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Book Review

A NEW APPROACH FOR NEW TIMES - Language Learners as Ethnographers.

Roberts, Celia. Byram, Michael. Barro, Anno. Jordan, Shirley. 2001. Language Learners as Ethnographers. Modern Languages in Practice 16, series editor: Michael Grenfell. Multilingual Matters Ltd. ISBN 1-85 359-502-0

This review has been written by Małgorzata Zdybiewska who is a British Studies teacher at Teacher Training College in Radom and a member of the British Studies Web team. She also was one of the trainers at the Starbienino summer school, 2001.


In recent years many language teachers in Poland, similarly to other professional groups, have experienced distress and conflict caused by the dramatic pace of changes in all spheres of life. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the old certainties around social, political and economic identities have fallen apart. The global means of communications and the Internet superhighway have already reshaped cultural identities all over the world. However, ‘New Times’ together with fragmentation and a wide access to modern media also bring hope for new and exciting developments.

Many new developments are taking place in the field of education. Though Polish teachers might complain of the organisational problems of the educational reforms that are being introduced into the Polish educational system, at the same time they work hard to implement a new syllabus for the new ‘Matura’ exam in English. The syllabus actually encourages the students to use multimedia resources for their research projects. Moreover, a lot of stress has been put in the syllabus on the development of both linguistic and intercultural aspects of language learning and teaching. Among other things, the students are asked to make comparisons between their own culture and other cultures.

That is why we need a new approach to language teaching and learning for ‘New Times’. Borrowing the idea of ethnography from anthropologists, the authors of this book argue that language students and teachers can use ethnographic techniques to enhance their capacity to mediate between different cultural identities which they may experience in the ‘global village’. If one wants to become a fluent and competent speaker of a foreign language, it is not enough to work on one’s linguistic competence only. The development of cultural competence is of equal importance. The authors believe that through ethnographic experience the students can become intercultural speakers.

The first half of the book discusses some of the current concepts in cultural studies. Language learning is described as social practice. The reader will also find interesting information on types of ethnographic work and the role of lecturers as ethnographers. Chapter 5 of the book entitled: Ethnography for Linguists offers an interesting background on the ethnographic tradition and some of its methods that are relevant for linguists. Polish readers may find it interesting to learn that Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish émigré who wrote a number of celebrated books on the Trobriand Islands, is considered to be a ‘founding father’ of modern anthropology.

Different views of ‘culture’ are also covered. The second half of the book is a detailed description of a case study called ‘the Ealing Ethnography Project’.

In the chapter entitled ‘Conclusions and New Perspectives’ the authors present five characteristics of cultural competence that should be one of the goals of language learning. They are as follows:

Attitudes: curiosity and openness about target culture and better understanding of one’s own culture

Knowledge: of social groups, their products and practices

Skills of operating and relating: ability to interpret products (be it a document or event) of other cultures and ability to relate them to one’s own

Skills of discovery and interaction: ability to acquire new knowledge of a target culture and the ability to operate and interact in a meaningful way in different intercultural contexts

Critical cultural awareness/political education: ability to evaluate critically and on the basis of explicit criteria, perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries.

This new turn in theory and research on second or foreign language learning and teaching is taking place at the very time when the shortcomings of the communicative method have become too obvious to be neglected. New boundaries are being redrawn and new vistas open. What is the attraction of ethnographic principles and practice for language learning?

Richard Bolt, a cultural studies specialist and the Director of Studies of the summer school for teachers at Starbienino in July 2001, says:

    ‘Ethnography is a method which allows us to investigate language in the culturally specific situations that generate it. It requires students not only to comprehend the culture being studied but to be aware of its differences and similarities to their own – so its implicitly intercultural.

    Simple versions of the ethnographic method can be used by teacher doing a visit to the UK with their students, where it gives an excellent opportunity for practising English while at the same time getting below the surface of the British society. It can be organised in the form of a project prepared for display on return providing practice for the new ‘Matura Exam’.

Therefore I would strongly recommend Language Learners as Ethnographers to all teachers involved in the organisation of school trips to the UK and exchange projects. It is a useful and productive read for our ‘New Times’.


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