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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Five Exercises for teaching Culture

Upper secondary adult
Gill Johnson, Hastings, UK

Comfort Food and drinks

Level: elementary and upwards

Cultural aim: to establish what foods ( drinks) are personally and culturally central.

Preparation: be ready to talk about your "comfort foods, foods that give you a sense of Ok-ness, ease and "at homeness". Choose some from before and some now. Same for drinks.

In class:

1. Tell the class about your former and current comfort foods and drinks. Explain why you specially like these foods, their associations for you etc…
2. Ask two or three students to tell the class about theirs. Choose students from different cultures and if the class is "mono-cultural", choose people, if possible, from different regions/ suburbs/ areas.
3. Ask each student to make a list of former comfort foods/drinks and current comfort foods or drinks. Ask them to underline any items that they consider many people in their culture would also find reassuring and relieving.
4. Organise groups of 4-6 students so they can compare their lists. Group the students as culturally heterogeneously as possible

Note: this can be a powerful exercise with people who are currently away from their own home cuisine. Think of the yearning for well-cooked rice among Japanese living among "other-country-people" ( gai-koku-jin) and that desperate desire for potatoes of a Brit living in rice-eating culture. The stomach can be central in homesickness. How many Brazilians abroad would kill for a black bean and pork "feijoada" or a German person for some compact rye bread?


Looking Through Windows

Level: Pre-Intermediate upwards

Time: 40-60mins

Preparation: Have ready a variety of pictures of different kinds of housing. You may get these from estate agents or the internet, or have photographs of your own. The images may be from housing in the target culture or from several cultures. What's important is that you know: the standard of living of the inhabitants, how many people would normally share it, etc. If you prefer, you could have prepared handouts, providing information on each of the images you have chosen.

In class:

1. Divide your class into groups of 4-5 and ask them to choose a picture.
2. Each group should decide together: how many people live in the building, who they are, what jobs they might have, what they earn, what they think, what their routines might be, what their attitudes are to their children, jobs, religion etc, etc.
3. When everyone is ready, get each group to present their ideas to the whole class, dealing with questions from the group as they arise.
4. Finally, you can give out the information you have prepared (either orally or via your prepared handouts) and see if the students can match the information to the correct images.
5. Feedback should focus on what led the students to come to the conclusions they did and how this caused them to speculate on / judge (accurately or inaccurately) the behaviour and status of the inhabitants.


Old lessons for a new culture?

Level: Upper Intermediate.

Time: 45mins

Aim: To compare/contrast lessons learned from a significant elder (a teacher, family member etc) in mother culture with way of life in the target culture

Note: This activity may be best suited to classes containing refugee/immigrant participants, who may come from very different cultures with different values. This activity could be an interesting starting point from which to analyse the target culture.

Preparation: You may want to have a story of your own to share. If not you could use this one, told by a young, male, Afghani student, now living in the UK.

"In our mosque we had a very kind and wise teacher. He taught us the Koran and gave us advice on how to be good Muslims. I remember him teaching us about respect. He explained that our women were precious and that we must always protect them and respect them. I knew this was one of his most important lessons. I was sometimes naughty to my sisters but I tried very hard to think about what our imam said. Before I left Afghanistan, my mother said I was a good boy and a good Muslim.
Here your sons do not respect or protect their women. I see the mothers out in the street. Sometimes they smoke in the street where everyone can see, their clothes are not modest and their sons do not care. Sometimes they are not polite to their mothers. I do not have my mother here, but I try to behave respectfully, especially to my key workers* and my teachers, but now it is summer they do not wear modest clothes It is hard for me to respect them because I think they don't respect themselves."
*A key worker is someone working for Social Services, who has a special responsibility for the care of people like the boy in this story.

In class:

1) Ask your students to work two groups. Group A should take the role of a UK female teacher and group B, the Afghani boy. Each should think about the problem described above.

2) Tell your students that they are going to discuss a problem the teacher has noticed.
This is the problem: In class the boy does not look at his teacher and recently has not answered questions put to him by the teacher. His homework is fine, but the teacher is worried that something is wrong in the classroom. She feels the boy has stopped behaving respectfully towards her but does not know why. Ask both groups to work out strategies for explaining the problem to each other in a respectful way. You might need to elicit the crux of the matter (the nature of respect for the two cultures) before the discussion begins. Remember in this situation neither party would wish to offend the other.

3) When they are ready, ask the students to pair off (one from group A and one from group B) and begin to discuss the problem.

4) Allow the discussion to proceed, noting if voices are raised or if the discussion gets too confrontational.

5) When it feels right, stop the discussion and ask students to get back into their original groups. They should then discuss how they felt being judged and having their judgement questioned so openly.

6) In plenary, elicit their comments. This feedback session might raise a lot of issues students have been mulling over for a while. If you feel able to deal with these, fine. If not, you could bring the discussion back to the individuals in the story and what the problems were with their, individual notions of respect.


The role of Traditional Health Care in your society

Level: upper intermediate to advanced

Cultural Aim: to use one African English speaking mindset to examine the role of Western "scientific" medicine in the students'own societies.

Preparation: none

In class:

1. Write this up on the board:
Traditional Healers provide safe health for the People of Africa About 85% of the general population in Africa, rely on the traditional, natural forms of health care we provide.

2. Group the students in fours ( as heterogeneous as possible, if this is a culturally mixed class) Ask them to discuss how much illness provokes recourse to a Western medically trained doctor and how much to other health carers ( eg acupuncturists, Bach remedy practitioners, traditional Chinese medicators, shamans etc..)

3. Dictate the following text to a student "secretary" at the board:

For more than a century the pharmaceutical industry has discredited and faulted traditional natural medicine in order to provoke their multi-million investment business with patented drugs.
But now the fatal side effects of prescription drugs have become the hallmark of modern, pharamaceutical-based medicine. In the industrialised world the epidemic of deadly side-effects of these drugs have become the third largest cause of death.

Ask each student to write a two paragraph reaction to the words on the board.

4. Group the students in fours to read each other's texts.

5. Dictate the following and tell the students each time a new line starts:

The pharamceutical, the pharmaceutical, the pharmaceutical industry
Is responsible
Yes, it's responsible
For the premature deaths, for the early deaths,
Of millions of people.
Deadly side-effects, deadly side-effects of Nevirapine
Making headlines round the world.
Wake up, People of South Africa,
You are guinea pigs, guinea pigs, guinea pigs,
for the Western drug cartels.
Africans, Wake up!

6. Have the students stand up with their texts in their hands. Lead a rhythmical, choral declamation of the text.
Do this 6 times:
once in a loud voice
at normal volume
in a deep slow voice
in a trance-inducing voice
in a whisper

7. Ask each student to think themselves into role of as member of their family or friend group who has strong views about medical things.
Each writes two paragraphs in role as this person, reacting to all three South African newspaper readings.

8. Pair the students. Each describes the person of their role and reads their text.

Acknowledgement: The first two excerpts were taken from a Traditional Healers'Organization advertisement in the Mail and Guardian, S. Africa Dec 24th 2004. The third was adapted from this text.


Woolly Words

Level: upper intermediate to advanced

Cultural aim: to explore a word set that derives from one period of UK history and to use this exploration to lead on to similar sets of words in the students' mother tongues

Preparation: none

In class 1:

For homework ask the students to each google the following phrases
"Mutton dressed as lamb"< br> "homespun wisdom"
" a wolf in sheep's clothing"
" the black sheep of the family"
Ask them to come to the next class with three examples of sentences in which the phrase/word is used. ( so, for example, they will discover that cloth-eared collocates to the right with negative nouns like git, twerp and idiot )

In class 2:

1. Ask students to fill the board with the Internet sentences they found contextualising the five words you gave them .

2. Dictate this story:

And then there was my grandfather, a dyed-in-the wool conservative. He wasn't rich either…but when he was young he'd had the wool pulled over his eyes and they fleeced him… took him for his last penny. Never talked, though, about the crooked things he'd got up to.
The yarns he used to spin about those distant days of his youth…..he'd go on and on and I have to admit I sometimes lost the thread of what he was saying. Granddad was clear as a bell about the old days but his notions about things round him tended to be a bit woolly. He passed away last month…..broke his leg in three places and died of the complications. The bones simply would not knit. I miss him and his homespun wisdom.

3. Pair the students and ask them to underline all the phrases they can find connected to wool, spinning and weaving. Check for comprehension of the metaphorical meanings.

4. Explain that these "wool words" date back to the UK wool trade in the 12th to 15th centuries. Ask the students to work together in same mother tongue groups of 2 - 4 to find word sets in their languages that relate to a historical period, to the climate of their land, to the economics of their country etc.. For example: Arabic has many camel metaphors and proverbs, while Spanish has sets of words of Arabic origin in fields like architecture, engineering and administration.

5. Each mother tongue group reports on a set of words/phrases/proverbs they have identified and and offer the class a couple of examples, translated into English.

6. Bring the students back to "woolly" English. Put this nursery rhyme up on the board and ask them to copy it using the handwriting they feel best suits the text ( sloping, large, spread out….. etc…) :

Baa, Baa, BlackSheep, have you any wool?
Yes Sir, Yes Sir, three bags full,
One for my Master and one for my Dame
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
As home work ask the students to learn it by heart.

Acknowledgement: We came across this set of words in Bloody Foreigners, Robert Winder, Little Brown, 2004. Here are others we have not incorporated into this activity: sheepish, fabricating evidence, a plot unravelling, shepherd's pie, weaving falsehoods, the weft and the warp…

Note: This exercise is designed with a typical early 21st century European secondary class in mind, with perhaps 3O% to 50% immigrant students in it. In Step 5 , above, the "immigrants"are invited to teach the "natives" about their cultures of origin.

Note: Knowledge of nursery rhyme texts is normal among native speakers of English. A typical Guardian journalist will assume knowledge of these texts as a spring board for illustration and metaphor in her writing.


Please check the Culture Of Britain Course at Pilgrims website.

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