5° seminario 2012
Giovedì 24 maggio 2012 @



Edward Hall’s Cultural dimensions: Practical Applications to the Classroom

Joint Construction and Edward Hall’s Time, Space and Context – a workshop for language teachers


Facilitator: Peter Anderson

Patrick Boylan recommended I read Edward Hall’s THE SILENT LANGUAGE in the summer of 2009. He also suggested I visit a website concerning the ‘Cultura Project’ and virtually gave me this idea for a SIETAR Italia workshop which took place on 24th May  2012 for the language teachers of Bergamo and Lombardy in collaboration with the teachers’ association CRTDrils Bergamo. So, first of all, I would like to thank Patrick Boylan for all his help and support with this workshop and, secondly,  Noemi Ciceroni for letting me deliver the workshop through the Teachers’ Association she runs so masterfully.

Edward Hall in his book ‘The Silent Language’ written in 1959 emphasizes the importance, in intercultural communication, of nonverbal signals, of proxemics (how space affects communication), of chronemics (how time affects communication) and finally of ‘context’ (high and low context – that is, how, in some cultures, talk is allusive because listeners are expected to glean meanings from shared knowledge and from the communicative situation, while in other cultures talk is very explicit and does not require a high degree of contextualizing). However, probably the greatest message Hall has left us with is the approach of being nonjudgmental in the acceptance of cultural differences.

The website Patrick advised me to visit was a practical application of Hall’s concept of ‘cultural dimensions’: it was the ‘Cultura Project’ started in 1997 between the University of Paris II and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  by Gilberte Furstenberg,  the Senior Lecturer in French at MIT. The project was  designed to develop cross-cultural understanding between French and American cultures. The idea was then developed for German, Spanish and Italian. The Italian ‘Confronti Project’ was implemented in 2002 between the Universities of Padova and Pennsylvania.  The objective of the project was to develop foreign language students’ understanding of foreign cultural attitudes, concepts, beliefs and ways of interacting and looking at the world through a web-based, cross-cultural curricular initiative. Although the idea of the projects was valid, its weakness is that students remained at a merely cognitive level; what they ‘learned’ did not promote real change in the students’ approach to interacting with people of other cultures.

Patrick then suggested I try out the ‘Joint Construction’ eliciting technique to get seminar participants to write two short compositions that vary culturally according to Hall’s  dimensions of Context and Time.  The Joint Construction technique was developed at the University of Sydney. It is a collaborative writing activity in which the students and their teacher construct a text together. The teacher takes the lead, proposing a text type,  asking leading questions, confirming responses and offering explanations about the purpose and form of the text produced and the writing conventions to observe in order to convey a given cultural value. Phrase by phrase and sentence by sentence, as suggested by the students through the artful prompts of the teacher, the class constructs a culturally authentic text on the board. During the process the teacher thinks aloud about the reasoning behind the students’ suggestions; this enables the students to become aware of the effect of their words on a person of the target culture. Even an apparently ‘tiny’ difference, such as the use of Miss instead of Ms in composing a low-context letter to an American woman recipient, can cause the teacher to grimace and exclaim “It’s none of your business if I’m married or not!”, thus alerting students to their cultural faux pas. Texts can be letters, reports, even poems.

The first task was to write two letters applying Hall’s dimension of Time – monochronic and polychronic time.  Monochronic time means doing one thing at a time and is typical of Americans and Northern Europeans. In Polychronic cultures, human interaction is valued over time and things do get done but in their own time. It is typical of Latin cultures, the Arab world, etc. The students can be asked to research the differences or a diagram can be given in class like the one I gave. The two letters can be written in parallel or in sequence. I used two blackboards, one next to the other. One letter was for an American family (monochronic) and the other for a Mexican family (polychronic).  The instructions given said: “The two families you don’t know will be staying with you for a week and you will need to look after them.”

The second task was to write two letters applying Hall’s dimensions of High- and Low-Context. In high context cultures there are many contextual elements that help people understand the rules. A lot is taken for granted and things are less often said directly and often indirectly or hinted. In low context cultures very little is taken for granted. Things are spelled out, explained in detail. I chose the letter format again: a letter to a prospective American (low-context culture) employer and a prospective Mexican (high-culture culture) employer.  I could have chosen two different cultures but decided to choose the two cultures selected previously to simplify and reinforce the students’ approach. Students can be asked to research the differences or a diagram can be given which is what I did.

The aim of the first two tasks was to promote real change in the students’ cultural mindset by getting mentally ‘into’ the cultural dimensions and using that newly acquired awareness to write the texts.

The third activity was from Bob Dignen’s ‘Fifty Ways to Improve your Intercultural Skills’ (Summertown) on the monochronic vs polychronic dimensions. You are given a diagram with two lists of statements which you tick and find out what you are like and reflect on the differences, this is followed by an activity to develop flexibility in your approach.

Finally, the fourth activity was to reflect on proxemics, use of gesture and voice with a game from Mario Rinvolucri’s ‘Culture in our Classrooms’ (Delta Publishing). Students are given one ‘cultural offence’ each (eg ‘I hate being physically touched in conversation’; ‘I hate people who stand right up close to me’; etc) which they must not show to other students and ten red cards (if you know anything about football you know that these cards mean ‘penalty’). Students should be a B1 level. They need to stand up, mingle in the classroom, pair up with someone and talk about a past holiday. If a partner ‘offends’ a student he/she is given a red card. You should exchange partners every two minutes and speak to six different people. At the end of the activity, you get students to write up their offences on the board and allow a reactive discussion to ensue.

This is our third SIETAR Italia workshop with CRTDrils for the language teachers in Bergamo and neighbouring provinces. The first was a workshop Patrick Boylan had delivered in 2009 at GEWISS, the electrical component company based in the province of  Bergamo, and which Steve Franzoni and I presented with some variations to the language teachers in Brescia first and then in Bergamo in 2010.  It was a presentation of Australian culture illustrated through a song by an Australian songwriter, an interview with Rupert Murdoch, the presentation of a Scottish boarding school in Australia, and so on. Initially, to make the notion of ‘cultural mode of communication’ immediately familiar, we were shown Monnezza film clips and asked to try and enter into the character of Tomas Milian.  Milian fans had no problem and, surprisingly, everyone enjoyed trying to talk and act like a “romano de Roma”. Then, after learning about the Australian-Scots-Presbyterian mentality, we tried to be Rupert Murdoch using, as a guide, film clips of Murdoch speaking.  The methodology acquired was one the GEWISS trainees could put into practice before going to any one of the dozen countries that GEWISS has offices in.  In its simplest terms, the method is to (1) use intercultural guides to reflect more on the target culture values, behaviours and attitudes than on the cultural do’s and don’ts; (2) view video clips of target culture people interacting; (3.) try to impersonate them by ‘becoming like them’ and talking like them. It is not necessary to know their language; for this exercise it is sufficient to make any sounds that convey the style of speaking in the target culture.  This principle was illustrated in our workshop when a Bergamo trainee, who knew nothing of Monnezza or of the Romano dialect, tried to be Tomas Milian, to everyone’s hilarity, and then a few minutes later an Australian-Scots-Presbyterian businessman like Murdoch (which he did more deftly). Then we were asked to reflect on a few cultural dimensions and compare Italy and Australia, then write to an Australian to develop business in that country for Gewiss.

In 2011 Patrick Boylan presented our second workshop on the difference between British and Moroccan cultures comparing David Beckham and a young Moroccan blogger  and their cultural dimensions. Patrick got the mostly women teachers to imagine that Beckham had just divorced and was in Bergamo for business, sitting at a café table next to theirs, and that David, feeling lonely, might respond positively to an invitation to visit Bergamo together for the afternoon: but how to approach David and phrase the offer in a way a Brit like him might like?   Then the teachers had to write a comment on the Moroccan blogger’s article on the Arab Spring and post it in real time (thanks to the internet connection). Once again, the purpose of the exercise was to see if the teachers found the right style and tone – as well as the politically appropriate things to say – that might provoke a positive response by the blogger.  This kind of task is something they could easily get their students to do to practise their English, both at home and, using a portable computer with a USB stick internet connector, during their English lesson with the teacher as language/culture coach.  The choice of a young Moroccan whose blog was in English was not accidental: in his introductory remarks, Patrick explained to the teachers that the days of teaching only Queen’s English were over and that their students had to learn to deal with the Englishes of non Anglo countries, too: the Moroccan blogger’s syntax and style constituted a perfect example of Global English.

Next year I am considering presenting Hofstede’s cultural dimensions or doing something on Italian Identity or French, Spanish and German identity so as to involve the French, Spanish and German teachers for a change and not always their English colleagues!


Bibliography & Webliography

  1. For a first approach to culture and to learn about proxemics, chronemics, high & low context:
    Edward T HALL, The Silent Language  New York: Anchor Books 1959
    Edward T HALL, The Hidden Dimension  New York: Anchor Books 1966
  2. Edward & Mildred HALL, Understanding Cultural Differences: Germans, French and Americans  Boston & London: Intercultural Press 1990
    For an introduction to the theory and practice of intercultural communication in business:
    Robert GIBSON, Intercultural Business Communication, Oxford University Press 2000
    Bob DIGNEN & James CHAMBERLAIN, Fifty Ways to Improve your INTERCULTURAL SKILLSSummertown Publishing 2009
  3. For a book with activities on how to teach language through cultural content:
    Gill JOHNSON & Mario RINVOLUCRI, Culture in our Classrooms, DELTA Publishing 2010
  4. For more on Joint Construction and the ESL Developmental Continuum P–10 which provides evidence based indicators of progress, linked to practical teaching strategies, to support the assessment of ESL students and the development of effective learning programs for the many students in schools in the State of Victoria, Australia who are learning English as a second language.
    http://www.education.vic.gov.au/studentlearning/teachingresources/esl/ – link non più funzionante
    http://uts.academia.edu/LucyMacnaught/Papers/629372/Understanding_joint_construction_ in_the_tertiary_context
  5. For the full article on the Confronti Project by Francesca Helm:
    http://www.dsi.unipd.it/docenti/helm/Confronti_different%20experiences_preprint.pdf – link non più funzionante



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