Culture and the ESL classroom in relation to learners' willingness to communicate (WTC) at a public university in Malaysia
Binti Abdul Wahid, Nur Salwa
This study investigates the influence of culture on WTC in ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms in a public university in Malaysia. In the literature, culture in language teaching is generally treated as relating to major groupings such as nations and ethnicities. An alternative perspective to this “large culture” is proposed by Holliday (1999) who rejects the notion of “large” culture and focuses instead on the emerging “small” culture of each ESL classroom. Holliday’s idea is attractive, but given the officially sanctioned identification of Malaysians as belonging to the Malay, Chinese or Indian ethnicity, this research explores the interaction of large and small cultures on learners WTC. This work was situated in Malaysia, a post-colonial context where English has retained a significance as a subject area and also, quite frequently as an important second language towards contemporary needs of academic and professional advancement at local and international level. An instrumental case study of ESL classrooms at a university was chosen as the research approach and involved seven ESL classes (100 ESL learners) for non-participant classroom observations and participant classroom observations and for 30 ESL learners’ semi-structured interviews. Participants were the third year undergraduates enrolled in various courses and taking English as an obligatory subject for the undergraduates’ program at the university. Findings revealed that despite the prevalent benefits of the target language use, learners’ lack of WTC in the language was often linked to the powerful explicit large culture influences around identity and the subtle salience of small culture influences, especially the family and community, and the higher educational institution. The impact of a highly structured education system, paired with negative learning experiences in ESL, created highly vulnerable language learners lacking confidence and affecting their WTC. Globalization and the internationalization of HEIs had strengthened the positioning of English in higher education, but some learners were disadvantaged by the system, particularly those with low exposure to the target language at a younger age. Findings linked to technology and social networking sites (SNS) suggested positive and negative influences on learners WTC providing additional decontextualized digital narratives with increasing influence. This study suggests that ESL learners WTC at a public university is even more complex than anticipated conditioned by large and small culture influences in unique ways.