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What does it mean to be British?

Big Ben, Westminster and London Buses

Chris Hooper is an ESOL Tutor, Manager and Advanced Practitioner at Leeds City College, UK. In this guest post, he considers the extent to which knowledge of national culture benefits language learners.

Teaching English to immigrants in the UK, US, Australia and other English speaking countries brings its own challenges.  Teachers often find themselves trying to help people make sense of their new homeland, as well as developing language skills. Many of my students from a range of different countries want to try to understand what it means to be British. That’s not an easy thing to define… Tea? Fish and chips? Cricket? Fair play? Island nation? Arrogance? Modesty? Irony? Sarcasm?

There are some excellent travel books (Kingdom by The Sea by Paul Theroux, Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson) in which the writers give their outsiders’ views of the UK. I’ve recently used extracts from the Paul Theroux book (quite old now but wonderfully written) to provide stimulus for vocabulary work and prompt students to create their own writing about their views of the UK. There was an instant feeling of recognition amongst the students in the group (“yes – 2 taps in the bathroom!”, “British people – always embarrassed!”) that they were highly motivated to get their ideas down on paper for homework.

There are plenty of resources specifically made for ESOL learners – the UK Home Office/ NIACE pack www.esolcitizenship.org.uk and the excellent www.esoluk.co.uk which is run by local tutors in my area are two examples. There are paper based and online activities which can be used to explore questions of national identity within a controlled language context.

The BBC has a good section on this which I use to provoke some interesting discussion on What makes you British? In this, British people give their own views of what it means to them to be British. There are many different ideas – from those who feel it as an integral part of their lives, to others for whom nationality is irrelevant. The discussions we’ve had around national identity have been a great opportunity to put into practice the techniques for interrupting we’ve been working on – everyone has a lot to say about their experience of the British and is keen to get a word in.

It leaves the question though… does it matter what it means to be British? Or American? Or Australian? How much of a role do English teachers have to play in these discussions? And is it important for people learning in their own country to have an understanding of culture and identity of English speaking nations? Maybe in the world we live in we should just accept that English is a multi-national means of communication and culture is very low down the list of priorities for most learners?

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