Bridging the culture gap in the classroom

Just a brief look at how English is used is enough to suggest that CULTURE seems to permeate the way we process the world in a wide range of ways. We talk about arts and culture; we have the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; we discuss company cultures and youth culture and subcultures; we make generalizations about French or Spanish or Polish culture; we fret about high and low culture, popular culture and celebrity culture; we are told – at least in England, we are – that there’s a culture of yobbishness and violence on our streets and that we live in a culture of greed and self-interest. We talk about things being part of – or not being part of – our culture. We debate cultural values, our cultural needs, cultural shifts and the cultural dominance of the USA.

And, of course, culture seems to have started permeating the way we think about our job as teachers of English as well. We’re constantly told at conferences that we need to be thinking about culture when teaching language – and that without intercultural competence, whatever communicative competence students may develop is basically meaningless. Here are just some of the preposterous claims about the relationship between language and culture that I’ve heard being made at conferences over the last couple of years:

  • Language without culture is like a finger without a body.
  • Culture and language are intimately related. They go hand in hand during the teaching-learning process.
  • Language and culture are not separate, but are acquired together, with each providing support for the development of the other.
  • The person who learns language without learning culture risks becoming a fluent fool.

Now, I often feel with culture that the nearer we get to it, the more we look at it, the more elusive it becomes and the more it slips away from our grasp. I freely admit to finding much of the discourse around culture in language teaching both confused and confusing, and if I feel like that, as a native speaker supposedly steeped in the culture of the language and who teaches multi-lingual students in the UK, whatever that may mean, then how much more confusing must all of this be for the countless non-native teachers around the world, teaching predominantly monolingual groups who may well be using their English far more frequently with other non-natives than with natives?

What I want to do in this session is to explore a few key questions and suggest a few tentative answers. Firstly, I’d like to ask what is it we actually mean by culture anyway. In general, I think there are two main ways we can consider culture. One is culture as PRODUCT, where culture equals the arts – music, painting, the theatre, and so on – along with history, cuisine, festivals, etc. Seen from this view, here are a few images that one might see associated with English culture.

This is essentially a STATIC view of culture.

Then there’s thinking about culture as a PROCESS, with culture as social practices and processes. Culture in this light is a site of change and conflict and revolves around the variety of languages operating within a society – the language of gesture, of clothes, of sexuality, of race, of gender and so on – and the ways in which reality is represented or constructed through a range of communication divides. In this definition, of course, you can take PRODUCTS – a skinhead haircut, football, mobile phones, a crown, a cross – and read meanings into them through an analysis of their relationships with other products, with social participants and with the products themselves in past incarnations. Looked at this way, jokes, newspaper articles, myths, archetypes, TV shows, advertising, films, street art and so on all give you windows into a culture – none of them representing a REAL culture, but all of them driven by particular cultural agendas – the writer or teller’s desire to perpetuate stereotypes in order to maintain order – as with woman driver jokes, etc. – to raise social consciousness, to whip up patriotism, to challenge long-held attitudes or stereotypes and so on. Seen this way, perhaps THESE images tell us something interesting about England:

Given all of this, some core points about culture surely emerge:

1          Culture is not static. It is fluid and dynamic.

2          Culture can basically mean almost anything and everything.

3          The notion of unified national cultures is a myth. Everything is in dispute.

4          With English, this is of course complicated by its status as global lingua franca

Now, before anyone here has an attack of rage, I should add that culture is clearly located geographically and nationally IN SOME WAYS, yet within that we’d do well to bear in mind the fact that we are all unique and we all participate in globalised cultures and orient ourselves to all of this as individuals in our own way. Ultimately, developing ourselves as inter-culturally competent and globally oriented people surely has to involve being able to word our own worlds – and being open to learning about the worlds of others – and of course this latter may involve rethinking our own assumptions, withholding judgments and becoming aware of the fact that the view contains the viewer. Realizing that we are all different, but we are also all the same.

I’ll move on to consider what this might mean in the classroom in a while, but first I want to explore one more common assumption – that teaching English must automatically mean somehow also teaching the CULTURE of England or the UK or the US – or of the people for whom English is a mother tongue.

I’ve gathered together a sample of linguistic items from a variety of big-selling global English coursebooks – Upper-Intermediate and Advanced level – and just consider to what degree you feel they are CULTURALLY rooted; in other words, to what degree would they need to be explained with reference to specific cultural phenomenon of the UK – or US.

She wanted the ground to open up and swallow her.

I can’t stand being the centre of attention.

I think I’m quite a level-headed sort of person.

Compulsory military service should be abolished.

I spent a lot of the holidays just roaming around the countryside, exploring.

She has no qualms about giving her child a head start.

That film has had a lot of hype.

They fell on hard times.

The kidnappers released him after his family agreed to pay a ransom of $100,000.

He swore under oath that he’d spent the evening at home.

Hold your breath and count to ten.

I had an interview for the job, but I blew it.

Now unless I’m missing something, there’s absolutely no cultural baggage attached to these sentences and they can be explained with reference to wherever your students happen to be – or nowhere at all. This isn’t to say that nothing in English ever requires cultural background information. Clearly to deal with any of these sentences here –

Shoom span a Balearic mix of Detroit techno, New York garage and Chicago house.

Nationalist murals started springing up in areas like the Falls Road when IRA inmates of the Maze prison began a hunger strike.

The NUT has long been run by hardcore members of the Loony Left.

– you’d need to know a fair bit of unusual cultural information – but these ARE not – and should never be – EFL material, in much the same way as students don’t need to know about presidents of the USA or the kings and queens of England.

Language can obviously be used to represent culture and sometimes certain phrases may even encode certain things that are more dominant in certain circumstances than others. Take for instance the phrase EVEN IF I SAY SO MYSELF and its close cousin EVEN IF YOU SAY SO YOURSELF. These are both relatively fixed expressions used to undercut oneself – or someone else – when you think there’s some slightly big-headed boasting going on, and this may or may not be a ‘cultural phenomenon’. Whilst these expressions may be interesting, they’re really not what most students need to get better as speakers of English as a medium for international communication.

The main point here, though, is that while language can represent culture (and particularly personal culture), it does NOT encode it. There is NO culturally correct way of doing things within English itself. Norms vary, in linguistic behaviour as in any other kind of behaviour!

So what does all this mean for what we can – or should – be doing in our classrooms?

Well, it’s pretty clear that the traditional concept of culture in English language teaching, which far too frequently involved facts and figures about Britain – though in reality this usually meant England, and a rarified upper-middle class slice of English cultural life at that – is no longer valid! The world has moved on from a time in which students could be sold visions of Windsor Castle and Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon and Stonehenge and perhaps given the occasional extract from Dickens or Shakespeare.

I think that for culture to work in the classroom, it has to be done with some basic principles in mind. It has to:

1          be a two-way process

2          be global in perspective

3          include language

4          allow space for the personal

Students are now in a situation where they are likely to travel and met people from many different corners of the world; they’re also in a globalised world where they may be eating Japanese food, watching Mexican movies, listening to Swedish music, reading Danish novelists and so on. As such, the UK – or US – should receive no higher priority than anywhere else, though I guess we do always have to bear in mind the expectation of SOME students – and, perhaps, some parents and even teachers as well – that learning English WILL involve a focus on ‘the homes’ of the language.

In addition to this, though, is the more complex reality that the vast bulk of students around the world will nevertheless be learning their English in classes that are monolingual. I hesitate to add ‘and mono-cultural’ because the simple fact of sharing a nationality doesn’t mean that students will necessarily share any particular thoughts or experiences or opinions. Students will operate across a range of micro-cultural worlds – or sub-cultures – unique to themselves. Indeed, in many ways, I think it’s important for students to realize and to recognize the diversity and complexity of their own local and national cultures before they can hope to understand similar issues with regard to other nations and cultures.

That notwithstanding, it still remains the case that the real way students get to develop intercultural competence is to travel, meet people, build friendships and relationships with people from more radically different backgrounds to themselves than their classmates. Given this, if students are to get the chance to think about how they would represent their own realities to others from around the world, then the materials used in the classroom have a responsibility to bring the world to them. This means looking to use cultural products and processes from around the world partly to simply teach students about the world, but also – crucially – to provide points of comparison, to serve as a springboard for cross-cultural comparisons and evaluation. There needs to be, if you like, global input but local outcomes.

So let’s explore some ways in which all of this can work in our classes. In an ideal situation, it should be possible to combine all of the areas I’ve just mentioned into one scheme of work. Let’s look at both a reading and a listening that have cultural content from around the world, that focus on some useful language and that allow plenty of space for students to respond from both a national and an individual perspective. Both these examples are from a Pre-Intermediate book, so for A2 students moving towards B1. First up, a listening-based slot from a unit called EDUCATION.

Listening

You are going to hear an interview with an English girl, Rebecca, who has a Spanish mother and an English father. They moved to Spain when she was 11 (she’s now 13) and she now goes to a Spanish school – and so does her younger brother.

A         Before you listen, discuss in groups which of the following things you think are good about school in your country:

  • the relationships between students
  • the class sizes
  • the amount of homework
  • the subjects available
  • the resources
  • the textbooks
  • the approach to teaching
  • the parent-teacher relationship
  • the school hours
  • the holidays

Next students listen to the interview with Rebecca and process it for gist – and then process it in more detail. Finally, they hear Rebecca’s father talking and process this for gist before finally having the chance to compare what they have heard with their own realities, to give their own opinions about what the dad says – and to voice their own thoughts and feelings about their own school system. Here’s the basic material:

B          Listen and find out which things in exercise A Rebecca talks about.

C          Discuss in pairs whether you think these sentences are true or false.

Listen again to check your ideas.

1          Rebecca and her brother made friends straight away.

2          She needed help with Spanish.

3          She had to do the last year of primary school in both England and Spain.

4          There are fewer years of secondary school in Spain.

5          In primary school, she had several different teachers in Spain, but not in England.

6          The approach of the teachers was different.

7          She didn’t have to do much homework in England.

8          Her friends in England seem to like school more.

9          In both England and Spain, students sometimes have to repeat a year.

D          Now listen to Rebecca’s father talking and answer the questions:

1          Which of the things in exercise A does he mention?

2          Is he positive or negative about them?

E          Read the audioscript on page 142 to check your answers.

F          Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Which system sounds more like your country?
  • Do you disagree with anything the father says? Why?
  • What would you like to be different in schools?
  • Is/was there anyone from another country in your class at school? What is/was their experience of school? ?

 

Finally, this all leads into some vocabulary that helps students discuss their own school experiences better next time around.

Vocabulary: students and teachers

A         Add the nouns below to the groups of words they go with.

assignment      class               school                         subject

textbook          test                  approach                        course

1          choose an optional ~ / study eight ~s / my favourite ~

2          do an ~ / set an ~ / hand in my ~ / mark some ~s

3          buy a ~ / read from the ~ / copy from the ~

4          have a ~ / study for a ~ / pass a ~ / set a ~

5          do a Maths ~ / design a ~ / fail the ~ / teach on a ~

6          give a ~ / go to ~ / pay attention in ~ / control the ~

7          leave ~ / the head of a ~ / enjoy ~ / go to a state ~

8          have a good ~ to learning / take a traditional ~ / change your ~

B          Which of the collocations above apply to teachers and which to students?

The language work can also precede culturally oriented texts, of course. Here’s the start of a lesson from a unit called Dates and History that begins with some core vocabulary for describing historical events.

Vocabulary: historical events

A         Complete the fact file about Britain with the correct form of the words in the box.

end                              become                       be defeated

invade                         gain                             be crowned

join                               rule                              be founded

*      London 1…………………. by the Romans two thousand years ago, during their occupation of Britain.

*      The Vikings first 2………………….  Britain in 786. They continued to attack the island for years and occupied half the country.

*      Britain briefly 3………………….  a republic after a civil war between Royalists (who supported the king) and Parliament. The war 4………………….  in 1649, after the Royalists 5………………….  in the Battle of Preston and the king’s execution.

*      At the height of its empire, Britain 6………………….  a quarter of the world.

*      The United States was a colony of Britain until it 7………………….  independence in 1776.

*      The longest-ruling British monarch is Queen Victoria. She 8………………….  in 1837, when she was just 18, and died 64 years later.

*      Britain didn’t 9………………….  the European Union (or EEC as it was then called) until 1973.

B          Find the nouns in the Fact File which mean:

1          a war between two groups in the same country.

2          the time a foreign power lives in and controls a country.

3          the act of killing someone for doing something wrong.

4          a short fight which is part of a longer war.

5          a royal leader such as a king or queen.

6          a large group of countries controlled by another country.

Again, the UK features, but certainly isn’t the main focus of this particular lesson. That comes next and is introduced via this short text:

Reading

You are going to read an article from a newspaper series called Around the world in 300 words.

A         Read the introduction and discuss the questions in pairs.

1          Do you know anything about the country? What?

2          Why do you think UK people don’t know much about it?

Ask most people on the streets of the UK what they know about Kazakhstan and the only thing they can say is “We played them at football.” Ask where it is, and they may mention it’s near Russia, but that’s all. Yet Kazakhstan is huge – the 9th largest country in the world and the size of Western Europe. We think it’s time people got to know it better. Oh, and yes, it is near Russia – they share a border of 6846 kilometres!

This then moves into the main comprehension questions and the text itself.

B          Read the article and answer these questions.

1          How many years have people lived there?

2          How has the Kazakh lifestyle changed?

3          When did the country finally become independent?

4          What’s the main industry?

5          What’s the most interesting information for you?

6          If you know the country (or know about it), is there anything important that isn’t mentioned? Would you change anything in the text?

C          Discuss your answers in groups.

 

Around the world in 300 words…

Kazakhstan

People have lived in the region since the Stone Age. The society was nomadic – Kazakh comes from a word meaning ‘free spirit’ – with different groups living off seasonal agriculture and animals such as goats, sheep and horses, that fed on the steppe grassland. For many centuries, the Silk Road trade route went through the region, which led to the founding of cities such as Talaz, now 2000 years old.

Islam was introduced by the Arabs in the 8th century, and Genghis Khan’s Mongol army invaded in 1219. Over the next 200 years, a distinct Kazakh language, culture and economy emerged, although still based on nomadic life.

This traditional lifestyle changed during the 1800s, when the country was occupied by Russia. The political and economic changes and a growing population caused by people settling in the region resulted in hunger and tension. It eventually led to fighting in 1916, followed by a civil war.

In 1920, Kazakhstan became part of the communist Soviet Union. Over the following decade, the last Kazakh nomads were forced to live on farms or work in industry. Other people within the Soviet Union, including Germans, Ukrainians and Koreans, were also sent to work there.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s economy grew rapidly. It’s now the 11th largest producer of oil and gas as well as an exporter of many other natural resources.

Population: 16.4 million.

Capital: Astana (changed from Almaty in 1997)

Place to visit: The Charyn Canyon.

Big building: The Pyramid of Peace, Astana. The cultural centre aims to bring together all the great religions.

Special day: 22nd March. Nauriz celebrates Spring, friendship and unity. It was banned during Soviet rule.

Firsts: The horse was first tamed in this region.

The oldest and largest space launch site in the world is Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is leased to Russia.

Next week: Kenya

There’s then some grammar work that derives from the text –

Grammar: prepositions and nouns / -ing forms

Prepositions go before nouns. If we need a verb to follow a preposition, we use use an -ing form to make the verb into a noun.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s economy grew rapidly.

Some verbs are followed by particular prepositions.

Economic changes … resulted in hunger and tension.

It eventually led to fighting in 1916 followed by civil war.

A         Match the verbs to the prepositions with nouns or preposition -ing forms.

1          lead                             a        from the Stone Age

2          result                          b        on support from the king

3          depend                       c        of corruption

4          date                             d       to a revolution

5          be accused                 e       in people leaving the country

6          be opposed                 f         for joining NATO

7          be caused                   g        to joining NATO

8          be involved                h            people from playing music

9          ban                              ij           in the independence movement

10        vote                             jl           by economic problems

B          Write five true sentences about events or people in history, using verbs and prepositions from exercise A.

and finally a task that has a local outcome again.

Speaking

Work in groups. Discuss the following:

A         What you would put in Around the world in 300 words for your country?

What would be the most important events?

What places would you mention? Why?

What would go under the headings Place to Visit, Big Building, Special Day and Firsts?

With these kinds of tasks, there’s obviously a large degree of flexibility in terms of how teachers exploit them. They can just be discussions in class time, with maybe some time built in for individual planning; they can be homeworks – with web searches encouraged – that lead into presentations; they can be blog entries on a class blog, and can include pictures, videos even, and can even be shared with other schools around the world if the teacher is class-twinning in some way with other international classes.

The notion of project work is something I’ve become much more enthused about as a teacher over the last 12 months or so, and is something that the Internet makes much more manageable. Whether you’re just using something relatively simple to set up like a class blog on wordpress or blogspot or whether you’re using something more sophisticated like voicethread, which allows you to place all kinds of texts, images, videos and documents online and to have conversations based around them, these kinds of sites allow students a real opportunity to practise wording their worlds, to develop their ideas and cultural ideas in the privacy of their own homes and in their own home, and to dig deeper into issues that we simply don’t have time to explore more in class. At their best, they also allow for the beginnings of the kinds of cross-cultural interaction that would have been unimaginable in a pre-Internet age.


Advertisements

3 responses

  1. A very interesting post. Do you think there is greater scope for teaching more British culture (or cultures) to students who are planning to live longer term or study in this country? Such students may well encounter reference-packed newspaper-y language of the kind you say should never appear in an EFL textbook, and be confused by it.

    1. Thanks for reading – and for bothering to take the time to post a comment.

      Think you’ve actually sort of asked two different questions though, actually.

      Firstly, I think students – wherever they are studying – will encounter all manner of LANGUAGE that they may well not understand. They may also encounter cultural phenomena / behaviour / objects (via TV, music, films, etc.) that they may be curious about. I think that the fact that students have access to so much cultural produce nowadays, because of the web, means we actually have MORE of a responsibility to both ensure classroom time is spent on maximally useful language, language that’s NOT too culturally rooted or specific; language with high surrender value across the broadest possible range of contexts . . . and also to guide and advise students on the kinds of things they’re reading / watching outside the class from a LANGUAGE-LEARNING point of view. Depending on their level, they may well be watching or reading things way beyond their level of competence. That’s fine if they’re enjoying it and get something from it, but if they’re looking at this to also boost language learning, then maybe this is an issue and they might be better off with graded readers, etc.

      This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t encourage students to interact with English outside of the class; just that we should maybe think about what kind of interaction might best aid their linguistic development. They should also feel they’re always free to ask about language they’ve encountered – or cultural phenomena – and try to answer these queries as best we can.

      In terms of students who are visiting the UK or planning to live here for some time, I’m personally still not really sure that there’s THAT much need for input about British culture, whatever that may mean. I think it’d be useful for them to generally brush up on British current events, if they can, and maybe get some sense of the political background, geographical make up, ethnic groups, etc. but none of that is essential or particularly things I’d bring into class.

      The one area that may well be worth spending time on, if they’re planning to STUDY here, is UK university culture – rules about plagiarism, the purpose of seminar sessions, the taboos about homophobic / anti-Semitic / Islamaphobic, etc. comments. That kind of thing will have a directly beneficial effect at least.

      Otherwise, well I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘British culture’ – and what value you see in trying to ‘teach’ certain aspects of it. I’d need to be persuaded of the worth of things on a case by case basis I guess is what I’m really saying here.

  2. […] as the portal here. After that, though, the most viewed post – with 908 views, has been Bridging the Culture Gap in the classroom. Slightly depressingly, the least viewed is one of the posts I wrote in praise of non-native […]

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: