Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and of course Halloween are usually the focus of English classrooms when it comes to culture. Holidays are a fun way of learning about and celebrating different countries. They are the most obvious way of integrating culture in the classroom, but what about the finer details of a nation’s ways, habits, and attitudes? Are they even necessary to teach?
Language is language. Words are words. However, there’s something a bit more behind it all. The way we speak not only has to do with our personality, but also with our society’s culture. The language a nation uses defines it. All the nuances, colloquial terms, expressions, and word choices depend largely on cultural ideas. Learning about holidays isn’t enough for students to become competent in their target language.
Students will pick up on your viewpoints and ways of doing things, and these things may be vastly different from what they are used to. In that way, plus whatever little tidbits of culture are currently brought into the classroom, learners are exposed. However, students need deliberate and planned exposure to culture, consistently.
Culture cannot be separated from a language, and it’s needed to speak that language well with a complete and holistic understanding. It doesn’t matter what your students’ motivations for learning are. If it’s only at a functional purpose serving level, students may not be convinced about the importance of integrating culture in lessons but it’s needed nonetheless. Especially from a business perspective it is highly important.
This notion that culture plays a bigger role in language than most teachers realize is best seen in pop culture. Pop culture in any given target language is a reflection of that culture and societal views. You have to understand what is appropriate and what is not, what is funny and what is not, what is being implied and what is not in order to grasp what the language really means in songs, T.V. shows, movies, dances, etc.
Before bringing more cultural activities into the classroom, teachers must understand it themselves, and realize that it is there. They must explore the “why” behind the things they do, habits they have, and things they say. Only after these finer points are realized can they teach them to their students. Pop culture is a good start, but students cannot simply watch a movie and be expected to be enriched in a cultural sense. Like with any other concept, it must be well planned and scaffolded appropriately.
Culture is not something to be ignored. It plays a vital role in who we are as a people, and that needs to be shared with learners in order for them to fully grasp the language they want to become proficient in. Share some of yours and in turn, learn some of theirs. That way, both parties are benefiting and engaging in deeper learning at the same time.
Yvette Smith is an ESL teacher who has lived and taught in China, Mexico, and Vietnam. She enjoys writing about her experiences as a TEFL teacher, as well as hot-button and intriguing topics within the industry.