Schema, Discourse and Language Teaching: An Introduction is a brief survey intended for readers new to the formal study of language in general. It introduces schemata, what people in a particular community regard as normal and predictable ways of organising the world and communicating with others. The author provides a succinct but lucid outline of the ways schemata have been defined, described, explored and illustrates basic concepts related not only to schema theory but also discourse, Language in use. Then, he studies the consequences such theory might have on foreign language teaching, English in particular.
The book ends up with stressing the importance of not only the pragmatic competence in the acquisition of a foreign language and how it is schematically related to culture and society, but also raises the issue of the pragmatic relevance of the act of learning a foreign language outside the classroom world.
As teachers, we have to be aware of two things: the socio-cultural values that the learners bring to texts on one side, and the cultural specification values that texts do often contain on the other. It has been proved that learners do react differently to the content schema of a text. This would surely cause significant problems in a multicultural classroom. In fact, some students may feel wrongly that they have not understood the text, or have poor processing skills, especially if the teacher ( with a different cultural and social background) tries to impose his interpretation and neglects the students' views. Problems may also be encountered when dealing with highly culture-specific content. Failure to access to this schematic specific content may give the impression to learners that they are excluded from the group whose members are well versed in the subject (where the ideational or content schema is familiar). The fact that they do not share the conspiracy with the writer may add more to their problems, particularly if they are non-native speakers. I remember when I was a postgraduate student at the Institute of Education, University of London, that professor H.G.Widdowson in one of his lectures on text analysis introduced to us the following passage:
'In fact the book disturbingly suggests that what Lindy Chamberlains was convicted of, was weirdness. The Chamberlains were Seventh Day Adventists ( which by normal Bruce rules was peculiar), and Lindy, a rather spiky, intense individual, failed to act out in court the required sub-neighbours version of the innocent grieving mother. In more than one way, she suffered from cultural intensity. The Aborigines at Ayers Rock did not seem to be surprised that a dingo might have taken a baby who gave a xxxx what the Abos thought?'
Our reactions were different when Professor Widdowson finished his reading of the passage. Most native speakers shared with him a conspiracy of a smile that said a lot. However, for the non-native speakers there was a bewilderment as they were not in the know. They needed a lot of schemata, which I presume did not have, so that to understand the content. I, as a non-native speaker, looked for some clues in the text ( either formal or lexical) to understand not the content, but my friends' conspiracy of the smile with Professor Widdoson. Unfortunately, all I could find was the use of four expressions: seventh Day Adventis, Aborigines, xxxx and neighbours. The first expression refers to a religious group, the second referring to the natives of Australia, the xxxx related to the advertisement of the Australian beer, Gastelmarg which is used in the text to refer to an " Aussie". Finally, the word neighbours refers to the daily TV series on BBC One which events takes place in Australia. I could know the last two words only by referring them to my previous knowledge of the British TV. This would not have been possible had I not been living permanently in England for more than three years at that time. But how about my other non-native friends who were all over-seas students? I doubt that they could have understood a word.
This is a very good example of the problems that a non-native speaker encounters when dealing with highly culture-specific content. In the past, teachers would treat this failure to access existing schemata as deficiencies in language skills. But now, this has been proved to be wrong. This point arises another one, that of the teacher's role.