“Who CARES what English people have for breakfast?” My contribution to the culture debate…

Welsh miners
Welsh miners, amazing people from a different era…

In the 1990s, Magyar Macmillan, the Hungarian ‘branch’ of Macmillan ELT, used to run a really great annual conference. It always took place in the same purpose-built conference centre in Budapest and was brilliantly organised by a woman called Petra Vanik and her team.

I was lucky enough to attend eight Magyar Macmillan conferences. I usually gave a talk and a workshop and would then try to go to lots of presentations by Hungarian teachers, who invariably offered practical classroom ideas of specific value to their peers.

However, at conferences all over the world, I’m also drawn to any workshop with the words ‘music’ or ‘drama’ in the title, and so it was that I found myself at a workshop given by a young Welshman who had been teaching in Hungary for a couple of years. I wish I knew his name, so I could thank him here on the blog for the thoroughly enjoyable experience I had there. If he sounds like someone you know, perhaps you could let him know how much I enjoyed his workshop.

During the workshop, he played and talked about a Welsh mining song. It described in graphic detail the hard and rather miserable working lives of Welsh miners from 50+ years ago. The song wasn’t that memorable, but the workshop was marvellous.

The presenter carefully explained the unusual words and references in the song. I remember something about a special tag that the miners had to place on a hook when they got out of the lift which brought them up from the coal face. The tags were the only way that the mine managers could make sure that all the miners had returned safely to the surface. The teacher was clearly emotionally involved with the subject matter – I think his grandfather had been a miner.

It was, as I said, a thoroughly enjoyable experience, a well-organised workshop given by a great communicator. I remember thinking how lucky his students were to have a bright, articulate native speaker teacher who could (and was willing to) give them such graphic insights into his own background.

At the end of the workshop, I thanked him and then went for a coffee with two of the teachers who had also attended it, both of them Hungarian non-NESTS. I can’t remember their names but let’s call them Orsi and Péter.

Over coffee, they gave their thoughts about the workshop. Orsi enthused about it. She said she loved conferences like this and took every opportunity to attend workshops given by native speakers. She added a telling detail: “Even if their topic is irrelevant to me, I like to listen to their voices.”

However, Péter looked glum. He had enjoyed the workshop, but was clearly worried that, yet again, it confirmed that he didn’t know enough about British culture to be a competent English teacher.

I told him that I knew as little about Welsh miners as he did, but he wasn’t so easily reassured. He said he got this feeling every time he went to a talk where the subject was some aspect of the culture of the English-speaking world. Orsi disagreed completely, and said it was impossible to know everything, so he shouldn’t worry.

Then Péter said: “I realise that my students don’t expect me to know about Welsh mining songs. But I’m no longer sure I know even the simple things about British culture.”

His real concerns began to emerge. There were students in his class who had been to the UK, and one who had been to the US. In common with the vast majority of English teachers in Central and Eastern Europe, Péter had never been to either of those places. He now feared that some of the students knew more about the culture of the English-speaking world than he did. He gave an example:

“I told my class that English people eat eggs and bacon for breakfast, and one of the students said he was in England and they don’t.”

Orsi said what I was thinking. “In that case, don’t talk about what English people have for breakfast! Who CARES what English people have for breakfast??”

It’s easy for a native English speaker like me to try to reassure someone like Péter that they don’t need to worry about specific cultural information from the English-speaking world, so I was glad that he heard this from a Hungarian colleague.

I know the ‘eggs for breakfast’ thing is an out-dated metaphor, and modern ELT materials are thankfully free of such ‘cultural’ references. But the fact remains that the Péters of this world worry that, regardless of their ability with the language, they may be judged on their ‘fluency’ in the culture of the English-speaking world.

It’s clearly an impossible aim and also, to my mind, totally unnecessary.

Let’s start with the easy and well-known statistic: four out of five exchanges in English, spoken and written, are between people for whom English is not the first language. In other words, 80% of discourse in English is between, for example, Norwegians and Japanese people, Egyptians and Italians etc etc

In other words, in usage terms, English is no longer the language of the so-called English-speaking world. And hopefully, the Norwegian and the Japanese person should be able to conclude their business without knowing what I had for breakfast.

Now here’s a statistic I don’t have: how many people in the world learn English simply because they have to? In other words, how many millions of state school and college students file into their compulsory English classes every day? I think the huge majority of learners are in this category.

As it happens, most of the course material I have written is for state school students, and I have watched lots of their classes. Most of them see no real connection between the subject and geographical locations like Britain or the US.

They may know about ‘English’ soccer teams like Manchester United (who could if they wish put out a totally non-British team of Van der Sar, Evra, Fabio, Rafael, Vidic, Anderson, Nani, Valencia, Berbatov, Obertan and Macheda). They may have seen United, Chelsea or Arsenal on TV, playing similarly multi-national teams from Italy or Spain in the Champions’ League.

These compulsory learners may also connect with pop music in English, but not the places it comes from. If they’ve heard of the Arctic Monkeys, they will probably have seen them on youtube playing a gig in Japan. They will be blissfully unaware that the band comes from Sheffield, wherever that is.

Beyond a widely-shared interest in music with English words (which may of course have been recorded by a Norwegian band), these ‘compulsory’ English students often have little or no internal motivation to learn the language. They need to be engaged, and we can’t do that by playing pop songs all the time. They may sit stony-faced through our attempts to get them to speak. And … at some point, we have to get them to READ something.

Oh look, everyone! Here’s an interesting text about a family of four in Leeds! Hm… maybe not…

If we want them to read about what people have for breakfast, isn’t it better to write a text about somewhere in the world where people eat shark meat or chimpanzee brains? (Maybe no one eats chimpanzee brains for breakfast, but I think reading about that would probably engage you more than a picture of a plate of eggs and bacon!)

Most of the teacher-readers of this blog probably work with students who have some specific and defined reason for learning English, which provides them with motivation to learn. Worldwide, however, your students are in a very small minority. There are, for example, about three hundred million Chinese high-school students learning English, and almost the same number in primary school who have English classes.

Less than one per cent of these Chinese English learners are ever likely to meet a native English speaker. If they meet a foreigner at all, it will probably be through working in a hotel, airport, travel agency, bank or restaurant frequented by tourists from other Asian countries. English may be the language these people will have to use to communicate.

But never mind the facts about who is learning English and why. Let’s imagine we do want to introduce our students to the English-speaking world, in all its diversity and splendour. Who are we going to focus on first? Who are we going to leave out?

Native speakers have an advantage, of course, because they can talk about what they know. I can talk about London, the Welsh guy in Budapest can offer his colourful input – then what? I know very little about the rest of Britain , let alone the other places in Kachru’s inner and outer circles – my Irish son-in-law despairs at how little I know about the land of his ancestors.

When my wife Dede, who’s American, started teaching in London, she found some of the British cultural references in the coursebook she was using quite puzzling. Why? Because they were written as if all the end-users, students and teachers, whether NESTs or not, would automatically understand them. Times have changed a bit in that respect, thankfully.

But we must remember that Kachru’s circles of English speakers include nations as diverse as New Zealand, Nigeria, Ireland, Malta, the Philippines and the islands of the Caribbean. Surely if we teach cultural studies, we need to refer to the culture of all these places.

Did I hear someone out there say ‘No, we don’t”? Why not? Because our students aren’t going to visit Malta or Barbados or New Zealand or communicate with people from these places? Well, if you think that, I repeat the point above about compulsory learners. The vast majority of students aren’t going to meet or communicate with ANY native speakers.

It therefore makes sense to ignore the cultural by-ways of the inner and outer circle speakers and their societies and concentrate on what a knowledge of English can REALLY do for the world.

The English language has great core linguistic strategies for intercultural communication. Other languages do too, but we are talking about the world’s number one taught language here. English has great politeness forms, ways of enquiring, apologising, clarifying, all the usual suspects of communication. English teachers, NESTs or non-NESTs, need to be trained how to teach these aids to intercultural communication.

Before I end, can I just mention the interesting work done by Jamie Keddie and Ben Goldstein, who have written excellent books on the use of images in ELT? The picture of the Welsh coal miners at the top of this article would be great to use in class and should generate lots of descriptive language and conversation. My point is that the miners in the photo don’t need to be Welsh to be useful to an English teacher.

Oh no… too long, already! I’m going to leave it there – but PLEASE make time to read through the things that people wrote below. Please also remember that most of them were written when I had simply pre-blogged that I thought cultural studies were a waste of time.

68 thoughts on ““Who CARES what English people have for breakfast?” My contribution to the culture debate…

  1. ” is a knowledge or awareness of the present-day culture or cultural heritage of the English-speaking world important for English learners? ”

    If they are ESOL learners who need support in dealing with their new home that goes beyond just language, then yes. In all other cases, no.

    (What I contend is something that is important, and is rarely addressed in coursebooks or anywhere else, is training in intercultural awareness and communication – as interactions with someone who speaks a different first language are pretty much all intercultural interactions)

    1. Hi Andy, this very topic (interculural awareness) was covered by Alison Phipps from Glasgow Uni at a recent British Council event here in London. Great talk entitled ‘Intercultural Listening & Speaking’. Some very important practical applications discussed, notably how UK Border immigration people deal with the 50+ per day cultural misunderstandings they face re the simplest of questioning.

  2. And/but whose culture is it anyway where English is e.g. a main way of communication between different Asian communities? Poetry, drama, stories, art are always good if they represent/exemplify communities, provoke exploration of who we are but that doesn’t make NS culture special, does it? The conversation would be very different, wouldn’t it, if we were teaching Hungarian, Polish, Japanese?

    1. I exclude literature from my attack on culture studies – the English-speaking world has so much to be proud of in this area, and we should definitely offer it to our students.

      But not the simplified stuff. What is the point of reading a simplified novel? All you get is the story-line, none of the skilful writing.

  3. “My personal starting point is that – if you’re a native-speaker and you want to incorporate stuff you know about, all well and good. For the rest, it’s a waste of time. ”

    Ken I seriously hope you’re joking. I can’t imagine how teaching culture in the classroom couldn’t be seen as important. I’m with those that see it as a 5th skill to be learned. A language is a culture in so many ways. Can you imagine a teacher who didn’t teach it?

    Mehmet – Teacher, the other day I talked to a man from Ghana and I was surpised that he spoke English. I asked if all niggers (a direct translation of the Turkish word zenci) spoke English and he pulled a knife on me. Why?

    Teacher – I’m sorry Mehemet, that’s culture not language. We don’t teach that here.

    Tomoko – Usually foreign women I meet get really offended if I ask them how old they are. How do I know what the status of our relationship is and how formal to be?

    Teacher – I’m sorry Tomoko, that’s culture not language. We don’t teach that here.

    Asla – The other day a friend of mine asked me, “What’s up?” I told him, the ceiling and he laughed. I’m so confused.

    Teacher – I’m sorry Asla, that’s cultural slang, not language. We don’t teach that here.

    Fatih – Last month I had a business meeting in America and I tried to hold my male colleagues arm while walking down the street and he got angry and pushed me away. I was really hurt. Why did he do that?

    Teacher – That has nothing to do with language Fatih; it’s related with cultural space and gender relations. We don’t talk about that in this classroom.

    Deniz – My friend from Denmark got really angry when I told him I never let my wife go out alone after 8pm. I mean, I’m just protecting her and my good name. Why is my friend like that?

    Teacher – I’m sorry Deniz, that’s culture not language. We don’t teach that here.

    Ece – Teacher, you know my English is very good. Well, I went to France last week and met an interesting person at the conference I was at. She had some very interesting ideas and I wanted to talk to her about them. I said, “I politely request that you accompany me to a cafe to drink a cup of coffee.” She laughed at me and said I was so formal. I was so embarrassed.

    Teacher – Well yes Ece, English has different registers. There are different ways to say thing if you want to be polite, friendly, formal, informal, joking, etc. These are really cultural matters though. Your language was perfectly correct. Let’s not discuss this further.

    Kim Chi – The other day a colleague of mine said he thought the world would be blown to kingdom come in a nuclear war. I told him that that would be related to our karma and that we would just come back later and maybe in a better world. He had no idea what I was talking about! What does “kingdom come” mean and why didn’t he understand my answer?

    Teacher – Wow, that’s a question loaded with cultural meanig! We won’t be covering that here.

    Jale – The other day my friend said our dilemma was “to study or not to study, that is the question”. Everyone started laughing. I didn’t see what was so funny. What does it mean?

    Teacher – Oh, that’s a very cultural joke. You’ll see similar plays on that phrase quite often, but it’s cultural. We don’t teach that here.

    Merve – I submitted a paper for a scholarship to study in Britain, but I wasn’t accepted and they said that I would never be able to apply for a scholarship with them again or with any of their other organizations. First they said that I had too my unrelated ideas, but it’s just like I write in Turkish. Then they said that I had plagiarized someone else’s work by not citing them in my paper. I’m so upset. I’ll never be able to afford to get my Master’s now.

    Teacher – Well you see Merve, different cultures have different criteria for writing and for defending arguments and they have different rules about copying things. This is all more of a cultural debate though, we won’t talk about that here.

    All these stories are based on conversations I’ve had with students or issues that have come up in class at some point or another.

    Quite frankly, the PC crap I see floating around on the net sometimes that denies our students opportunities to learn and understand the language makes me so angry. Everything is culturally related. The way we speak, the slang we use, our conception of time, the vast use of Christian references in the language, idioms, slang, unspoken rules & assumptions, football analogies, cricket analogies, gender relations. The list goes on and on and on. To say that you shouldn’t teach culture is absolutely ludicrous. I’d like to see a single teacher teach a single class where some kind of culturally related item did not need to be taught. Most teachers don’t even realize they’re doing it or that it is actually a cultural point and not simply a linguistic one.

    I can’t imagine speaking Turkish without understanding large chunks of Turkish history, Turkish beliefs, and Islam. So much everyday language would be lost on me.

    On top of this is the fact that globalization is very much Americanization in many respects. My students know this as well and when I take my surveys on learning culture in the classroom they always tell me how important they feel it is because American culture is so ubiquitious today. Whether you like it or not, American culture, and the English that goes with it, is everywhere. I left the States to get away from it and and simply found more of it everywhere I went. The first song I heard upon landing in a new country was The Crash Test Dummies – Mmm… I saw Wu-Tang graffiti in the small town of Fussen up on a mountain in a park. I walked into a club in Prague and every single person there new the words to every single rap song in the club (and almost none of them spoke English). Everywhere I go people know what thumb’s up and the middle finger means.

    I agree that we should teach our student’s intercultural awareness that is aimed at global culture, not solely American or British or Chinese or whatever. But, the language is intrinsically connected to the cultures that produced it. Perhaps in time, as more cultures begin to use English, there will be shifts in the language, but there is no such thing as a language without an attached culture. This connection will never disappear. AJ Ayer and the logical positivists dreamed of a language without culture 60 years ago, tried it, and failed miserably. Why make the same mistake twice?

    And for the love of God (oh, is that a cultural phrase? I hope no learners of English read this blog) why would we ever deprive our students the opportunity to better understand the language.

    1. You really are being very disingenous here, Nick, Obviously, any teacher with any sense would try to address the questions raised in the situations you describe. But these are culture clashes, or culture bumps, not what I’m going to talk about at all – which is whether state school children taught by NNESTs and who have very little chance to ever travelling to an English-speaking country or meeting an ESP, need to know anything about the English-speaking world.

      1. “what I’m going to talk about at all – which is whether state school children taught by NNESTs and who have very little chance to ever travelling to an English-speaking country or meeting an ESP, need to know anything about the English-speaking world”

        Oh gosh, Ken… I don’t know where to start. What’s the big deal with ‘need’, why not interest in fellow human beings and their lives, the joy of discovering new places, new foods, new music, new people, new artists, new monuments, new art.

        This is all culture and I wouldn’t dream of leaving it out of a classroom. Perhaps you’re thinking of London bus pictures in coursebooks, or terraced houses or something? I’m not sure. Hopefully all shall be revealed when you pronounce on the subject

        I’m not sure need enters into it, it’s human interest…


  4. One problem with trying to teach culture is that it means so many different things to different people (even to those who come from the same part of the world). I’ve no idea how I could teach students about British culture without bringing my own personal biases into it.

    However, even if students in many contexts don’t actually need it, aren’t they usually at least a little bit curious about NS culture? I’m sure it wouldn’t be wrong to try to satisfy their curiosity to some extent.

    In my opinion, coursebooks are often guilty of playing it too safe though when it comes to culture and at times resort to cliched stereotypes which can leave students with a rather false impression of NS culture.

    For example, New Zealand’s a lovely country but looking at your average coursebook and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s all sheep and LOTR.

    As Andy rightly pointed out, training in intercultural awareness and communication may be far more useful than knowing how many people visit New Zealand each year.

    1. Yessssssssssssssssss! Nail on head moment! No problem about culture-based material, but when it’s clichéd stereotypes, as you put it – or ‘squeaky clean’, the expression I use in a talk about this topic – then it really does annoy.

    2. From England, and in Japan, I’m either a football hooligan or a gentleman. Well, I’m neither (although closer to the former than the latter, probably).
      The first thing teacher trainers should do with a new cohort of NEST’s is eradicate the phrase “In America/ Australia/ Britain…we always…..”

      1. Yesssss… I mean even if there ARE things that ‘we always do in Britain’, how does that help a Japanese person communicate in English with a Norwegian?

  5. I guess that one of the areas that has come to the forefront in the 21st centry is “culture”, partly because we have realised that in the 1980s-90s the emphasis on communicative language teaching and the individual, was lacking something. However, what to include is not actually new. We faced it as well when we moved to the idea of teaching a functional syllabus – how on earth do we decide which functions out of the infinite possibilities that are out there?
    Different students will have different needs, and that relates to culture as well as any other area of language and communication. The teacher has to respond to the learners, and there is no one “magic” syllabus that will contain everthing that is ever needed for any student learning a language.

    1. Thanks, Ruby – I agree. I’d better start writing my original post, right? Otherwise my thoughts will come out in responses to the comments.

  6. Well Ken, I had no idea what you were going to talk about because you hadn’t posted it yet, but I do not believe I’m being disingenous at all. All the problems I mentioned are things that should be part of the syllabus for a NNEST teaching learners of English. Most of the things I mentioned are not simply cultural bumps, they are integral to understanding the language itself. What would English without the culture that produced it even look like?

    If you’re saying that, like related debates lately, English courses focus too much on unnecessary information about ESP culture or they are a bit monolithic, then fine, I agree. I definitely agree on the repugnance of the squeaky clean image in most course books, but I doubt most NNESTs would focus on that side of things. However, to say a NNEST shouldnt teach culture to students is going way too far in my opinion. I think my comment was quite clear on the problems any learner of English would encounter if cultural information was taken out of the equation. I would go further and say that they are incredibly important issues that need to be taken into account in any curriculum in an ESL program. I could give another list of examples to further illustrate this, but the first is probably sufficient.

    1. For what it’s worth I didn’t think Nick was being disingenuous, Ken, I just thought he’d completely missed the point of what you were getting at.

      What I see Nick’s examples as showing are integral to language and therefore not part of this “what is life like in the UK/USA/Australia etc etc” stuff that many coursebooks present as “culture”.

      However (and perhaps this is a cultural bias?) whenever I see the phrase “PC crap” I do tend to switch off and assume the writer is channelling Fox News. I guess that’s another example of language and culture interacting and (I hope) giving the wrong impression Nick 🙂

    2. Nick, I think what Ken is talking about is the “red telephone boxes, tea and cucumber sandwiches and let’s go to the opera” home counties (West London), middle-class claptrap that we STILL get in textbooks. What you have described is intercultural communication, and as so many of your examples don’t involve native speakers of English they miss the point of Ken’s argument and, strangely, your own.

      As we can never pre-empt every possible cultural bump, we need to equip students with the tools to spot them and deal with them as they arise. We don’t (necessarily) need to teach them how to lay silver service. That’s not PC, that’s common sense.

    3. “An ESL program” – that to me sums up your concern with culture. ESL is taught in an English speaking country – ergo culture important. I teach EFL (in France) and my students are more likely to need their English to speak to Germans, Italiens, etc…. and there’s no way I can teach the culture of all of those countries.

  7. Andy & Darren – I really don’t think I missed the point on this. Ken’s post mentioned nothing about the bland textbook English culture presented within and instead said, “For the rest (NNESTs), it’s a waste of time.” Ken specifically mentioned “culture” as the theme of the post. If you guys are talking about something else this is because Ken failed to clarify what he was actually trying to say in his post. Following the Twitter convo yesterday, I assume you had been debating this issue before and therefore understood Ken’s unwritten point.

    This idea that NNESTs are exploited or misused via being forced to teach English culture and that the big strong Westerners need to swoop in and save them seems to be an underlying theme on a couple of blogs. It’s like some kind of post colonial guilt complex, yet we’re still noising around in everybody else’s business. God forbid we allow the NNESTs themselves to start this debate or wait for them to make their own changes. Instead we need to save them from the evils we’ve created as it were. Ken’s unspecified discussion of culture and NNESTs brings all this in to play. This is one of the reasons why I think it’s PC crap. The tone is harsh but Ken’s original statement was categorical and unqualified and it really riles me up to see that kind of sweeping generalization without looking deeper. I get an impression of a number of people complaining about the situation of NNESTs without bothering to think about the implications for learning the language.

    Perhaps you guys see langauge differently than I do, but I believe culture to be the life blood of the language. Take away the culture and all you are left with is the mechanics like grammar and lexis.

    I involve NNESs in my examples because they fall under the broad loose term of “Western”. More than that though, a language carries its culture with it. These cultures are being influenced by the ideas that come through when they learn English. That’s one of my main points. The language is so tied up in the culture it actually changes those it comes into contact with. They can’t be separated.

    Sure, bland middle-class British culture presented in textbooks is ıoften skewed, boring, and irrelevant to students’ lives, but this issue goes so much deeper than that. The book material is a starting point and a NEST as well as a NNEST can supplement that with more interesting or relevant info. I definitely think that a sizable portion of this info should be related to ES culture in some way though.

    Imagine you were learning a foreign language, as I’m sure most of you have. Would you want to learn Spanish with a book only dealing with the US? Arabic with a book that never mentions the Middle East? I think not. As language learners we understand the importance of culture on a language. If it’s okay for other languages, why is it an issue for English?

    I’ve got a lot to say on this and I’ll probably leave it for Ken’s next post, but I’d really like to see engagement on these larger issues as they are all related rather than just complaining about textbooks some more.

    1. You have raised a VERY important point here, Nick – the similarity or difference between learning English and learning Spanish or Arabic, or indeed any other of the world’s major languages – Russian, Chinese, Gujarati etc.

      There IS a difference and that is the likelihood or otherwise of the learners of these languages using them to communicate to other non-Spanish, non-Arabic speakers.

      As far as I understand it, that likelihood is remote. Whereas with English, the likelihood is 80%.

      1. A very valid point. Points it raises are:

        1) Are Spanish speaking or Arabic speaking cultures any more monolithic than English speaking cultures? If not, why worry about one and and not that other?

        2) Two people that meet and use Arabic to communicate will be coming from roughly the same set of meanings. Similar language and culture were taught to each student, bridging the communication gap. If we were to decenter the culture that anchored this meaning what would the language look like and how would we teach it? I think practical concerns come to the fore here.

        3) Even if a German is speaking to French person, a baseball idiom is still a baseball idiom. Slang is still slang. Saying “thank you” in response to “how are you?” is still weird. These are anchored in the cultural meanings that originally produced the langauge and get transferred when people learn it. Would learning English in a purely German context help them communicate with a French person who learned English in a totally French context?

        To really get going on this debate let’s get that next post up Ken 🙂 I’m interested to see where this goes.

    2. It’s not so much that I find “PC Crap” to be harsh words, rather that they are words usually used to signify “I don’t actually have any arguments but will use some far right attempt to ridicule without substance in order to make myself feel superior”. However, here you have actually clarified what you mean by it, so let’s look at that.

      Personally I think it’s not a NEST/NNEST argument (though obviously Ken did raise that, and so we’ll have to wait for his post to actually see where he’s going with that), and just one about why people are typically learning English. Sure if they’re interested in hearing about Eng speaking countries then as Gavin says, then this is fine, but if not, and as many of our learners are not learning so they can survive in an Eng speaking country, I don;t see why we need to force red phone boxes, afternoon tea, and fish and chips (or baseball, NYC, and big Macs) down their throats.

      Still, perhaps that’s my post-colonial guilt talking.

      1. Yes, where indeed is the NEST, NNEST element in all of this? Yet again, based on a conversation with teachers after an excellent music workshop given by a Welsh teacher in Budapest.

        Well, there’s the teaser – story will be along shortly.

        Actually, Andy, you have skilfully outlined my main thoughts in your last sentence. My God, the idea of forcing a big Mac down anyone’s throat! Isn’t that torture? 😛

      2. I’ve never associated anti-PC feelings with the far right. Perhaps that’s more British or I just don’t watch the news. I have rather strong feelings on PC viewpoints in general cause I’ve seen a lot of hiding behind it, failure to look at something critically, or students getting the education they deserve because of it. PC always kind of waters things down and I tend to like to take a strong stand on things. Anyway, it’s not the focus here, so I’ll just leave it there.

        While the Turkish context may be different, my students are really interested in learning about the culture of the language for a number of very different reasons. So, I think if the students want it, it should be included.

        Personally, I’d like to drop the red phone boxes n tea bit. I don’t think anyone disagrees that it’s focused on too much in our current course books. I would like to get more on just teaching culture in general and its importance/unimportance relevance,irrelevance.

        Also, going back to a point I made above. American culture has a very large influence on global culture. Everyone knows NYC and big Macs. At least teaching about American culture helps students understood its inroads into their own and where it’s coming from. It’s very relevant both for helping to understand English and helping to understand larger global issues. Can’t we say “I’m loving it” these days although it used to be grammatically incorrect? Do students use it because they see it? Yes. Is this not an example of American culture influencing the language and in turn influencing the societies McDonald’s comes into contact with? It’s a minor point, but with big implications.

        I think there remains a lot to be discussed on this issue. I wish others were weighing in. Where are they I wonder? Maybe at Maccers 🙂

      3. I think “what is PC/what does PC actually mean?” is an interesting conversation to have, though it’s probably been done to death on the internet. To me (and broadly speaking) “PC” is a word of negative connotation to replace the positive connotation synonym of “thoughtful” It obviously means something very different to you.

        As regards US culture, well as you say, everyone knows NYC and big Macs. So why teach it? Why tell people what they already know? There is a value in looking at why things in the US are the way they are (why cars are so integral to US culture, for example), but from the perspective of ICC.

        The model of ICC I am most familiar with which maps quite nicely on to the one that Mark mentions, is the “Cultural Knowings Framework” – especially in the work of Pat Moran. In this model, there are four areas that people need to look at – roughly: knowledge, skills, attitudes and self awareness. Knowledge is knowing what people do etc. Skills- knowing how. Attitude-knowing why. And Self Awareness knowing oneself. Coursebooks focus pretty much entirely on knowledge, with occasional skills thrown in. However the really meaty bits, and the most useful for most students, I’d say, are in the latter two. Why do people do things in this way? And most crucially “how do I do things, and why do I do it that way?”.

        We don’t need coursebooks to tell us about the “knowing what”, because the US (and even the UK) are so ubiquitous that most people already know a lot of it (though there are of course weird things that people “know” about countries they haven’t visited which don’t exactly tally with reality – eg all English people sit down at 5pm for a cup of tea and cakes).

        Beyond the language side of things (and I include cultural references in language), the only people who need “skills” for life in the UK/US are those who are going to visit/live there.

        But self-awareness (and an ability to step back and look at attitudes and values behind actions) are crucial not only for intercultural interactions with Brits and Americans but also for all other intercultural interactions. This is what should make up a focus on “culture” in our coursebooks and our teacher training courses.

  8. Hi Ken,

    A good place to write stuff about cultural teaching on the train between England and France! Plenty of inspiration around you there.

    6 of my years with the British Council were as “British Studies Methodology Advisor”. The job description was to develop methods and materials which went beyond all the crude stereotypes and to shift the balance away from facts to skills. It was also to do with moving away from facts and working on attitudes and behaviour. Very difficult things!

    We ended up writing a book for teenagers which was based on comparisons between Hungarian culture(s) and British culture(s). Many of the skills which we were trying to develop through the materials were to do with helping students to describe and explain their own culture to people from other cultures and to negotiate the differences. I always felt and still feel that which culture(s) you use to compare in order to develop these skills will depend on where you are geographically in the world and what you negotiate with your students.

    To get into any depth about these things it is useful, for some of the time, to choose a specific culture to compare. This doesn’t exclude working with lots of other cultures and intercultural encounters. On the course I now teach in Budapest at the university on methodologies of teaching culture and intercultural communication we spend a lot of time discussing the skills developed by Michael Byram in the Council of Europe and developing materials to develop these. I will paste them in below.

    Have a good time in France and good luck with the Pecha Kucha. Cheers! Mark

    The role of the language teacher is to develop skills, attitudes and awareness of values just as much as to develop a knowledge of a particular culture or country.

    Skills of interpreting and relating (savoir comprendre): ability to interpret a document or event from another culture, to explain it and relate it to documents or events from one’s own.

    Skills of discovery and interaction (savoir apprendre/faire): ability to acquire new knowledge of a culture and cultural practices and the ability to operate knowledge, attitudes and skills under the constraints of real-time communication and interaction.

    Critical cultural awareness (savoir s’engager): an ability to evaluate, critically and on the basis of explicit criteria, perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries.

  9. Ken, that brekkers in the picture looks lip smackin’ good!
    Now this argument sounds very interesting, but like it might be a tricky one to maintain to me. If you follow it to its logical conclusion, does it mean that we need to ditch teaching all the cultural idiosyncrasies embedded in Anglo-English?
    What would we do in all those hours where we teach stuff like ‘Can you…?’, ‘Could you…?’, ‘Would you mind…?’ for example. After all, those whimpish imperatives are a pretty Anglo English oddity and the rest of the world seems to get by just fine with ‘Do it’.
    Myself, I think we should point stuff out and let the students chuckle over the way we like to pretend folks have a choice when they haven’t. Let ‘em decide whether they want to use them or not. The ELF research suggests they’ll work it out – it features lots of co-operative language. As Alan Firth puts it: “Competence in ELF interactions entails not so much mastery of a stable and standardized code or form, but mastery of strategies for the accommodation of diversity.”
    But perhaps that’s your point, or perhaps you’ll persuade me otherwise. So please post away Ken. And how about a fish ‘n chips picture for our next installment?

  10. Hi Vicki!

    levels of politeness are an intercultural thing, not a culture-specific thing, in my humble and completely uneducated opinion.

    In other words, you or I (or any teacher anywhere) will offer their students communicative ways of dealing with those interactive situations, offering suggestions to students about what they might want to do in any international context.

    What bothers me is when I hear a native speaker saying something like this: ‘By the way, remember that British people don’t hug each other’. Sorry?? They don’t??? And even if they don’t, why should this change the behaviour of a Brazilian who is meeting and speaking English to a Japanese person?

    More on this when I blog.

    PS – the native speaker who made the hugging remark wasn’t teaching a class, he was giving a conference plenary. 😛

    1. I really must learn to stop anticipating what you’re going to say before you say it, Ken.
      Have to join in with the other commenters here though, and say I think you’ve come up with an utterly ingenious way of blogging.

  11. Andy – I guess you can’t reply to a reply so I’m down here. Thanks much for the thoughtful response. You outlined a lot of stuff that I found really helpful. I think the distinctions and categories you site are useful in this debate and in determining what we should include in and cut out of a course.

    I think the why follows naturally from the what and the majority of students are inquisitive enough to follow up on things like that. I know I’ve had many a diversion in a class when talking about why Americans do what they do or just the differences between where I come from and where my students come from. Teaching culture in the classroom gives this discussion a chance to blossom, which is why I maintain it should be in course books in some fashion.

    I’m chewing what you said over, but I’m pretty sure I’m with you on focusing on the latter two in your model of ICC. I think this is a departure from the topic of “should we teach culture” though. This is something related and important, but different. I think ICC should be one facet of a course, but I still think culture drives a language and if we don’t teach it as an overarching theme, much of the meaning or levels of meaning are lost. I think Ken’s original post was ill-posed. If we narrow the topic down a bit, we might be able to find a direction easier. However, I think I’ve already gotten quite a bit out of this discussion, so, ill-posed or not, it was beneficial.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful responses.

    1. Thanks Nick, back atcha.

      The only thing I’m not convinced of is this: “the majority of students are inquisitive enough to follow up on things like that.”

      I think language students are more likely than others to think like this, but I actually think in general we (humans) rarely do take this extra step. And I doubt that the majority of typical students really do this. Possibly I’m being a bit pessimistic. When you go somewhere, maybe, but if you’re just learning about it…

      To take an entirely random example, of a country to which I’ve never been, I know that in Argentina the tango is a very central part of the culture and that people eat a lot of beef. I’ve never really stopped to wonder whether there are any deep-rooted cultural values that underlie those “knowing whats”. And I like to think I’m pretty well-rounded and thoughtful and I even train people in Intercultural Communication.

      [I mean obviously since starting that paragraph, I have started thinking about it, but before that, not really)

  12. I see that a lot has been said already about this, so while I sit in here in suspense until the promised post on Friday, I’d like to begin at the beginning:

    “Specifically, is a knowledge or awareness of the present-day culture or cultural heritage of the English-speaking world important for English learners?”

    Depends on who the learners are. (I know, big news flash there!) At first, I tend to agree with Andy when he says: “If they are ESOL learners who need support in dealing with their new home that goes beyond just language, then yes. In all other cases, no.”

    But, on the other hand, consider the example of a secondary-school student of mine in Barcelona who was desperate to study some Eminem songs because he was a big fan, which I gladly obliged. Is it immediately useful, practical knowledge that will help him in his daily life? But for that particular learner, it meets Ken’s criteria as “colorful, engaging” etc.

    Problem in this respect, esp. with art, music etc., is that, as the saying goes “there’s no accounting for taste”, that of the teacher or the student. What seems “colorful and engaging” to you may seem “totally lame” to the students. Or vice versa!

    Generally speaking, I skip most coursebook materials that directly refer to British culture, as I am not qualified to speak much about it (being a Yank). I suspect the vast majority of teachers on the ground in state secondary schools (non-natives) may not have that luxury.

    In which case what is the “culture” they’re supposed to teach? What oddities and idiosyncrasies do they have to bone up on before going into class? Tea and cricket? Big Macs and Lebron James? The haka dance? It’s a bit much to ask and may not meet either Andy or Ken’s criteria which I’ve mentioned above.

    In general, the “culture” a NNEST should worry about will be most relevant to the degree that it is intrinsic to the language itself: pragmatic things (the “whimpish imperatives” for example, as Vicki calls them) and most importantly (at Intermediate and above): metaphor,

    By metaphor I mean to say, that the vocabulary related to a certain cultural phenomenon should ideally be usable in another context–for example in Spanish, understanding the meaning of things like the verb “torear” (to give someone the run around), or the expression “A toro pasado”(in hindsight) depends a good deal on one’s familiarity with bullfighting.

    Yes, I know I’m rambling here, but I think we’re now upon the worst time of year for “useless culture-related lessons”: the holiday season. I mean, yes, Halloween and Christmas are fun for the kids and all, but I refuse to make a big song-and-dance out of teaching things like “jack o´lantern”, “yule log”, etc.

    And no matter how important Thanksgiving is to us Americans, I would never devote a lesson to it–if they ask, I’ll explain a bit and that’s about it.

  13. Thank you Nicholas! Another pearl response emanating from Spain, and Barcelona in particular. Must be something in the water. Like you, I would probably skip the culture stuff in course books – but do local state secondary teachers, in Spain and other countries, have the confidence to do that? My experience of non-native speaker teachers in Spain (from both sides, I have Spanish nephews who have gone through the system) is that they rarely skip anything in a coursebook, thinking they will get into trouble if one of the students (or more likely her parents) complain to the director of the school that the teacher keeps missing stuff out and – even worse – bringing her own stuff in to replace it. 😛

    So, for me, it helps not to have culture[specific material unless it is – as I said earlier – ‘engaging, memorable, colourful, alarming, whatever’. Which of course a lot of cultural information from the English-speaking world is. But not all. And certainly not the standard reading material guff that appears in coursebooks.

  14. But then we just end up with that ‘Tango and Beef’ (and Maradona) image of the culture which is so superficial as to be worthless. If you want Halloween and all that guff, I just got to work on a Halloween lesson with a twist (if I might plug shamelessly for a moment) which rested solely on dismemberment of the learner’s own culture …. and I use the word dismemberment for a reason http://bit.ly/1RrijD

    BTW Ken… I like the blogging style you are developing. Drop a little cherry bomb, get everyone to go nuts, then stroll back in and write the post proper and scoop up all the credit. Sweet!

    1. You’ll have to explain more about how tango, beef and Maradona collide, Darren. It sounds like a Comedy Store activity. But anyway, why not go for colourful elements of all cultures – it always works for people like Jamie Oliver. Aren’t we just trying to find ways to make learners interested in looking at text? I imagine all the contributors to these comments are dynamic teachers who motivate their learners through sheer personality, making them keen to read about anything. What about the rest of us??

      I like this cherry-bomb idea, too. Complete accident. Both times it’s happened, I wanted to blog but was under a deadline pressure, so just pre-blogged. Highly recommended. 😛

  15. My tupence worth:
    I get the cultural bit in perpective and plant the lessons in EFL with this 11 minute video (called “The History of English – Why is it Difficult to Understand a Native Speaker” http://podcast.grenet.fr/?p=285 ) followed by a 30 min discussion and then we can get back to our lessons (the advantage of ESP is that one is never at a loss for topics) and BTW Nick … you’re a brave man … I once tried to satify the wishes of a 14 year old class and listened carefully to some early Eminem …. to describe the language as “colourful” is the understatement of the year.

    1. Yes, our friend “Slim Shady” is quite the pottymouth…although it just occurred to me that if you find the censored version of his or someone else’s video clips, you could make it a gapfill–that way the students themselves could substitute the “wirty dords” with other things from their imagination, taking into account syntax, context, etc. Hmm…
      Still waiting on the “post” to this pre-post debate…!

  16. Hi Ken,
    Very interesting topic you have selected. I have actually written an article in ETp magazine two or three years ago, called “Multiculturalism in the Classroom”. I can send it to you in case you would like to read it. Would you like to send me your e-mail address? I look forward to readug your blogpost on the topic.
    Thank you in advance,
    Vicky Loras

  17. Well, what I think everybody is trying to say is that cultural elements in a classroom are welcome, as long as they are not stereotyping or overgeneralizing, which are both extremely dangerous.
    As a Greek-Canadian teacher formerly teaching in Greece I must say that some of my most memorable lessons were when we were touching upon cultural elements. For example, America is not only big macs, but also Martin Luther King. I remember having his poster on my classroom wall and children as young as 8 years old asking me who he was and what he did, plus understanding my explanations!
    So culture is a lot of things and there are many opportunities to use it in the classroom.
    Fantastic topic, Ken!!! Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Vicky – the point being that as a native-speaker Canadian, you have access not only to the information but to your personal background context. So of course, using such information is part of your armoury as a teacher.

      I’m off to read the article you sent me now 🙂

  18. Just read the article, well worth the wait! You make an especially good point about “compulsory learners”–apart from the hundreds of millions of Chinese state school students, I’ve found that even many students here in Western Europe, who have a more immediate exposure and access to native speaker “culture” are also sorely lacking in internal motivation…the typical Spanish teenager is probably sick of his parent’s telling him that he has to learn English and so tune out in part just to spite Mom and Dad and society at large. Your Spanish nephews could probably vouch for that! (Interesting that you have Spanish nephews BTW, mine are 6 and 2 yrs old so I’ll have to wait a few years to pick their brains on the matter… :))
    What does it all mean? That I should probably stop writing this comment and start searching for an article about a culture where they eat chimpanzee brains for breakfast–which now that I think about it, as a non-sequitur is pretty culture-bound in itself…a European student might find eating chimpanzee to be exotic and outrageous and engaging but one in another part of the world not so much…

    1. Hi Nicholas!

      I think there is a still a NEST/non-NEST divide re choice of material.

      NESTs like you and me can find engaging reading material and students will accept that we chose it for good reasons. Non-NESTs working to meet state-school national or school exam deadlines may find themselves under pressure to stick to stuff that’s going to ‘come up in the exam’ – I think it’s funny after all these years how that expression never seems to go away.

      Everyone – examiners, school directors, parents as well as teachers and students – need to realise that English has an international role in intercultural communication which is different in my opinion from just about any other world language. When it comes to reading material (and this I think is where I despair of some coursebook content), the whole learning pyramid has to accept that there is absolutely no need to know anything about how Brits or Americans do things in order to become competent in the English language.

      1. I think the last sentence there in your comment sums it all up pretty well.

        The evaluation/examination question–teachers being under pressure to stick to what’s going to “come up on the exam”–is a whole ‘nother can of worms. In my experience, a lot of the kids (not all) I’ve done private classes with have had native (UK or Irish) teachers at school–and I imagine these NESTs face the same pressures you mentioned regarding their more numerous non-NEST counterparts.

        Especially now with some schools shoehorning all their students into First Certificate preparation in the English classroom (often with little regard for the level of the students), it’s clear that no one really feels like they have room to “stretch out” the syllabus, so to speak.

  19. Hi Everybody!!!
    No time for reading the posts 😦 !!!
    NOO time for reading your brilliant comments:(
    Less and less time for readin and analyzing my students’
    personal letters, and I have to do it at night, though I,m a lark.
    See you in a couple of days.

    I MUST have night’s rest not to become too emotional…

  20. I have a slightly depressing story regarding this topic.

    Last year, whilst working at a language school in Poland, myself and another native speaker colleague were invited to help judge an English competition that took place in a state school. The contestants (whose average age was about 15) were expected to know about English speaking culture which they might be tested on in one of the questions that were put to them.

    One such question (I can’t remember exactly) regarded the settlement of Europeans in America. The contestant then went on to talk a little bit about the Mayflower and gave a few other dates and figures.

    When it came to discussing her marks with the other judges, one of them (a professor at the local university) demanded that she be marked down for her poor historical knowledge. I couldn’t argue on that point as my own knowledge on the settlement of Europeans is virtually non-existent.

    Where I did argue was whether this mattered in the slightest as it didn’t affect her ability to communicate effectively in English. His retort was that knowing about culture was part of the competition and so in the end he got his way and she was given a mark that she didn’t deserve.

    1. Peter!

      Depressing??? That story is frankly DISGRACEFUL!!!

      I haven’t even MENTIONED the non-NEST academics who lord it over their peers and trainees because of their perceived better knowledge of Brit/US culture. They often are as well versed as NESTs, and good luck to them – they can incorporate what they want in their own lessons. But to downgrade an entrant for her historical knowledge in a competition where she is speaking a foreign language is downright APPALLING!!!

      1. You’re right, disgraceful is a better word. I was being far too polite and kind of wished I had argued my point a bit more at the time.

        These kind of competitions are quite common for students in Poland and the prizes for winning these are often quite generous. Sometimes, it can even make a difference as to what high school students will attend. From my limited experience, I’ve a feeling that this kind of situation isn’t uncommon and contestants are often expected to know all sorts of facts and figures associated with the USA and UK.

        Just yesterday, one of my students attended one of these competitions and some of the questions that he was asked were quite frankly ridiculous. Unsurprisingly, it was written by a high ranking academic at a famous university. It seems to me the purpose of writing these quizzes (because that’s what they are really) is for professors to show off how much they know, rather than to actually test how good the contestants are at English.

        Sorry if this sounded like a bit of rant, but it makes me quite angry at the arrogance of these kind of people. I’ve seen how important these kind of competitions can be to students and the unfairness and the obvious inability of them to actually test them on their English skills really disgusts me at times.

        For anyone interested, although a lot of it is in Polish, this is the website for the competition which my previously mentioned student recently entered.


        If you click on the first link and scroll down after general topics you can see the kind of things they are expected to
        know about Britain and America.

        For anyone with too much time on their hands, try doing the vocabulary section from the March 2009 test. They might as well just have them play hangman instead!

      2. Let me give you my 100% Polish opinion about this topic. I believe that the purpose of such competition may be different regarding different schools. In case of a language school of course what should matter more is the ability to communicate well. Now if this competition is held in one of the universities that graduate future specialists in English language, use of English is not something students would get extra points for. It’s a must. In this case the winner should be the one who has the biggest knowledge on a subject.

  21. I have come to this thread a bit late in the day, but since culture and language is a particular interest of mine, i would just like to throw in my own P.O.V

    …i find myself agreeing mostly with Nick, in that i believe culture is important with language teaching. i don’t think you can seperate a language from the culture which spawned it as it will be encoded and ingrained in various levels of the language, like DNA. In it’s lexis, idioms, syntax (strange you may think that culture can affect syntax, but there must be some element of cultural bias in preferring to put your verbs in a certain spot, or to inflect them to death, or not as the case may be). I’m digressing….anyway, my own experiences with this include two exchanges i had in my L2 (Hebrew) and L3 (Greek):

    1. In an informal setting I once told someone in Hebrew that “i don’t trust you” (because i thought they were about to tickle me). Unfortunately, they took great offence at this, and what i should have said was “i don’t believe you”.

    2. Once, when I lost touch with one of my Cypriot friends, I sent a text asking “Eisai nekros?” (ARE YOU DEAD?) when what i should have said was “Zeis?” (ARE YOU ALIVE?).

    In both cases, there was no linguistic reason why my utterances caused offence or were considered wrong. It was just culturally expected responses which i was unaware of.

    These are just two anecdotal examples but i think it sheds light on the relationship between language & culture.

    It may not always be possible (or desirable) to specifically teach this in a classroom, perhaps it is something you have to figure out in the real world in your own time. But I definitely wouldn’t rule it out of the classroom altogether. If it comes up, or if the students want it, then teach it (if feasible).

  22. But Ty, had you said these things in English, they still would have offended your Hebrew and Greek discourse partners. In which case, culture and language are not necessarily linked, right? What these interesting examples demonstrate is that people communicating with others from different cultural communities need to be sensitive and tolerant. By all means, cover such aspects as they arise, and foster a general awareness of intercultural issues. But how can we forearm our students with cultural factoids for every eventuality?

  23. i disagree, i’ve told my friends(non English friends) in English before that i don’t trust them when i thought they were going to do something undesirable (probably like throw something on me or hit me or something equally undesirable) and i have never offended anyone, likewise, i’m forever asking forgotten friends if they are dead in English, it has never raised an eyelid before i tried it in other languages.

    i don’t think we can prepare students for every cultural eventuality they will encounter, thats why i didn’t suggest teaching it necessarily, unless of course, it comes up and the students want to know about something in particular or they have a specific query.

    1. Ty,

      you’ve raised a whole series of other issues here. One relates to the speaking of languages other than English and I think your Hebrew example is a good one. By the way, shouldn’t we be calling modern Hebrew Ivrit? – Maybe you can up-date me on that.

      The first point is – if you speak to someone in Ivrit or Greek, you are almost certain to be speaking to native-speakers of those languages, Israelis or Greeks and Cypriots. (I’m sure someone is going to tell me that there are whole communities of people in the USA who speak Ivrit, but that’s something we could deal with another time).

      The rules of engagement (sorry if that sounds a bit military, but it works for me!) in situations like this are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from the teaching/learning of English.

      When you can identify just one nationality where the language is spoken, and you are going to visit or live in that country, then it is ESSENTIAL to learn all kinds of socio-cultural rules. Unless of course, you’re one of those people who can make a cultural gaffe, and get away with it with a charming apology. (See story about my wife’s cousin below).

      I return to my main point – what do we have to do to ENGAGE people who are never going to meet or speak to a native English speaker?

      Story about my wife’s cousin: (I previously wrote about this on Vicki Hollett’s blog)

      My wife Dede is American and she and her cousin Diane spent some time in London when they graduated from college. They were invited to a smart party in Knightsbridge.

      Diane made a rather dramatic entrance. As she entered a room full of (English) strangers, she almost tripped on a rug and whooped very loudly. Conversation stopped as everyone looked at her.

      “Wow! Nearly fell on my fanny there!” she declared loudly.

      She misinterpreted the look of shock on people’s faces as concern for her well-being.

      “No problem!” she continued. “Fanny unbruised.”

      When she finally discovered that the word ‘fanny’ has different meanings in UK and US English, she spent the rest of the evening apologising charmingly to everyone in the room. As a result, her social calendar was full for the rest of the time she was in London.

      Cultural mistakes aren’t ALWAYS a disaster. 🙂

      1. Hello Ken

        oh dear, i seem to have a habit of taking blogs in new directions, i am going to be careful from now on, or i will get a reputation 🙂

        as for IVRIT….”ivrit” is simply the Hebrew word for “Hebrew” a bit like calling German “Deutsch”. I suppose it is more appropriate to call a language by the name that language describes itself as, but the vast majority of israelis i know do not have a problem with calling their language “hebrew” as it also honours the biblical roots of the language by calling it this. However, some israeli scholars do not approve of calling it this, and advocate “ivrit” for puristic purposes in my opinion. There are even some more extreme scholastic schools of thought (such as Ghil’ad Zuckermann) who would prefer the language to be called “Israeli” as they want to actually distance the modern language from the biblical tongue, which they believe has become so far removed from the ancient langauge that it doesn’t warrant the same title. In summary though, I would say either “Hebrew” or “Ivrit” are acceptable and won’t attract negative reactions (israeli may well do).
        I tend to switch, i call it Hebrew when speaking English, or Ivrit when speaking Hebrew…Israelis will certainly appreciate that you know the name of their language in their own language 🙂

  24. I’ve been super busy lately and haven’t had much time here, but since someone else actually agreed with me here (thanks Ty), I figured I’d better help out.

    I think my previous points stand regarding how culture creates meaning in a language. Ken’s last post has narrowed the field down to simply cultural studies, to which I’m more prone to agree. Unless students are planning to travel to the US or Britain or work with these people, they do not have a pressing need to learn about these cultures.

    However, linguistic elements of culture are still very important. Turkish students do frequently use the term “nigger” as a translation from the Turkish. This term is also used on a large number of shows related to black culture in the US, which may lead students to assume it’s used by everybody. Perhaps an Asian wouldn’t be bothered by the term or its use but I’ve yet to me an African speaker of English that didn’t know the connotations. Here, it would be important to teach the cultural distinction in meaning and uses of the term.

    “Thank you” as a reponse to hello is also another cultural element that would confuse most foreign speakers other than Turks. This is not a culturally acceptable response just as “How are you?” is not a common question or greeting in Czech (often resulting in looks of confusion or in them actually telling you exactly how their life is going).
    By teaching the native speaking cultural form of exchange we are upholding a standard or center by which other foreign speakers can communicate with each other on common ground.

    The meaning of an idiom can of course be realized without actually understanding its origins, but “to cover all the bases” or “getting to third base” makes a whole lot more sense if you know a bit about baseball.

    Also, in the related debate of English as a lingua franca, I feel that British or American culture provides a nice firm starting point or point of reference for course syllabi or books. It provides a center that attempts to hold the language together. I mentioned Mikhael Bakhtin and his ideas about centripedal and centrifugal language forces over on one of Karenne’s posts and I think the culture producing the books is a very necessary force holding the language together.

    An interesting counterpoint a colleague of mine once made is that the retainers of correct grammatical knowledge have shifted over to non-native speakers. Native speakers don’t know the grammar and worry much less about speaking correctly. Maybe in the future the foreign speakers will actually be the centers holding the language together. Interesting thought.

    In the end, I can’t imagine what a language without culture would look like and if we accept anything as acceptable English, we’ll end up with a mess with variations of English quite possibly developing into new dialects and languages of their own. How far do you take it? Should we stop teaching present perfect because so many other cultures don’t have it and have trouble using it?

    Do our students need to learn everything about our cultures to understand the language? Certainly not, but there are points that will definitely aid their acquisition of the language or their communication with other native and non-native speakers alike. Should we teach about a wide range of cultures to foster global citizenship and intercultural communication? Definitely. Do we need to give a foreign learner’s use of English precedence over a native speakers? I don’t see why. Even though the majority of learners may communicate with other learners, their local version of English is still in the minority and it wouldn’t be useful to accept theirs as a standard.

    Where I do agree with Ken is that students shouldn’t be tested on cultural knowledge. If they do greet people with “How are you?” or use and idiom like “cover all the bases”, but don’t know that these are cultural linguistic forms, it’s not important.

    I also agree that it’s more interesting, and actually may aid students more, if we give topics, readings, and listenings that are more relevant to the students. If the cultural elements are influencing the language much, the cultural studies bit can be taken out. I don’t think I need to teach culture to teach present perfect. However, if I teach baseball idioms I think it’s useful to give some basic knowledge about baseball.

    For me, each language includes its own way of thinking or internal logic. To truly speak a language well you have to think in that language and learning culture helps you do that. The more you realize English is different from and not merely a cypher for your own langauge, the quicker you’ll improve.

    I’m starting wonder. Back to work…

    1. Some very good points here, as usual, Nick… and again the discussion widens a little. I think two of your points dovetail well.

      1 Use of the word ‘nigger’
      2 The ‘what will happen if we say every form of English is OK’ which you state very clearly in this sentence: “I can’t imagine what a language without culture would look like and if we accept anything as acceptable English, we’ll end up with a mess with variations of English quite possibly developing into new dialects and languages of their own.”

      Surely these two points are brought together by a clarification of EIL, which (unless I’m very much mistaken) expressly does NOT advocate the ‘anything goes’ approach.

      If and when EIL protagonists get their act together, they may well come up with a fairly useful core lexical list – 3,000 words, say – and an equivalent list of taboo or unacceptable words – unacceptable whether you’re talking to a native speaker or a competent non-native speaker. I think no one would disagree that ‘nigger’ should appear in the taboo list.

      OOOooo, so much more to say on this, but I’ve got deadline problems!

      1. Nick-

        I think one of the keys to think about the whole EIL is that the “internationalization”–not by linguists developing a core wordlist but by spekaers using the languages–of English is a self-generating, self-directed process.

        If you think about the natural evolution of, for example, a “pidgin” language which then undergoes a process of “creolization” as its role slowly changes from a “lingua franca” (used by speakers of two communities) to the main vehicle of communication amongst a community of speakers, then you may see that this flattening-out so to speak of cultural peculiarities follows naturally from the participation of speakers from different cultures in its development. As teachers of English, we are quite frankly powerless to stop it. Indian English is Indian English. Singapore English is Singapore English. Are they mutually comprehensible? I reckon so, and that’s what’s important for an Indian and a Singaporian(?).

        In any case, English as its used internationally is generally a vehicle for business, commerce, or scientific-technical information. As such, the speakers are inherently interested in assimilating a position of prestige or power, and thus will be interested in “their English” being as “standard”–i.e. the Anglo-American/Western ideal–as possible.

        I tend to side with Darren’s “cover such aspects as they arise” approach–although if you live in Japan or the Caribbean the students may have more of an interest in baseball idioms than in other places!

  25. Nicholas – this ‘there’s nothing we can do to stop changes in certain forms of English’ argument is great, as far as native speakers of those places go.

    The problem (here I go again) for a non-NEST is as follows: she probably has absolutely no access to these rich sources of language and would be unable to include any aspects of them in her teaching anyway, because of local exam requirements etc etc. And, at the end of the day, she wants to know what any EIL initiative MEANS to her and her situation. If it produces a new core vocabulary and grammar, it might be helpful.

    I’m not sure I’m making this point particularly well. The uncontrolled changes in world Englishes are fantastic, and a great tribute to our lack of something like the French Academy that proclaims do’s and don’t’s about French.

    But it doesn’t help the Péters of this world, who simply want to know what this new international suitable-for-all language is going to consist of.

    Not EXACTLY what I wanted to say, but I hope it makes a BIT of sense.

  26. I read you loud and clear. One last thing here, my only point (which I don’t think I made quite clear either) was that it was a two-way street: while on one hand we may be seeing a branching off of and variation within the family of Englishes as it were, on the other hand you have a movement to streamline (lexically more than anything else–I doubt anyone’s going to let us get away with jettisoning the present perfect altogether, to cite Nick’s example above), facilitating its use across cultures.

    “The Péters of the world”, as you call them, should have an active voice in that process, helping to decide what’s useful and what’s necessary and what’s essential.

  27. My experience is that my Spanish students normally find things about the UK interesting if they involve me.

    Apart from that, they have no special interest in things British. Why should they? I would have to create that interest by somehow finding a connection between a feature of UK culture and some aspect of their lives.

    1. Very good point – students are really interested in their teacher if the teacher engages them. So if the teacher is from Auchtermuchty, then the students want to know all about it.

  28. I can’t believe you don’t like the cultural spots in textbooks. I have derived so much education from them. Despite having been born and lived in Britain for the first 20 years of my life it wasn’t until I picked up a text book produced by the Indian government that I learned that everyone in Britain stops work at 4pm to have tiffin. To think I’d never even realised that my parents had been grossly depriving me of an extra meal.
    Likewise it was only when I was given my first copy of American Headway that I discovered that a popular British pizza topping is tuna and sweetcorn. So many nights wasted eating my pizza with cheese and tomato and maybe some ham and pineapple when I was feeling more exotic.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you to the Soars for opening my eyes.
    I can only assume they come from a more cosmopolitan part of Britain than I do.

    1. That’s the most hilarious comment yet, Catherine, thank you.

      Lizzie Soars was born in Sunderland, which is by all accounts very exotic indeed. Mind you, she went to school with ace BBC war reportern Kate Adie, so I imagine the atmosphere in class was pretty cosmopolitan! 🙂

  29. Talking about British peculiarities and the American ones I must mention a wonderful book I had great fun with: “Changing Places” by David Lodge. It’s a must read. Have you read it Ken?

    1. I have, it’s a very good read. If you liked that, you will also like a similar novel by Malcolm Bradbury called ‘Stepping Westward’.

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