Who CARES what English people have for breakfast?

Breakfast
The Full English. According to some books, this is what English people have for breakfast.

Before you start reading, can I apologise for the advertisements that appear when you read this on phone or tablet, or at least when I do – a series of images of young women who earn lots of money in their free time. Because I use wordpress for free, I don’t have any control over these adverts, and I must say I find them really depressing but hey ho ….

The blogpost starts here…..

I’ve studied two languages at evening class. Many years ago, I did an advanced course in Spanish, which I already spoke quite well after living and teaching in Spain, and more recently I studied German, a language I’m pretty hopeless at. I have a good accent and can get basic messages across but I lack strategies for more complex stuff, and there aren’t enough vocab cognates to wing it. My main motivation for joining that class was that I’d been asked to make a speech at a wedding in Germany and I was a bit nervous about it.

In both cases, I had to buy a course book. I can’t remember much about the Spanish one. It was black and white, which is a pity because some of the photos of Spanish people, places and especially food would have looked much better in colour.

The German course book Willkommen! was nicely designed, had interesting reading texts and excellent full-colour images. I was a bit annoyed about having to buy it because I discovered that the rest of the class had been together for a couple of terms, and they had ploughed through about three quarters of it. No matter, lots of nice stuff and – crucially for me – grammar information in English.

The images in both books were important. The Spanish book gave a distinct flavour of Spain and Willkommen! had some terrific stuff about that impressive trio of German speaking countries, Deutschland, Schweiz and Österreich. (Yes, I know, they speak German in other countries, too.)

If you’re learning Spanish in Europe, it’s good if the material reflects the natural cultural setting of the language, the magnificent country that is Spain. If I was writing or editing a book for European learners of Spanish, I would make sure there were also references to wonderful places in Spanish-speaking Latin America. A German course book should also take advantage of all the impressive information and images of German-speaking countries.

However ….

As a writer and occasional editor of materials for English learners, I feel completely differently about using English-speaking countries as a go-to cultural backdrop for the text and photographic material in the books.

Why? The main reason is that eighty per cent of exchanges in English, written and spoken, take place between people for whom English is not a first language. The reality for most English learners who want to use the language in their working life is that they are more likely to speak to other non-English speakers, colleagues, clients or customers. As Bill Bryson noted in Mother Tongue, when Volkswagen opened their first factory in China, the German and Chinese engineers spoke to each other in English ‘so they were at an equal disadvantage.’

English is a method of global communication, but the language used by most people no longer bears much resemblance to the form used by native speakers. In fact, native speakers use confusing and localised versions that can be difficult to teach, so why teach them? Materials should contain the kind of English that most people in the world can more easily understand and relate to. I think most of my colleagues in world of ELT writing agree with me about this. If you don’t, please leave a note at the end.

What worries me is that some of my non-native speaker teacher colleagues still feel that British or American culture is somehow important to the learning of English and their ability to teach it. Some of them feel they aren’t good enough teachers of English if they aren’t au fait with current cultural trends in the English-speaking world.

I go to a lot of ELT conferences all over the world and I always try to attend talks and workshops given by teachers from the country where the conference is taking place. I really want to see how local teachers deal with the stresses and strains of this tiring and underpaid job.

However, I’m also drawn to any conference event with ‘music’ or ‘drama’ in the title, and so it was that, in Budapest many years ago, 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 could remember his name, so I could thank him here for the thoroughly enjoyable experience I had there.

During the workshop, he played and talked about a Welsh mining song. It described in graphic detail the miserable working lives of Welsh miners from seventy or eighty 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 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 workers 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 good 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 interesting 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 Kati and Péter.

Over coffee, they gave their thoughts about the workshop. Kati 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 much (i.e. as little) about Welsh miners as he did, but he wasn’t 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. Kati disagreed completely, and said it was impossible to know everything, so he shouldn’t worry.

Then Péter said: “I don’t suppose my students expect me to know about Welsh mining songs. But I’m not sure I even know 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 a lot 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.”

Kati 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??”

Those are my feelings entirely. 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.

Modern ELT materials are thankfully free of such ‘cultural’ references as English people’s penchant for eggy breakfasts. 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.

As I said earlier, English is the lingua franca of, for example, Norwegians communicating with Japanese people, Egyptians with Italians etc etc. Hopefully, these people should be able to conclude their business without knowing what I had for breakfast.

Apparently, there are four hundred million people in China currently making some kind of attempt to learn English. That’s one third of the population. It’s also more than the number of people who speak English as a first language. 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, the majority of whom will be from other Asian countries. English will almost certainly be the language these people will have to use to communicate.

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 – but then what? I know very little about the rest of Britain and and my Irish son-in-law despairs at how little I know about the land of his ancestors. I know next to nothing about most of the places in Kachru’s inner and outer circles of English speakers, which include nations as diverse as New Zealand, Nigeria, Ireland, Malta, the Philippines, Singapore and the islands of the Caribbean. Surely if we teach cultural studies, we need to refer to the culture of all these places.

Kachru's circles
Kachru’s circles of language use

Did I hear someone out there say “No, we don’t”? Why do you think not – because our students aren’t going to visit Malta or Barbados or New Zealand or communicate with people from these places? That makes no sense at all to me. The vast majority of students aren’t going to meet or communicate with ANY native speakers, so why are we talking about any of these places?

The key consideration when choosing material for a language course is that that it should be intrinsically interesting. If you’re going to write a unit on Food, which every course book seems to have, then look around the world for an aspect of the topic that’s interesting. Food trucks in San Francisco are interesting, so let’s write about them. Street food in Vietnam is also interesting. Let’s have a text about that, too.

Food truck
A San Francisco food truck. An interesting image and an indication of what San Franciscans love to eat. Or maybe not. I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. We can write an interesting reading text about the truck and other similar ones without making any generalisations about what residents of the city like to eat.

If you agree or disagree with any of the above, please leave a note.

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8 thoughts on “Who CARES what English people have for breakfast?

  1. About two decades ago when I started teaching English in my hometown in Egypt, I was always perplexed with the amount of cultural stuff included in textbooks back then. I had no access to the internet or encyclopaedias to refer to. I hadn’t known what a pie was or what muffins, doughnuts and peanut butter looked like.
    It was always intimidating to teach texts that included much deeper cultural references when the eager
    learners wanted to find out about every single word in a text. I wasn’t experienced enough to understand that such references and stuff wouldn’t be that useful anyway.
    Even today, I feel I’m like I can surf the internet for information to tell to my students in such cases.
    I fully understand how hard it is to write materials for non-native speakers who live in faraway worlds where very little is in common with the country of the author.
    I’m grateful to all the teaching and training I’ve received throughout my career that’s enabled me to write my own vmaterials.and versions of texts more relevant and appealing to my learners.
    I haven’t used a textbook at all in the past two years despite the fact that everyone else in the same college does.
    I like to believe that my learners enjoy my lessons every much when we introduce local topics and culture in English. They feel empowered and able to express their life when they talk to strangers.
    Imagine being able to describe the English breakfast whereas you can’t talk or write about your own.

    Thank you for sharing this insight. I wish I’d read this post 20 years ago.

    Shaban Reshed

  2. Hi Shaban,

    thank you so much for your comment. One thing I DIDN’T say in the blog was this – when teachers enjoys using culture-based material, as you’ve suggested in your note, their enthusiasm can indeed rub off on the students themselves. So I think it’s great when teachers, native speakers or not, use material about native speaker culture and enjoy the experience. My main point remains the same – non-native teachers shouldn’t feel inadequate just because they don’t know about aspects of the culture of countries where English is spoken.

  3. A “light bulb” moment for me was seeing Robin Walker talking on English as a Lingua Franca some years ago. A marvellous talk. It also relates to immigrants into the UK and the citizenship test. I hope it’s changed, but we helped a Polish friend with it. I’ve never seen such a collection of trivia, and for some reason a lot was about Scotland … which loch was further north, the Stone of Scone, Hadrian’s Wall (aka The Scottish backstop). She’d lived here 10 years, spoke fluent English and worked in the NHS, but had never been north of Stratford-on-Avon. She was aware it was just crap that you had to learn by heart and passed. So is now British. Most native speakers would struggle to pass it, but wouldn’t worry. NNS teachers, like your Hungarian Peter, just feel depressed and that they know nothing.

  4. Your post reminds me of a story told to me by Gong Yafu, an eminent thought leader on language teaching in China. He told me of an activity in an English text book which asked students to describe their favourite pizza and how this went down in rural Gansu with kids who had no idea what a pizza was, let alone having a favourite!

    1. Hi Dave,

      and THAT story reminds me of a visit to a pizza restaurant in Guangzhou. After we had all eaten our pizzas and were considering how to end a pleasant meal, we ordered an extra drink. The drinks were delivered, except the margarita that one colleague had ordered. The waiter explained that it would be along shortly. And while we were all drinking brandies and coffees, she was presented with a pizza margarita.

  5. I’ve really enjoyed reading your post, Ken. As a native speaker, neither from England nor America, but in fact from a Caribbean island, I agree with your sentiments on how nonsensical it is to try to give the impression that English belongs exclusively to those countries, or indeed any other English speaking nation, and therefore in learning and teaching the English language, one must be intimately acquainted with those cultures.

    1. Thanks for that, Cyndi!

      what I didn’t say was that teachers who ARE native speakers, especially from less well-known places, such as Caribbean islands, have an advantage over native speakers from the more traditional places, in that they can give their students an insight to the wider spread of English usage.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the blog!

      Ken

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