I often say that learning a foreign language involves learning a foreign culture. However, there are good reasons and, well, not so good reasons to teach culture in the foreign language classroom. For example, my six years of French studies, though done with great diligence, did not yield success due to the shortsightedness of the language programs at my junior high and high schools. Foreign languages at those schools were taught as academic subjects, not as practical skills, and information about a given foreign culture was presented to enrich our language lessons, not to arm us with knowledge applicable to real life. In college my experience learning Russian and Japanese was quite different, I’m happy to say, and when I made the decision to start the teacher certification program in the state of Pennsylvania, I vowed that I would teach my future students language and culture for the purpose of effective communication, not merely to “enrich” them.
As ESL teachers, we must agree that cultural information shouldn’t be the equivalent of a footnote, but rather an integral thread in language instruction. Cultural information should extend beyond the pages of a textbook and be shared as something real and practical. There are fun ways to do this. Here’s one example from my past:
For a long stretch of time, I was challenged to create pronunciation lessons from scratch on a weekly basis. The students had no textbook. Frequent visits to the local library often stimulated my creative thinking, and I found a wealth of material upon which to build my lessons: children’s literature, documentaries, books on tape, and more. When browsing titles for collections of speeches, I hit upon a delightful idea: making toasts. I was working with a group of adult learners at the advanced level. We had already covered some suprasegmental features: thought groups and intonation. Even a short toast would take a speaker beyond phonemes, and so I decided to plan a lesson that would integrate students’ knowledge of phrasing and intonation and give them some practice in the kind of public speaking the average Joe has to do at least once in his life.
How did I plan this pronunciation lesson? I used a book of speeches and toasts for all occasions, but should you decide to plan such a lesson, you could find material on the Internet. A quick search led to these sites (you’re bound to find more):
From the library book I copied a few ideas for a number of events. You can choose whatever is most appropriate for your students. Will they role play a retirement party or a bar mitzvah? I chose a few special occasions, but the lesson highlight was a wedding. It gave me the chance to explain common elements in American weddings. The students assumed roles, and they had time to assemble a toast based on my handouts, prepare notes for phrasing and intonation, and…with the help of sparkling apple cider and some disposable champagne glasses…get in the mood for a wedding. Each student took a turn standing, raising a glass, and making a toast. The lesson was an exciting and memorable one, but more important, I was able to make cultural information relevant and practical.