Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cultural Context

After my Translation Bot discovery I poked around the Google pages again and rediscovered the Dictionary. Google's dictionary has been out since last year but since then it has switched over its local translation engine from Systran to an in-house model (and gone through a facelift too) so it gave me pause for another examination. Would it sway me from Naver? After some mucking around I would say that I would like it to but it doesn't introduce anything new.

Another thing that I found was the blog translation widget, or the Google Translation Gadget. It's a neat toy to allow people to apply Google's translation magic on your page without the extra step of navigating back to Google. While this is nifty any translation that you get is going to be rather poor and render the functionality useless. Maybe not useless but at least substandard compared to a manual translation:

So why do online translations fail so humourously? One reason is that we can recognize the grammatical errors and understand how the algorithm made the incorrect choice. For an easy example we have the confusion over Renard and The Fox in the movie. In the translation process the two somehow become synonymous and, thanks to Alliance Francaise, Mokpo, I know that this happened because the algorithm failed to recognize Renard as a French proper name. The computer couldn't identify the cultural context in which the lexical item 'Renard' was being presented. So in this case (and many others) the cultural context is everything; maybe if the film was about the 1940's French Resistance, using 'Le Fox' could be passable as correct.

Looking at this problem in another situation, I would say that a failure to recognize cultural context belongs to the plethora of reasons behind Korea's EFL difficulties. I'm not the first to suggest this idea and the problem of how to use foreign culture when teaching a foreign language has been around since the 1960s. Dimitrios Thanasoulas, in his paper The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom, gives a good argument illustrating this problem and, funny enough, his examples on incorrectness seem to be lifted straight out of Korean education system:
One of the misconceptions that have permeated foreign language teaching is the conviction that language is merely a code and, once mastered—mainly by dint of steeping oneself into grammatical rules and some aspects of the social context in which it is embedded—‘one language is essentially (albeit not easily) translatable into another’ (Kramsch, 1993: 1). To a certain extent, this belief has been instrumental in promoting various approaches to foreign language teaching—pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and communicative—which have certainly endowed the study of language with a social “hue”; nevertheless, paying lip service to the social dynamics that undergird language without trying to identify and gain insights into the very fabric of society and culture that have come to charge language in many and varied ways can only cause misunderstanding and lead to cross-cultural miscommunication.
So would we fix both problems by the simple matter of plugging a 'culturalizer' into Google's dictionary and Korea's EFL curriculum? Well, yes, but unfortunately a culturalizer is one of those mythical devices that hasn't been developed past brainstorm scribbles on a whiteboard. I chose the example of Renard because it's an easily explainable and easily isolated part of French culture. But on a larger scale teaching culture with language isn't quite as simple; too little cultural instruction results in miscommunication and too much results in linguistic imperialism. As Sherene Ariffin points out, in Culture in EFL Teaching: Issues and Solutions,
For instance, in a reading passage about pets, Alptekin (1993) illustrated that Middle Eastern students, especially the Muslims, would feel utterly confused about the American ideology of “a dog as ‘man’s’ best friend” (p. 137). This is because Muslims are brought up to regard them as animals that should not be touched because they are considered “unclean.” Therefore, in reading the passage, the students not only have to overcome unfamiliar words, but they would also have to figure out the context of the culture that the passage is referring to. This could lead to a serious impediment in their understanding of the passage. Marckwardt (1978) also argued against the use of American literature in teaching EFL. This is because American literature presents predominantly America culture and values—positive and negative—and does not take into consideration learners’ backgrounds.
Now we could simply write off American textbooks as American propaganda but not every instance of linguistic imperialism is going to be as easily recognizable; a subtle linguistic imperialism can also be found in the absence of cultural education. Paul Stapleton notes effect in his Culture’s Role in TEFL: An Attitude Survey in Japan:
The perils of teaching culture or making broad cultural statements about language usage was brought home to me recently when a British colleague chastised me for telling students a common response to a compliment in English was ‘Thank you’. My colleague claimed that such a response in Britain would be regarded as arrogant. Whether or not his claim is accurate is not the point here. Such an exchange of views only underlines the difficulties language teachers face when approaching cultural issues.

While there is a general lack of research in teacher attitudes on culture learning, some studies have been carried out to better understand the extent to which teachers are familiar with the role of culture in language education and how it affects their pedagogy. Lessard-Clouston’s survey (1996) in which 16 Chinese EFL teachers were interviewed on their views about teaching culture found support among teachers for teaching culture, but cited a need for more understanding of how to bring culture into the classroom context. Adamowski’s survey of teachers’ views on teaching culture in the ESL context (cited in Lessard-Clouston, 1996) suggested that teachers feel culture has an important role to play, yet no systematic ways of approaching how to teach it were uncovered. Prodromou (1992), in a questionnaire study of 300 Greek students, found over half of the students believed that native speaker teachers should have some knowledge about the students’ native tongue and culture. Duff and Uchida’s study (1997) of four EFL teachers in Japan revealed considerable complexity in teachers’ sociocultural identities and a lack of awareness that they were implicitly transmitting cultural messages to their students. Despite the findings of these studies, there is still a general lack of information about how teachers view the teaching of culture and how these views are reflected in their teaching.
It seems like I'm revisiting the same point that I've made in previous rants. As a high school native speaker it looks like the government sees me as the culturalizer but (again) I would say that I'm not the solution (i.e trained teacher) that they're looking for. So I'm stuck with the same problem involving Renard, the Fox and automatic translations; I can easily point out what's wrong with the system but I'm about as useless as the Google Translation Gadget when it comes around to fixing it.

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