The course which I am using as the basis for this study, is a fourth-year Dutch language class. The reason for focusing on this year's group was partly pragmatic, in that this was the only language year group I was teaching at that point. However, more importantly, I felt that for researching the understanding of the cultural locatedness of texts, the fourth-year class would be the best starting point as the students had just returned from the Netherlands or Flanders on their Year Abroad, and would therefore have already experienced various cultural practices; in other words, they have already participated and have been socialized in the ‘shared cultural knowledge’ that the Dutch readership for the texts we are using would have. The fourth-year students would therefore be more likely to recognize the discourses in the texts in relation to the context of production and be able to discuss texts at a critical level because their language competence would be that much greater than in the first or second years.
Whilst the course takes a cultuurtekst approach, which borrows concepts from cultural studies, it is important to emphasize that this study took place as part of a general language class and not a cultural studies class per se. This means that students were not just engaged in reading, discussion, and interpretation, but also in other practical language tasks which included all the four traditional language skills. However, as the students on this course have just spent a substantial time in a Dutch-speaking environment, they are confident communicators at the interpersonal social skills level (cf. Cummins), and are confident intercultural speakers. For that reason, the course focuses more on cognitive language skills. It is largely centered around texts (including oral and visual ones, although the latter were only touched upon), discussed in class, and with a range of follow-up writing activities.
At the time of data collection, I had articulated the overall aim of the course at a practical level as enabling students to function and communicate at a professional, social and academic level in a Dutch-speaking environment within a wide range of social and cultural contexts. Apart from advancing students’ actual language skills, this functioning particularly requires the students to develop an awareness of how language, communication, and culture relate to one another. As I mentioned earlier the students need to be able to engage with communicative instances at the level of context of situation as well as context of culture. Both levels would demand a particular level of criticality. Looking at texts in relation to the context of situation requires students to engage with texts as products and encourages them to think critically about the text in terms of its interplay of ideas, its coherence, and clarity. Looking at the context of culture requires students to engage with text as a process and encourage criticality in terms of ‘discursive mapping’: looking at texts for the way they draw on discourses and produce ‘truth claims’ and maintain assumptions about the world and power differentials. Students need to be ‘critical intercultural language users’, not only in their ability to read and talk about texts but also in being able to write and address readers themselves, taking into account the communicative demands set by both levels of contexts.
As set out in previous chapters, the course differed from other Dutch language courses in its focus on awareness-raising of ‘culture in language’. In my previous chapters, I criticized the instrumental approaches to language learning which are informed by the guidelines of the Council of Europe. Particularly in the Netherlands, there is a strong instrumental focus in language teaching. My criticism of instrumentalism is directed at its limited and reductive approach to the social and cultural world. Frequently in instrumentally oriented textbooks, examples of ‘language in use’ are presented as if the language users all share the same context and speak with the same voice; as if there is a universal (native) speaker.
That does not mean that I believe preparing students for the world of work is irrelevant, but I believe that the ‘world of work’ is part of the complex wider cultural context. We cannot predict what particular linguistic and cultural contexts our graduates will encounter. What we can predict, however, is that these situations will be complex and differ each time, will be challenging, consist of many indeterminacies, and will be intercultural.
As well as linguistic skills, students should develop intellectual skills which go over and beyond the cognitive academic language proficiency of writing cogent arguments in order to understand and become aware of language and its uses in the cultural world. These are not just skills for functional and pragmatic purposes, but also for ideological purposes: recognizing on the one hand how ideas and values are reflected and constructed in texts, how power relations are reproduced, and how the reader is positioned in certain texts.
With these factors in mind, I designed the course so that students were gradually made aware of the wider cultural context of the text and how this is reflected and constructed in the language used. I had ‘packaged’ this approach to students in the more pragmatically formulated notion of ‘style’. After all students’ expectations and their own objectives for this course would have been primarily to improve their language skills, not to learn how to analyze texts. The importance of looking at cultural values in texts, I explained, was partly to recognize as a reader where a text is ’coming from’, but also, it would help them in their practical writing skills by being able to write stylistically appropriately for different aims and purposes.