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Critique of the Nationally-Based Knowledge Dimension

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    The national outlook is gradually being replaced, at least in theoretical discussions of language and culture pedagogy, by notions of transnationality (Risager, 2007,) super-diversity (Vertovec, 2009), and the idea of the Cosmopolitan Speaker (Ros i Solé, 2013).

    The view of culture as complex, fluid, changing, and indeterminate, is now dominating the pedagogical literature, as the world is becoming increasingly interconnected in an age of globalization and mobility. Kramsch (2002: 276) refers to the invention of the personal computer as the watershed of changing views about culture. Before the 1970s, culture meant national culture; ‘what peoples had and held in common’, whereas now she says referring to Geertz (2000) ‘there is a scramble of differences in a field of connections.’ As Brian Street (1993) said in an often-quoted paper: culture is not a noun, but a verb. Culture is not a static object, but a dynamic process of meaning-making. Holliday (2004: 132) quotes Hall to refer to the meaning-making aspect of culture. ‘A national culture is a discourse’, Hall says, ‘a way of constructing meanings which influences both our actions and our conceptions of ourselves.’ (Hall, 1996: 613). These discourses of nationalities as ‘imagined communities’ (cf Anderson, 1983) are powerful and perpetuate the myth of national unity and national characteristics that many in a nation would share. Hannerz (1999: 393-407) argues that the seeming self-evidence of ‘cultures’ as entities existing ‘side by side as neat packages, [as if] each of us identified with only one of them’, is a time-worn anthropological concept. Most of us, he states, have more complex lives which entail various cross-cultural allegiances.

    Most of us come into contact on a daily basis, whether face-to-face or virtually, with people with different cultural or ethnic backgrounds, with people with different ideas. As a result, we have all become global citizens, who have become part of ‘a larger global tribe’ as Appiah calls it, where intercultural encounters are no longer the exception but the norm for many. Appiah (2006) uses the term ‘cosmopolitanism’ to indicate the complexities and multifaceted nature of these daily intercultural experiences. This challenges the traditional notions of ‘identity’. It challenges the notion of ‘national identity’ as consisting of a clearly described and delineated set of fixed characteristics shared by all within the borders of a nation-state. It also challenges the traditional notion of individual identity – the idea of individuals having a core and stable self, which remains unchanging over time.

    But the notion of ‘cosmopolitanism’ does not assume that we all share a universal set of values. The interconnectivity of intercultural encounters that globalization brought, is only one aspect of ‘cosmopolitanism’. It does not preclude the perception of the particularities of ethnic, cultural or national identities.

    Kumaravadivelu (2008) proposes that our complex cultural and subjective experiences are formed by at least 4 different ‘realities’ of which the global one is only one aspect. The others are formed of national, social, and individual realities. It is important to note that none of these realities should be seen as fixed itself. Instead, each of these shape and reshape one another in a dynamic and constantly shifting relationship (p.157-158).

    However, as I showed above, in language learning materials, the national outlook remains strong. Textbook writers and teachers of ‘culture’ do face a difficult choice. On the one hand, teachers want to emphasize the complex social and cultural reality of ‘the target culture’. On the other hand, teachers or textbook writers do not want to create a confusing message to students; after all, it would be hard to deny that there are cultural specificities. Moreover, students often want to know about what makes ‘the’ culture of the country or countries whose language they study different from their own. Besamusca stated that her students were disappointed when they found out that certain practices in the Netherlands were similar to those in their own country. Students had hoped the Netherlands to be more ‘exotic’ (2006). Similarly, Ros i Solé found in her study of learner identities that students often are attracted to the language they study because of a romanticized idea of the culture (Ros i Solé, Fenoulhet, 2013). This pull between the pedagogic desire for clarity, and the intellectual desire for acknowledging complexity, is part of what Risager (2007: 216) calls the national dilemma.

    The content dimension of nationally oriented courses which focus on imparting information tends to centre on sociological and historical themes. But there are two other areas which are also considered to be part of the cultural dimension of language teaching. Since Byram (1989) developed a model for intercultural communicative competence for what he used to call ‘language-and-culture’ teaching, the communication element has also become an integrated part of culture pedagogy. I will discuss this in greater detail in the next chapter. The other very significant element in culture pedagogy, apart from social, political, and historical information, is the anthropological aspect of culture as everyday experienced life. This aspect has been included in the detailed taxonomy by the Common European Framework of References for Languages (2001).

    This page titled Critique of the Nationally-Based Knowledge Dimension is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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