Ethnography for Language Learners

Date: 16 November, 2000
Location: CILT, London
Event type: Workshop

Event report

by Ali Dickens

"'Ethnography' is the study of another group's way of life from their perspective. It is the fundamental method of anthropologists who seek to understand the cultural practices of others, whether that means going to a small atoll in the Pacific or studying how people re-design their kitchens on a London housing estate."

The Subject Centre launched its first programme of workshops and seminars with a day devoted to the Ethnography for Language Learners course devised and distributed by the FDTL LARA (Learning and Residence Abroad) project. The course writers, Celia Roberts and Shirley Jordan led the day with interactive sessions to introduce the materials and case studies that demonstrate the ways in which the course has been implemented. Also present were two students, Patricia Legg and Sue Arquier, from the University of Southampton, one of the institutions trialing the materials, who gave a very thorough and positive overview of their experience of ethnography. This last gave participants an excellent perspective of the ways in which students have responded to the materials and feel that their research methodology for their year abroad projects has been enhanced (see 10 steps to success - a ten point ethnography project plan).

"The rationale for developing language learners as ethnographers is to offer a systematic and rigorous approach to cultural and intercultural learning. Students learn new ways of looking at the ordinary and the everyday, drawing out patterns from careful and extended observation of a small group."

The Ethnography course which was distributed free of charge to Modern Languages departments uses traditional ethnographic methods in the context of language learning and residence abroad. The aims and objectives are set out in a document Why Ethnography for Language Learners included in the course pack and available on the web and it is intended to be an integrated part of an undergraduate programme as it includes a home-based ethnographic study undertaken by students prior to their year abroad as well as a further study while on their placement. Broadly the purpose of the course is to enable students to engage with the culture they are visiting, to integrate the work done while abroad with the rest of their course and to equip them with study and research skills transferable to other parts of their study and future employment. Students are introduced to concepts such as "making strange", "foreshadowed problems", "participant observer" and "thick description" which form part of the essential skills, techniques and understanding that the ethnographer must take out into the field when observing and recording the everyday.

"Ethnographic approaches conceptualise 'culture' in different ways. It is not used to generalise about an entire national group. Instead it concentrates on the small, local and everyday. It does not see culture as a fixed set of beliefs and behaviour but as practices."

For the workshop Celia and Shirley concentrated on two aspects of the course interviewing techniques (chapter 9) and local level politics (chapter 15). The latter involved a session on the significance of gift-giving and receiving in which participants were asked to look closely at an act of gifting of their choice illustrated the ways in which the everyday can be made strange when observed closely from a new perspective. The session on interviewing highlighted the importance (emphasised by the students in their presentation) of questioning technique, of levels of engagement with the interviewee and of the all important act of listening. Ethnographic interviewing, it seems, does not normally involve following a prescribed plan or set of questions but rather unfolds as it happens with the interviewer responding to the cues and clues given by the interviewee. The evidence from the Southampton students strongly supported this as they described their initial difficulties with finding a theme and the ways in which their study evolved from the broad to the particular as a result of their encounters with their "subjects".

"Colleagues often comment that the idea of ethnography is a good one but it is difficult to offer a whole new unit or module in the curriculum and would a few workshops do? Our experience is that students need a considerable amount of time to learn new ways of looking at the everyday if they are to have the confidence to do an ethnographic study. Also, the whole programme is designed to integrate as fully as possible the learning while abroad with the curriculum both before and after the period of residence abroad. So, including the ethnography programme is an opportunity to add a significant new dimension to the curriculum and not just tinker with it."

Finally, Shirley outlined the way in which the course is being integrated into the French Studies programme at Oxford Brookes to demonstrate how Ethnography is introduced early in the degree and continues into the third and even (should the students wish) the fourth year of the course. The course designers emphasised that this course should ideally be taught as a complete entity, although many participants indicated that they may have difficulties with this and had used/could only use elements in their teaching. In order to assist departments with the job of exploiting the materials in a thoroughly integrated way the LARA project is planning to spend its continuation year in offering a service to colleagues consisting of consultation, workshops or other advice, as desired. Anyone who is interested in using the materials or finding out more about them should contact the Subject Centre, in the first instance, by emailing