Teaching authentic culture is more than just baguettes

Teaching authentic culture is more than just baguettes!

My husband and I spent 5 weeks this summer traveling in three (well, technically four) European countries. As we’ve moved from country to country, it’s been interesting to compare the culture and how things are done. We started in Ireland, a place where neither of us has spent much time – I’ve been there for 3 days before, and he had never been there. We moved on to Poland, visiting his hometown and spending two weeks there. Finally, we went to France, a place where we’ve been before, but where I am more comfortable than he is. We did spend a couple of hours in Germany, but not long enough to make many cultural observations.

When we teach culture in our classrooms, we often focus on the most basic big-C things: music, food, holidays, etc. We spend a little time talking about things like politeness and how to great one another. But so many cultural things get dropped because we simply don’t think about them – they are too small, or in some cases we just aren’t familiar with them. It’s only once you go to the country and have to do things there that these little things pop up.

Small-c culture – just another name for procedures?

Some of these things might be categorized as procedures, or how to do things rather than culture. But it is just as anxiety-producing for some people to do simple things like buy groceries or a ticket on public transportation as it is to know how to speak to a person in the target language. For example, my husband is VERY prone to anxiety and gets nervous when he has to do something new. Despite being a native speaker of Polish and having grown up there, he was (in my mind) excessively worried about buying tickets for the tram.

My kids and I went to Poland in 2018. They don’t speak any Polish, and I understand quite a bit but my speaking skills are minimal. But language isn’t the same as culture! We had no trouble buying tickets for the bus, as the machines are very intuitive and offer English and other languages. We explained this to him multiple times, pointing out that if 4 people who don’t speak Polish could buy tickets without trouble, why did he think he would have an issue? It didn’t matter, he had it in his mind that he would mess it up somehow, people would get angry, he would get in trouble, etc.

When we got to Gdansk and bought our first tram ticket, he learned that what we had been telling him was true – the machines are ridiculously easy to use and you don’t need to speak Polish to do so. Something that had caused him anxiety in the months leading up to our trip ended up being a non-issue. This was very much a “little c” culture item that could have been addressed.

With many countries using public transport, why not teach our students how to navigate the system, but also how to purchase tickets AND validate them? Add in some knowledge about how to RIDE the system (how to open the door of the train, allowing people to get off before you get on, where to stand when it’s crowded, etc.) and students might feel comfortable using the system. As you can see below, my husband did figure it out.

Teaching authentic culture is more than just baguettes
Teaching authentic culture is more than just baguettes
Teaching authentic culture is more than just baguettes

In France, we stayed in a variety of places – rural areas, big cities, sharing a home with a host, having a place to ourselves. In each one, we had to deal with new things and new ways of living. In most places, we had to sort our garbage into different recycling bins – and some places had a very strict “culture of recycling”! How many of our students are familiar with these? Teaching students about recycling and the environment could really use an activity about “le tri” – and how to identify which bin something goes in. This involves not only reading the instructions on the bins themselves but reading packaging labels as well to determine the correct disposal.

What culture do I need to teach?

This type of culture can be difficult to teach if you aren’t already familiar with the country. This means that as teachers, we may be limited by our own personal experience. I am fully aware that while I may be able to teach my students about these culture items in France, I have no idea how these same things work in any other French-speaking country. That’s OK – I will teach the culture that I can, and remind students that things might not be the same in other countries, even if they speak French.

To determine which cultural “procedures” to teach, it can be helpful to picture a typical day in the country you are teaching about. How does it start? Is there anything that an average person would do that may have differences? For example, you might start the day by taking a shower and washing up. How does the shower work? What do the hot and cold faucets look like? What are the products a student is likely to use? While teaching vocabulary for bath and hygiene products, why not use actual products from the target country? Read the labels! Make these things familiar so that if students do visit the country, they’ll recognize them in the supermarket.

One of my favorite YouTubers who addresses these little pieces of French culture is Comme une Française. Many of you are already familiar with her, but in case you haven’t run across her videos, you should take a look! She talks about different aspects of French life and the vocabulary and phrases necessary to negotiate them. For example, when buying bread from a boulangerie, do you know what the different types of bread are? When is the best time to buy bread – when will it be hot and fresh and irresistable? Just learning “Je voudrais une baguette, s’il vous plaît” may get you a baguette – but the experience can be so much more!

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