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May 1992 - Issue No. #08

Designing and Teaching an EFL Course on Talking about Foreign Countries

by Charles McHugh

Given the opportunity to teach a class around my personal interest of learning about foreign countries and peoples, I had to consider the course's general objectives, choose appropriate material and find a way to encourage normally unresponsive students to participate in class even when discussing serious topics. This article explains these points.

"Talking About Foreign Countries" is the title of a weekly Saturday morning class I conduct in English at NHK's Osaka Cultural Center. When I proposed the course, I hoped to create an atmosphere where class members and I could talk about countries we already know about and together learn about others.

Broad educational goals include both linguistic and cultural objectives. Linguistic objectives include building a passive vocabulary, practicing active vocabulary, recognizing and practicing saying large numerical quantities and making comparative statements.

Cultural objectives, for each country, cover an introduction of basic gestures, general interpersonal communication styles, typical lifestyles and characteristics of the national cuisine. Although not specifically targeted as a class objective, global issues such as racism, immigration and health care are brought up.

Japanese an English-language visual material and written information are gathered from national tourist agencies in Japan, personal travel experiences and television. The two main sources of English-language information are the "Culturgram" series produced by Brigham Young University and PC-Globe's internal database. During the three-week period spent on each country, the "Culturegram" information sheet provides the basis for discussion. PC-Globe's lists of factual data are helpful in making comparative analysis.

"Culturegrams" offer a concise view of each country with the implicit intent of promoting smoother interpersonal contacts between Americans and the targeted culture group. Each "Culturgram" includes five categories: customs and courtesies, the people, lifestyle and the nation. Each part has subcategories, for instance, the "customs and courtesies" section is further separated into five areas: greetings, visiting, eating, gestures and personal appearance.

The other main source is PC-Globe. This IBM-compatible software program (Version 4.0, CGA) shows data in an "almanac" format. PC-Globe allows the export and printing of its data as long as the end user cites it as the source. Exporting ASCII data files is simple, and although I haven't tried it, maps are exportable in the graphics .PCX format.

Numerical lists of data often look unstimulating but the can offer a means of conceptual comparison. Material for the "Talking About Foreign Countries" class is first selected from PC-Globe's internal data base, exported in ASCII, imported into WordPerfect, reformatted, edited and them printed. The scope of information covers eleven topical areas: General Profile; Major Cities: Health Statistics: Demographics: Government: Language, Ethnic Groups and Religion: GNP; Imports and Exports; Natural Resources, Agriculture and Industries: Culture and Tourism; and Commodity Production. The "General Profile" includes: area, population growth, population density, GNP, per capita GNP, and the capital city.

Each country's data is compared with the same category found on the fact sheet for Japan to draw out meaningful differences. This comparison also assists in identifying social conditions facing the country. Class members offer possible reasons for the bi-cultural differences and may speculate why unexpected changes in data took place over a certain time period.

Speculating about conditions is often necessary since true reasons remain unknown. Typical questions from the data and possible assumptions are similar to the following: Why is it Japan has only 287 nurses per 100,000 people but Holland has...? Could it be that fewer nurses are needed in Japan since family members are expected to attend to hospitalized family members? Could it be that nurses in Japan have a lower status and income, resulting in fewer people following this line of work? Why is it that Kenya's population has grown so rapidly? Could it be the positive effects of better health care and a relatively stable government? Or could it be attributed to immigration from neighboring countries experiencing war or prolonged droughts or massive starvation?

A supplementary source of material is contributed by class members who bring in maps or descriptions collected from personal trips or taped off TV. Individually collected materials usually focus on common tourist destinations such as Western Europe or the US. At the beginning of each -month class term, class members and I decide on the three countries to be studied for the following 10-11 classes. Although TV broadcasts of foreign countries are quite frequent in Japan, they do not always appear in a timely manner to coincide with our classes, so are not a very reliable source.

No matter how important I believe it is in discussing problems facing the world, I have to take my students and the school into consideration. Even if global issues are crucial to discuss and eventually solve, Japanese students who may think they are "dark" (kurai) or depressing, which consequently casts a shadow on the classroom atmosphere. In my situation, students critique class content and atmosphere with their feet; if they aren't satisfied, they don't enroll. Japanese seem reluctant to state their personal opinions until they know those of others. Once a group consciousness has been revealed, teachers can expect more frequent contributions by class members.

Topics can gradually be introduced by addressing open questions to elicit free responses. These questions can be graded, from general to specific, to expand on the issue and to encourage individual participation. "I wonder why...?" "What would happen if...?" "Is this good or bad?" "Do you think...?"

This article has briefly explained the materials I use and the way I encourage classroom participation in the class I teach entitled "Talking About Foreign Countries". Comments or suggestions are welcome.


CULTUREGRAMS (1986 Edition)
Brigham Young University
David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies
280 HRCB, Provo, UT 84602 USA
Tel: 801-378-6528

PC GLOBE (Version 4.0 Copyright 1990)
PC Globe Inc.
4700 S. McClintock St. 150
Tempe Arizona 85282-9692 USA
Tel: 602-730-9000 / 602-730-0765
Fax: 602-968-7196


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
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