Ahead of his webinar on 28th and 30th May, Edmund Dudley looks at why it is important for our teenage students to learn about culture in their English lessons.
Millions of young people around the world are currently learning English, making it a truly international language. In addition, many teenagers regularly use English to communicate and interact with others online. This raises a number of questions about the cultural content of any English course for teenagers.
What do we mean by culture in the context of a language lesson?
Let’s begin by thinking about English-speaking countries. Take Britain as an example. When you think about British culture, what springs to mind? What examples could you give? Take a moment to think of three things.
So what did you say? Your answers reveal something about what you think culture is.
Perhaps you chose traditional rituals or ceremonies, such as the Changing of the Guard or carol singing in December; you might have gone for annual events, such as the FA Cup Final, the Notting Hill Festival or Hogmanay.
On the other hand, your examples of British culture might have been more linked to the day-to-day habits and behaviour of ordinary people: leaving the house with wet hair in the morning, queuing at bus stops, or buying ‘rounds’ in pubs.
All of these various aspects of culture are of potential interest to students. Day-to-day activities can be just as revealing as special occasions. If we want to get the full picture of life in English-speaking countries and communities, then thinking about how people eat soup can be just as interesting and revealing as learning about how people celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Whose culture are we talking about?
Given that English is used around the world, should we only be concentrating on the culture of English-speaking countries? Not exclusively. Any meaningful discussion of culture involves comparison and reflection. So, although in the lesson we might be looking at an aspect of life in Ireland, New Zealand, Canada or another English-speaking country, ultimately, however, students are being encouraged to think about themselves and their own culture. And besides, being able to describe aspects of life in your home country to others is a crucial part of sharing cultures and making friends when you are away from home or welcoming guests from abroad.
How can culture get students thinking – and talking?
Culture can be subjective. Think about words such as cold, sweet, crowded, angry, quiet, and dangerous: they are culturally loaded and so it is easy to disagree about what they mean. Take cold, for example. Two people from different countries might have very different views about whether a child playing on a playground swing on a spring afternoon should be wearing a coat or not.
Examples like this can be used as the basis for classroom discussions, role-plays, drama activities – even creative writing tasks. Does the child need a coat or not? Who is right? What does it depend on? And how can the situation best be resolved?
By looking at the situation as a cultural puzzle, we can challenge our students to try and interpret the situation from different cultural perspectives. Promoting empathy with others is not only a great way to promote tolerance and understanding, it also shines a new light on our own beliefs and assumptions. This is what makes dealing with cultural topics so interesting: we sometimes begin to see how the attitudes and values below the surface influence the way we see the world.
Is there now a global teen culture?
Young people are more connected today than ever before – even if they live on different continents. The internet is enabling today’s teenagers to create a shared global cultural identity. What do a teenager in South America and a teenager in Eastern Europe have in common? Well, for starters they are both probably comfortable using technology and also learning English at school. Then you have movies, computer games, apps, pop music and sport – all of which are probably shared tastes. The result is a new kind of international cultural identity: young, online and learning English.
Putting it into practice
In my upcoming webinar, I will be trying to find the connection between the topic of culture and rewarding learning experiences. In addition to addressing the questions raised in this article, I will be showing some practical classroom ideas for approaching the topic of culture with teenage students.
Culture is there to be exploited, and our students are the ones who can benefit. Hopefully, they will not only learn something about various parts of the world, but will also gain fresh insights into their own culture and new perspectives on who they are, what they value, and what they aspire to.
To find out more about teaching culture in English classes, register for Ed’s webinar on 28th or 30th May.