Why should(n’t) we teach British culture?

I’ve recently been producing a series of lessons on various aspects of life and culture in the UK. While writing these, I’ve also been thinking about the teaching of British culture and I have to admit I don’t feel completely comfy with it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s necessarily imperialistic; the lessons I’m writing are in response to students and particularly teachers in various European countries requesting a cultural focus and definitely not something that’s being imposed on them.

Yet I am aware that there’s a danger in teaching about Britain as though it’s uniquely interesting or worthy of study. With English being used worldwide, there’s a strong possibility that some of the students will visit China before they ever set foot in England, or that they’ll find themselves speaking English to more Russians than Brits over the course of a lifetime. Even in the Anglosphere, the influence of India and Nigeria is likely to increase, while Britain continues to wane. Shoehorning lessons on the Royal Family or dwile-flonking into English courses is increasingly going to look like an anachronism at best, or trivial and time-wasting insularity at worst.

But the schools go on asking for British culture! We have to consider why. And I think there are some good reasons to include cultural lessons:

  • First of all, it’s a great opportunity for students to practise their speaking. People naturally enjoy sharing aspects of their national culture, food, points of pride. If I talk a little about my culture, it’s not a big leap to get students talking about theirs, and this is an immensely fertile topic for getting them using comparatives, ‘used to’, ‘it is believed that…’ and a host of other language points.
  • With younger learners in particular, cultural lessons introduce the students to the notion that not everyone lives as they do. For example, school life in the UK may be a dry subject, but we can bring in the topic of school assemblies, uniforms and various other big areas in which things are different between countries.
  • Expanding their horizons in this way is worthy in itself, but we can also get students thinking critically: discussing ways that school and education might be done differently where they are, justifying their opinions on why a republican system is better than a monarchy (or not).

So far, so fine. But you might be asking ‘why do you need to prioritise British culture in order to do this’? And I’d agree – we don’t need to! All I’d say there is that I think it’s natural for us as teachers to tell students something about our own culture, whether that’s Northern Ireland or New Zealand. Almost all of the teachers working with my new materials will be Brits, so hopefully there’ll be no major disconnect there.

(Of course, if it’s a residential course in an English-speaking country then things will be different again. If students are travelling to London or Dublin or New York to study, then it’s natural to give them a certain amount of local information, regardless of the teacher’s origins.)

I have come up with a few notional guidelines for the teaching of culture, based on the lesson-writing I’ve been doing:

  • Learning about British culture shouldn’t itself be the lesson aim. More suitable aims could be to get them using the correct tense to talk about bands and musicians from past and present, to get them talking about their culture and differences with Britain, or to talk about which education system they’d prefer and justify their opinions.
  • On a related note, be careful about including things which are too specific or low-frequency. Students may enjoy learning about the ancient sport of shin kicking, but do they need to know that the referee is known as a stickler? Spotted dick may be a majestic name for a pudding, but is it really a necessary vocabulary item for students to retain after class?
  • Don’t exclude world cultures! TEFL teachers are a well-travelled lot, so why not use that? I’ve talked with students in Austria about my experiences in Japan; I’ve introduced Andorrans to the history of Kowloon Walled City. Even in my British culture lessons, I’ve included some descriptions of world food for students to match with pictures.
  • There is a time when Anglosphere can take centre stage, and that’s when the language itself has cultural connotations. A couple of examples: British English has a whole range of phrases for hedging and backpedalling: ‘-ish’, ‘rather’, ‘not wholly unnecessary’ and so on; I’d suggest there’s nothing wrong with talking about the cultural reasons behind this, and the way that we Brits tend to avoid stating anything too categorically. Similarly, in teaching students about taboo questions (‘Are you married? What’s your religion? How much do you earn?’) we may need to go into the cultural reasons behind what’s taboo and what’s not – but there’s no need to discuss the worldwide differences in order to get the point across!

What do you think of these guidelines? Have you any more to add? Have you ever had to teach British (or American) culture?

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