Vol. 3, No. 2 (January 15, 2010)

English in global environments: Communicative language teaching for conflict resolution

Lisa Sanders Luscombe
Monterey Institute of International Studies
The spread of the English language across the world over the past 50 years has led to its status as a global language, a lingua franca in institutions such as finance, business, media, science, education, and diplomacy.  People teach English for a variety of reasons, from a love of teaching and language, to the opportunity to travel and learn about cultures around the world; my motivation is the prospect of fostering communication with the goal of understanding and resolving conflict.  My students are scientists, diplomats, educators, and graduate students in international affairs, primarily from Asia, Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.  Like many English classrooms today, mine are microcosms of the world, where the best and worst of human history enter through the doors in the memories and experiences of learners.  Whether my classroom is at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, or across the world, at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy where I taught last summer, I like to think of my classroom as more than a place to learn English; it is a small country where “the fundamental condition of life is the condition of relationship, relationship of oneself and to the surrounding world … relationships that we weave with others and with the history that we make and that makes and remakes us” (Freire 2006, p. 75). 

The growth of English holds tremendous potential for enhancing communication and mutual understanding across cultures.  However, given the colonialist history of the proliferation of English, its spread cannot be accepted as neutral or merely the result of “inevitable global forces” (Pennycook 1994, p. 9).  Indeed, this view masks the realities of information flow from wealthier nations to poorer ones, power in agenda setting, diffusion of knowledge and culture through media, the role of international organizations in world affairs, and how we view war and peace (Pennycook 1994).  With the spread of English comes a Western view of nation building, national security, modernization, and education.  Whether consciously or subconsciously, students of English know there are power relations inherent in the use of English, and without an acknowledgement of this reality by both native-speaking teachers and English learners, communication—so essential for conflict resolution—will be an elusive outcome. 

The psychologist Carl Rogers, whose work has been integrated into the field of conflict resolution, states, “real communication occurs … when we listen with understanding …. to see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view … to achieve his frame of reference” (Rogers 1951, p. 29).  Teaching that emphasizes transactional discourse (Kramsch 1993, p. 242), the transmission of information from the teacher to the receiving student, cannot foster “real communication.”  On the other hand, teaching that cultivates interactional discourse not only transmits information, but also values, experiences, and ideologies inherent in the content, as well as strategies for understanding them.  Traditional teaching methods that focus on language as a system of rules and discrete items presented in neat packages are not likely to foster interactional discourse.  However, communicative language teaching (CLT) methods—cooperative learning, social interaction, and the construction of learning in students’ own sociopolitical and cultural frame of reference—are designed to transfer the tools for real communication to the students.  In traditional methods, language is the object of instruction; in communicative teaching, language is the vehicle of instruction.

Being a predominately Western model, CLT methods may not be readily adopted by English as a second language (ESL) or English as a foreign language (EFL) students; however, the teacher has some advantages in the ESL classroom.  ESL takes place in “Inner Circle” (Kachru 1992) countries where English is the official language for communication, education, and other pubic domains—countries such as Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.  Speakers in these countries are traditionally considered “native” speakers of English, and the native variety of English is usually the classroom “norm.”  ESL classrooms can be mono-cultural or multicultural, but all the students are adapting to a mono-linguistic environment of English along with Western concepts of “individualism and self-expression, process rather than product, and meaning at the expense of form” (Burns 2005, p. 11).  ESL students may be confused about, if not downright rebellious toward, such methods.  But because they are living in the “Inner Circle” countries and the teacher, as a member of the institutional setting, holds the authority of place, the process is part of the learner’s acculturation with the monolingual society.

EFL, on the other hand, takes place in “Expanding Circle” countries (Kachru 1992) representing the growing numbers of English language learners—approximately 750 million to 1 billion of them.  For countries of this category, such as Japan, Germany, Russia, and the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States, like Azerbaijan, English has neither a history of colonization, nor an official status.  Learners live in their native culture, speak their native language, and typically learn in their native institutions.  A local EFL teacher will share the culture, language, and institutional knowledge with the students; however, the foreign or native-English speaking teacher will be the one adapting to a new sociopolitical, cultural and linguistic environment.  Bringing CLT methods—with their concomitant Western values, ideologies, and orientations of individualism, process, and meaning—into other cultures is more challenging because in their home countries, students have the authority of place.  The classroom is literally, physically, in their cultural environment. 

In both ESL and EFL settings, students in CLT classrooms may perceive that they are not being corrected enough, not learning grammar, or not learning the kind of vocabulary or idiomatic phrases that native speakers use.  Students from traditional educational systems won’t necessarily connect CLT strategies—e.g., cooperative learning with peers, debates, and oral presentations—with the acquisition of “native-like” speaking skills.  Consequently, students will focus on instruction they perceive will meet their academic and professional needs, but may not recognize that acquiring information by discussing a topic relevant to those needs with their peers helps to develop their language competence. 

However, with the internationalization of English, especially in “Outer Circle” countries (Kachru 1992) where English is a colonialist language, native English as the classroom “norm” might not be desirable or even appropriate.  Non-native speaking teachers can be good role models for students, have a better grasp of English grammar and forms from a non-native learner’s perspective, and better understand students’ cultural expectations in the classroom (Burns 2005).  Peers in the classroom can also be models of language use and development, as students can “notice the gap” between correct form and incorrect form with each other.  Yet, ESL and EFL students often do not value interaction with non-native speakers or with native language they perceive as being too high register and not “real” English. 
When students are in an ESL setting, they might notice that they can be understood by their teachers and classmates, but not by servers in restaurants, store clerks, or people on the street.  They perceive a difference in language between the classroom setting and the real world.  To meet students’ perceived needs for a focus on native English form, the ESL teacher has the advantage of using the native speaking culture as a live, extended classroom. 

For example, Korean diplomats in my Monterey classroom have been studying the language of diplomacy in different discourse environments such as politics, economics, and human rights.  However, they wanted more exposure to “native everyday language,” not necessarily germane to our classroom discussions on policy.  To resolve the issue, I assigned them to conduct interviews of people on the street about our topic of the U.S. policy toward North Korea.  They were to videotape and transcribe the interviews, allowing them to study colloquial and idiomatic language, as well as pronunciation.  This activity met the needs of the students while incorporating CLT approaches of social interaction and topic-centered learning—in this case the U.S. policy toward North Korea. 

Although this kind of opportunity is not typically available to students in an EFL classroom, new and more ubiquitous technologies can help the teacher find ways to bring the native-speaking world to the learners.  In the summer intensive program for the Advanced Foreign Service Program (AFSP) at ADA, for example, I used Skype to bring a former South African diplomat now serving in the Conference on Disarmament into our classroom to discuss the art of negotiation with the students.  After a brief lecture, the students were able to carry on a virtual, interactive question-and-answer session with a native speaker in their area of expertise. 

Language can be the cause of social inequality when students’ perceived needs are not valued or met, or a tool for social transformation when they are.  Transformative teachers (Kumaravadivelu 2002) (a) “realize that appropriate knowledge is something that is produced by interaction of teacher and student in a given context”;  (b) situate the class “in the words, concerns, and experience of the students”;  (c) “familiarize themselves with the linguistic and cultural diversity of their student population”;  (d) “conceptualize multiple perspectives on issues that matter to them and to their students”;  (e) and consider “both the emotional and logical sides of their students and themselves” (Kumaravadivelu 2002, p. 15).  It is hard to imagine that any one person can master all these aspects of the transformative intellectual all the time. 

But these facets of transformative teaching can be incorporated in CLT learning activities, and the EFL classroom can be an especially ripe environment for CLT methods.  For example, in the summer AFSP intensive, students participated in an interactional simulated negotiation of the highly charged Nagorno-Karabakh issue.  This issue was situated in the concerns and experiences of the students, was relevant to the cultural diversity of Azerbaijan, involved multiple perspectives on a topic deeply significant to the students, and incorporated both their emotional and intellectual skills as they strove to listen with understanding, to see the other’s point of view, to achieve the other’s frame of reference.  This exercise in conflict resolution may not have been possible except in the language classroom, where the use of a foreign language can allow learners to communicate in new ways formerly unimagined.

A transformative teacher, therefore, is compelled to question the commonsense assumptions in the cultural, social, and psychological realities of his or her students—for example, the assumption that the views of both Azerbaijan and Armenia could not be voiced.  In this sense, the native English–speaking teacher may be able to more easily challenge assumptions that the local non-native teacher might not be able to confront because of his or her membership in the culture.  Using CLT methods of cooperative learning, however, both native and non-native teachers can design lessons that free learners to “connect the norms of their own cultural practices with those of the target language community, and of the wider world, and thereby gain a deeper understanding of all” (Kumaravadivelu 2002, p. 275).
 This deeper understanding will come about through shared knowledge, co-constructed in a third space.  According to Kramsch (1996), a third space is a place where, “rather than seek to bridge differences and aim for the universal, … the dialogue ensures a mutual base to explore the sometimes irreducible differences between people's values and attitudes” (Kramsch 1996, p. 7).  In our negotiation over Nagorno-Karabakh, the differences between Azerbaijan and Armenia remained.  However, a third space was created where a dialogue, previously inconceivable, did take place and differences in values and attitudes were explored.  Language afforded the power to recognize disparity, acknowledge difference, and still strive to stand in the other’s shoes.

A third culture favors neither the teacher’s nor the students’ preconditioned expectations for teaching and learning styles.  Consequently, teachers are compelled to help learners discover their own identities in the new language and both represent “an institution that imposes its own educational values” while helping learners “not to be bound by either one” (Kumaravadivelu 2002, pp. 256-257).  At the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, a unique third culture is created by teams of non-native and native English speaking teachers in an environment where English is the official language of instruction, but the cultural context is Azerbaijani.  Students can take refuge in the shared cultural and language-learning perspectives of the non-native teacher while also having their expectations and assumptions challenged by foreign teachers with unfamiliar worldviews and notions of language learning. 

As an English-speaking academic environment dedicated to developing critical thinkers for today’s most urgent problems, ADA has made a commitment to communicative language teaching, in which learners can use language not only to discover their own identity in a new language, but also to create identity and meaning, and find new understanding and new relationship with each other and the world.  In what other way can language resonate with meaning deep enough to find mutual understanding across cultures to resolve the world’s most urgent problems and conflicts? 

Burns, A. (2005) Interrogating new worlds of English language teaching, in Burns, A., ed. (2005) Teaching English from a global perspective (Alexandria, VA: TESOL).

Freire, P. (2006) Teachers as cultural workers (Boulder, CO: Westview Press).

Kachru, B. (1992) Teaching world Englishes, in Kachru, B., ed. (1992) The Other Tongue, English across Cultures, 2nd ed. (University Illinois Press).

Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and culture in language teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Kramsch, C. (1996) The cultural component of language teaching, retrieved 31 March 2009, from Zeitschrift für Interkulturellen Fremdsprachenunterricht Web site: http://zif.spz.tu-darmstadt.de/jg-01-2/beitrag/kramsch2.htm.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2002) Beyond methods: Macrostrategies for language teaching (New Haven: Yale University Press).

Pennycook, A. (1994) The cultural politics of English as an international language (London: Longman).

Rogers, C. R. (1951) Communication: Its blocking and facilitation, in N. Teich, ed., Rogerian Perspectives: Collaborative rhetoric for oral and written communication (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing).