A few years ago I witnessed the following little scene in Barcelona, Spain. A city guide was telling her little group of obviously rather rich tourists about Sagrada Familia, (the Holy Family), the celebrated basilica begun by the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. An irritated woman’s voice rang out loudly into a pause: “Why don’t you tell us what kind of family it was, who were its members?” On a par with this question was a comment overheard in Florence: “Can we see that church, its façade looks like waffles, it’s quite pretty, it has that ancient dude’s statue nearby”. The Basilica di Santa Croce is the “waffle” church, and that “dude” is Dante. The most amazing episode for me as an EL teacher occurred in Stratford-upon-Avon, where enthusiastic tourists asked if the author was going to sign his books for them. Yes, they meant William Shakespeare. Since I come across such occasions in any country including my own, I can safely assume that not everybody bothers to learn something, anything about the country they visit. Yet they travel, without any knowledge of the language, the people and their culture. My father, now 91, formulated it really well: “What do you expect from those who have only money, no real education, no cultural knowledge?”
There are of course sweeping generalizations, misconceptions and preconceived ideas about anything and everything. As a young EL student I was meeting a group of foreign scientists who came to my home town for a conference in July. Several men emerged from the airplane wearing floor-length fur coats and carrying skis. It was completely understandable, after all, when one hears the word Siberia, the one thing everybody knows is, it is cold! But if you check the climate data you will discover that in fact summer in this vast region exists, with the temperatures rising up to +40C in July.
Can we EL teachers include cultural and country studies into our lessons? Should we do it? This largely depends on the teacher, the students’ needs, and of course on the curriculum. I know from my own experience that we can, not exactly teach, but share the information, tell our classes about the customs and traditions, the cultural heritage of a country whose language they are studying. In order to teach, to achieve success, our listeners need to have the desire to learn. We should help them understand that while it is very useful to know the basics about the new surroundings, it does not mean that they have to abandon their own cultural traditions. It is better to learn the behavioral norms, the cultural mores, than to feel like the proverbial elephant in a pottery shop.
How can we integrate cultural studies into a lesson? It rather depends on the class or students we get. For many newcomers for instance our very appearance may be quite a cultural shock. Most teachers are women. We are used to our freedom; we do not cover our heads and faces in public; we feel equal to our male colleagues. All this may come as a shock to those who are unprepared for our way of life. Maybe we should consult the educational authorities and the school administration about the issue, if it is present, and work out some common strategies. Even if the students knew about the cultural differences they still may come as a shock when actually seen for the first time. In summer, when it is very hot, the locals in my home town, especially the young people, walk around in shorts, crop tops or T-shirts and flip-flops. Visitors and international students from Asia and Africa often stop and simply stare at them. A good orientation course helps to avoid possible conflicts, both the locals and the visitors accept the differences. Young women running to the beach in the suitable attire and women from other countries in their flowing long robes, their heads always covered, walk the streets freely. I believe that being well informed plays a large role in the situation. When we include any cultural theme into our lessons, what we teach in effect is mutual respect.
My generation grew up in the decades when religion was not forbidden but rather pushed into the corner. Old people would go to church regularly, the younger ones not often, or not at all. But we had a course on the history of religions at the university, which gave us an opportunity to learn about the various religions of the world, the holidays, the customs and traditions. I knew who the members of that Holy Family were since an early age. We studied the history of Christianity and its branches, the history of Buddhism and Islam. There was an understanding of the humanity’s beliefs – and respect. All the rest came from individual interests. I always loved the renaissance and studied it at length; I also loved “One Thousand and One Nights” since my childhood and learned a lot about the countries and traditions thanks to that. Actually it helps me to this day. If we are lucky enough to have had a good teacher, we learn the most valuable lesson of all from them. They may teach us, not a collection of facts, but the main principle of continuous learning.
Thanks to my own EL teacher I spend some time before any trip surfing, memorizing some facts about the culture, and a few key phrases. Today, thanks to the enormous opportunities ICT gives us, we can learn while traveling, using Google translator and any search engine to check our knowledge and to learn something new or old, but previously unknown to us. An educated person today is one who knows how and where to find the necessary information.
Nina MK, Ph.D.