Cultural awareness in the classroom

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If I got a penny each time I hear I’ll understand English culture when I go there for holidays I’d be the richest teacher ever. If I got a penny each time I bite my tongue and do not engage in a lengthy discussion every time I hear this phrase, I’d be surprisingly wealthy as well.

Because it doesn’t work this way, now, does it?

Cultural awareness is defined as the understanding of the differences between oneself and people from other countries or backgrounds, especially the differences in attitudes.

Now, when an unsuspecting foreigner begins his quest he’s like a child, focused on himself, not on the outside world – he’s more concerned about his well-being, work. school, daily routine etc. With time, he begins to open up to the surroundings and that’s where the first problems occur, since it’s virtually impossible to find the differences between two different worlds when you don’t even know where to look for them. As helpful as they usually are, local people won’t be much of the help because they don’t know where to look for comparison – they need to know which one of the perfectly understandable issues (like the national hobby of queuing in England) seems strange to a foreigner.

Unfortunately, the lack of knowledge may grow into resentment, fear, sometimes even hate – especially now, when we’re being told we’re living in a global village and it seems the world is not much of a village with all the varying customs, traditions and beliefs; when there are people who claim multiculturalism leads to terrorism and for all of us, who professionally deal with foreign languages, it’s an obvious lie. It is the lack of cultural awareness that makes people scared, and it is fear that leads to hatred.

Our role, as language teachers, as people who try to overcome cultural barriers, who deal with a foreign culture even more often than their native one. Our role, I believe, is to show cultural differences, to explain them, to broaden our students’ horizons in a real world, not only in a virtual classroom of grammar and vocabulary.

The key to understanding people is their language, naturally – but there are so many sources on British, American etc. culture, comparative works – even classic comparison of the most common BrE and AmE counterparts may be a beginning to a lengthy discussion about cultural differences. We are the ones who may give our students the knowledge about the world they are trying to travel to, we may give them something to make their life in new conditions easier, more comfortable.

We may – and I firmly believe we should.

Nowadays, more than ever, our role is important. People who wouldn’t listen to friends will listen to us, even if it’s only to have an argument. It is our task to make people, especially the young ones – they seem cynical, aware of differences, but the truth is I’ve often been surprised by the maturity they can show. I remember when a transgender politician became quite famous in my country and my students found it quite funny, we talked about things we don’t like about our bodies (teenagers are really sensitive about it) – and then I told them: think about it, there’s only one thing you dislike when you look in the mirror, now, think about a person who looks in a mirror and everything is wrong, the whole body is wrong, it’s not really you – how terrible it must be…

They’ve never found the topic funny anymore.

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