February 2013
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Amy Alice Chastain, Shantou University, P.R. China

The ultimate goal for English language learners (ELLs) is attaining command of the spoken and written language, both productively and receptively, to the extent that they are comfortable, self-assured, and empowered to communicate effectively with both native and other nonnative speakers of English. Canagarajah (2006), in his state-of-the-art assessment, sums up the needs of English language teaching and learning:

A proficient speaker of English today needs to shuttle between different communities, recognizing the systematic and legitimate status of different varieties of English. Rather than simply joining a speech community, then, we should teach students to shuttle between communities. To be really proficient in English in the postmodern world, one has to be multidialectal. (p. 26)

Current Study

Participants and informants

The study included 28 postgraduate non-English-major students enrolled full-time at Shantou University, in Guangdong Province, P.R. China. Many of these students were exposed to non-Chinese speakers of English for the first time upon entering the university and were therefore good candidates for such a study. An equal number of speakers of English from around the world were recruited, and participants committed to a minimum of three 30-minute interviews at times convenient during the 16-week semester for both student interviewers and informants.


Instruments used in the study were adapted from similar studies in different contexts, primarily those of Robinson-Stuart and Nocon (1996) and Bateman (2002, 2004), and gathered such information as demographics, previous language experience, and language and culture exposure. The postproject questionnaire also elicited information relevant to the ethnographic interview experience and what the participants gained from it and participation in the project as a whole.

Classroom instruction revolved around the introduction of concepts and practices such as ethnographic interviewing (Bateman, 2002, 2004; Robinson-Stuart & Nocon, 1996), composing narratives and exposure to English language users of different varieties and backgrounds (e.g., Belcher & Connor, 2001) to broaden the learners’ understanding and awareness of the vast diversity found in the broader English-speaking community.



The most profound results can be gleaned from the reflective narratives of the student interviewers themselves, which testify to the effectiveness and success of the ethnographic interview experience. The following are sample excerpts from the collected narrative accounts, in their original, unedited form. All names have been changed.

Lulu. I am like the person I interviewed in that we both love travels. Travel is a good way to learn new things, Naomi told me that when we get to know more about others' cultures, we'll have a better understanding of our own culture, I think this is the most profound thing I learned from the interview, and Naomi always enlighten me when we share ideas with each other. We have different background and she is more experienced than me, so I regard her as a Russian friend and a teacher also.

Naomi is a Russian, but she lives in Turkey now, so the cultures that she brought to me is the mixture between these two cultures. She seemed more prefer the Turks, because she told me the Turks are more friendly and helpful, on the contrary, the Russian are more serious and ruled, what interesting was when she back to her own country, she was more like a Turk. And Naomi thought it was the various climate and environment that lead to such difference. It also happens in our country, in China, from North to South, from East to West, where there have their own cultural character. So, In my opinion, lots of things are attributed to nature factors.

Though Naomi prefer me to regard her as a Russia than a teacher, I still want to thanks her for teaching me lots of things. It was very interesting when we had different opinions, Naomi is much more experienced than me, so she has the insight eyes to many things. I told her that I am not so spontaneous when I do some formal things, while she told me that she can feel my spontaneity from my photography works, I was so happy and excited to hear that, as if I gained some power from Naomi or myself. I realized we all can be more spontaneous when we do something we interested in, so we can do other things with such feeling, then we can be more confident and do better.

I think in our whole life, we are learning everyday, from nature to human society, from others to ourselves. When we know little, we think we know many, however, when we know more, will we realized that we need to learn more. From this culture project, I learned so many new things, which refreshed my mind and helped me to have a better understanding of myself.

Violet. I am like the person I interviewed in that we share opinions about the culture. I am so lucky that my partner is so nice to talk with me, and we really had a nice conversation. My partner, Ivey, is from Serbia. I still remember the first time I talk with Ivey. I was extremely nervous before we began the voice interview. I couldn’t do anything expect waiting in front of my computer. I worried about that I couldn’t express fluently, or couldn’t understand what she said. But the laugh of Ivey made me feel a little relaxed, and I tried to say something. Fortunately, Ivey always listen to me patiently, which let me feel so grateful.

During the interviews, we talked about the culture of Serbia, which includes life, coffee, food and so on. In my opinion, Serbia is a very comfortable country for people to live. Even though the history is not very long, but its culture still seems quiet distinctive. Then I also share some Chinese culture or my interesting experience with Ivey. I think this is a good way for us to know the two countries. When we were having a conversation, I paid attention to Ivey’s pronunciation and intonation, because I want to improve the level of my spoken English.

From this homework, the most important influence for me is the courage of speaking English. To be honest, I was afraid of talking with foreigners in the past time, because I didn’t know how to express myself clearly. When I spoke English, I had to prepare some drafts in advance. But now, I can speak English confidently.

Victor. I am like the person I interviewed in that we have the willing to open heart to communicate with each other. My interview partner is from Karachi, Pakistan, so, what my culture narrative content is about the Pakistan. As most Pakistanis believe in Islam, so this narrative is mostly about the Islamic culture. My attitude toward Islamic culture have through a process of change. At first, I know few about it. I still remember one novel I read which named A thousand splendid suns. This book is about the Islam women and the disaster that they have been enduring. Under the description, I recognize that the Islam culture have many taboos and bounds to women, like don’t allow woman go outside without her husband or brother’s company. The women wrapped themselves from head to toe within the traditional costume. So my initial impression toward this culture is it has many values that conflict with the modern value. But when I learned more about this, especially contact and chat with the people from this culture, my attitude start to change. Because I learned that this culture have also through a series of change toward more open, much freedom and the respect of people’s rights. I understand that every culture has its own tradition and should be respected. With my partner, I found that the man believe in the religion is very polite, humble and honest lovely. Within the contact, I think the Islamic culture has a splendid past and a bright future. As to Pakistan, I now learn that it is a country developing rapidly, not just poverty and conflict we heard from the news. This country has a brilliant history and promising tomorrow.


It was predicted that students would have limited awareness as to the depth and breadth of English spoken throughout the world prior to participation in this study due to a variety of influences and limitations in the scope of their education, access, and the images prevalent in the media and therefore would have varying preconceptions and attitudes, conscious or subconscious, toward language varieties and their associated cultures and peoples. Through participation in the ethnographic interview project, as in previous ethnographic interview studies in a foreign language context, the following positive outcomes were among those anticipated:

  • an enhanced desire to study English
  • an increased awareness of English varieties and the cultures represented
  • an improved, open dialogue and greater cultural understanding between Chinese ELLs and participating English speakers


Bateman, B. (2002). Promoting openness toward culture learning: Ethnographic interviews for students of Spanish. Modern Language Journal, 86, 318–331.

Bateman, B. (2004). Achieving affective and behavioral outcomes in culture learning: The case for ethnographic interviews. Foreign Language Annals, 37, 240–253.

Belcher, D., & Connor, U. (Eds.). (2001). Reflections on multiliterate lives. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Canagarajah, S. (2006). TESOL at forty: Where are the issues? TESOL Quarterly, 40, 9–34.

Robinson-Stuart, G., & Nocon, H. (1996). Second culture acquisition: Ethnography in the foreign language classroom. Modern Language Journal, 80, 431–449.

Amy Alice Chastain is the co-editor of InterCom and is currently a lecturer in the English Language Center at Shantou University and a consultant in the Center for Independent Language Learning. She will be presenting more about this project as part of a colloquium titled “Research in Action: Classroom Projects Based on Qualitative Research Methods,” March 21, 2013, at 1 pm at the TESOL Convention.

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