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Culture and Language Learning

*Stephanie Lerner

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a video clip of comedian Andrew Kennedy.  He was talking about his experiences of being raised biculturally and he was hilarious!  Here is a link to the clip if you’d like to check it out for yourself @ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgfPMCwf7BA.  So, Mr. Kennedy got me thinking about the importance of addressing culture in English as a Second or Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) classes.   Why is it important, you might ask?  Well, we, as human beings, are hardwired to process language in the context of culture…which means that there simply is no language without culture…nor is there culture without language, for that matter.  Culture is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time, so imagine trying to become a totally fluent English speaker with no knowledge of vocabulary words such as Christianity, jeans, or hamburger-  all words that describe various aspects of English-speaking culture.   Likewise, imagine a group of people whose culture involves no language, no type of communication- it does not exist.  All cultures communicate their beliefs and customs through some type of language.  Thus, the two are so closely intertwined that to teach language without addressing culture leads to a huge hole in the language learning experience.

Having been involved in both public and private language education for the last twenty years, I’ve often experienced the link between culture and language- sometimes purposefully and other times without awareness.  For me, I probably spent most of the first 8 years of my education career being oblivious to the importance of culture in language learning.  During this period in my career, I taught students in a town close to where I grew up so culture faded easily into the background since there were so few students outside our mainstream culture.  Then I moved to Africa and the importance of culture in language learning became something I witnessed, learned, taught, and thought about every day.  It began when I had to learn Mozambican Portuguese and realized that the reason Portuguese language acquisition was so hard for me was because much of the vocabulary referred to aspects of Mozambican culture, a culture about which that I knew almost nothing.  Later, with my own adult Mozambican EFL students, I started a weekly English Culture Club group.  We met in an empty classroom at our teachers’ college during lunchtime to experience the English-speaking culture since many of them were learning English to move to sub-Saharan English-speaking countries in Africa, such as Tanzania or South Africa.  And you might be asking at this point, what exactly is English-speaking culture?  Well, most English-speaking countries today have roots in former Latin and Germanic cultures since the English language is a Latin-influenced Germanic language.  This history leads to many present day similarities in each English-speaking culture around the world.  So, through the group experience, I was able to expose the students to the commonalities that exist in English-speaking cultures, thus making the transition to or understanding of the English-speaking culture smoother.  With these students, I created a curriculum guide called ESL for Beginners Culture Explorers.  This guide is full of engaging and fun activities that give students insight into the English-speaking culture.  Here is a photo of my Culture Explorers back in Mozambique…

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After my experiences in Africa opened my eyes to the importance of culture in language learning, it was always at the forefront of my professional perspective.  In fact, I currently facilitate a slight variation of my Culture Explorers curriculum to help my Texas students transition to the American culture as they learn to speak English.  For this group, I use my curriculum called ESL Survival Skills, where we do weekly activities focusing on the cultural values, laws/rules, holidays, and traditions of America and American schools.  Since my current students are all “Newcomers” to the US from other countries, they really look forward to and benefit from this cultural instruction about the USA.   Here is a photo of my Newcomer culture group room with our curriculum guide and some activity materials:

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The main point of these culture groups is to supplement the often stressful act of language learning with fun, relaxing activities to help students understand the culture behind the language they are learning.  Below are some of my favorite activities from the curriculum guides, ESL for Beginners Culture Explorers and ESL Survival Skills, which can be found at www.bilinguallearner.com.

I use various read alouds with comprehension questions and activities about transitioning to different cultures.   In October, I also use a fun Halloween passage to teach about this popular American holiday.  Additionally, we sing songs and play games to give them some exposure to the pop culture trends that Americans grow up with such as CandyLand, Operation, Monopoly, Go Fish, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Mary Had a Little Lamb, to name a few.  Songs and games take up small amounts of time and serve as great 5-10 minute relaxation activities while exposing students to the American culture or to the English-speaking culture in general.  I also like to teach my students about popular American or English-speaking cultural ideas, such as the Four Steps of Conflict Resolution that many public schools use. We also do lots of comparison activities where they can compare their home country with the USA or another English-speaking country.   Here’s a photo of some of the books we use in the read aloud activity:

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I hope this article encourages you to address culture in your EFL lessons, or if you are already doing so, please comment and share your ideas!  Finally, the activities and curriculum guides I use in my Culture Explorers and ESL Survival Skills groups can be found on my website at http://bilinguallearner.com/.  Just look around on the products page, blog page, and resources page, and you’ll find lots of culture and language resources.  Happy Teaching!

(*Stephanie Lerner is the founder of Bilingual Learner which provides teaching and counseling guides for ESL/EFL/bilingual learners.  Visit www.bilinguallearner.com for teaching/ counseling guides, weekly free resources, helpful links, and fun downloadables. Follow and Like Bilingual Learner on Facebook and Twitter to see our weekly posts on developments in the ESL/counseling world and to receive our newest free/low cost products! www.facebook.com/bilinguallearnwww.twitter.com/bilinguallearn)

 

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