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Asia Literacy – redefining the middle ground between language and culture education (part 2)

By Stanley Wang - posted Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Part I of this discussion offered an overview of the definitions of Asia Literacy. By using a reflective framework for thinking about the relationship between language and culture in our current and perspective curricula, I argued that Asia Literacy must not be viewed as simply a bundle of language proficiency and cultural understanding, but a system of practice where one is consistently taught through the lens of the other.

Below, I discuss each of the four approaches in this framework with considerations for teaching practices.

1. Teaching language with (some) culture


This approach refers to the teaching of Asian languages in a school with the inclusion of cultural aspects taught in English that may or may not necessarily align with the natural order of language acquisition specific to that language. Even til today, this approach to Asia Literacy has been dominant in schools and textbook designs. For example, schools may celebrate the Chinese New Year on a one-off basis, or discuss the Terra Cotta Warriors as a culture project within the Chinese class.

The nature of this approach is closely aligned with the Asia Education Foundation's (AEF's) definition previously discussed, although it would be difficult to argue that the language course would offer a comprehensive overview of the culture for students to gain deep knowledge, skills and understanding of Asia.

2. Teaching culture with (some) language

In reaction to the approach above, submissions from AEF and others have proposed for Asian Studies to be made compulsory across both the primary and secondary curricula, and for languages to continue alongside as a separate subject. In other words, this approach simply shifts the spotlight slightly from language education to culture education.

On the one hand, this approach could be viewed as the result of the government's reality check on the decline in Asian language enrolments under the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Programs (NALSSP). On the other hand, with the incorporation of "Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia" as a cross-curricular priority in the Australian Curriculum, it would be far more likely for the government to find suitable resources and seemingly "Asia-literate" teachers to deliver cultural aspects of Asia across the curriculum in English.

However, I argue that without the knowledge of an Asian language, some cultural fundamentals could never be fully appreciated, and we would risk delivering a program entirely from an Anglo perspective with English being our only tool in the toolbox.


3. Teaching language through culture

Teaching language through culture refers to building the linguistic capacity of students in a foreign language within the context of specific cultural topics. For example, primary schools often teach the Chinese words for each of the Chinese zodiac animals when doing a new unit on the Chinese New Year. Even in Australia today, it is not unusual to find a non-Chinese speaker who would be able to mimic a string of sounds that resemble "Kung Hei Fat Choi" at Chinese New Year.

In fact, many of us apply exactly this approach when travelling overseas and wanting to engage with the local culture on a deeper level. We learn phrases in the language because we know that it is only until we understand that "Kung Hei Fat Choi" literally means "May you be happy and prosperous/wealthy" that we can finally scratch the surface and begin to explore a unique values system that underpins the foreign culture.

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About the Author

Stanley Wang is a second-year Teach For Australia Associate teaching Chinese and Humanities at Charles La Trobe P-12 College in Melbourne, and a non-resident tutor for Chinese and Japanese at International House, the University of Melbourne. He is also currently serving on the committee of the Chinese Language Teachers' Association of Victoria.

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