Saturday, July 07, 2007

Studying Culture

I think you will find this discussion from the TESL list interesting. It raises issues and questions about "cultural fluency."  What do you think? What are your experiences

ESL professor Merton Bland asked: "So what cultural elements do you feel warrant a place in the ESOL curriculum?" Dave Kees, presently teaching ESL in China, resplied, I think we have to add a few more questions to this. Again it comes to a needs analysis. So perhaps we should ask:
"So what cultural elements should be taught in ESL classes and for which students? Also, when should they be taught?"
Another teacher, Nelson Banks, pointed out earlier that ESL students in America may need to learn some very American specific language and even geography. Do they need to learn every state and its capital. Low-level students should start learning some things about California (Los Angeles, Disneyland, etc), New York (Manhattan), Washington D.C. (and that it's not Washington State), etc.

According to Banks, teaching cultural elements depends on the specific needs of individual students and also the timing for teaching them. Teach cultural material when they can use the knowledge. If taught too far in advance, they may forget it before they can (or need to) use it. For example, should ESL teachers teach American sports terms, like baseball terminology, to students in China? The vast majority of Chinese don't understand baseball at all. So should we teach this to Chinese students?

Yes - if they work for Nike. Kees then recounted meeting meeting the American director for Nike in China. The director said that some of their top Chinese managers don't understand a lot of the American baseball terms Nike managers and personnel use all the time in company meetings. Expressions such as "hit a home run," "it's the last inning", and so on are baseball terms familiar to all Americans. They are also familiar metaphors and colloquial expressions used in daily speech. After questioning the Chines managers, the Nike director learned the they do not fully understanding what is said in meetings.

Although not discussed (yet), I would think that where the student is makes a huge difference too. Those who have already immigrated to or are studying in an English speaking country need more "cultural fluency."  They are also exposed to it and have more opportunity to hear and use language drawing on cultural elements. These are usually from popular culture - sports, pastimes, movies, TV, music, and so on. There are also regional elements. In my opinion, it may not be realistic to learn a large "popular culture" vocabulary well enough to use it in speaking and writing. There are already so many words to learn. We can't expect to master all of them. However, your listening comprehension should be greater than your speaking vocabulary - you'll understand more expressions than you can use in speaking.

Here are some colloquial expressions from gambling. How many can you figure out the meanings for? Can you use them in sentences that are not about gambling?
  • hit the jackpot
  • on a roll
  • ace in the hole
  • Bingo!
  • play(s/ed/ing)  [somebody's] cards close to [somebody's] chest
  • wild card
  • shoot the works
  • let it ride
  • put(s/ting) * money down
  • beginner's luck


  1. Hi teacher Vanessa,
    I think it's very important to study the culture of the country for example USA if I want learn English. That help very much to understand the realy mean of many expressions. I say this because of my experience in germany. I think it will be very good if the exercise, which we do in reading and grammar, telling us something about USA culture. that means we can learn many things in onetime grammar, vocabulary and USA culture.


  2. Mustapha

    But WHY study American culture if you atre learning English?

    What about someone planning to study in England or move to Australia? Don't you think it would make more sense for them to learn about the culture where they would be using English?

    I don't think it is possible to learn all the culture and related expressions anyway. So which ones do you study?

  3. "Bingo!!" sound like "Lucky!!"
    ->Bingo!!, I found it.

    "hit the jackpot" I think it means done something and got the big prize.
    ->Yeah!! I got hit the jackpot, the committee admitted my project.

    "ace in the hole" I think it means to have something very good but to keep in the secret ..
    -> Don't tell everyone!! keep them like ace in the hole.
    btw, I don't know what the hole in gambling means ?

    Other one I no idea, Please someone helps me out what's the meaning :)
    I think Mustapha would like to say, some slang words or expressions If we don't know or understand the background or culture of whatever countries such as USA that Mustapha referred to. It's rather hard to remember or get the meaning point because I also ever sat in this situation.

    For example, "Snake on the plane" if someone haven't seen this movie, can anyone guess that what is the meaning of this phrase and how can you use it ?

    Anyway, to learn other cultures I think it's very important. Say, When I came here in the beginning, Sweden. People knows a lot about Thai culture and also they asked me many things which sometimes I never heard before!!

    On the other hand, I never learn about western nor european culture when I talk to them. Sometimes, I don't understand what they were talking about or meaning.

    yes, that's it what I guess.

  4. Tai

    Good work on figuring out what the expressions mean. I bet most of all your own native languages have comparable epxressions, whether from sports or popular games. Combarable expressions but not the exact same ones because they don't come from the same games or sports.

    "in the hole" (holding something, a card, back) may be a specialized term in card playing, probably poker. But more important, you can work out the meaning without knowing everything about the card game it's from.

    "Ace in the hole" is a slang expression meaning a secret or extra asset to assure success. It refers to the ace playing card a player has as a hole card (or face down card) in a game of stud poker.

    Are you familiar with the Kenny Roger's song, "The Gamber"?

    "if you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

    You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em. Know when to walk away and know when to run."

    Not just cards, but life advice.

    Mustapha was thinking about just American expressions, which is OK for someone working with Americans or studying in the US but maybe not so helpful for someone immigrating to New Zealand.

  5. Hi!
    On a roll ------------ something or someone included in list
    Wild card------------ a) a playing card “joker”
    b) Idiom phrase about someone don’t known almost nothing
    Shoot the works-----make a great effort
    Let it ride-------------will be without change
    Beginner’s luck------a fortune for beginners, the beginners have luck

    I think that to learn a culture of countries it’s very interesting and it’s not depend which language you studying now. Absolutely, it’s very helps to study slang and idioms.


  6. Mark - most (if not all) of these are "off the mark". (eg you missed getting them right)

    First, find out what these expressions mean in gambling. Then try to figure out what they probably mean as idiomatic expressions in general usage (not exclusively in gambling situations).

    For example, what is a "wild card"? Here's a hint, the computer code term "wide card" was adopted from the card playing term. Once you understand what a "wild card" is (and it is often the joker but not always), then you'll understand the idiomatic or slang expression derived from it.

    There are many gambling expression & glossary sites on line that you can find using your favorite search engine.

    If the term is not in a gambline glossary, you can try an online slang dictionary or just type the expression into a search engine as a string search (in between quotation marks).

    The same applies to idioms from any activity or sport - baseball, football, horseracing, etc.


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