Teaching Culture with American Traditions and British Traditions

2.Todd in HakamaBy Todd Jay Leonard, Professor
Fukuoka University of Education

Teaching culture, comparative culture, cross-cultural understanding and cross-cultural studies can be tricky, if not difficult, at times because these areas cover such a large amount of material—each with its own set of definitions regarding what each area actually is. What is an instructor to do? Often times the class descriptions are so vague that it makes creating a syllabus nearly impossible.

I have found what works best for me is to decide on one approach and to stick with it in order not to cover too much material which can confuse students (and make the teacher’s job harder!), and also not to over extend the class by trying to incorporate too much information over the course of one semester. Sometimes self-editing is needed in order not to jump from one topic to another without thoroughly covering it in detail; but instead to focus on the most important aspects of the cross-cultural topic.

With these issues weighing on my mind, I was prompted to develop initially “American Traditions: A Cross-Cultural Skills-Based Reader of Essays”, and then later “British Traditions: Basic Insights into UK Culture” (with co-author Lynne Parmenter). Both of these Macmillan LanguageHouse titles have met with success largely because they are practical and informative; easy to teach; and interesting and fun for the students and instructors. Also, each lesson has just the right amount of material and activities to fill a normal 90-minute Japanese university class period.

“American Traditions” includes 15 lessons in three units: Patriotic Symbols, Childhood Customs, and Common Superstitions. These were chosen after years of piloting and surveying undergraduate students on topics which interested them regarding American culture. “British Traditions” incorporates 15 lessons, but it is designed around separate topics which focus on subjects which are common in Great Britain, but of interest to Japanese students such as: British literature, food, music, holidays, icons, etc. Both textbooks follow a similar format, incorporating a variety of activities that focus on reading as the primary skill. However, they also include the skills of listening writing and speaking, as well as a fifth skill—a cultural component, which gives students a very well-rounded introduction to the lesson’s topic, while allowing the students to have ample opportunity to hone their language ability in the process of learning about culture.

Each textbook includes a “Main Reading” as an initial exercise. This introduces the topic with an easy-to-read, but informative and thought-provoking essay. Ideally, students first listen to the essay being read, and then they re-listen again, circling or underlining unfamiliar vocabulary. After the students finish listening to the essay’s recording, they then re-read it silently at their own speed and with their own accent. They may look up any unfamiliar vocabulary using a dictionary at this point.

The next exercise teaches students to scan the text for specific information. A “Short Answers” section requires students to re-read the essay to find answers to five questions. These are designed to be easy in order to find the answers quickly, allowing lower level students a chance to build their confidence in English, but yet challenging enough for higher level students not to become bored. As a vocabulary building strategy, the next exercise recycles keywords from the main essay. The “Keywords” section develops students’ vocabulary by challenging them to figure out the meaning of words through context by placing the words within sentences. This helps students to understand the context and meaning of the words separate from how the word was used initially in the “Main Reading.”

Unique to both of these books are listening exercises which not only use authentic native speakers in the “Guest Corner” exercises, but include male and female Japanese speakers in the “View from Japan” section. The idea is not only to allow students to hear accents that are native to the US in “American Traditions” and to Great Britain in “British Traditions,” but also to help build students’ confidence by listening to a Japanese person talk about an experience in an authentic Japanese-English accent.

The purpose of employing actual Japanese speakers in the “View from Japan” section is to show students that the Japanese-English accent is valid and worthwhile, and is one that is accepted internationally…and one that they should be proud of having. It also motivates students because they can more readily relate to the person speaking, visualizing themselves in the place of that person, so they can then better realize their own linguistic goals. I have had students complain that listening only to native-speakers of English does not necessarily motivate them because they feel they can never have a truly native-sounding accent themselves, so why bother. And why should they? Japanese students of English are not native-speakers of English and they likely never will sound like they are. So, why not demonstrate to them that having the ability to speak correctly and clearly is more important and necessary than speaking with a perfect accent (whatever that might be!)? The idea is to show students that there are very good English speakers that sound like them and they will someday be able to have the confidence and ability to speak in English themselves.

The final section of the lesson allows students to think about the lesson’s theme in personal terms by writing short answers to four general questions. The students then exchange their opinions with a classmate or in a class discussion format, allowing students to speak and use the language to talk about culture from their own point of view.

All in all, both “American Traditions” and “British Traditions” give students a well-rounded introduction to culture, while helping them to build their language skills and confidence in English. Whether you are focusing on American culture or British culture, give one of the books a try…I’m sure you’ll like it!