Teaching English through Food
Betsy Hollweck graduated from Fordham University, NYC, with a BA in Linguistics; she also completed her CELTA certification in 2017. She currently resides in Baldham, a leafy suburb of Munich, where she teaches English and Cooking classes both at the VHS Vaterstetten and privately. She is a member of MELTA, and writes regularly for the MELTA News. In her “spare time” she translates menus, recipes and other things needing gastronomic edification.
When I want background music to work to, I often pull up YouTube and choose something instrumental. I don’t usually read the comments that follow, but tonight one did catch my eye:
“We can all speak different languages, but music is a language that we can all understand.”
To music, I would add: food.
Everyone has to eat; everyone knows a little bit of something about food. Simple things, like likes and dislikes. Sometimes even complicated things, like how to make puff pastry, and why oil and water don’t mix. Course books and instructional materials use foods to build vocabulary, to teach about customs and manners. Learners are presented with lists of foodstuffs, often accompanied by pictures: fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy; usually the same oranges, bananas, eggplants, milk and hamburger. Which is all well and good for the classroom, but …. is this always applicable in real life? And note: these are all Western foodstuffs, even though the books are written for a world-wide audience.
Of course, the teacher can adapt classroom vocabulary to fit the learners. Teff, ghee (clarified butter), plantains and yucca, stews and casseroles. Hand pies.
In addition to teaching English, I also teach cooking classes in English and in German. In order to better my German, I sometimes watch videos done by non-professionals, because they usually speak everyday German. I watch English-language videos, made by a variety of speakers – some native, some not – to listen to how they speak. Often, I read the comments.
The mistakes that people make are the most valuable source of teaching information.
I don’t mean mistakes like overmixing your cake batter, or not letting your bread rise long enough before baking. I mean mistakes like:
“I am lacking in my skills of baking.”
“I joined in the hope to improve my skills.”
“Chocolate is my favourite, it tastes so deliciously.”
Vocabulary is often not the problem. The grammar is.
Learners at all levels will at some point discuss food. They’ll be asked questions like, “What’s your favourite food?” (NOT my favourite question!), and their answers are usually rote, depending on their background, vocabulary, experiences. But how the food is chosen, bought, stored, prepared, served and eaten are all part of language learning, and this involves grammar.
Shopping for food involves choices, where comparatives can be strengthened. But how about substitutions? What do you if they’re out? If you run out of something?
“When you get home, what do you do?” is such an important sentence. “I put things away.” “Where do they go?” “What happens if (you forget the ice cream)?” “… the milk is sour!” How can you tell? This answer usually gets a few chuckles.
My refrigerator is four years old, and came with a Shabbat Mode. This is a setting which allows me to keep a kosher kitchen, if I so choose. It didn’t cost extra, but it was an enchanting idea, so I bought the fridge.
Upper-level students can have lively conversations about their appliances, or lack of them! Wish lists are good discussion topics – which appliance would you wish for? Why? What would you make with it? How would you use it? When/how often would you use it? Pros/cons of certain appliances. Do they make better food?
Now you’ve decided, shopped, and stored food. Time to cook.
Have you ever written a recipe? Recipes are instructional outlines.
- Identify the skill to be taught
- List the materials & equipment needed/to be used
- Include warnings/advice, when applicable. These are conditions needed to assure safety and success.
- Steps: How to proceed. List the steps in the order to be carried out.
- Tests: how will the learner know that the task was successful?
The same procedure is to be followed when presenting or demonstrating. Say, how to cook your favourite meal. Here you can really have fun with your classes. You can have them write a recipe and present (demonstrate) it to the class. They can choose a “traditional” dish, or a novel one. For example:
How to cook the perfect pizza
- Materials: A menu from the best pizza place around; a payment method; communication device (phone, laptop, etc.); a watch or timer (optional); some cash.
- Check the selections, delivery and payment conditions (Minimum order? Delivery time? Does the downstairs door buzzer still work?)
- Open and peruse the menu, choose your pizza (and drinks and dessert, if desired). Place your order (phone, computer). Start your timer (optional). Get out napkins, plates, glasses. Answer the doorbell, pay the deliverer, tip the deliverer (cash). Bring pizza closer to the plates. Serve.
- End test: is everyone happy? 😊 (Here you can teach important words like burping, content, full, and phrases like “My tummy is very happy.”)
You can talk about the serving and eating of the food. Where do you eat (breakfast/lunch/dinner/generally)?
Alone, or with someone? With whom? Who is served first?
When I worked in fine dining, occasionally a family would bring a small child. We always made it a point to serve the child first, even before the host. This was usually very much appreciated.
Just deserts. Or is it “Just desserts”?
Just like in dining, you want to end your class on a sweet note. Did you know that often the Pastry Chef is paid almost as much as the Head Chef? There may have been mistakes during the meal, but if it ends with an unforgettable or spectacular dessert, that’s the takeaway. People usually remember the ending most, whether it was good or bad.
As a friend of mine once said, “As long as those cocoa beans grow on trees, chocolate is, for me, a fruit.”
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