Q&A – David Crystal’s IATEFL Webinar

One of the advantages of being part of IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) is that they provide a wide range of opportunities to network and develop professionally. Recently, IATEFL has begun organizing and running free monthly webinars with various experts in the field. 

These monthly webinars kicked off a few months back on May 25th with the well known author and linguist, Professor David Crystal. He has written over 100 books on linguistic topics and is quite active on the language training conference circuit. He is one of the “go to” experts in the world for news or radio programs looking to discuss linguistic matters. If you’d like a better introduction just take a look at the David Crystal Homepage. If you run into any bookstore in your local city I imagine you’ll be able to find one of his books – the bookshops here in Germany that have an English Book section always have a title or two on stock at all times. 

IATEFL ran this webinar as a “Question and Answer” session, and so sent out a request for questions via social media. I rolled the dice and sent in two questions hoping that one might be interesting enough to be chosen. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take part in the webinar live, but I set aside 60 mins the following week to watch the webinar from home.

As I sat back watching and listening to David Crystal, contemplating his answers and thinking about when I should grow a beard again (he has an awesome large white beard…) – I heard “Our next question comes from Matt in Germany”. Nice!

David Crystal IATEFL Webinar

My first question had to do with creating a “cultural reference dictionary” – basically creating a resource where one could go to in order to understand distinct cultural references made in English by speakers living in a specific region or country. I get the feeling this is an interest of Professor Crystal, as I have heard him mention the difficulties that cultural references provide in various articles and talks.

*Please Note – I did my best to write a transcript of David Crystal’s answers to my two questions below. If there are any small errors in this they are my mistakes. He was speaking spontaneously and so the following answers were not written down*

Question: Do you think that there will be such a thing as an “international cultural reference dictionary” one day?

I SO hope so… oh, I do hope so. This is one of things I do when I’ve got the time while I’m wandering round the world and I have a meeting with a group of teachers and students. One of the things we do is a workshop where we try and build up a dictionary of the local cultural expressions that relate to the use of English in their country. Everybody has them – words for flora and fauna, for myths and legends, for politicians and the words for the nicknames of the political parties – what’s the nickname for your prime minister? All this sort of thing that you know and take for granted if you are part of this culture and that I don’t know as somebody who doesn’t know your culture.

Everywhere you go you encounter this kind of thing. It’s very hard to study. It doesn’t take long to accumulate a dictionary though… in an hour I’ve produced little dictionaries with 100 – 200 – 300 words… just brainstorming from the people who are there. Somebody from outside the culture has to do it – if you’re from within the culture it doesn’t work so well. You have to have somebody from outside the culture who says, “What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean?”

The Longman Dictionary of English Language & Culture tried to do this years and years ago… not very successfully…  it was a great innovative work and it made some progress – but it was difficult capturing the cultural identity for the entire world. You need to do it locally to begin with.

One thing I am sure about is one does need this systematic cultural perspective in English language teaching. It’s there sporadically, this English culture as it were, but it’s not done systematically. What I mean by that is that if you pick up an ELT book and Chapter 3 is about shopping in Oxford Street – well the reason for the chapter has to do with some point of grammar or vocabulary. They use Oxford Street because it’s a nice easy way into that aspect of culture, to do with shopping shall we say, but it’s not being done systematically. To systematically do the culture of shopping in London you’d have to look at the alternatives to Oxford Street. If you don’t go to Oxford Street then were else might you go and what kind of alternatives would you encounter in other places? In the end if I said to you “My watch is more Portobello road than Oxford Street”… what does that mean?

Well that requires a level of cultural awareness to know what the different shopping areas are in London – you have to know that Portobello road has a market, a street market, where the goods on sell are often phony goods compared with the ones in Oxford Street, and so on.

Now generalize that to the whole culture of shopping in Britain… or in any language or country… and you can see the kind of problem that is required to be solved if you are going to do a cultural dictionary in any sort of systematic way… but it definitely needs to be done.

David Crystal - IATEFL Webinar 2

My next question has to do with this blog and my work in-company with Native English speakers. I was curious what Professor Crystal would say about running training with Native Speakers.

Question: Do you think international companies should invest in seminars aimed at raising awareness amongst Native English speakers? Seminars that help them become more aware of how to speak clearly internationally and make them aware of things like cultural references?

“Oh I certainly do… I do think companies should invest in this way. Some are beginning to do so. I have had some experience of sitting in on business meetings, especially in the last ten years. What I say to them basically is “Do some linguistics – develop a linguistic awareness of what the varieties of language are. In particular, develop a sense of the difference between formal and informal levels of communication”.

The biggest problem I find is that when everybody is sitting around a table – a lot of businessmen for instance or a lot of academics with a formal agenda – talking in a formal way about official issues – well then on the whole the cultural interference is limited. People don’t use colloquial idioms and so on so much there. But as soon as the meeting breaks up and they go for the coffee outside… or if there is a kind of lull in the meeting and they start talking amongst themselves… then suddenly the kind of cultural idiosyncrasy  and idiomaticity comes to the fore.

That’s when people feel excluded. The native speakers in the room start chatting together, make some flip remark, and all start laughing. The non-native speakers don’t laugh because they can’t follow the idiom or whatever it is. That’s the point where I think there needs to be some sensitivity to the impact of what it is you are saying.

So the more of this kind of awareness that can be brought into corporate situations the better it seems to me.”

His point about the higher frequency of idioms and cultural references in informal speech vs formal speech is important to highlight when running such a seminar. Remind the participants that some of the most challenging language they are using may not be in the boardroom but rather around the coffee machine… where a lot of customer interaction may be taking place in terms of relationship building.

If you are an IATEFL member you can watch the entire 60 minute session with David Crystal, just log into your account at the IATEFL homepage. If you’re not a member, then keep an eye out for future webinars – they are free when they are being conducted live. Otherwise, if you’re a language teacher you may think about joining!

David Crystal also posted answers to questions that came in during the webinar – just click here to read them. For more information on David Crystal visit his homepage.


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