Volume III - 1995-1996

Cultural Artifacts
by Joshua Dale

       Joshua Dale is a Foreign Lecturer in the English Department of Tokyo Liberal Arts University, teaching American and British Culture.

      In "Authentic Listening," Porter and Roberts (1987) present a convincing argument for the use of authentic materials--those intended for native speakers rather than non-native learners--in the second language classroom . Their detailed listing of the advantages of these materials may be summarized in one word: context. Unlike ELT materials, which are designed to focus on a limited number of language functions, authentic materials are packed with meaning and associations connected to their culture of origin. But how is this over-abundance typically deployed in the classroom? According to Porter and Roberts, "Authentic texts . . . commit us to trying to replicate in class the roles the native speaker plays in the authentic situation" (p.182). For example, consider the difference between a textbook page which offers a reproduction of a restaurant menu and a real menu in glossy full-color offered to each student. The former offers information only: the context of dining in a restaurant has been removed. Distributing actual menus restores some of this context--a much larger number of item choices, information about payment, tax, etc.--but does this place the learner in the role played by a native speaker at a restaurant?

      Not exactly. But one might come much closer to realizing Porter and Roberts' definition by using, for instance, a situational role play following the Natural Method: small groups of students at separate tables, the aforementioned menus, student waiters with real order pads serving up plastic food, Muzak for authentic background noise, napkins, place settings, "surly waiter" and "fly-in-the-soup" role cards. Obviously, there are no limits with this approach towards authentic materials: it is a continuum, a sliding scale with the textbook page at one end and, presumably, a field trip to a real restaurant at the other.

The Lived Reality of Another Culture

      If the goal of placing students in the exact position as native speakers is an impossible one, then why use authentic materials? I believe the advantages lie in the students' awareness of these materials as authentic; i.e., as part of the lived reality of another culture. Authentic materials thus have a tremendous potential for stimulating the imagination of students in a way impossible to realize with standard ELT materials. The meaning contained in authentic materials is over-determined; by this I mean that they typically contain more--at times much more--information than is necessary for completing a particular classroom task. The faculty of the imagination comes into play when students are required to scan large amounts of material and construct patterns of relation between items they identify as significant.

      There is another way in which the meaning of authentic materials is over-determined: they have a special aura generated by their direct association with the daily lives of people from another culture. This is the point at which the connection between authentic materials and the imagination is fully realized: for through this fetishistic contact with an item whose meaning lies beyond its physical existence, the imagination may forge a link through which to apprehend an existence manifestly different from its own. Authentic materials, in other words, offer the student access to a spark of "reality" which may propel him or her to greater insight and knowledge of people from other cultures.

Tourist Brochures

      The series of activities I will describe all use brochures describing various tourist attractions across the United States. There are several reasons for choosing this particular type of authentic material. Brochures cost nothing: even multiple copies are available for free if you're willing to empty the racks. They are also light, portable and easy to obtain from convention centers, major hotels, the American Automobile Association, etc. It is even possible to acquire them without visiting the United States, by writing to the Chambers of Commerce of various states (sorry about the American bias here; needless to say, brochures from countries other than the US would be just as effective). The most important reason for choosing brochures, however, is that they're interesting: highly visual, attention-grabbing, packed with both advertising rhetoric and practical information. In addition, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that much money and creativity went into the design of these slips of paper, aspects which we language teachers are quite free to use to our advantage--after all, we're not reproducing them, in whole or in part.

Brochure Questionnaire

      This activity involves one-page brochures: stiff rectangular cards, typically with picture and captions on the front, information on the back. Students are paired for the first half of the activity with each pair receiving one brochure. After reading the brochure together with their partner, each student receives a questionnaire. Each brochure has buried somewhere within it the answer to one of the questions; for instance, "Where can you have a champagne brunch?" would be answered by the pair with the brochure from "'Climb on a Rainbow' Balloon Flights." The students first work with their own brochure to answer one question, then circulate and talk to other pairs to find the rest of the answers. The brochures serve as role cards to the extent that the students act as if they will be taking the trip described by their brochure, thus encouraging the use of communicative English: "Where are you going?" or "What are you going to do?" instead of "What answer do you know?"

      Once everyone has completed the questionnaire, each pair of students alternates asking and answering all the questions to check their answers. I end this activity by asking the students a deceptively simple question: Would you want to visit this place? This is a preview for later activities which concentrate on the wider cultural issues around brochures. The real question I'm asking is: Is the brochure successful in its purpose of generating a desire on the part of the reader to visit the destination it describes?

Travel Agencies

      The second set of activities uses regular-sized trifold brochures, which have more information and graphics than the one-page cards. I divide the class into thirds: two thirds are tourists and receive short one or two-sentence role cards describing their interests or characters. The cards may specify a character with a certain hobby, a large family, someone who has been working to the point of exhaustion, etc. Once they receive their role cards, the students decide what kind of vacation they will try to find. Meanwhile, the remaining third of the class splits further into three groups, each of which is a travel agency. The new multiple page brochures are split evenly among the three companies (include the one page brochures if sheer numbers are needed; the ratio of brochures to tourists should be around 2:1) and the travel agents spend a few minutes studying them. The goal of the vacationing students is to find the perfect destination, while the travel agents compete to sell as many trips as possible.

      Here the comments of the students as they work through the activity begin to reflect the effect of the brochures on the imagination. Those in the tourist role, when in the process of locating their perfect location, often ask the travel agents to explain or justify those brochures describing what strikes them as strange or unusual. This activity provides a good example of how imagination may supersede hard fact to apprehend a different cultural reality. For instance, the brochure for "Bedrock City" mentions nowhere that the Flintstones' characters originated on an American children's television program, yet students were able to ascertain from the images and information the brochure did provide that there was some outer cultural context for the images of Fred Flintstone and the gang, even linking this realization to other, known aspects of American culture (the fad for dinosaurs represented by Jurassic Park).

Maps and Directions

      Many of the multiple-page brochures also include maps to the destination they describe: these lend themselves well to an activity involving route-following and directions. The worksheet I use contains a line drawing of the United States; students test their knowledge of American geography by tracing their route from an arbitrary starting point (in a brazenly regionalist fashion, I usually choose Seattle, my hometown) to the destination on their brochure: the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, Niagara Falls, etc. They attempt to label as many states and cities as they can along the way.

      After their attempt to label the route from memory, the students receive photocopies of road maps which they use to more accurately chart the path to their destination (some pre-teaching of the US highway system of state and interstate freeways, toll roads, etc. is needed here). When the students are finished, they are paired with members of other groups whom they verbally guide to their destination. I also give the students a "driving distances and times" chart so they can discover how long it would take to drive to their destination. Here the reaction of students centered around what for many was the first true apprehension of the radically different scale extent in the United States as compared to Japan, where this unit was taught. At first the students knew only the distance to their destination as measured by eye on the map and in miles by adding up the map's mile indicators. Distance, however, is a relatively abstract means of coming to terms with scale; which was obvious in the struggle of the student's to relate their map journey to their previous travel experiences. This contrasted greatly to their reaction once time, represented by the "driving distances and times" chart, entered the picture. Time is a concrete indicator in this case, representing as it does the hours or days spent behind the wheel of a car. Every student could relate this measurement of scale to his or her prior experience, and the gasps heard round the classroom were ample testimony to the imagination's leap into a new reality represented by the immense scale of vacation travel in the United States.

Extent of Comprehension

      According to Phillips and Shettlesworth, "It must be accepted that total comprehension has often to be abandoned as a lesson aim" when using authentic materials (107). However, if there is time to delve more deeply into the brochures, if the students work in groups and at home to understand them, then complete comprehension is possible. Once this is attained, the teacher may move the activities to a higher level and begin teaching the cultural content of the brochures. Small-group discussions, writing assignments, speeches, etc. are all methods which lend themselves to the pursuit of this goal.

      Several content areas were investigated in my class. First, the images presented by the brochures: the selection and presentation of these are as important to the purpose of the brochures as are the words they contain. Students discussed how the choice and composition of the images on the brochure contributed to its goal of attracting visitors. What emotional content were the pictures meant to convey? Obviously answering this question required exercising the imagination, but more was involved than merely staring at a picture. In order to interpret the images, students were required to place themselves in the scene, imagining themselves at the site of the photograph. They were aided in this when they examined the language-- adjectives, descriptive phrases, etc.--that the brochures employed to further their purpose.

      In the "Bedrock City" and highway map examples cited previously, the authentic nature of the brochures provided the necessary spark to kindle the students' imaginary efforts to begin exploration of the culture which produced these materials. After the students achieved total comprehension of multiple brochures, they were able to extend their imaginative capacity and progress further into the world portrayed by these authentic materials. From this point, they were able to make generalizations about the aspects or qualities of leisure activities which are most valued in the United States, and proceeded even further to comment upon hitherto unknown aspects of the American character.

References

Porter, D. and Roberts, J. (1987). " Authentic Listening Activities." In M. Long and J. Richards, (Eds.), Methodology in TESOL: A Book of Readings. (pp. 177-187). New York: Newbury House.

Phillips, M.K. and Shettlesworth, C.C. (1987). "How to Arm Your Students: A Consideration of Two Approaches to Providing Materials for ESP." In M. Long and J. Richards, (Eds.), Methodology in TESOL: A Book of Readings. (Pp. 105-111). New York: Newbury House.

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