Is Culture a Part of Language Learning?
When teaching English as a foreign language in a country where the native language is not English, it is easy to assume there are going to be some cultural differences between you and the students. The differences could be as little as what you eat for breakfast and which hand you pass things to someone with, or they could be as large as how you address someone and what you are allowed to talk about in public society.
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This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Shana H. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Part of learning a language is learning the slang that goes with a particular language. When I say slang, I do not just mean the words teenagers might use or words in rap music (although those wonât be excluded). However, I also mean things like idiomatic expressions and words with the history behind them that are very much related to the country they come from.
For example, imagine you go to teach in Myanmar and the students start talking to each other and one day you hear them say the n-word (a situation that has happened to me). Growing up in the states, this is a word I have heard a lot and a word I understand I cannot use. However, this might be confusing to someone who does speak English and sees two people using the word with each other in a movie in a friendly way, as if they are calling each other brother (and this was indeed the studentsâ take of the word).
In a situation like this, it is important to then bring in some cultural background. Even though my students were young, I explained slavery and everything since to help them understand why those words might not be something they would want to use. In a country like Myanmar, where history is quite different from the states, it is important to bring culture into teaching for a situation like this.
As mentioned, it is also important when it comes to idiomatic expressions or just everyday things that are said. If a student were to sneeze, no one said anything and I was the only one to say âbless youâ. Or explaining something like âIâm burning upâ when talking about how hot the weather is. English is a diverse language and as a result, there are many different kinds of English spoken (Australian, American, Irish, South African, etc). When most people say âwhat kind of English do you teach?â they usually mean American or British. I understand seeing as how there are different spellings (favorite vs favorite) and some different ways of pronouncing things (aluminum is vastly different in both kinds of English). However, every country has its own culture that influences the English spoken there and when the teacher comes from a different country they (without even realizing it probably) teach their students some of their cultures as a result.
For example, my friends were from England, Australia, and South Africa and they all used the word rubber to describe the thing you use to erase the mistakes made with a pencil. I, as the American, would use the word eraser. While it was an ongoing competition and game to âconvertâ as many students as we could onto our side, this slight and funny difference showed a lot, especially because rubber means something different in the states.
I am not saying that you always need to have lessons that are drawn out and serious like my talk with the students about the n-word. But I am saying that culture should have a minute or two in a lesson to help students understand English in a way that extends beyond the textbook.
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Culture combines so many different things from food to clothing to television to music to history and so on. All of these things influence a language and as a result, they are just as important to teach the students, in my opinion, like grammar. It helps students feel a language out rather than think through a language.
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