12.12.1998   ©1998 - Patrick Boylan – patrickboylan.it

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In: L. Calvi & W. Geerts (Eds.), CALL, Culture and the Language Curriculum, London, Springer, 1998, pp.60-72.


Learning Languages as “Culture” with CALL

Patrick Boylan

Department of Linguistics, University of Rome III

Rome, Italy

Alessandro Micarelli

Department of Informatics, University of Rome III

Rome, Italy


Times have changed and language learning goals with them. Students in post-industrial societies now require a "cultural communicative" approach, based on treating speech as “historical will” and on introjecting the target culture's Weltanschauung (mind-set) together with its linguistic system. In this kind of teaching, computers may be used to rehearse the classroom simulations which prepare for real-life interaction. Cultural-communicative work on the computer is perceived as non-mechanical and genuinely aids the process of interiorizing the new mind-set. A pilot CALL program, written in LISP on a MacIntosh platform, is described. It illustrates how a tested cultural-communicative classroom practice, "Conversation Rebuilding", lends itself to a (no-frills) implementation on an ordinary PC.

1. The Dominant Language Learning Paradigm Today

The currently fashionable communicative approach to learning a “second language” (henceforth L2), in which notional/functional syllabi are assimilated through situated discourse, is much more sophisticated than the structural or grammar/translation approaches it began to displace in the 1970’s [1,2]. But it still does not account for language in its totality and therefore has become, in today’s Global Village, an inadequate learning paradigm. Its shortcomings are particularly evident in Computer Assisted Language Learning (henceforth CALL).

According to advocates of the communicative approach, "knowing" an L2 means possessing a situational and pragmatic competence in that language. This competence is, in general, equat­ed with ease in manipulating an inventory of culture-specific realizations of abstract (universal, transcultural) notions and functions [3p.15]. In other words, languages continue to be seen as conceptual systems, fundamentally logical and classifiable (while, in our view, they are so only in part and only by derivation, being fundamentally alogical microsystems of existential values and drives [4p.152, 5p.93-94, 6p.4-5]). Even such eminent linguists as MAK Halliday have described "knowing a language” as a disposition which is partially cognitive and partially neuromuscular but, for some reason, neither volitional nor emotional nor ethical. Knowing a language for Halliday (who borrows the terms from Chomsky) is simply a question of competence and performance, i.e., of being able to “map” [7p.122] specific semantic contents, associated with the specific lexical- grammatical forms of the foreign language being studied, onto the appropriate situational and pragmatic categories (grouped under the headings of “field, tenor and mode” [op. cit., p.33]) and vice-versa. While for Halliday the referential content and the interpersonal/regulatory functions of language do have volitional, emotional and ethical underpinnings, somehow the “knowing” (and the “learning”) do not.

It must be said in favor of notional/functional syllabi based on situational/pragmatic analyses that they do focus on speech as "communication", not simply as "patterns of linguistic forms" (as did the post-war structural approach). This is a positive step forward. But they nonetheless remain anchored to universals and thus lead textbook and courseware writers to propose concept-based exercises typically involving four kinds of classification:

1. types of situation (e.g., hotel interior; evening; reception clerk, client)

2. generalizable pragmatic aims (clerk: greet client; offer to be of service)

3. classes of notions and functions (a. Polite Greetings, b. Service Offers)

4. paradigmatic linguistic realizations ("Good morning/afternoon/evening;

may/can I help you?")

Each category is mapped onto the following one to produce a “general meaning” and (in step 4) the situation-specific linguistic realization. In a typical textbook or CALL exercise, for example, the student sees a picture of a young clerk greeting a client in a modern hotel, with a huge digital clock indicating 7 p.m. on the wall behind them; taking into account the situation, the speaker’s probable aims, and the corresponding classes of language notions and functions, the student must indicate the “right answer” (“Good evening, can I help you?”) from a list of possible paradigmatic realizations.

But real speech by real people cannot always be reduced to such conventionalization (except when speakers are striving to be conventional). Categories are not so tidy and all-encompassing, as in this example taken from the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train (1989). In one scene (at 17'22"), the female protagonist -- a Japanese Elvis freak on a “pilgrimage” to Memphis -- falteringly enters a shabby local hotel where two Afro-American clerks are staving off boredom. She addresses one of them and he replies with a polite greeting and a service offer. Now let us try to analyze the clerk’s response with the theoretical apparatus just given:

type of situation: hotel interior, Memphis; evening; almond-eyed girl enters, approaches a black reception clerk and exclaims: "Good night!!" (i.e. she says the nighttime expression often used when taking leave to go to bed).  But can we really consider this unique occurrence a "situation type"?

clerk’s generalizable pragmatic aim: return greeting, officer service. But how? Is the clerk’s aim, in returning the greeting, to avoid contradicting the client out of atavistic meekness? to humor her condescendingly? to play for time to figure her out? Or a combination? Or does he just repeat what he hears, unthinkingly? Can a single greeting cover all these aims?   Surely the clerk’s pragmatic aim is anything but generalizable!

classes of notions and functions: a. “Echo Greeting” indicating condescending, deferential, tactical, or minimal acknowledgment; b. “Genteel Service Offer” manifesting subservience to form. But can we really call these specific realizations “classes” of notions and functions?  A textbook of English Usage that included “classes” of notions and functions such as these would be huge beyond belief (and learning).

paradigmatic linguistic realization (*“Good night, how may I help you?”, i.e., the line actually said in the film). Can saying “good night” as a possibly deferential evening greeting to a bewildered Japanese client be considered a paradigmatic realization? Hardly.

This is admittedly an extreme example. But it shows how difficult it is to account for real speech by creating would-be “universal categories”. (Universals explain langue, not parole -- and let us not forget that what students say outside the classroom is always parole, never langue). The categories we may invent to explain why the clerk’s non-paradigmatic greeting (asterisked to show it is “non-English”) sounds right in the economy of the film, will necessarily be either too generic to capture the sense of the speech event, too laborious to be didactically useful, or too idiosyncratic to constitute genuine paradigms (they will be no more than paraphrases). Thus, if we were to go on “explaining” samples of everyday speech as we did above, we would end up with an unmanageable proliferation of pseudo maxims à la Grice that, being fundamentally tautological, illuminate but do not enlighten. This is because real speech, of which "tidy speech" is a frequent but borderline case, is fundamentally an alogical intentional process in which culturally conditioned drives are strategically channeled into locally meaningful modes of expression, the "structure" of which is partly a reflection of human discursive rationality (logos -- the aspect grammarians study), partly an ad hoc bricolage, and partly a historical accident built on the ruins of previous historical accidents ([8p.XIV seq.]; see also Wittgenstein’s comparison of language with the disposition of streets in an ancient city center, both alogical but not irrational products of history [9]).

Most linguists find this "untidy" aspect of real speech disturbing and, in fact, spend the best part of their lives devising ingenious semiotic schemes to demonstrate that the world of language -- parole as well as langue-- is indeed orderly, despite appearances. The less able simply avoid the whole question by describing (and producing textbooks that teach) a kind of language that is as “tidy” as it is unreal -- the “scholastic” French or German or English we all remember from school.

The "tidy language" ideology, we suggest, underlies almost all mainstream CALL software. But let us now ask whether there are not other ideologies better able to account for real language use and better able to prepare students for it.

2. The Cultural-Communicative Learning Paradigm

"Learning a language is learning a culture", as Shank puts it; "Simply understanding the structure of a language and being able to translate sentences (appropriately) from one language to another is rarely enough for effective communication" [10p. 243]. Glossing Shank, I would define "learning a culture" as "acquiring the capacity to assume, even if only temporarily, a sensibility and a mind-set (or Weltanschauung, ‘world-outlook’) consonant with the society whose language one wishes to assimilate". Neither the mind-set (world-outlook) nor the sensibility are totally definable in terms of one's native cultural matrix and even less so in terms of a diluted, transcultural matrix. Acquiring this capacity is the aim of what I would call the "cultural-communicative" approach to L2 learning [11,12].

Acquiring a "cultural-communicative" competence has become imperative for more and more students in our increasingly post-industrial societies. These societies now seek to produce and export indexically meaningful intangibles ("values") more than context-free meaningful tangibles ("objects") -- lumbering techniques and TV plots more than timber or even TV sets -- within increasingly transnational enterprises more and more dependent on efficacious intercultural communication [13p.9-71]. Students in these societies therefore require linguistic skills that are both highly practical and highly sophisticated, i.e., linguistic skills capable of effectively representing the elaborated values their societies produce, both for the domestic public and for publics of other cultures [14p.78]. In foreign language transactions, this means the kind of cultural-communicative capabilities that Shank talks about. (See the similar views expressed by the Italian Ministry of Education’s Commission to reform secondary school programs [15p.78] and the British Department of Education and Science’s Modern Foreign Languages Working Group [16].) In a word, as productive members of a post-industrial society, our linguistic needs and those of our students are no longer what they were. Today we must be able to

  1. react to the non-literary linguistic manifestations of a foreign culture (as well as the literary ones), just as a typical member of that culture might; and

  2. make out native values felt in speaking (as well as in writing) the foreign language, not by externalizing them as such but by fully exploiting the latter's linguistic-cultural potential.

To rephrase this second concept in more everyday terms, we need to know how to say things in a foreign language just as accepted members of the foreign culture might possibly have said them if, finding themselves in a similar communicative situation, they had felt expressive needs “similar” to ours and if, while growing up in their culture, they had had formative experiences “similar” to ours. This capacity clearly involves much more than knowing how to formulate “grammatically correct” and “situationally appropriate” utterances.

"Similar" is, of course, the key word in this last definition. For it is likely that no typical member of the foreign culture -- as such -- is equipped to perceive the exact same aspects of the communicative situation and to feel the exact same expressive needs that we do, as members of our native culture; and even if she were, her formative experiences in childhood and adulthood surely would be sufficiently different in kind from ours to lead her to express herself differently. After all, foreigners who manage to speak our language correctly and appropriately but not authentically, continue to "sound foreign" to us precisely for these reasons. Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to postulate that in any culture, there are accepted (albeit not necessarily typical) members with whom we in fact share analogous or complementary formative experiences and therefore with whom, if we so choose, we may identify to a large extent. This identification may be defined in psychological terms as the introjection of new behavioral models and, in particular, of new ways of expressing ourselves using the foreign language as a medium. We become "one" with those members and, through them, with their society (which we, as they, do not necessarily have to accept in its entirety). Adopting, albeit temporarily, their set of mental and linguistic modes permits us to bridge, without difficulty, the cultural gap separating us from them. It permits us to speak their language with a more authentic ring to our voice. It permits us both to be ourselves and to be accepted.

The alternative solution, of course, is to refuse to assimilate the foreign language as culture, keep our native ways, and demand that the members of the foreign culture accept us with most, if not all, of our linguistic-cultural diversities, i.e., with our foreign accent, foreign modes of expression, foreign manners and foreign ways of thinking. This is, in fact, what many language learners prefer to do, even at the price of occasional (or even frequent) losses in communicative and social effectiveness in dealing with native speakers of the language learned. It is, without doubt, a perfectly respectable choice. At times, however, it is imperative to be able to present one's socially-constructed "self" [17p,116-185] in terms to which one's interlocutors can readily relate; in such occasions, it may be a godsend to know how to meet one's interlocutors on their linguistic-cultural grounds. This is what we do unconsciously in our own language when we playfully coax a small child to eat or when we delicately inform a venerable professor that we shall not be attending his lecture. And in doing so, we change our language and our mind-set without feeling either disloyal to our primary identity or hypocritical. (We sound false or become ridiculous only when our playfulness or our respect do not derive from an authentic identification with the other person's world.) The same holds true when we speak a foreign language.

In conclusion, for most applied linguists today -- whether they choose to study speech as the expression of a lexical-grammatical system or as the verbal part of a communicative event -- language use (and language learning) remain essentially cognitive processes, logical and classifiable. Linguists such as ourselves, on the other hand, see language use as the verbal expression of a historical will manifested in a communicative event and therefore see language learning as a kind of acculturation, to be conducted as such. For us, conceptual linguistic knowledge is only gossamer if its not built out of immanent linguistic knowledge -- alogical, experiential and “willful” (volitional, affective, ethical). While our view of language admits the rigidly conceptual view (as a special case, whenever discourse is pure logos), the conceptual view tends to marginalize ours, ignoring any and all manifestations of a historical will in speech -- the dimension that the communicative approach was supposed to have brought into the classroom in all its richness [reference 2.].

To the extent, then, that the dominant language-learning paradigm today pays little attention to culture as the "interiorized representation of collective intent and experience" [reference 11], it encourages writers of syllabi to concentrate on what is common in human communication and not on what distinguishes one language from another culturally (the "genius of a language", as it was called in the 18th and 19th centuries [18]). Textbooks and courseware based on the dominant language-learning paradigm therefore tend to present linguistic acts as exemplifying some universal strategy and not as satisfying some (personalized) culture-specific drive. When foreign culture is dealt with, it is usually presented in the form of products (often stereotypes: orderly British queues, boisterous Italian family reunions) instead of the process (the workings of a mind-set) that elaborated such products.

Of course, if we are dealing with the largely referential, informative discourse characteristic of technical writing -- a computer manual, for example -- the currently dominant view of language may appear to be justified. (In fact, it is not: even technical discourse is culturally typed [19,20]). But there can be no doubt that an increasing number of highly culture-specific communicative events -- localizing transnational advertising campaigns country by country, devising/implementing labor-relations policies in transnational firms or simply integrating into a foreign university as a visiting student or professor -- a far richer view of language and thus of the language learning process is needed. "Knowing a language" has to include the anthropological dimension, not only to be better equipped for survival in a globalized job market but also (let us add, even at the risk of seeming sanctimonious) out of intellectual honesty: out of the desire to see what languages are really like, behind their fig-leaf of rationality. Our research -- in the classroom and in the library, but also in the field as language consultants to industry -- has led us to conclude that a truly competent L2 listener today must be able to grasp the cultural originality that her/his foreign interlocutors communicate through their use of their native language. A truly competent L2 speaker has to be able to communicate her/his own originality to foreign interlocutors, making use of the culturally-peculiar expressive potential of their language. In a word, a truly competent L2 speaker/listener has to have interiorized the foreign language as a microsystem of existential values and drives.

3. CALL and the Cultural-Communicative Paradigm

If the above considerations hold true, what defines "quality" CALL software is therefore not whether it offers instant intelligent feedback or makes full use of the computer's multimedia potential, but rather whether the activities it has the student carry out (speaking and writing and not only listening and reading) are indeed

While cultural-communicative L2 materials for the classroom are still rare (examples are [21] and the textbooks cited in [22]), good audio/video and printed materials, based on sociolinguistically rich dialogues occurring in socioculturally rich situations, have existed for over two decades and may be found in a fair number of L2 classrooms. In addition, communications consultants for multinational enterprises have, over the past decade, developed a wide variety of exercises for teaching “intercultural communication” to managers transferring to the company’s foreign operations [23]. These are the materials that should, in our opinion, constitute the didactic platform for L2 courseware development or at least inspire CALL program designers in their choice of exercise typology.

Unfortunately, they have been all but ignored. Even when sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques are used, the actual learning most CALL systems foster is of the grammar/translation or structural kind. For example, out of twenty AI-based CALL systems described in a recent volume [24], only five are communicative and none are cultural, according to the definitions just presented. This is surprising given the advanced ideas on L2 pedagogy expressed by the editors in their introduction as well as by individual contributors (see for example p. 118). A feeling of letdown is inevitable: while a traditional textbook is just a traditional textbook, a traditional AI tutoring system seems like a contradiction in terms.

But what if CALL designers took inspiration from the cultural-communicative movement and treated language (parole), not as an accumulation of "sentences", but as "a flux of intent exteriorized in utterances, intelligible only as part of the situated event which provoked it" [reference 12]? What if they provided students with simulations instead of exercises? Simulations which give practice

projecting a self-image coherent with one's aims and the target culture,

co-determining goals, introducing/changing topics, managing turn-taking,

alternating registers/style (these and other abilities are discussed in [25]), and

grasping meanings as intentional states,

perceiving the cultural determination of intent and thus

coping with communication as an on-going culturally-determined meaning-making event (these abilities are discussed at length in [26]).

Capacities like these are seldom, if ever, learned when teaching focuses on language as logos or langue, i.e., when textbooks or CALL software designers start with the assumption that people study a foreign language simply to be able to “make correct statements” in it to a foreigner.

These abilities would most certainly be taught, however, in a classroom course or CALL program based on the cultural-communicative paradigm. Grammatical proficiency, a secondary linguistic ability at best, would be acquired by students over time simply as the by-product of activities which are

4. Conversation Rebuilding: a Cultural-Communicative Activity Suitable for Software Implementation

A (relatively) easy-to-implement cultural-communicative classroom exercise is Conversation Rebuilding (henceforth CR), a derivative of the "Open Dialogs" that appeared in the first communicative-approach textbooks (see for example reference 27] and, in this volume, A. Borraccino’s CALL implementation of an Open Dialog). Teachers who use CR in the classroom lead students to guess the development of a conversation, by means of verbal or pantomime prompts. Students see, for example, a comic strip anecdote on a screen, frame after frame, and are led to identify with the leading character. At a certain point they must continue the dialog as it has developed so far, coming up with the utterance the character is actually about to say in the anecdote. (Strange to say, this technique, while frequently proposed by teachers and CALL designers as an excellent learning aid, is seldom seen in the classroom or on a computer, much less with the “cultural slant” we give it here.)

We have applied the CR technique to a text-based CALL system built around a Common LISP Artificial Intelligence engine on a MacIntosh platform. Version 1, fully developed and working, is reported in [28] while Version 2, under development, is described in [29]. The latter program is designed to produce the kind of dialog illustrated below, much more natural than in Version 1. Furthermore, while in Version 1 the students took both roles in the dialog (and ended up identifying with neither), in Version 2 they concentrate on being a single speaker. Here is a sample interaction, with the Tutor's advice, in italics, translated from Italian. (We have the Tutor counsel the students in their native tongue; this allows us to compose more articulate messages, guarantees understanding and maximizes impact.)

Sample Interaction: The Flower Shop Anecdote

Screen: Picture of the interior of a London flower shop. A clerk behind the counter is looking at Pietro, a young tourist. The words said by the two characters appear in balloons over their heads. A Tutor, with his balloon, is seen at the bottom of the display. Next to the Tutor is a window in which students type their lines. When a line matches the target model, or when a student hits the carriage return twice, the line appears in Pietro’s balloon. No sound or animation has been provided for in this “no-frills” version of the software.

At this point of the anecdote, the Student has learned that, as Pietro, s/he is on vacation in London. Today is her/his (Pietro's) mother's birthday. The Student (Pietro) has seen a flower shop just opening and has gone inside.

What appears on the screen


Clerk [words in a balloon]: Good morning, sir.

[universal cultural conventions: re-
ciprocal well-wishing as greeting; non
symmetrical address forms in shops]

Student [types a greeting]: Good morning. *

Clerk: May I help you?

Student: flowers please

Tutor: Don't be rude -- say "I'd like...”

[semi-universal cultural convention:
conditional request as attenuation]

Student: I'd like flowers please.

Tutor: Be less direct, more detached. Start with "Well, yes, actually..."

[clan or class specific cultural value:
detachment toward desired object??]

Student: Well, yes, actually, I'd like flowers.

Tutor: “some flowers” is better.

Student: [double carriage return] *

[signal for “I don’t care. Let’s go on!”]

Clerk: Ummm... for a young person?

Student: for mother.

Tutor: You say that to people who know her.

Student: ?

[signal for “I don’t understand. Help!”]

Tutor: Say "for my mother"

[semi-universal cultural convention:
renaming intimates for in/outsiders]

Student: for my mother. *

Clerk: I see.

* = Carriage return. The words typed by the student up to this point now appear in Pietro’s balloon.

[NB: The words appearing in bold face and brackets here are not displayed on the computer screen.]

Admittedly, this is not natural conversation: the student can end up only with the line foreseen in the anecdote or a subset. Moreover, since the Advice Production rules depend on a parser, they are essentially grammatical in nature and thus come very close to the normative corrections of traditional teachers. (In fact, even if the student in the sample interaction above did not see the importance of using the word “some”, she was told to use it so many times in the following utterances that she finally began to, if only to keep the Tutor from interrupting.) Strangely enough, however, the working system -- Version 1 in which the dialogs are even more stilted and obviously grammatical in nature -- gives many students the impression of a computer program that seeks to understand them and strives to help them express themselves, not an inflexible school marm teaching rules. We hope that Version 2, when up and running, will appear even more "understanding".

The real point is another, however The "authentic conversation" that our System permits students to practice is not -- and was never claimed to be -- the student-Tutor dialogue, but rather the lead character's dialog that the student reconstructs through prompts. That utterance, taken from semi-authentic materials (cartoons, but a film version is conceivable) has many of the characteristics of natural conversation. Thus, reconstructing it permits students to interiorize natural speech in English, i.e. permits them to associate linguistic forms with felt intent. (It all depends, of course, on how much they accept to playact.) In addition, composing the target utterance gives the students practice in re-shaping their self-image in a fashion acceptable to the target-language culture. Before enacting the Flower Shop anecdote in class, for example, students practice real or feigned detachment towards desired objects. This permits them to say “Well, yes, actually...” with feeling and to appreciate what a certain kind of British speaker means when she/he says that expression with a disenchanted drawl. More in general, it makes the relationship between language and “culture” (in the sense of “mind-set”, Weltanschauung) tangible to them. This is something that other CALL systems do not even try to do.

But why go to the bother of creating a CALL system to begin with, one might ask, if all the students do is interiorize a ready-made conversation? Why not simply have students memorize lines from a foreign language play to be put on in class?

Participating in a foreign language theater production is, in fact, a good method for learning authentic speech in that language. But we believe that simulations built around the “culture-shocks” that the students may experience in the foreign country -- especially if presented in the form of realistic anecdotes -- are even better and our implementation of CR should be seen as the training phase for activities of this kind, to be carried out in the classroom. Moreover, our CALL system gives students benefits which complement those obtained by memorizing and reciting the lines of a play. For one thing, it gives them the possibility of co-managing (or feeling they are co-managing) the total flow of discourse, something they must be able to in life (e.g., when conducting a business meeting). They do not receive preparation in this ability when they consciously follow a script (or, for that matter, when they are interrogated by a teacher/computer in traditional teacher-led instruction). As in test-flying a simulator instead of a real airplane, it makes little difference whether students are really in charge of the conversational flow; it is enough that they feel they are in charge for the activity to be educational -- and students who have used our system claim they had that feeling.

In addition, the discovery technique used in CR, enhanced by use on an ever-patient computer, assures that students take notice of and mean to say every linguistic feature in the final utterances they compose. When, instead, students memorize a part in a play, they often say their lines like little children reciting a prayer or singing the national anthem, unaware of the full sense of the words they use. Finally, the discovery technique is much more enjoyable than learning a typical textbook play to put on in class, saying the lines over and over until they stick.

5. Conclusion

Traditional CALL programs view students as generators of isolated utterances which the programs label "correct/incorrect" on the basis of linguistic and pragmatic universals (i.e., in a cultural void). Such programs assume that people study a language just for the pleasure of being able to construct “correct” sentences in it. Some people do of course (and teachers are good at using smiles or frowns to get their students to seek such pleasure). But most students would find it much more intrinsically motivating to use L2 words to cause something to happen in the real (or in a virtual) world, just as they did in their native language when they discovered the power of saying /mama/.

Cultural-communicative teaching, as exemplified by Conversation Rebuilding, therefore considers speakers as co-constructors of a “goal-oriented entente: the sense of a particular utterance and the acceptability of a particular linguistic construction are something which the parties involved negotiate to some extent within a situated cultural context in order to satisfy some need. Students are led to want to express themselves authentically to a member of another culture (the key to language acquisition) because it empowers them -- at least within the limits of the simulation they enact. In the dialog presented above, for example, students do not get the flowers they “want” until they express themselves in a culturally acceptable way. (Many “dungeon” video games, popular among young people, use a similar convention.) Linguistic and cultural differences are no longer seen as barriers but as resources to play on in order to make oneself understood, using the interlocutor’s frame of references. Practice with the CALL system helps students reshape their communicative intent as well as their speech, utterance after utterance, thereby acquiring the mind-set and linguistic habits of the native speaker with whom they have chosen to identify.


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