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Monday, October 1, 2012


CLESOL Palmerston-North, 4-7 Oct. 2012

Universals of Grammar (UG) and Culture (UC) – implications for TESOL

Wolfgang B. Sperlich, PhD


The prominent linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky made the analogy that when little green men from Mars arrive on earth, they will quickly acquire all human languages as they will crack the code of Universal Grammar (UG), thus having to learn only the minor surface features that differentiate human languages. In other words, languages have far more in common than divides them. Indeed this is the reason why we can learn, with relative ease, any other language(s) not our native tongue. Language teachers who engage in linguistic relativism – in tandem with cultural relativism – promote irrational modes of learning, including the much vaunted ‘necessary talent’ to become a polyglot. Universals of Grammar (UG) are well known to theoretical linguists but appear to have had only limited impact on TESOL, despite seminal works like Lydia White’s (2003) Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar. Perhaps the most common distracter is the current fashion to integrate culture (C) and language (L) as if L2 = C2. This paper argues against culture studies as a necessary or even desirable complement to language learning. If we apply Chomsky’s analogy to ‘culture’ – and especially to modern culture – it becomes apparent that cultures differ less and less in surface features, with the Universals of Culture (UC) finding expression in the global villages – and quite unrelated to language per se. Cross-cultural communication is not a skill that needs to be acquired via language learning: it is a skill inherent in our common humanity. Language teachers should concentrate on UG and desist from engaging in cultural relativism that gives rise to unnecessary conflict. For example a recent AKTESOL newsletter (March 2012) showcases a ‘set of picture cards to prompt conversations about cultural diversity’ one of which poses the contrary prompts ‘Living together before marriage is …’ and ‘Who can you marry?’. These are worn old hats from Victorian times, quite unrelated to TESOL.

The Future

by Leonard Cohen

Give me back my broken night

my mirrored room, my secret life

it's lonely here,

there's no one left to torture

Give me absolute control

over every living soul

And lie beside me, baby,

that's an order!

Give me crack and anal sex

Take the only tree that's left

and stuff it up the hole

in your culture

Give me back the Berlin wall

give me Stalin and St Paul

I've seen the future, brother:

it is murder.

Kia ora

1. There can be little doubt, as established by bio-linguists (Lenneberg 1967, Chomsky 2004), that all human languages share a common structure, if only based on the common sense observation that natural languages arise from a brain structure that is common to all human beings. Detractors, who claim that linguistic differences are absolute, can be compared to racists who peddle racist discrimination on the basis of absolute racial differences (cf. Reich 1946).

2. Equally there can be little doubt that human cultures also share a common foundation. To claim absolute differences is again akin to racism. Take for example Lévi-Strauss’ groundbreaking work (1962 a, b) to show that so-called primitive cultures have the same underlying structures as so-called highly civilized ones. The modern class system in New Zealand has its antecedents in various caste systems as much as in Maori totems (Schwimmer 1963) - hence the potentially awful realisation that, world-wide, we are not evolving at all but regressing to a state of neo-feudalism (see Leonard Cohen’s predictions above).

3. Less certain seems to be the position on the interdependence or otherwise of language and culture. If we consider the history of both phenomena, we can track the changes and permutations, with the result that language and culture diverge rapidly – at least in the sense that contemporary globalisation runs parallel with a global, popular and hybrid culture that seems more and more independent of language differences. In other words, many different languages are all in the service of one culture. In traditional societies, language and culture were closely connected, if only by default. However, even in traditional societies there has always been the real potential for language to go far beyond the confines of culture. Cultural practices are of course not only dependent on language but also on environmental factors. For example it is widely assumed that various Maya cultures were radically changed due to prolonged droughts. In modern times the loss of many traditional languages due to globalisation – if not linguistic imperialism (Phillipson 1992) – has not necessarily meant the parallel loss of traditional cultures. In the English language domain there are traditional cultures that are maintained basically via English as a first language and the traditional (indigenous or heritage) language in various degrees as a second language – if at all. Attempts to revitalize indigenous languages as first languages have invariably failed – witness te reo Māori. Nevertheless Maori culture seems to be transmitted reasonably successfully via English as the first language and te reo Māori as a second language to various degrees of competency. Kwachka (1995) reports a similar situation for Eskimo cultures in Alaska.

4. If we then consider Universal Grammar (or more widely the universals of language) and Universal Culture as separate entities, we may well ask what the implications are for TESOL. Even if we acknowledge that these two entities can be closely connected in traditional settings, we still need to ask if ESOL teachers (or language teachers in general) are qualified to teach both, especially when there are strong claims in some quarters that language and culture must be taught together (Kramsch et al. 1996). One of the more bizarre assertions is indeed one by Kramsch (2009), echoing the worn old Sapir-Whorf thesis:
So it’s this irony that we’re moving into an era where more and more people speak English and yet less and less do they understand one another because through English they are thinking, they speak English but they think French, or they speak English and they think Hindi.
The Sapir-Whorf thesis (language influences thought) was famously proven false by the founder of biolinguistics, Eric Lenneberg (ibid).

5. In the first instance Universal Grammar (UG) is still pretty much unknown in TESL despite seminal works like Lydia White’s 2003 Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar. This is a scandal of major proportions and can be likened to mathematics teachers being ignorant of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica – which to their credit, few are. I have elaborated elsewhere (Sperlich, 2011) on the pedagogical advantages, if not necessity, of UG in language teaching in general and TESL in particular; it suffices to repeat here that the learning path from L1 to L2 is made possible precisely because of UG. If L2 were an alien beast (as for example claimed by Everett, 2012) we would not be able to understand it, let alone being able to learn it. Teachers of ESOL, like any other subject teachers, are ‘subject’ to the common sense demands, as articulated by many a professional teacher, e.g.

Teachers need a firm grasp
- subject knowledge
- pedagogical knowledge AND
- subject-specific pedagogical knowledge
so as to be flexible in their approaches and to cater for diverse learners and provision (Coben & McCartney, 2012)
6. What about culture? If we accept that language teachers ought to be trained and certified like all other subject teachers, does it follow that ‘culture’ teachers should have the same requirements? There can be little doubt that the study of culture is a well defined academic field, generally within an anthropology department. Indeed there is also a well-established sub-field entitled variously as ‘linguistic anthropology or anthropological linguistics’ (cf. Ottenheimer 2012), hence one would expect that language teachers – if they insist on teaching culture as well – are indeed qualified in linguistic anthropology to do so (for example I claim to be an anthropological linguist, having specialised in Melanesian and Polynesian languages). If it is scandalous to claim that native speakers of English all qualify as English teachers, it is equally so to claim that all members of English culture qualify as ‘English culture teachers’ – or worse, as ‘culture teachers’ generally, having no qualms comparing English with, say, Chinese cultural practices, and advocating the former – while at the same time they have no idea about the Chinese language, and being singularly unable to use comparative syntax (as based on UG) when teaching English to speakers of Chinese.

7. There is also the often exaggerated claim that New Zealand/Aotearoa is some kind of advanced multi-cultural and multi-lingual society, and as such all her citizens – and native ESOL teachers in particular - are well placed to exemplify this state of affairs. With regards to the latter, i.e. ‘multi-lingual’ we do know, however, that New Zealand is still one of the most mono-lingual countries in the world (cf. a recent Listener article entitled Why are we so doggedly monolingual?), and with regards to the ‘multi-cultural’ claims we can assert that Auckland is indeed multi-cultural as nearly half of the population is foreign-born. Unfortunately many of them originate from English-language backgrounds (with European ancestry) who integrate their respective cultures with the conservative (if not right-wing), mainstream New Zealand pakeha one, whilst the other non-English/non-European lot tends to retrench in ethnic ghettos. As such, few mainstream ESOL teachers (you must be a ‘native’ speaker to get a job with us) qualify as experts in multi-culturalism. In fact New Zealand may well follow the dreadful example from Germany where Chancellor Merkel (2012) has declared that "Multikulti in Deutschland ist absolut gescheitert"(trans. multi-culturalism in Germany has absolutely failed).

8. In the abstract I commented on an example from an AKTESOL newsletter (for an in-depth critique of Magee, see APPENDIX) where marriage customs were takes as tokens of ‘cultural diversity’ - with my reading of the sub-text being, that in our glorious Western culture we can chose our partners and even live and have sex with them before marriage whilst the unfortunate ‘others’ have to yield to medieval practices of arranged if not forced marriages. I contend that we have long transcended national and cultural boundaries in the marriage game, whereby the global caste system dictates who can do what and with whom. The issue of whether or not a British pretender to the royal throne can marry a Catholic is the same as to whether or not a Saudi royal can marry a non-Moslem. The issue of same-sex marriage inflames the fundamentalist Christians of the USA as much as the fundamentalist Christians of Uganda. Nowadays there are liberals in all nations and cultures who advocate free marriage – or indeed no marriage at all as it is an outdated custom to keep women in domestic prisons. As such the issue of marriage is not cultural but social, economic and political. There is nothing wrong with discussing such issues in the classroom as long as points of views taken are not type-cast as having roots in cultural practices. Of course one can also argue that language teachers are generally not trained as sociologists, economists and political scientists either, hence they should stick to what they know best, namely ‘language’. Anyone who studies a language in academic depth will of course be drawn to the so-called language arts, traditionally listed as literature, film, history and medieval studies (as for French, German, Sanskrit, etc.) but also to media studies and politics, especially as the latter is invariably rich in the language of propaganda. If as a teacher of ESOL you have done equivalent studies for English then you may be a better teacher for it but at the same time you may be distracted from the main job of practicing ‘applied linguistics’.

9. At any rate, there is an easy way out for language teachers who are unqualified to teach culture, namely don’t do it. There is absolutely no harm in not doing it. In the first instance this would merely confirm that culture and language are quite independent of each other, and in order to learn the former one has to learn nothing about the latter. In fact from a pedagogical point of view this frees up valuable time to learn the language much faster – and fastest if supported by UG. For TESL this is ever more so the case because there is no such thing as English culture anymore, that is directly associated with English language as a lingua franca. Sure, English culture has a very rich history but modern expressions have morphed into the Coca Cola culture (cf. Foster 2008) at worst and into a global, popular and hybrid culture (cf. Burke 2009) at best. With reference to the former consider the awful spectacle of the Eurovision music contest where just about every song from any nationality is sung in English. Or else consider the perfectly valid pessimism – if not artful cynicism - expressed by Leonard Cohen in his lyrics above. With reference to the latter again, consider modern English literature which features fewer and fewer ‘indigenous’ English writers – Indian writers, for example, have in the last decade or so informed the English literature canon to the highest degree. Just think of Arundhati Roy who had never been outside India before her The God of Small Things was published in the UK. Think of Aotearoa where Maori writers have influenced English literature far more than NZ English writers.

10. Of course I wish that all ESOL students were deeply interested in English literature in order to experience and learn from the more exquisite forms of English but the fact is that most ESOL students want to become chefs, IT operators, bankers, tinkers, sailors and candlestick makers for which they require mastery of technical English, quite devoid of any English literary culture. International English as a language of commerce, technology and science is by design devoid of unnecessary use of idioms, metaphors, sayings, proverbs, similes, figures of speech and what have you – not that I would claim that these ‘literary’ devices are totally culture bound either. It is no accident that many immigrant children from non-English backgrounds excel in maths and science at school, precisely because they can quickly master the technical English language skills. Of course there are also a few of those who take on literary English as well and excel in Shakespearian English, not least because it too transcends culture and national boundaries – as all good literature should.

To conclude, and stated in plain English: T(each)ESOL based on UG. Nothing else!

Kia kaha!


Burke, P. 2009. Cultural hybridity. Polity.

Chomsky, Noam. 2004. Biolinguistics and the Human Capacity. Lecture delivered at MTA, Budapest, May 17. http://www.chomsky.info/talks/20040517.htm

Coben D & N McCartney (2012) Quality, Choice and Innovation in Embedding. Numeracy and Literacy. University of Waikato

Everett, D. 2012. Language: the cultural tool. Pantheon.

Foster, R. 2008. Coca-Globalization: Following Soft Drinks from New York to New Guinea. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kramsch, C., Cain, A., & Murphy-Lejeune, E. (1996). Why should language teachers teach culture? Language, Culture and Curriculum, 9(1), 99-107.

Kramsch, C. (2009). Interview. http://pterodactilo.com/numero6/?p=541

Kwachka. P. 1995. Language shift and Cultural Loss. Languages of the World 9:19-25.

Lenneberg, Eric. 1967. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lévi-Strauss, C., 1962a. Le Totémisme Aujourd'hui. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

_____________, 1962b. La Pensée Sauvage. Paris, Plon.

Listener, http://www.listener.co.nz/commentary/cultural-curmudgeon/why-are-we-so-doggedly-monolingual/

Merkel, http://diepresse.com/home/politik/aussenpolitik/602605/Merkel_Multikulti-in-Deutschland-absolut-gescheitert

Ottenheimer, H. 2012. The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Wadsworth Publishing.

Phillipson, Robert (1992), Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford University Press.

Reich, W. 1946 (first English edition). The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Orgone Institute Press.

Schwimmer, E. 1963. Guardian animals of the Maori. JPS Volume 72, No. 4: 397 – 410.

Sperlich, W. 2011. TESL without cultural baggage. Language, Education & Diversity conference paper, University of Auckland, 22-25 November 2011.

White, L. 2003. Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar. Cambridge University Press.


The reference to the AKTESOL Newsletter refers in turn to the following note:
At the 10 November session, Jenny Magee of Conversity (www.jennymagee.com, www.conversity.co.nz)
showcased a set of picture cards to prompt conversations about cultural diversity. These generated a lot of interest among the teachers present, and Jenny kindly awarded a set as a prize for the one who came up with the most creative use of the cards.
When looking at the two websites promoted by Jenny Magee, one finds the quixotic logo, saying:
On the outside, we are all different. On the outside, we are all the same.
On the inside we are all different. On the inside, we are all the same.
One cannot go wrong with stating all possibilities but just let’s say that from a biological point of view we are certainly all the same on the ‘inside’ and do not have many differences on the ‘outside’ either (unless one wants to play the skin-colour card).

Magee goes on to claim that
‘Across Cultures’ will spark conversations about the visible (food, language, festivals) as well as the invisible (attitudes, values and beliefs).Some of our ethnic differences are visible - those aspects we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Other sides are hidden, part of the inner rules we learn as we grow.
It seems a bit bizarre that ‘language’ is included in ‘visible’ ethnic differences since it should be clear by now that ‘language’ is NOT necessarily an ethnic attribute. Recent history is littered with ‘ethnic cleansing’ whereby all the people concerned speak the same language but have different religious beliefs – which is the cause of the conflict. Sure many so-called ethnic communities have their own languages – the whole point here is however to establish whether or not language per se has anything to do with ethnicity and culture. My claim is that language has nothing to do with it!

If we take food, dress, festivals and the arts generally, there is no denying that traditions and customs CAN differ according to ethnic and geographic lines but as noted before, in modern societies such differences have become choices for individuals to follow as they wish. The global village devours ethnic trends as fashion-fusion, forever giving rise to new expressions – possibly under the banner of popular culture. Those who hark back to the good old days when race and ethnicity were clearly labelled by the colour of your skin, the food you eat, the way you dress, the religion you believe in - and the language you speak – have long been exposed as bigots and racists, belying the fact that the distinctions never existed in the first place.

It is instructive that Magee includes ‘beliefs’ as ‘invisible’ differences when we know all to well that much of the human conflicts are based on believers wearing their beliefs on their shirtsleeves. Indeed Magee presents a quite bizarre story, presumably to demonstrate her point of view in these matters:
What you are
‘What you are shouts so loudly in my ear that I cannot hear what you say'. Ralph Waldo Emerson was so right.
The man at the café wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Speak English or #*@! off’, left me outraged. Could I hear his point of view? No, I was much too offended by his apparent prejudice to even want to. Far from encouraging me to engage in a conversation, the t-shirt provoked an instant negative reaction. I immediately consigned him to the ‘bigot’ box without even a hello.
So much for tolerance. I’ll never know if he really thinks that way or if he was out to provoke. Nor will we have the opportunity to challenge each others view. For one who teaches about first impressions and the limiting effects of stereotyping it was a salutary reminder that there is always a chance that I might have been wrong about him.
So, when I come across the woman wearing a big cross around her neck, or the Pope in his funny getup, or the Hare Krishna devotees in their orange robes, or the woman in the burka (as most likely to be enforced by a male guardian wearing jeans and t-shirt), or the banker in his Saville Row suit – are they all out to provoke me? Should I talk to them to find out if they really mean it? And what if they do? What if the man at the café really meant ‘Speak English or #*@! off’ and thereby, even according to Magee, is then classed a ‘bigot’?

Ralph Waldo Emerson should have changed his homely to ‘What you are shouts so loudly in my EYES AND EARS that I CANNOT BEAR TO hear what you say'.

Suffice to say that those who wear their religion for all to see, will also define their ‘attitudes’ and ‘values’ under that banner. Nothing ‘invisible’ here!

Those who keep their beliefs, attitudes and values to themselves, in public - and in polite discourse with ESOL teachers - are of course fairly handicapped if called upon to reveal their ethnic peculiarities. To be polite, they will discuss issues of culture and ethnicity but not with reference to themselves lest they are seen to betray the (biased) expectations, like the ethnic Korean having to admit that he/she actually doesn’t like eating kimchi, or the ethnic German refusing to wear Lederhosen and eat Sauerkraut and speak English with a German accent. The latter harks of course back to the above ‘Speak English or #*@! off’ with the further implicit qualification of ‘speak NATIVE English or else …’. ESOL speakers know all to well that they may never acquire a NATIVE accent even though their English may be perfect in every other way. To be asked ‘where do you come from?’ as an unrelated question in a friendly conversation and trying ‘I come from Auckland’ will quickly deteriorate into ‘I mean where did you come from ORIGINALLY?’ and if you are silly enough to try ‘Auckland’ again you will be cut off fairly quickly. Of course NATIVE English speakers delight in various native English accents but for some reason they cannot stomach any FOREIGN accents, for a foreign accent is synonymous with a foreign, non-English ethnicity – if not race – and as such undesirable to the tune of ‘Speak English or #*@! off’.

It is very tiresome to equate ethnicity/culture with group think since we know very well that within a single ethnicity or culture – if there is such a beast at all – there are numerous organisations that enforce group think to the maximum, using mass psychology to good effect (cf. Reich, 1946).

If modern societies have anything positive going then it must be the primacy of the individual, all the ones who have risen above the clamour of the group and their ethnicity, and have become modern citizens of the world. How wrong it then feels when Magee asks again:
Did you know that waiting in line varies between cultures? Should you always tell the truth, or is it more important to save face?
 How often do we trot out the worn adage that Asians put ‘face saving’ over ‘telling the truth’ whilst us still superior Europeans ‘tell the truth’ always, like all good people should? Such discourse is blatant nonsense at its most benign and blatant racism at its worst.

I do not ascribe any bad intentions to Magee at all – what do ascribe to her is the proverb of ‘the path to hell is paved with GOOD intentions’. For good intentions she surely has, as evidenced in the last section of the following paragraph:        
Our human brains are hardwired to notice difference. Sometimes the similarities seem more difficult to find. Getting to understand and appreciate each other is not always simple or easy, yet when we have positive, quality contact with each other, what we have in common stands out and the differences matter less.
What is sad about above statement is that ‘getting to understand and appreciate each other is not always simple or easy’ because ‘our human brains are hardwired to notice difference’. Pseudo-scientific – and indeed totally un-scientific – facts of the matter are always manufactured in such discourses as otherwise there would be absolutely no reason for the value statement in the first place. Who says that ‘our human brains are hardwired to notice difference’? Where is the reference so I can check? What if I counterclaim with ‘our human brains are hardwired to notice similarity’? Neuro-science hasn’t progressed to the point where any such claims are proven in any way.

If Magee would only listen to her own logic when she says that ‘when we have positive, quality contact with each other, what we have in common stands out and the differences matter less’, considering the simple negation for the positive outcome, namely ‘when we have NEGATIVE, ZERO-quality contact with each other, what we have in common stands out LESS and the differences matter MORE’. I am sorry to say that despite Magee’s best intentions, she unwittingly promotes the latter.

We all must try to get away from exploring insignificant differences – including the notion of different languages when we can postulate a common Universal Grammar that underlies all languages and thus makes them more ‘common’ than ‘different’. The same goes for culture, ethnicity and national traits. Let’s get away from this mythical Kiwi culture and its associated patriotism, for as Samuel Johnson – as a true-blue Englishman and linguist - is reported to have recognised a long time ago (1775) that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. We must get away from vast generalisations and false claims, such as Magee’s assertion of ‘New Zealand values, customs, etiquette and communication styles - verbal and non-verbal’. The world is changing, and if it is changing for the better, we may as well take Magee with us by simply appending the word INDIVIDUAL or IDIOSYNCRATIC to her final claims:  
We each have an IDIVIDUAL/IDIOSYNCRATIC cultural lens through which we view the world.
Our INDIVIDUAL/IDIOSYNCRATIC culture affects everything we do - what we say, how we say it and what’s important to us.
We will then soon discover that our individuality is also our common destiny, just as ESOL may turn out to be a useful conduit. As such I may find out that, say, as a German-English speaker I have far more in common with a Chinese-English speaker than with a mono-lingual German, English or Chinese speaker – or any shade of gray in-between.

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