So how far can you study the culture without studying the language?

Anecdote 1

“So, what did you think of England?” I asked my Japanese student who had just visited England for the first time, staying with a family to practise English.

“It’s a bit like Japan”, came the unexpected answer.

I nearly fell off my chair. Part of Japanese “culture”, as I understood it, was a belief that Japan is rather unique. Yet here was a Japanese person drawing a direct parallel between her country and England. (I say England, rather than the UK as I have to point out to the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish that many foreigners use the word England to refer to the whole lot). I pressed her for more details.

“Well, they don’t always say exactly what they mean……..”

Anecdote 2

Class of adults of mixed nationalities (10 students). Good level of English, now in the UK on a study course.

Teacher (British national) “I’d like it if you could finish the poem by next lesson.”

Out of the class of 10 motivated students, only 2 people finished the poem. The British national teacher couldn’t understand why.

As a friend of mine who was a member of the class reported to me later, “Well, why didn’t he tell us we had to finish it, instead of just saying he would like it?”

The Guardian article  by Simon Jenkins makes the erroneous claim that you can teach culture without language. Only up to a point, I would say. He then comes out with the tired old assumption the computers make translation redundant as a skill. Any MFL teacher will tell you about the horrors of Google Translate, but I think my historian friends will confirm that Bismarck’s skilful editing of the Bad Ems telegram, missing out essential courtesies, caused the Franco Prussian war, even though his editing did not alter the basic facts of the message. In the 20th century it took a while before anyone realised that there were different words for “apologize” in Japanese and started wondering whether the Japanese had used the correct one when apologizing for their role in WW2. And does the English word “cosiness” really convey the meaning of the German “Gemuetlichkeit” or the Danish “hygge”? Not really.

The way some languages go into far more detail than English does, when classifying family relations for example, tells us a lot about the attitude to family in the cultures that speak those languages. Equally important is the way many foreigners, who use different pronouns for “you” depending on whether it is a formal situation or not, do not always appreciate the Anglo American “first name terms immediately” approach. Or the interesting situation which I have witnessed, where a German (speaking in English) tells his new English acquaintance that his name is Thomas, but then is addressed as “Herr Zimmermann” by a junior in the organisation (speaking in German), whom he has known for much longer.

In my conversations with foreigners who have learnt English and now speak it fluently, I have heard that they often find it strange that so many English people assume that that being foreign meant that they had a natural gift for English and just picked it up, or that they must have learnt from native speakers, or spent time in the UK. In the vast majority of cases this is not the case. They spent ages learning English grammar at school (such as the difference between simple and progressive tenses, which some anti SATs campaigners believe is too demanding for English 11 year olds….). They learnt English strong verbs by heart and were tested on them. In many cases it was not that their teaching was “communicative” or even that they started at a very young age. However, when they did start learning English, they certainly had more than the one or two hours a week which curriculum planners in the UK think is adequate for MFL.

I have blogged previously here about the need to raise expectations in MFL. Unless we persuade the government to recommend/incentivise more curriculum time for MFL within an academic year, rather than spreading into primary with just one lesson a week, articles such as those by Jenkins will become more frequent. But those with influence in MFL need to stress the standards that could be achieved, rather than enthusing about mediocrity. I have yet to find one of these foreigners (who now speak such good English) tell me that what incentivised them at school was receiving a reward every time they asked to remove their jacket in the target language……


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