The key to cultural understanding

10 June 2009
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Recently, the best way I’ve taught cultural understanding is through a quick ‘grammar’ starter exercise. As soon as my pupils enter the classroom, I shout out: “Give me an adjective that describes your mood!” Treating for the purpose of this exercise a few pages of their English books like posters that they hold up for me to read as I wander around the room, pupils scribble down epithets like ‘happy’, ‘tired’, ‘bored’, with the cheekier ones sneaking ‘sexy!’ onto the paper, while the ignorant look bemused – but they quickly catch on. I follow this immediately by asking them to write in big letters the five most important concrete nouns in their life. Words like: ‘mother’, ‘football’, ‘computer’, ‘spaghetti’, ‘Facebook’, ‘phone’, the names of friends emerge. Then I ask for abstract nouns that are most important for them: ‘love’, ‘ambition’, ‘glory’, ‘friendship’ typically are written. Finally, I ask for verbs that describe the top five things they like to do.

I stop and get the pupils to reflect upon what they have written. These few word classes actually paint an extraordinary cultural picture of who they are: the adjectives suggest implicit feelings they have about school and society, while the abstract nouns give them a deep sense of the values that are important to them, while the concrete nouns root their cultural feelings and values in particular things, objects, people. This very basic starter activity – which can be developed and improvised upon endlessly – has remained the best way I explain ‘cultural understanding’ to my pupils. For me, cultural understanding is inextricably linked with understanding and appreciating the nuances of language. Asking pupils to brainstorm the connotations they have for nouns like ‘mother’ provokes discussions about the role of women in the family, in society; while the same exercise for ‘love’ provides a perspective upon the different varieties of love: familial love, love of oneself, sexual love and so on.

I grew up in an atmosphere where words were an integral part of culture.

Wole Soyinka

There are numerous follow-up activities you can do with this starter. Just yesterday, I asked my pupils to swap books and using these word classes to write an advert for that person for a dating agency website. Pupils then show their answers to the person it was about and ask for a comment about how accurate it was. More advanced students are able to write about how effectively the key nouns, adjectives, verbs have been used in the sentences but all the students can talk about the signals that certain nouns like ‘mother’ send. We laughed about one ad which said ‘I love my mother very deeply’; within the context of the dating ad, it meant something very different from brainstorming it in class! Again, we explored the crucial point that cultural understanding is as much about perspective as comprehension.

I find that starting with grammatical terms often takes the sting and controversy out of discussing cultural matters. The grammar is an excellent springboard for a wider discussion about the society a pupil inhabits; generally pupils find the fact that they are learning about grammar comforting and you always have the fallback as a teacher that you are teaching them about the mechanics of language rather than prying into their personal lives.

One of the problems with using literature as the starting point for talking about cultural understanding is that many pupils feel alienated from it; they don’t connect with the characters, the intimidating language, the voice of an idiosyncratic author. If they know their grammatical terms however, having carried out tasks like the above quite regularly, they are able to pick out the key nouns, verbs, and adjectives from a text, boiling down it down to the grammatical basics. They then have a way of understanding a text, of asking questions about it, of being creatively responsive to it. They can ask themselves the questions like what does the noun ‘mother’ mean within the context of this text, what are its connotations and effects? For example, if one looks at the play Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, you can see that ‘mother’ represents domesticity, practicality, sharing, suffering, while the noun ‘father’ has connotations of absence, impracticality, dreams, ambition, while perhaps most interestingly, the noun phrase ‘the woman’ carries with it catastrophic and sensual associations: stockings, sensuality, affairs, and the shattering of dreams. In such a way, you can show through Miller’s deployment of these three simple nouns that he has built up a whole web of connotations, allusions and images which constitute the world of the play, his fictional portrait of American society.

Very difficult literary texts by Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare can be tackled with relative ease with this approach; key word classes can be highlighted and brainstormed for their connotations, and then written about once they’ve been discussed.

I never thought that grammar had anything to do with culture when I first started teaching, choosing instead to set boring exercises on it, but now I realise grammar provides the key which opens the door to true cultural understanding.

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