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International TESOL training and EFL contexts: the cultural disillusionment factor.

Md. Raqibuddin Chowdhury’s article reports on a study examining the implementation of communicative language teaching (CLT) in Bangladesh in general and at the University of Dhaka in particular.

When CLT was first introduced across Europe, the English as a foreign language (EFL) context in which it would inevitably be applied was not considered. Here university EFL teachers discuss the problems and contradictions associated with adopting this western-forged methodology. One paradox faced by the teachers was that of an essentially learner-centred curriculum in a tradition where the centrality of the teacher is the culturally and socially sanctioned basis of teaching. Although in developing countries we cannot afford simply to retreat to traditional teaching methods, the study suggests the need for an educational agenda set within a new post-colonial framework which acknowledges the importance of the adaptation of CLT and recognises the significance of its applicability in Bangladesh.


bangladeshTeaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) is by definition cross-cultural and international and hence presupposes an international body of learners. In spite of this, there is an assumption in international TESOL training that the western academic setting is the default backdrop against which teachers teach. In most cases, the teaching environment of the international student–teacher is very different from the western setting. Due to this difference, internationally trained teachers encounter incompatibilities on their return home. The student–teacher abroad, who is either deliberately or subconsciously moving away from a teacher-centred style more suited to his own country, is seen as disappointing the expectation of students back home for whom the centrality of the teacher is the culturally and socially sanctioned basis of his teaching (Edge, 1996). This study seeks to examine the ways in which communicative language teaching (CLT) is understood by university English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers in Bangladesh in general and at the University of Dhaka in particular. In order to understand the role of culture in language teaching, it is first important to examine the contextual givens of the situation under study.

This article begins with an introduction to the teaching of English in Bangladesh and the Foundation Course in English at the University of Dhaka and continues with a discussion of issues relating to the match and mismatch of language teaching methodology to the culture of language learners, specifically CLT methodology to learners in Asian countries. It then reports on a study conducted in the Department of English of the University of Dhaka, where these issues were raised in a series of interviews with six members of the teaching staff. Themes which emerged from the teachers’ responses are identified. In the final section, recommendations are made which seek to achieve culturally appropriate outcomes in the teaching of English in Bangladesh.

EFL in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, English is taught as a compulsory subject for 12 years under a uniform national curriculum, both in state-run and private schools and colleges. It is a required subject rather than a tool for survival in business and education at the primary and secondary levels. It is therefore an EFL context and, like most other countries in Asia (see Li, 1998, Liu, 1998), English teaching in Bangladesh tends to mean teaching grammar, reading and translation.

In Bangladesh, students expect teachers to be authority figures and the teaching methods to conform to the traditional ‘lock-step’ teacher-centred approaches where teachers give orders to students, who then comply. By the time students are enrolled at a university, they have already completed 12 years of schooling with English as a compulsory subject. In the pre-university years, students are not exposed to skills development courses. Hence the more communicative approaches to language teaching which they come across for the first time at the university seem to them foreign (Chowdhury, 2000). Students feel tempted to discard the new style and complain that the teacher is not ‘teaching’ when tasks and activities are done in the class without meeting the ‘sociocultural’ expectations of the students. This may be because the sense of security and order, which they found in the familiar routines in which they knew their status and role, had suddenly been violated by something new. They are no longer familiar with the rules of this new game.

The Foundation Course in English

The focus of this study is on the Foundation Course in English (FC) taught at the University of Dhaka which was introduced in the academic year 1998-1999 at the tertiary level to all first year undergraduate students. The FC had the dual objective of providing students with adequate English language skills to adapt to the linguistic demands made by their respective academic disciplines and to make them competent enough to find suitable employment opportunities in the job market, which increasingly requires English proficiency. This course is taught twice a week with a duration of 50 minutes per class. Currently about 1300 students are enrolled in this course from all the 14 departments of the Faculty of Arts.

The FC is primarily skills based and aims to develop the four macroskills (i.e. listening, speaking, reading and writing). It has a more or less notional syllabus rather than a grammatical one in which the fundamental units are based on meanings and concepts expressed through the language and not through the grammatical items (Nunan, 1991). At the end of the academic year, students have to sit for the FC exit test in which 100 marks are allotted where the pass mark is 33. Marks above 50 are added to the final BA Honours result.

Theoretically the implementation of the FC represents an innovation in foreign language learning as continual attempts are made to change syllabus content, textbook design and classroom teaching approach in tune with the current principles of communicative language teaching (Khan, 1997, p. 3). This course has been running for about two years and, in spite of a number of major modifications made to the curriculum and teaching strategies, it has yet to reach a consolidated, substantial and unanimous shape conforming to both the demands of the learners and suggestions made by teachers. The modifications are largely based on ideas developed during several ELT workshops conducted all through the year for FC teachers.

Although some of the FC teachers of the department do not have international training, a number of them have completed TESOL courses from abroad. These teachers have often complained about the incongruity that exists between the nature of their international TESOL training and the subsequent disillusionment on their return home. Contemporary literature in this area suggests the existence of a rather one-sided understanding of the requirement of TESOL professionals from non-English-speaking countries. The following section discusses these issues, along with the importance of culture in language learning and teaching and how these factors affect the internationally trained teacher.

Pedagogical incompatibilities

It has long been felt that most of the much professed and popular theories devised in the ‘inner circle of countries’ (Ramanathan, 1999, p. 211) or the West are incompatible with teaching situations at the University of Dhaka–not so much because of the physical constraints and lack of adequate logistic support, but because of cultural differences that exist between the target culture and the Bengali culture. With the EFL setting in Bangladesh, the home culture and the EFL classroom/textbook cultures are very often at odds, and the values and teaching methods presented in class are alien and therefore often unappreciated. This becomes worse when classes expect to be exposed to a particular version of the target culture which the teacher does not endorse. This might be explained by Kramsch’s conviction that in many EFL classrooms the focus is on ‘what is on the other side of the border’ but not on the ‘border crossing’ (cited in Duff & Uchida, 1997, p. 452) as a result of which teachers are actually teaching language and culture or culture in language, but not language as culture. A considerable gap is felt between the theories of communicative teaching of language and the sociocultural relevance of teaching it in its westernised form.

If the teaching of English is more than the teaching of language (Gee, 1994; Pennycook, 1994), cultural study is of paramount importance and can directly contribute to the EFL teachers’ attempts to adapt teaching methodology in their countries, because no language, whether verbal or non-verbal, can be devoid of cultural influences (Liu, 1998), nor can any teaching or learning methodology. Brindley (1991) shares the same conviction and says that, because of culture-related reasons, language education research is best done by practising teachers themselves.

CLT and TEFL contexts

In contemporary literature on communicative language teaching (CLT), the role of the subtle yet intriguing interrelationship between language teaching and culture and the nature of TESOL training in today’s world plays an important part. In the 1970s, interest in and development of communicative-style teaching mushroomed and authentic language use and classroom exchanges where students engaged in real communication with one another became quite popular (Savignon, 1991). Today CLT is one of the most practised language teaching methods all over the world. This is a student-centred (as opposed to teacher-centred) approach where the objective is to provide linguistic input to the learners according to their needs.

CLT makes use of real-life situations that necessitate communication (Richard & Rodgers, 1986). The teacher sets up a situation that students are likely to encounter in real life and students use the language creatively to relate forms to functions appropriately in situations involving real meaning, real time, and actual interaction. The ‘four utterance paradigm’–the sample schema of the teacher–student string of question, response, feedback and response to feedback (Wajnryb, 1992) typical of a grammar-translation approach–is avoided in CLT. Unlike the audiolingual method of language teaching, where teachers have a more central and dominating role, relying on repetition and drills and requiring students merely to listen, repeat and respond to questions, the communicative approach can leave students in suspense as to the purpose of a class exercise, which will vary according to their reactions and responses.

In adopting CLT in foreign language learning, teachers and policy makers are likely to accept implicitly and subconsciously certain assumptions concerning their pedagogical roles and goals as cultural guides (Talebinezhad & Aliakbari, 2001). The hidden but inescapable assumption supporting these objectives is that meaningful language use is culture bound and culture specific.

Theories and methodologies concerning language teaching in general and CLT in particular are mostly incompatible with the physical restraints and lack of adequate logistic support in the teaching environment at the University of Dhaka. Differences among students, student competence levels, school populations, teachers, scheduling and the physical environment invariably impose limitations on theories. Medgyes (1986, p. 21), in a caricatured, somewhat ironical portrayal, says that the communicative teacher requires extraordinary abilities: he has to be ‘a multi-dimensional, high-tech, wizard-of-Oz-like superperson–yet of flesh and blood’. He argues that CLT places too much of a burden on a teacher. Because it is a student-centred approach and not a teacher-centred approach, the teacher has to accept extra responsibilities both before and during the class. This is particularly difficult for non-native teachers who are usually reluctant to accept the communicative approach because of the heavy demands made on them. Non-native teachers may be already immersed in the audio-lingual approach, a system which is set in such a consolidated state that it is very difficult to free themselves from the constraints, thus making the problem and the sense of burden all the more palpable.

Language and culture: The symbiosis in TESOL pedagogy

‘A language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture. (Brown, cited in Jiang, 1994, p. 147)’

The purpose of learning a foreign language is to communicate, either in written or spoken form, with the people who speak that language. In order to communicate properly, the rules of communication, norms of formality and other cultural issues should be considered. These are elements that are inseparable from language and so inextricably linked with language that one cannot be separated from the other. With language learning come other factors, the knowledge of which supplements language learning–the way to greet, address others, wear clothes, look at people, talk, laugh, say goodbye, wave hands, prepare food and eat. The relationship between culture and language is therefore functional and mutually complementary.

In the same way, language teachers are very much ‘cultural warriors’ (Giroux, 1992, cited in Hall, 1997, p. 37), and this role is at once inevitable and perpetual and fundamentally related to language (Hall, 1997). It is in this sense that classrooms become ‘battlegrounds in culture wars’ (Shor, cited in Auerbach, 1995, p. 76). Hall (1997) explains that culture is something that we do, something that coheres us as a society; language, on the other hand, is a way in which we practise culture. But culture itself is never frozen–we consume culture as we produce it and are defined in terms of our use of culture. Pedagogy, likewise, is embedded in and shaped by culture. It is hence important for teachers to be aware of this in their pedagogical practices.

Damen (1987) appropriately terms culture as the often neglected, mostly overlooked ‘fifth dimension’ of the language classroom. Jiang (1994, p. 27) proposes three different kinds of metaphorical pairs to show the intimate relation between language and culture–flesh/blood, swimming skill/water and vehicle/traffic light. Every spoken or written word in any language has a particular context-bound meaning–designative or social, denotative and connotative as associated with culture. Duff and Uchida (1997) examine the complex yet inevitable ‘fundamental interconnectedness’ between language and culture in social contexts–between teachers’ sociocultural identities and pedagogical practices and between their explicit discussions of culture and the implicit modes of cultural transmission. If culture shapes our view of the world, language is the most representative element in which culture manifests itself. Any item of behaviour, tradition or pattern can only be understood in the light of its meaning to the people who practise it. Whether they are aware of it or not, teachers are always involved in the transmission of culture (Duff & Uchida, 1997). These authors have argued that teachers’ professional, social, cultural and political identities and their representation involve numerous complexities and paradoxes which are manifested in their pedagogical practices. Some of these can be resolved through a careful understanding of the mismatch and an unobtrusive assimilation of the two cultures.

Imported theories, local understandings

A host of authors have commented on the EFL situation in Asia and have invariably talked of problems associated with the implementation of western teaching techniques including CLT. Although these authors have pointed out that cultural continuity should be respected in making changes (Fryer & Wong, 1998; Liao, 2000; Zhenhui, 2000), they have also shown how it is possible to adapt certain techniques to meet local needs while acknowledging the limitations. Li’s (1998) article on the cultural constraints in introducing the CLT in South Korea points to some of the problems discussed earlier in the Bangladesh context–he mentions a number of Asian EFL countries where CLT has been used with limited success–China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, Pakistan, Singapore and the Philippines. Liao (2000), on the other hand, shows how CLT had been acceptable in the secondary schools in China.

In drawing out three major differences between Confucian-heritage cultures (CHC) and western culture, Biggs (1997) points out two often-neglected views. First, Asian students more readily work together spontaneously than do western students. This is not cheating but a collectivist attempt to share knowledge and do the best job possible (Tang, cited in Biggs, 1997, p. 108). Secondly, in westerners, achievement motivation is individualistic and competitive; in CHC students, it is collectivist, embracing the peer group (Salili, cited in Biggs, 1997, p. 109). These appear to be paradoxical since the communicative classroom is meant to be one in which collective spontaneity and motivation appear to play an important role. In view of these insights regarding learning approaches, it is important to ask the following questions: In spite of their collectivist nature, why do students of this part of the world appear to fail to be ‘communicative’ in the language classroom? Is it possible that ‘communicative’ is a culturally situated word and differs in its connotations, expectations and manifestations across cultures?

It appears, at this point, that the term ‘communicative’ itself is problematic. Holliday (1994) points out the perceived differences in the interpretation and perception of what we mean by communicative between the West and the EFL countries where CLT has failed to gain ready acceptance. Crystal (1985, p. 57) defines ‘communication’ as ‘transmission of information’–in his Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics–’between a source and a receiver, using a signaling system’. In theory, he says, communication is said to have occurred only when the information received is the same as that sent.

Hymes (1972) defined the term ‘communicative competence’, which includes knowledge about what is formally possible, feasible, and appropriate in a given language and to performance (or use) of this language. Clearly communicative competence entails more than just linguistic competence. What may not be communicative in one setting might well be in another and this depends to a large extent on local culture as Hall (1997) has pointed out in his article on discourse communities. On the one hand, there are small classes with plenty of resources and, on the other, large classes with few or no resources. Holliday (1994) shows that the former is the model based on which methodologies and materials are disseminated in other countries.

The culture in Bangladesh is one that has a long tradition of unconditional obedience to authority. The teacher is seen not as a facilitator but as a fount of knowledge, which is delivered without any concession to students and which students ‘struggle to attain’ (Holliday, 1994). The south Asian teacher is the authoritarian purveyor of knowledge, one to lead and to draw matters to a correct conclusion. An authoritarian, cold and unproductive classroom climate to a westerner may not be perceived that way by the participants of a collectivist society. There, hierarchy determines the nature of teacher–student interaction, which is facilitated by mutual respect. First names and physical proximity can make things uncomfortable and unfamiliar. The world outside and the classroom may be paradoxically at odds. Biggs (1997) refers to ‘the inside/outside rules’ of class participation: ‘Student talk is “outside” (inappropriate) when inside the classroom, but “inside” when outside the classroom’.

Cultural constraints inhibit the communicative competence of these students and limit the choices they could make elsewhere. Again, in CLT, the student with the best control of structures and vocabulary is not necessarily the best communicator. Due to heavy grammar input from pre-university schooling (Chowdhury, 2001), first-year university students in Bangladesh generally have a modest grasp of structure and usage, though the demands made by the CLT class cannot be fulfilled with this knowledge. Referring to Chinese culture, Biggs (1996, p. 9) goes on to comment, ‘It is not that Chinese students won’t talk inside the classroom, but things have to be structured so that they see it as appropriate that they do’. It appears from the above discussion that the problem lay not so much with the competence of students as with the overall cultural orientation to the academic atmosphere.

This type of primarily didactic, product-oriented and teacher-centred (Liu, 1998; Zhenhui, 2000) tradition is incompatible with what student-teachers learn in TESOL programs across North America, Britain and Australia (NABA).

‘NABA-trained international TESOL students often return home to face not only the problems of modifying their methods and techniques, but also the conflict between their newly acquired ideas and those still firmly followed by local professionals.’ (Liu, 1998, p. 8)

But several authors have also convincingly discussed the supple, if somewhat amorphous nature of CLT. Li (1998) emphasises the flexibility that CLT offers-contrary to popular misconception, he suggests, CLT is not defined and practised within cautious perimeters. He recommends that EFL countries should adapt rather than adopt westernised forms of CLT, meeting the immediate needs and recognising the local constraints. In the same line of argument, Bickerton (1996, p. 43) intriguingly argues against what he calls the ‘enormous intuitive appeal’ of CLT, despite which, he warns, ‘a naive, even impoverished view of language’ can be found at the heart of CLT. He examines six ‘fundamentally trivial propositions’ upon which he thinks CLT is based and says that the propositions are ‘only superficially and trivially true’. Against these propositions, he offers six counter-propositions and suggests an alternative: ‘pluralist methodologies are more likely to be successful than any single orthodoxy’. Difficulties in the developing context usually arise from a western adviser telling people who have been working with their own ways that they have got it all wrong (Liu, 1998). Brown (2000) recommends gradual changes and a simultaneous respect for ‘cultural continuity’, which should keep contact with the socially and institutionally sanctioned current practice. How does the CLT approach fit the teaching of English in Bangladesh? In the following section, the University of Dhaka study explores this question.

Teacher participants of the study

This research was carried out with six teachers of the Department of English of the University of Dhaka (DU). Although the emphasis was on teachers who had received international TESOL training from abroad, the locally trained teachers provided a study in comparison and contrast. Four of these teacher-participants received their degrees from abroad and the rest were locally trained. The first group of teachers had been exposed to both western culture and the westernised models of CLT currently in practice. It was the intention of the researcher to include participants with experience in a number of English–speaking countries. These included a participant with a PhD in English language teaching (ELT) from the United Kingdom, one with a Masters degree in TESOL from the United States and two participants with degrees from Australia. The participants’ teaching experience ranged from two years to over fifteen years.

Participants’ perceptions of CLT vis-a-vis learners’ culture

Considering that ideal and actual roles of teachers and students (as perceived by TESOL practitioners) and the role of culture would throw light on the inquiry made by this study when discussed with the physical-cultural limitations of the teaching context, views expressed in the interviews and questionnaires were sorted into five categories: teachers’ roles; students’ roles; resources and constraints; the nature of international TESOL training; and the negotiation of cultural content. The last category emerged, as the study was in progress, as a spontaneous choice made by teachers to bridge the incompatibility.

Teachers’ role

As mentioned earlier, CLT as a term and as a technique is more or less new to teachers who have not been trained in the West. One of the questions asked participants to select the best way of describing CLT where options included ‘student-centred teaching’, ‘teacher-student two way interaction’, ‘teacher is negotiator rather than supervisor’, ‘based on students’ needs analysis’, ‘focus on meaning rather than on form’ and ‘all of the above’. While ‘student-student two-way interaction’ was an option that should ideally have been included in the question, it was left out because real classroom time and physical constraints made it almost impossible in the given context. Three out of the six participants chose ‘teacher-student two-way interaction’ as the best way to describe CLT whereas two chose ‘teacher as negotiator’.

It seemed from their comments that social and cultural norms loomed large in the shaping of the way students view teachers and vice versa. Earlier we have seen how teachers are viewed as authoritative figures in the classroom in Bangladesh. In the face-to-face interview, Neelima mentioned that culture is an important factor in defining the nature of student–teacher interaction. One of the reasons why students feel inhibited in student-centred interaction is that teachers do not adequately encourage students due to the culturally situated role of the teacher. This view, albeit true, is also paradoxical, because she also says that students see the teacher simultaneously as a ‘father figure’–nurturing and authoritative. Osman explained:

‘I think there is something wrong with the traditionally expected image of the language teacher in our country but you can’t blame [students] for upholding this image because the general [students] don’t know what kind of teacher [an authority figure or a facilitator is more suitable for teaching language.'

Neelima complained about the discrepancy between the role she plays as a teacher from the role she is expected to play as a teacher by the students. Though none of the teachers mentioned it explicitly, it appeared that, despite all the changes that are taking place, teachers have accepted their role but at the same time they are realising that students should be encouraged to take more responsibility in the classroom.

Interestingly participants viewed the authoritative standing of the teacher, since unavoidable, as something that could rather be used for student benefit. It was also apparent that although they all wanted to 'break the ice' that lay between the students and the teachers, they were not entirely willing to give up the authoritative and somewhat distanced role of the traditional teacher. The reason for this was explicitly elaborated by Neelima who, echoing Bithi, said that it was a matter of culture and that sometimes it is better to allow students to pay the respect and maintain the distance they are comfortable with.

'The students want the teacher to be an information provider and if you are not one, it is sometimes taken as if you don't know much, and that's a part of our culture. It all comes down from the family image because even at home there is someone who is really the head of the family and it is this concept that has also come down to the classroom and the students see the teacher as their guardian, one who would truly guard them and give them all their answers to their questions and queries.'

Participants viewed the role of the teacher as facilitator, provider of information, mentor, resource person, maintainer of discipline, etc. However the emphasis seemed to be on the role of teacher as facilitator.

What was interesting about the ways in which teachers negotiated their roles in relation to culture was the difference between the perception of CLT by western-trained teachers and non-western trained teachers. On the one hand, western-trained teachers saw themselves as transmitting a culture essentially alien to the students by means of a technique alien to them and, in the process, making demands on students which did not match their present level of competence. On the other hand, the locally trained teachers found that the traditional way worked best, provided care is taken that students learn independently and the tasks are communication--based even if that meant the teachers would still assume an authoritative position.

Also interesting was the way teachers perceived the paradoxical juxtaposition of the authoritarian role of the teacher as facilitator and as the maintainer of discipline against the cultural backdrop. Participants suggested this traditional viewing of the teacher could be used positively because tasks endorsed by the teacher are always accepted by students.

Learners' role

The expected student behaviour of the FC teachers of the DU differed from student behaviour expected in the West. Some participants wanted their students to be disciplined, regular and punctual. Therefore it was not surprising that some participants would see their roles as maintainer of discipline or mentor. In response to one question, Osman described his role of teacher as a 'maintainer of discipline'.

'I do believe that there is a gap between teaching and learning and the student may not learn what the teacher teaches ... so responsible learners are what I would like to see in my class ... [I also value] my role in maintaining classroom discipline, working with others …’

On the question of student freedom, participants offered diametrically opposing views. For example, asked if liberty would disrupt the teaching process, Neelima compared her experience in Australia and said that, with carefully bestowed classroom freedom, students could improve a lot. Some advocated giving full freedom to the students whereas others went for the more traditional controlled classroom. This reflected not only the sociocultural tension that existed between teachers and students, but also the fact that teachers were not prepared to discard their traditional roles completely in favour of a more westernised approach: ‘What we probably need is something in between communicative and our traditional way of teaching the students’.

Osman far from blames the students for relying so much on the teacher. Recalling his own days as student at DU, he said he used to have similar views and gives an example where one particular teacher asked students to do a ‘presentation’ and spent the whole class time on it. Students felt they ‘didn’t get anything from the teacher himself’.

It appeared that, although each of the participants had high expectations and concern for the students, they were divided in their opinions in regard to expected student behaviour. All four participants with degrees from the West said that their views of how students should behave and interact in the classroom were ‘legitimised by their training in the West’. The notion of the inseparability of the student’s social culture and cultural identity of both the student and the teacher, Neelima argued, played an important role in the way they behaved and were expected to behave in the classroom.

Perceived limitations

The perceptions of the teacher-participants in relation to the limitations and obstacles in implementing CLT at DU showed a broad spectrum of variety. Limitations ranged from logistic limitations (Osman, Bithi, Tania, Rina, Farzin) to time constraints (Osman, Bithi) and physical setting (Tania, Neelima). Other limitations included students’ financial obligations regarding the course (Osman, Farzin), lack of study materials (Rina), bureaucratic red tape and lack of administrative interest (Neelima), student population (Osman, Neelima) and sociocultural adjustment to the environment (Farzin).

Neelima questioned the competence of students in regard to their taking up the responsibility of student-centred learning (‘their level is not to the standard where they could continue with simply student centred learning … there’s still got to be some kind of guide to instruct the students’), which is so crucial to the implementation of CLT. Needs analysis is regarded as so important in communicative curriculum design that not to carry out such analysis may scandalise many language educators in the west. Even so, DU did not conduct any needs analysis prior to introducing the FC (Hamid, 2000). This is because it appears to be irrelevant and impractical in the DU context. First, there is no way of communicating with prospective students until first-year classes start. Secondly, needs analysis may appear a foreign concept to many students and, as Graves (1996, p. 27) noted, they would neither know nor be able to articulate their purposes or needs. They would presumably be able to spell out their ‘subjective needs’, but with regard to ‘objective needs’ many would be dumbfounded because they are yet to be oriented to their future academic needs. Again, since the English Department is not in a position in terms of resources and faculty to deal with both objective and subjective needs of some 1300 students, and has to work on selected needs, it is pointless to survey student needs and preferences. Finally and more substantially, needs analysis involves the question of funds, which may not easily flow from the DU treasury.

One important aim of this study was to identify difficulties imposed by differences between the home culture and the target culture and the constraints in implementing CLT as originally conceived at the University of Dhaka with focus on the FC. These difficulties and constraints were identified as including logistic and physical limitations, student population and competence, time constraints and institutional commitment. Most of these difficulties and constraints have been mentioned by authors like Li (1998) and Liu (1998). These limitations were similar to those in other Asian countries. Apart from the logistic and physical constraints, the level of student competence and the corresponding failure on their part to adjust to learner-centred teaching appeared to be a major problem.

Conceived cross-cultural issues: Wasted West?

In spite of the westernised orientation to teaching English as a foreign language, some teachers found both themselves and the students to be culturally bound. The notion of this essential cultural entity of teachers has been discussed by authors like Damen (1987), Giroux (1992), and Shor (1986). Teachers had different perceptions of CLT which were open to interpretation and were based on personal choice: the less a teacher was exposed to CLT academically or pedagogically, the more connotative weight or interpretability CLT bore for him or her.

Due to the insufficient number of language teachers, some of these teachers, often without any language teaching degree or training at all, have to teach the FC and other language subjects. Asked whether a language-teaching bachelor’s degree would have helped them better in teaching in their then teaching context, the three participants without language and ELT-based degrees answered in the positive.

With a Masters degree in English literature and another in ELT, Neelima still thought of herself primarily as a literature teacher. She was completing her M Ed TESOL program when this study was conducted. She argued that though ‘learning a lot’, ‘I think I’m more confident in taking up language classes (now) because I didn’t really know much about language teaching before; I didn’t even know anything about CLT!’. Tania, on the other hand, believes that she has learnt practical ways of teaching in the EFL class–an experience she gained from teaching culturally heterogeneous classes in the United States. When asked if this multicultural milieu of language teaching in the West could actually confuse student-teachers to an extent instead and make things more difficult because of the number of ideas and situations dealt with, she said that, rather than confusing them, students would have the opportunity of taking in the ‘good things’ from the different cultures.

‘It is usually only in ELT classes or TESOL classes where you have teachers or students from all over the world and this multicultural nature of ELT classes really makes you learn a lot from each other which you would not really find in Bangladesh which is a monocultural society. And you would not expect many kinds of people from different nations at the British Council Bangladesh either. You would really kind of learn the similar things – more or less similar things – from each other. You would definitely learn, but they would be similar ideas whereas if you were doing it in the West you would have people from different cultures and they would put in a lot of their knowledge, their way of teaching, their way of adjusting to classrooms … You see what I’m saying? (Neelima)’

However she warns:

‘Ideally [western training] should be followed by training in Bangladesh so that we can adapt the ideas to our own context. One of the major problems of training in the West is that teachers often have very little idea of the realities of our teaching scenario.’

Some participants brought up the notion of the incompatibility between the cultural content in the FC textbook and the home culture. Despite plans and attempts of including culturally appropriate material, the FC textbook still consists of chapters and items borrowed from non-local grammar and language learning materials. In the questionnaire, four participants thought that the textbook material for the FC was ‘sometimes’ ‘culturally appropriate’ whereas one participant thought it was ‘seldom’ appropriate. Again, four out of six participants said they did come across cross-cultural conflict when teaching English language. Rina, who said she did not come across this conflict, also thought that knowledge of target language culture ‘seldom’ helped students in their knowledge of English.

The question of the relevance and significance of western TESOL training provoked a lot of discussion among the teacher-participants. It appeared that there was a degree of discontent among western-trained teachers in relation to their real needs which were infrequently taken into account in the international training that they had received. However some participants emphasised the possibility of adapting rather than uncritically adopting western teaching methods at home. One of the aims of this study was to investigate how far westernised ideologies inform and legitimise teachers’ pedagogical practices and it was found that although some of the western–trained teachers vindicated their choice of pedagogy with their western training, others relied more on the knowledge of and experience in teaching in the home setting alone.

Negotiating cultural content

The study also aimed at finding out how teachers negotiated the curriculum in terms of its cultural content and how they viewed currently practised pedagogical policies on cultural content in texts. It appeared that teachers had their own idio-syncratic and unique ways of adjusting to the cultural content of texts and this was far from uniform among them. Explanation appeared to be the most popular among practiced strategies, though some teachers found it to be time consuming. Media exposure seemed to be a good way of explaining. It also seemed that in some cases certain cultural contents of the text were simply discarded as foreign. The current FC textbook is in fact undergoing regular modifications, so culling and replacing material on the basis of its cultural content is common practice. This requires further research that is currently being conducted by a member of the faculty at the department who was also one of the participants in this study. It was understood that CLT and the more student-centred communicative techniques were in a transition stage demanding patience but also expertise. This transition had to be a gentle one.

Regardless of their opinions, all participants shared a sense of affinity with their teaching situations and a concern for the development of the FC. They seemed to be working with the pedagogical practices and values of both traditions to meet the needs and expectations of students while gradually developing their autonomy as learners. Teachers were also concerned with and involved in negotiating and positively resolving the paradoxes. Instead of conforming blindly to western training, in most cases attempts were being made so that instead of being subjugated by either CLT from the west or the traditional pedagogies currently practised in Bangladesh, they develop a culturally appropriate adapted version.

Although some participants were adamant in seeing CLT as an act of cultural imperialism, they viewed the politicisation of TESOL training as one aspect of a whole repertoire. They were still happy to reshape CLT and take the best of practices that they could meld in their pedagogy that suited students and their cultural values. Responses also advocated the need for the self-confident western-trained teacher with a critical outlook and one that would defy, if any, the subservience implicit in such trainings.

Looking to the future: recommendations

‘The teaching of culture as a component of language teaching has traditionally been caught between the striving for universality and the desire to maintain cultural particularity.’ (Kramsch, cited in Duff & Uchida, 1997, p. 456)

Based on the findings of this study, the following section contains recommendations for the implementation of CLT in Bangladesh and the further development of the FC.

Clarifying teacher and student roles

Roles of teachers in relation to students need to be clarified. Although the participants in this study had each assumed multiple roles as teacher, the findings suggested a somewhat arbitrary choice in selecting the proper role at the proper time or environment for the teacher. Teachers could view their roles not only as a culturally situated choice but also as a way of negotiating between the target culture and the home culture. It is important for teachers to meet and discuss their roles in conjunction with curriculum development.

Students’ roles too should be well defined. On one hand, the expected student behaviour of the participants varied widely and, on the other, it was seen that the roles were in some cases in conflict with the competence level of the students. The hope for increasing learner autonomy was not being realised.

Defining the goals of the FC

Further clarification of the goals of the FC is needed. Although the goals and objectives of the FC remain ill-defined to date (Hamid, 2000, p. 42), the unavailability of required resources makes goal setting for the FC a more critical task. On one hand, these goals have to impress students and other stakeholders and be down to earth and feasible enough to be carried out, on the other. Usually conducting a needs analysis is the common practice for setting goals to identify what students’ needs, wants and expectations are. With the learners not yet prepared to take the responsibility of self-learning and student-centred learning, they have to be trained first before the feasibility of needs analysis in the context of DU is focused on.

Several lecturers have recommended that groups be formed on the basis of students’ proficiency level (Khan, 2000), but the suggestion still remains unimplemented because of the cost and administration associated with conducting the arrangement of a proficiency test. I, however, believe that the existing grouping is acceptable because it ensures diversity. The placement of different proficiency level students in the same class would enable group work and motivate the less proficient students to keep pace with their more proficient peers with a moderate grasp of the language. From researchers’ points of view, moreover, heterogeneous grouping is more conducive to language learning than homogeneous grouping (Wong-Fillmore, cited in Mohan, 1990).

What can additionally be done is to modify the goals in accordance with the feedback from teaching experiences, students’ reactions to existing goals, and insights from research projects. The insights received in the course of this study could only have come through talking with the teachers themselves.

Developing learner autonomy: Towards a critical pedagogy

A central tenet of CLT is the learner-centred teaching and learning environment. In spite of the fact that many language programs claim to be learner-centred and supportive of learner initiative, most classroom practice appears to subvert this goal (Cotterall, 1995, p. 154) by excluding learners from decisions about planning, pacing and evaluating classroom tasks. According to Fairclough (1992, p. 32), not only do teachers need to think critically about their own pedagogical practices and the appropriateness of these for students, they also need to think about how they can help students to become critical learners. Learner training programs would give them the critical stance towards interaction and decision making and eventually make them more conscious of their roles in the communicative class, ironically, in the EFL context, it might provide them with the choice of deferring to the authority of the teacher’s role.

Given its sociocultural and economic backdrop, DU has yet to become familiar with such a high-sounding approach. Nevertheless this university places a high premium on students because it is their felt needs that led to the introduction of the FC at DU (Hamid, 2000).

Learners need to be supported in becoming gradually more autonomous. Cray and Currie (1996) have argued that teacher training programs have always failed to include in their curriculum and teaching agenda those individuals most concerned with and affected by what teachers know and do. As yet, there is no place for the individuals for whom classrooms exist and for whom teachers teach–the learner. Learner training would put emphasis on the specific needs of the students and free him or her from the traditional pedagogical limitations.

A systematic learner training is fundamental to change, covering the why (to defend the rationale behind such changes in activities and approaches) and the how (the gradual and staged introduction of techniques to proceed from the known to the unknown). This freedom from control implies responsibilities and begins with extending the responsibility of deciding who should speak from the teacher to the learner. In other words, a staged and careful metamorphosis is required to introduce the classroom culture of CLT along with a consciousness raising about the differences of L1 and L2 culture among learners.

Redesigning texts and materials

The current FC textbook requires more and more varied classroom activities and the curriculum needs a more explanatory approach regarding cultural content. Its activities, if at all, are confined to mechanical gap-fillings, matching, ticking and the like. It is simply a selection of teaching units, which does not touch upon any instructional purposes. This has led to varying interpretations of not only the course objectives but also the nature of the course itself. Chapters follow one from the other according to grammatical hierarchy. Students primarily interested in making use of the language rather than in learning about its structure are not likely to find such an arrangement particularly helpful.

As proposed by some participants, students could be introduced to the target language culture by adequate exposure to the media and audio-visual materials. Funds are needed for this and budget allocations should be made by both the department and the DU treasury. Also, proposals have been officially lodged for self-access centres for the students. These proposals have to be considered with urgency.

Although texts would be based on culturally appropriate local material including authentic texts, elements and items of the target culture should be included, provided they are accompanied by adequate footnotes and illustrations where necessary, and both their heterogeneous levels of competence and contextual relevance are kept in mind. Explanation and adaptation (to local content and context) might be practical ways of adjusting to alien cultural content in texts rather than avoidance or exclusion which should not be used as a possible means of adjustment, even if there are time constraints. Changes should always be made in accordance with the expected roles of the students.

Further professional development

Most participants emphasised the need for follow-up teacher training at home on return from the west. These training programs could be short in duration and would focus on the way in which recently acquired knowledge can best be adapted to meet local needs and students’ cultural expectations.

A number of foreign–aided projects, such as the Bangladesh English Language Teaching Improvement Project (ELTIP), with the objective of improving the quality of ELT and learning through communicative ELT in Bangladesh are operating at present. The long-term impact will be the improvement of English language through a cadre of teachers trained under systems established by ELTIP. Further projects like this are necessary to run over a longer period of time. Due to financial limitations, foreign aid is required but the implementation should be conducted by local advisers and teachers.

So far, much research has been conducted on CLT–most of it in the West. Indeed there is such a wealth of research regarding this that CLT has become the insisting and alluring language teaching technique of the West–an object of adoration and desire shrouded in mystery. Identifying with the western norm was seen to confer a sense of sophistication as a professional. Over the years, teachers from EFL countries may have subconsciously developed an assumption of it as an epitome of western achievement. However this study has found that teachers need to find their own roles and that of their students within the cultural backdrop against which they practise pedagogically and measure the applicability and relevance of CLT in terms of these contexts.

The findings of this study imply a need to set an educational agenda within a new post-colonial framework which acknowledges the importance of the adaptation of CLT and recognises the significance of its applicability in Bangladesh. Whatever method we may adopt, it is not likely to be effective unless we take the home culture into consideration. Exploring CLT in EFL contexts requires the input of local practitioners–teachers in the context in question. Students with different first language backgrounds have different problems and Bangladeshi students have learning problems and expectations peculiar to them. Although many of these constraints can be overcome, we must acknowledge that every country and nation is unique and has unique cultural and educational traits. Gradual changes and a simultaneous respect for cultural continuity should accompany the socially and institutionally sanctioned current practice.


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About the author

Md. Raqibuddin Chowdhury is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, University of Dhaka, Dhaka 1000, Bagladesh.

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