Thursday, 1 September 2011

Culture Learning and Mediation

You can lead a student to a foreign culture, but you can't make them learn...

All year I've been reading up on culture learning and cultural mediation for the PhD. It's the core of the student exchange experience. You don't study abroad just to get a degree--you study abroad to live in a foreign country and learn about a foreign culture. At least, that's what I thought...
I've observed this fascinating phenomenon of international students coming to Leeds and trying to retain their home culture. Not all of them, of course, but at least some of the students I've lived with or socialised with. It seems that, for some, the decision to study abroad was based on the degree, not the desire to engage in culture learning. They don't go out to pubs or try fish & chips, Sunday roast, or other local specialties. Instead, they cook their national cuisine at home, often with compatriot friends coming over for dinner. They might go out sightseeing, but they go with compatriot friends and speak their native language most of the time, like casual tourists.

Is it wrong to hold onto your native culture abroad? No, of course not. But I can't help but feel that they're missing something. And maybe also, scholars who look at educational exchange are missing something, too.
There's so much talk about the culture learning process that we just tend to assume that all international students are willing & eager to engage in it. Culture learning is taken for granted as one of the outcomes of study abroad. But how comprehensive can a student's culture learning experience be when they still speak their native language with compatriot friends, still eat the same foods they would at home, and make little effort to establish friendships with locals?

I have to admit that I'm especially touchy on this topic, because during my years in the UK, I've been at the other end of the spectrum: full immersion. From the moment I arrived, I was keen to try every authentically English food, drink, experience, etc. In my free time between class and the pub, I watched nearly every comedy series the BBC iPlayer had to offer. I made friends with other international students, but definitely made an effort to hang out with the local Brits as much as possible. As if that wasn't enough, I even moved in with an Englishman--now that's culture learning!

I'm not saying every international student should be as keen as I was, but I think much more could be done to enhance culture learning for those who aren't that eager (field trips, social events, etc.). And mostly, I think this issue needs to be discussed in the study abroad literature. The modern trend of having a "Western degree" for vocational purposes means that students don't necessarily care about the host country at all. They just want a prestigious degree and demonstrable English language skills so they can get a career back home. Why would they bother with culture learning? Do they even have time for it, when they're busy with compatriot friends and studying for their degree (in a foreign language, which must be incredibly difficult)?

With the new academic year starting this month, we're going to be welcoming new first-year PhD's (and MA's) from all over the world. It's actually down to us, the current postgrads, to help them engage in culture learning--to show them around, to give them a good first impression of the department, the Uni, the city, the country. Very exciting times...

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