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March 1996 - Issue No. #22 (p. 12 - 13)

A Country Like Mine

by Clement Laroy

Pilgrims Language School, UK

Getting along with people(s) that are different from each other is one of the most crucial issues of all times. The dramatic consequences of such lack of understanding can be seen in the Balkans and in Ireland - to mention only two of the most striking recent examples in Europe. The profound distrust that lies behind the existence of the 'Ministries of Defence', the 'nuclear deterrents' and the 'defensive alliances' remind us that what has been happening in Bosnia, Ulster and in so many other places in the world could erupt unexpectedly almost anywhere.

Learning the language of another group or culture is - on the face of it - the most obvious sign of willingness to try to understand the 'others', to put on their shoes and see how far one could walk in them. As Thornton Wilder wrote "He who studies a foreign language takes off his hat to another nation." So, the issue of mutual understanding is a natural one for any language teacher, and especially for teachers of English.

Indeed, English first spread on the barrels of the guns of the 'pioneers' who went to all the corners of the world, and for more than a few people, using English is viewed as proof of the alienation of their culture. It does not have to be so. In America it has become the common language of people from many different origins. In the past, citizens from countries that were at war found ways to live together in far off horizons. In Europe, Africa and Asia, it is probably the most widely used instrument of intercultural communication.

It is possible to overcome enmities without being a traitor to one's country or culture. If work in class is to be meaningful, language teachers need to integrate such aims in their class work. How can we achieve this?

To begin, I would suggest that preaching is not the best way. Learners in general - and adolescents in particular - tend to react negatively to 'lectures'. Also, what we discover ourselves sticks with us, and does not appear as an alien program imposed on us. Next, we should provide activities that lead to more active participation. All together, experiencing and personal thinking are more likely to bring about change that originates from inside the learners themselves. They can then choose freely.

It follows that we need to find ways to familiarize our learners with the culture of people(s) that can speak English, whatever their nationality, to demonstrate that English can be a tool to achieve their own aims. Introducing our learners to a variety of cultures also implicitly indicates that English can open up the world to them.

Finally, if we want to reconcile our learners with cultures we need to highlight not just what is different, but equally importantly what they have in common. Indeed, cultural awareness has often concentrated on the differences. This is not unnatural, as the foreigner is worried about making social gaffes, but this may have pernicious effects.

Going to a country like Japan, for example, where 'all is supposed to be different', visitors may become so confused by the mass of 'do's ' and 'don'ts' that contact may become a purgatory where they are afraid to tread on sensitive toes and fingers all the time. To avoid this, they may well try to reduce or cut out human contact altogether. They travel in an aquarium as it were, observing different beings living in a different element, moving their lips and making sounds they do not comprehend. All they will bring back from Japan will be postcards and souvenirs collected on organized tours. The same phenomenon can be observed all over the world, where busloads of tourists dutifully follow a guide, more often than not coming from the same country as the tourists.

A second, even more negative consequence of such approaches may be that the other culture appears ludicrous and even crazy. To take some examples from Europe, generations of British schoolchildren have grown up with the stereotype that the French (the 'Frogs') eat frog's legs, raw meat and other 'totally' incredible food. In parallel, generations of French schoolchildren have been led to believe that the British eat pork boiled in mint sauce, to cite but one example.

As a result, when they visit each other's country they eat in 'international eating houses', never actually experiencing the delicacies that exist in both cuisines and go home saying 'We ate good food but not in an English/ French restaurant, of course!'

A third harmful effect of such approaches is that the only thing travellers to foreign countries perceive are those differences. This is because that is what they have been trained to focus on. We see what we have learned to see, we understand what we already 'know'. If all we know are curious customs, all we notice is peculiar habits and bizarre character traits.

Complementing such contrastive approaches, cultural awareness should also point out what is similar or comparable in both cultures. This can be done at a fairly elementary level. Such activities are not warts in a language class: they lead to mastery of precise language skills within the context of activities that get learners to generate personal ideas, while developing a number of vital perceptory and mental skills and widening their horizons. This is clearly educative and efficient. How can we do that?

Below you can find an example of a frame which can be used several times, at different levels, and in different situations, with adaptations.


Elementary +
15-30 minutes
  • Global: developing awareness of cultural similarities
  • Language (depending on the level of the class):
  • Structures: (simple present) We share... They also... Both (of us)...
  • Vocabulary: similar to, familiar, looks like, is the same as, reminds me of
  • Materials
    Magazine pictures/film clips showing scenes from the country being studied
  • Select pictures and/or film clips (5 mins long) about the country being studied that highlight not the exotic, but the familiar for your learners.
  • Any modern fiction or documentary film has such scenes.
  • Pre-teach vocabulary.
  • In class

    1. Tell your students they are going to go on a trip to a country. They must forget all they know about it as if they were young children discovering a country they have never been to and never heard about. They should be totally free of preconceived ideas. Their aim is to discover all that looks, sounds and feels familiar to them. They write down all that they notice.

    2. Hand out the pictures or show the film excerpt, and allow them to work on their own first. Ask them what language they think they will need. Elicit any language they already know. Monitor and help to improve their language, allow the use of dictionaries or provide any vocabulary needed.

    3. Ask your students to exchange their notes and to read their partner's notes.

    4. Encourage them to ask their partners to explain points they hadn't noticed.

    Variation 1

    Depending on your learners' fluency, they can talk about their observations, and discuss. At elementary level, provide sentence heads or tails.

    Sentence heads:

    I see that games in that country are ................
    I realize that the school there .....................

    Sentence tails:

    .............. is exactly the same as in our country.
    ................................the same as we do.

    Variation 2

    (for more advanced classes)

    Practice conditionals as follows:

    When .............................................. I felt as if I was in [Belgium].
    If I had been there, I would have felt at home because ...................

    Variation 3

    Choose pictures/film clips that contradict common stereotypes.
    Don't tell the country. Have students find similarities, guess the country, then discuss.


    (a) Ask your learners to say what similarities surprised them ('I was surprised to see'), what they have learned ('I have learned/realized/become aware of ...'). The form of your questions can practice precise structural points.

    (b) Do this several times with different countries in order to widen the horizons of your learners and practise other ways to express similarity.

    (c) Compositions: "A country like mine" or "If I lived in ..."

    Clement LAROY (Pilgrims Language School. UK & Ecole Normale F. Hotyat, Belgium)
    1 rue de la Caille, B-1400 Nivelles, BELGIUM Fax : Belgium 64 449701


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