* Cultural imperialism through language and literacy teaching

QATESOL Newsletter 2005

 The challenge of examining our own cultural assumptions and learning styles hit me anew recently as I listened to Dr Gary Birch from Griffith University talk at a QATESOL Seminar about his paper entitled TESOL: Trojan horse of globalisation.[1]  Cultural preconceptions in teaching is not a new problem, of course, and we're all aware of it intermittently as we rush about our overloaded lives which leave so little time for reflection.

In my case I was concerned particularly about the books I have produced over the past few years with my friend and colleague, Dorothy Court.[2]   So I set out here to look at what our books say about our worldview and our teaching styles.

For our purposes I have redefined the Inner Circle, Expanding Circle and Outer Circle [3] concepts with the Inner Circle becoming native speakers of Standard Australian English (SAE), the Expanding Circle Australian citizens and residents who are not native speakers of SAE and the Outer Circle EFL learners studying either in Australia or elsewhere.

Dorothy and I are members of the Inner Circle to which most ESL teachers working in Australia belong.  We share the essentially middle-class attitudes and cultural norms of this group: that the ability to read and write English print texts is essential to full function in modern Australian society; that a strong democracy requires its people to have a sound understanding of the history and geography of their nation; that teachers have a responsibility to provide information to students who, by limited reading skills, are largely deprived of access to facts which are common knowledge for the majority of the population;  that Australian society, while not perfect, is essentially fair and decent by comparison with most other countries in the modern world; that Aboriginal Australians have had a rough deal since the arrival of the First Fleet and deserve recognition for their profound knowledge of this arid land and their impressive skills in adapting to such a challenging homeland; that the physical environment of our continent is interesting and complex and needs to be understood so that it can be protected. 

The "reading public" at which we have primarily targeted our books are members of the Expanding Circle, those who are living in Australia but who have grown up not speaking SAE.  They include not only NESB immigrants, but also many Adult Literacy students whose home language is one of the many other versions of Australian English which abound in our community.  (I myself grew up speaking one of these other versions and learned SAE at school and began speaking it consistently only at about the age of 15.) 

The members of the Outer Circle who are most likely to use our books are overseas students who come for short periods to study English here and whose teachers want them to gain some knowledge of our history and geography during their stay.  From time to time, we also come across teachers who have sent copies of our books overseas for various reasons.

Within this framework, let us now look at the books.  The Great South Land describes the arrival of Aboriginal people in Australia long before any European even dreamt of its existence and visits by Macassan fishermen who introduced new skills and plants to the northern parts of the continent.  It continues to outline the era of European maritime exploration, which had as its main impetus the search for trade opportunities. (Perhaps the precursor to our modern materialism?)  Next come Cook's scientific expedition and the British government's initial lack of interest in the new land until they became desperate for a place to dispose of the excess of prisoners in British gaols.  The terrible journey on the First Fleet and the problems Arthur Phillip faced on arrival follow.  Amongst the trials of the newcomers were scarcity of food, ignorance of the customs and skills of the Aboriginal people, the difficulties of farming in an unfamiliar environment and the harsh working conditions of the convicts.  The book ends on an optimistic note of improved living conditions and modern immigrants.

It is quite possible, indeed reasonable, to see this tale as a heavily sanitised version of early Australian history and to rewrite it in a far more pessimistic tone, focussing on the displacement and incidents of mistreatment of Aborigines, subsequent grave environmental damage and our far from perfect welcome to recent new arrivals.  Dorothy and I can no doubt be criticised for being overly positive and optimistic.  So, given that low-level reading material must be brief and this very brevity involves a sacrifice of complexity and detail, is it feasible to present a more balanced picture to our "reading public"?  Or indeed, do we want to disillusion our students rapidly from their often utopian first impressions of our country?

The teachers notes accompanying the Worksheets are based on various educational premises and make a number of suggestions but are not as prescriptive as those in some other textbboks; e.g.,

The C16 map … can be used by teachers who feel it will be helpful to their students.  Some caution is necessary here as students who are unfamiliar with maps in general may be more confused than helped by the old map. (p.v)

The stimulus pictures and suggestions about realia leave teachers freedom to discuss in whatever format they please.  Exercises cover a wide range of traditional language skills and can be tackled individually or in groups.  There is an assumption that teachers who prefer a more communicative approach will devise their own activities around the text and stimulus pictures provided.  If anything, we have perhaps leant too far towards the more traditional teaching methods of the educational cultures of most of our students and left those teachers who prefer group and pair work without guidance.  In doing so we have, of course, betrayed our own age and bias in teaching styles.

Similar comments could be made about our later publications.  In writing The First Australians we certainly had an overt agenda of introducing immigrants to the view that Aboriginal people have a prior claim on the country and had, and still retain, many extremely useful and well-developed skills which most other Australians lack.  The teachers' notes, stimulus pictures and bibliography in the Workbook provide more examples and reinforcement of this agenda.  The reading text also points out modern practices which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians often share (housing and cosmetics, for example).  In other words The First Australians was meant as a means of reducing intolerance and encouraging respect (and, in the case of indigenous readers, self-respect) and is thus openly propaganda for our own particular cultural position. 

A Very Big Country was intended to give immigrants and Australian-born students with limited reading skills basic geographic information about their country.  Information and additional illustrations in the Workbook provide more resources on the environmental issues of adaptation of plants to different climatic conditions and lead readily into discussions of potential environmental degradation.  In this book we also made suggestions about possible excursions and other extra activities in the form of games and videos which use and elaborate on the content material of the reading text.  These all fit the class-activity style of teaching.  However, we also retained the more formal, traditional language exercises.

Our next set of reading materials will be Gold! and this resource will embody similar cultural assumptions, both in content and teaching style.  Here we will briefly introduce the conflicts between Chinese and other miners and between the Government and the miners at Eureka. The issue of environmental degradation caused by mining is also touched on in the text.  In the teachers' background notes and stimulus pictures we will expand on the historic conflicts, environmental damage, as well as modern gold mining and processing techniques. 

In short, the books which Dorothy and I have produced do indeed have a strong cultural subtext but I would contend that everything anyone writes or says reflects cultural conditioning: attitudes to other people and to the events of history and current experience, the importance placed on different kinds of learning and methods of acquiring knowledge and skills.  So perhaps the most important lesson from all of this is that, while we can't avoid our culturally conditioned prejudices, we should at least be aware that our texts and our teaching styles are never culturally neutral and that we must think consciously about the implications of everything we do and say in the classroom.


[1] Birch,G & Liyanage, I: TESOL: Trojan horse of globalisation, in Bartlett,B, Bryer,F & Roebuck,D (eds) 2004: Educating: Weaving Research into Practice: Proceedings of the 2nd Annual International Conference on Cognition, Language and Special Education Research held at Crowne Plaza Surfers Paradise Dec. 2004


[2] Davidson, H & Court. D: The Great South Land & The Great South Land Photocopiable Worksheets NCELTR 2001; The First Australians & The First Australians Workbook Sugarbag on Damper, 2003;  A Very Big Country & A Very Big Country Workbook Sugarbag on Damper, 2004


[3] As quoted by Birch and Liyanage from Krachru, B. & Nelson, C.: World Englishes in McKay,S. & Hornberger, H. (eds): Sociolinguistics and language teaching CUP 1996