Teaching a language per se or making people aware of and appreciate others' cultures?

Yesterday, I was having a coffee with a colleague, a teacher of French at the same school. We were chatting about many things. But, there was something he said that I thought was really interesting. Making a difference, he said, in this world starts not from a lavish President's or Governor's desk but it starts from the humble desk of a teacher. What this means is that teaching is much deeper than just teaching equations and grammar rules. It is about inspiring, caring, sharing and extending learners' knowledge about life and enlightening their minds.
I know this site is about how to genuinely implement new technologies to help improve the way we teach, assess and involve learners. But, I also know that it is about the quality and essence of teaching in general. So, here is my question/concern: Teaching is not only about the intricacies of a language but it is also about learning to accept others, to try to understand the differences between cultures and see it as an element of enrichment rather than a hindrance. But, what is happening in reality is that we tend to know languages but forget about/ have limited knowledge of those who speak those languages, how they are different and how we should appreciate this difference. I remember that a couple of times in my life I had major "cultural" problems although I am supposed to know some English, because of my lack of "cultural" awareness. Once, I was in England ( It was in the summer of 1996) and this little incident happened to me: I got acquainted with someone who later became a good friend of mine. One day, I met this person's dad and her younger brothers. To show this person I was really glad to meet her family, I stepped forward and kissed the kids. To my big astonishment, the father's and my friend's faces turned red out of embarrassment.Later, I asked my friend about what went wrong and she explained the situation. As strange and inappropriate this may seem to be from a Western perspective, this gesture has nothing wrong about it where I came from. On the contrary, it means you really care about that person. So, I immediately knew that my years of specializing in English at university did nothing to help me in a day to day situation. Things were mended later on as my friend explained it was something "cultural" but it could have been worse. I have been only recently informed that Americans and maybe even Europeans would think you are not trustworthy and unreliable if you would avoid eye contact. Strikingly, in some countries, looking straight into someone's eyes, mainly someone who is older or higher in rank, means that you are impolite and you are being aggressive. The point I am trying to make here is that many teachers have never been to an English speaking country or not long enough and they are teaching English as if it is a language invented by computers: devoid of life and set aside from the native speakers' culture and lives. So, how can I and other teachers help our learners fill this gap? I think it is important as teaching languages can be a great tool to teach people to respect others, to understand them and to accept them (something that politicians have failed to do so far). Are there any suggestions on how I can make my students interact with the "real" people and know about their culture? Are there any places where I can start? maybe things like websites, documentaries, etc... I hope the point I am trying to make is clear. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Tags: English, a, as, culture, foreign, language, teaching

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You bring up a good point. Although not as extensive as what you've noticed, I to noticed a gap in cultural differences after moving back to the US after spending 18 years in Germany.

I personally think the best way to acquaint our students with cultural differences is by taking them to different countries and allowing them to experience the culture as directly as humanly possible. Since traveling however is far from being free-of-charge, we need to find alternatives to not only immerse our students in the language but to also expose them to different ways of life. I think a good place to start is through movies, chatting with individuals from different countries, and maybe even going through travel guides together - they usually have tips on cross-cultural etiquette. I'm sure there are some online - unfortunately I don't have the address of any, but if you search I'm sure you'll find some.

Thanks for sharing.
Hi Monica, Thanks for taking the time to read this post and for your discerning suggestions. Yes, traveling would be an ideal option but as you mentioned it is costly and beyond the means of schools. As far as movies are concerned, movies that are available here are most of the time too "quixotic" or they overstate things.
Yes, you are absolutely right about using the internet. It is an awesome tool (though I sometimes underestimate its potential). In fact, I already started doing some search : here is a link that includes good references.
adobe youth voices
Thinkmtv has a good collection of movies that I will certainly use in my class discussions this year.
It would be great if colleagues would suggest some more links.
Thanks again Monica!
I don't have any links to help with cultural differences. I just wanted to add that the best of definition of culture I heard was "Culture is when a country or people do things differently than they way you do it."

Our own culture is not explicitly taught. From a young age we observe when it is appropriate to laugh at others, when to smile, how to shake hands, how to symbolize stupidity, how to hold our silverware, etc. Culture in another country just feels wrong because it's not what we naturally do.

Fortunately we have a partner school in Germany and having them visit us helps a lot. I try to always introduce a cultural component into my lessons and we practice it. Kids do well enough on the tests but I know that they have not internalized the culture. Taking them to Germany is the best option but only a handful of students end up going. Besides exposing them to lots of videos, films and role-play different cultural scenarios, I don't know how else to teach them the day to day culture that matters.
Hi Julie. I love the idea of having partner schools in other countries. And I also agree that talking about cultural differences should be part and parcel of our lessons. Great tips! thank you for sharing.
Hi Monica. You brought forward very interesting ideas as well. I will definitely think about inviting guests to my classroom: I am sure my students will love it and it is not costly. Using Skype is a nice idea, too. I even came across a couple of great articles here in Classroom 2.0 by Anne Mirtschin :
Live blogging in education and around the world NOW where she gives an account of her classroom's videoconferencing experiences and nice tips on how to do this.
Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas!
Oops! I meant Mandy (sorry!)
Another way to bring the culture and diversity to your classroom is to connect with the exchange programs in the area (AFS, YFU, ASSE, CHS, and invite the students to your room to share their culture, language, etc. Here at our small town rural high school we host an International Day where we invite the exchange students staying in the local area to present & visit us for the day. Truthfully it is one of our students' favorite day, meeting new folks with fun accents and lots of stories to tell.
hope this helps and gives you some other ideas to try.
Hello Beth. yes, this is a valuable suggestion! Unfortunately, there are no such exchange programs in my area. Maybe I can check with some embassies here and see if they can help with this. Thanks for sharing!

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