he’ and ‘she’ it is pronounced in the same way, therefore pupils must change their thinking pattern and remember to pronounce the correct word or symbol. This process is going to take a long time as we are encouraging our pupils to transition from translating their speech internally from Chinese, to being able to think simultaneously in English and Mandarin; therein effectively remapping the neuron pathways within the brain.

What about when the concept in Chinese is different from the English convention? One example of this is punctuation. The Chinese style of using a colon in front of speech is something not readily used outside of script writing. Pupils must now learn a different convention for the punctuation they have been using for several years. I am currently trying to engrain an understanding of punctuation into every lesson. The intention being that this will lead to a developed awareness of punctuation across all lessons, not just English.

Our pupils are very intelligent and want to do their best. Regardless of the difficulty of the task, they consistently try hard to succeed and with this attitude supporting them. I expect them to be fluent bilingual learners in due course. Our pupils are in a unique and lucky position, having been gifted the opportunity to become truly bilingual, future-proof 21st century citizens; ready for the well-established cultures of both the East and the West.