A few months ago, I was required to teach a subject called “Culture and History of English-speaking countries”, a sophomore seminar from the current BA in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Córdoba, Spain. As I am quite new in teaching, I was entrusted with the “United States’ side” of the subject, i.e., I was expected to teach the whole culture and history of the USA in around thirty hours. No more, no less.
Of course, it was a huge challenge. I was at odds about how to face it, but there was one issue I was extremely sure of: I did not want to follow the “traditional” approach. I did not want forty students to learn by heart thousands of facts and dates and then make them spit as much as they could onto some white pages in an infernal exam.That would have been awful for everyone.
However, I did not not know how to unbiasedly talk about “US culture”. First of all, the word culture was included in the name of the subject, but there was not mention whatsoever about this concept in the course syllabus. I felt I had become one of those beautiful still-life paintings that grandmas have in their living rooms: yeap, they are there, we all are used to them, but everybody ignores them. In view of these pitfalls, I found myself hesitating in between two options: (a) involve students in the study of cultural differences between USA and Spain and (b) help them to look for a “right” definition of “US culture”. This post is focused on the first issue and sets the basis for the second one.
(a) Involve students in the study of rich points (USA and Spain)
This seems a good choice, I concluded. The fact that the seminar was not a hands-on “translation subject” does not mean it is useless for future practitioners. Besides, it is not very time-consuming: I could just pick-up some rich points (Agar 1994:231) from the States and then organize class discussions and debates. Rich points carry an intricate web of associations and connotations, webs that have no corresponding echoes in our own language, I learned. This notion implies viewing a culture as acontainer full of different items of knowledge, behaviors, customs, traditions and the like (see, for example, Göhring 1978). Then, as if we were analysts of the impossible, we could empty two different containers and start playing to find differences among every object, one by one. When you find a notion with no exact equivalent, then, right there, a rich point is born. In brief, although linguistic differences were out of the scope of this seminar, I could apply the idea of rich point by expanding the specific point to issues beyond language (society, economy, traditions, etc.).
By following this line of reasoning, we could speak about the possession of guns in the USA, watch scenes from Bowling for Columbine and ask for opinions. Then, we could compare our conclusions with the guns’ regulations in Spain (where all guns are strictly forbidden). Or we could organize a session around the apple pie—is there anything more typical from the States than an apple pie cooling off on a kitchen’s windowsill? Well, my next question was, which Spanish typical product could apple pies be compared to? What conclusions would we reach? That Spaniards love turrónand people in the States love apple pies? Now, is this relevant for the learning of a future translator or interpreter?
What I am trying to suggest here is that, although it may seem logical and convenient, it is not proven (nor clear) that splitting cultures into levels, culture bumps or culturemes is effective. In the field of intercultural communication, the notion of culture capsules has been proposed which basically consist of abstractions from reality where students select a specific ‘cross-cultural’ difference:
Briefly, a culture capsule consists of a paragraph or so of explanation of one minimal difference between American and a target custom, along with several illustrative photos or relevant realia […] in culture capsules the explanation of the cross-cultural difference is presented to the student in both the textual description and in the accompanying multimedia razzle-dizzle.
But this just seems a remake of the old movie I described above. The only difference is that with culture capsules the active role of choosing rich points is the students’ responsibility. They are the ones who have to talk about any difference related to the behaviour of people in two countries. This gives the teacher a great number of tools to assess their performance: selection of the topic, organization of the speech, etc.
But… will students use all this in their future careers? Who decides what a rich pointis? Are we talking about realities that can be objectively compared?
All these questions (and some more) will hopefully be answered in my next post. Please don’t change the channel…
Agar, M. 1994. The intercultural frame @ International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18, 2: 221- 237.
Göhring, Heinz. 1978. Interkulturelle Kommunkation: Die Überwindung der Trennung von Fremd- sprachen- und Landeskundeunterricht durch einen integrierten Fremdverhaltensunterricht. @ Matthias HARTIG & Henning WODE, eds. Kongressberichte der 8. Jahrestagung der Gesellschaft für Angewandte Linguistik GAL e. V. Mainz 1977, Vol. 4: Soziolinguistik, Psycholinguistik. Stuttgart: Hochschulverlag.
Seelye, H. Ned. 1993. Teaching Culture. Strategies for Intercultural Communication. Lincolnwood: National Textbook Company Publishing Book.
by J.J. Amigo