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With globalization and technology growing ever so rapidly, individuals crossing borders and local issues becoming international ones, the need to understand cultural differences and traditions becomes an undeniable one. As such, it should become a crucial part of any classroom, if we hope to see a future of tolerance and appreciation of those with different life experiences and different cultures than ourselves. Culture can be brought into some of the most common ESL coursebook topics, like fashion, food, movies, towns and so on. The same language points that coursebooks present around these topics, like What am I wearing?¸ I like apples, but I don’t like bananas, language for movie reviews and plots, and town planning and prepositions (the cinema is behind the supermarket) can be practiced and produced while looking at various cultural elements in lessons that can be included to give students world knowledge and help develop in them an awareness of the world beyond the borders of their countries, while still learning language.
Lessons on fashion and clothing often focus on vocabulary from simple items like t-shirt to more complex items like bow-tie, and language like I’m wearing …, adjectives (green, red, short, tight) and This is my favourite dress or My favourite outfit includes…. depending on the level. As an additional context in which to practice this language, teachers can include tasks for students in which they research clothes from around the world. Students can:
- Create posters in which they draw pictures of themselves wearing clothes from different countries and describe what they are wearing or for higher levels, what they like about it.
- Learn about and discuss how certain clothes came to be, based on history and climate.
- Find out about traditional clothing from their own cultures to better understand the significance of traditional clothes.
Coursebooks cover topics like picnic food, healthy eating, and writing recipes. But the possibilities of language and skills to teach around food are endless. Numerous videos are available online for teachers to exploit in the classroom, from cooking tutorials, to documentaries on food from around the world, and these can easily be linked to culture, by simply choosing a cuisine to study. So, how is this done?
- I once had my pre intermediate students watch a video of a young Indian chef named Kicha cook traditional Indian food on The Ellen Show on YouTube as a listening task. It was a wonderful addition to the lesson, because it allowed me to share with my students the similarities Indian cuisine had with cuisine from my country, and gave me opportunities to teach them various vocabulary items they would not otherwise have been exposed to. It also allowed me to share with them stories from my childhood, and memories I had of eating pittu, which is a kind of steamed rice cake.
- Students could explore cuisine from other parts of the world, watching videos on specific recipes, or looking at strange food of people from around the world.
- Students could also look at food inspired by religious beliefs. One common example might be how some religions forbid the eating of meat.
It must be acknowledged that there is a lot of controversy around the representation of culture in movies, even more so in today’s world where all cultures feel like they are under attack. However, movies provide plenty of opportunity to explore culture and traditions in a light and unpolitical environment, provided the right ones are chosen. While the stories of many movies are told from the perspective of Hollywood directors and producers, paying careful attention to backgrounds, context and setting will allow viewers to make cultural and historical inferences. One example is the animation movie Big Hero 6 set in a fictional place called San Fransokyo, which ‘features several icons of Japanese culture sprinkled throughout the background scenery’. (Kalts, 2014).
- Watching clips from the movie, and studying the plot, students could learn about Japanese and American culture, identifying how they come together in the movie, in a video task.
- Students might identify elements of the merging of cultures within their own cities and contexts, reading articles about it, speaking about it and writing about it, even in simple language structures like will for predictions. Eg. There will be buildings like the ones in Japan.
Towns and Cities
As a creative task, building from the ideas above, if your students are up for a challenge, they could:
- Create their own city where various ethnic groups live in harmony, drawing town plans and images of how elements from various cultures come together. Again, language for prediction and probability can be practiced here to talk about a hypothetical future. With higher levels, conditionals could also be practiced. Eg. If there are people from different countries, they will celebrate their festivals here.
- Read about or listen to documentaries on different geographical locations and the various ways in which people build their cities and town depending on climate or landscape, looking at what life in like in the mountains of Sri Lanka for example, or different villages from around the world. This would open their eyes to difficulties people face in their surroundings, and make them appreciate why people leave their countries in search of a better life.
- Explore possible alternatives to town structures and ethnic coexistence. A good starting point for ideas is the town of Auroville, an eco-friendly, non – religious town set up as an experiment and welcoming individuals from anywhere around the globe. Students can design their own theoretical communities, creating poster presentations, drawing maps and creating short constitutions for their towns. They can then describe their principles, and their towns to their classmates, and provide each other with suggestions, using language for descriptions, locations and suggestions. Eg. There is a big temple in between the church and the mosque, You should build a park for everyone to meet after their prayers in front of the temple.
Lessons in which students are allowed to explore various topics and learn new things give them an opportunity to share what they have learned with their classmates in the form of gallery walks for quieter classes, or presentations and discussions for more active and enthusiastic learners. Information could be presented to students in the form of reading and listening tasks as well for skills practice. They present the circumstances for sharing opinion, and information, and hence, developing understanding and awareness, in a communicative language set up. As a final point, it should be noted that a lot of the vocabulary that culture brings into the classroom are not English words, but are words that have no equivalent in English and so have been borrowed into the language. Examples include saree, which is a type of Asian clothing for women, or sambal, which is a type of sauce, for which the word comes from Malay. Two points to be noted here are firstly, language like this allows students to explore spelling rules and sounds in English, comparing them to other languages, which would be particularly useful and interesting if students are comparing words in English to their own language. Secondly, they present to students the important fact that at some point in time, all cultures come together to take from and share with each other, which is a significant way to live by for the sake of a global humanity. In conclusion, language provides so many pathways into culture and as teachers of English, this is something we should utilize if not for ourselves and for the sake of exciting lessons, then for the sake of our students as we prepare them for a shrinking world that is soon becoming one very large melting pot of cultures, traditions and beliefs.
Kalts, R. 2014. Disney's 'Big Hero 6' animates a bridging of cultures. The Japan Times. Retrieved: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/10/24/general/disneys-big-hero-6-animates-bridging-cultures/#.XORPfsgzaUk. 21/05/2019.