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Missed opportunities for negotiating cultural and personal meaning in a language classroom: An ethnographic study of Chinese language classes

Haiyan Fu, University of Massachusetts Amherst


There are hidden difficulties in teaching a foreign language in a classroom context that have not been examined. Using ethnographic research methods of participant observation, field notes, audio-taping of classroom conversational exchange, and interviews with participants of the interactions, the hidden issues were identified through data analysis focusing on the discourse between teachers and students of Chinese language. While many classroom interaction studies focus on teaching methods or content that should be taught, this research study examines language classroom interactions from a sociocultural perspective. It provides a description of the cultural and social factors that influence the communicative process in classroom interactions. The underlying assumption guiding this study is that effective foreign language teaching and learning is a communicative process that involves more than simply instruction about the formal features of language and cultural knowledge. The purpose of this process is to develop the individual learner's communicative competence. This competence includes not only language competence and cultural competence but also the openness and readiness of the mind and the flexibility of cognition to function in cross-cultural contexts. The study reveals that a central cause of language classroom miscommunication is the difficulty participants have in creating contextual coherence and meaning. This problem is the direct result of the participants' simplified assumptions of cultural and social stereotypes. The stereotyping of individual and power relationships in the classroom hinders the learning process and can lead to underdeveloped perspectives of cultural images and social roles of individuals. With stereotyped cultural images and the narrowly defined social roles of participants in the classroom, the teaching and learning process limits opportunities to actively develop the learners' communicative competence. The practice of teaching and learning thus may reinforce inflexibility in communicative negotiation and in dealing with the cultural, social, and individual diversities in the cross-cultural interactions outside the classroom. Therefore, cross-cultural openness--the awareness of sociocultural and individual diversity in cross-cultural interactions--is significant in language teaching and learning. The significance of cross-cultural openness is that it not only influences the process of language teaching and learning, but also the content of language teaching and learning.

Subject Area

Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Curricula|Teaching|Teacher education

Recommended Citation

Fu, Haiyan, "Missed opportunities for negotiating cultural and personal meaning in a language classroom: An ethnographic study of Chinese language classes" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9619387.