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How culture matters

If you walk into a neighborhood in my part of Japan, you’ll see a display like this somewhere near the entrance. It’s a map showing all of the houses in a neighborhood, and the names of families who live in the houses. Do you have something like this where you live?

neighborhood map

None of the streets in the neighborhood are named, but the blocks are numbered. So address plates look something like this:

address plate

Addresses start with the big picture and move to the smaller details. In this case, we’re told the larger neighborhood (Mitsugshira 三ツ頭), then the smaller division within the neighborhood (2 chōme 二丁目), then the block within the chōme, and finally the number of the house within the block.

Imagine looking at the large google map of Japan and gradually zooming in until finally you’re looking at one house. That’s the feeling behind explaining where someone lives.

This is the opposite of the way I grew up thinking of location, which was moving from the small to the large (number, street, city, state).

Both the way we describe location, and the way we think about location, are connected to our culture.

In one of my favorite (and shortest) TED Talks, Derek Sivers shares several surprising ways that culture shapes our way of looking at things: Weird or just different?

How might cultural differences matter in teaching?

Knowing where your students are coming from makes it easier to anticipate what they might find difficult (or just strange) in class.

Staying with my locations example, virtually every adult course book has a lesson on asking for and giving directions on a map, and even in classes where we don’t use a course book, students ask for this topic. They’re interested in part because it’s so different from what they’re used to. If I know or can help my students tell me what they find surprising, or different, I can do a better job of teaching the language and making it useful.

For example, if I know that the idea of intersections getting their names from the two intersecting streets is going to be a cultural surprise as well as a linguistic challenge for my students, I might want to allow more time for this part of the lesson, and be prepared to provide a bit of cultural background.

It’s also useful for students to fit the new language into their more familiar culture. These days, I always bring in a local map, and let students figure out how to use the lesson vocabulary (usually things like turn right/left, go __ blocks, it’s on the right/left/corner, etc.) in a more realistic context. It helps them own the language by making it meaningful. They are also more likely to encounter tourists trying to get to Kokura Castle than they are to be in Manhattan asking directions to the Empire State Building.

How does culture matter in your own teaching?

What differences, if any, have you found between your students’ culture and the culture of the language they’re learning? Were there any differences that surprised you? Do they affect the way you teach?

I look forward to hearing from you!

7 Comments

  1. Yoshiko Koby says:

    Hi Barbara, how are you?

    This is such a timely topic for me. I was teaching directions and locations to Ko-III at a high school last week, and this coming Thursday will be our second class with the same topic, using a textbook with a Western styled map. The textbook comes with a workbook as well, as you know, which has several questions asking “about you” as well. One of the questions with this unit was “Where is your school?”….. the question was too hard for my students to think and write the answer since their school is on a street with no name, and too hard for them to specify the location with the language skill that they have at this moment. So, I skipped the questions from their homework. (Their level isn’t high enough unfortunately.)

    2 weeks ago, our American friend wanted to visit our house in Sendai and he did, according to the direction Cory gave to him. It was clear enough and understandable, but also quite complicated compare to the one we used to
    give to friends who visited us in Canada.

    How interesting to think from different points of view, and how difficult it is to teach in a different language with different culture! That was exactly what I was studying in my university. So, Derek’s video was also very interesting to me.
    There’s no right or wrong to think of different cultures & languages. I told my students to respect that, and have them see things from different angles to understand the differences. That is one of the first steps to see the world……

    Hope you understand what I wrote here, Barbara.
    I always enjoy your blog and words on Facebook!

    When are you coming to Sendai next??
    See you then!

    1. Barbara says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Yoshiko!

      I can totally understand the situation in your class. Once, when I had students practice asking and giving directions to places around town, I was surprised to hear them asking for phone numbers, rather than location. But, of course, the fasted way to find a location these days is to put the phone number into the navigator!

      Hopefully, I’ll be back in Sendai in October. I’ll keep you posted once dates are firm :-)

  2. What a delightful post!
    There are lots of examples of cultural knowledge affecting reading comprehension here in Israel!
    Here are a few examples:
    * Pupils had trouble with the sentence “It was a hot summer day and raining hard” even though the language isn’t difficult because it doesn’t rain in Israel in the summer (only rains when it is cold!).
    * The word “student” in Israel only refers to University Students – pupils are puzzled by references to a “third grade student”!
    * Pupils are puzzled by stories referring to Monday Morning Blues – the workweek begins on Sunday here.

    Certainly a relevant topic!

    1. Barbara says:

      I love your examples, Naomi!

      Thanks :-)

  3. Daniel says:

    Culture definitely matters, in every interaction, every day. Here in Spain, people like to speak in imperative, which is quite annoying for people from many other cultures.

    I’ve never been to Japan, but I’ve read about the difficulty of getting a clear yes or no from Japanese people in a negotiation.

    It’s important to fit your classes to their culture, but also to explain some of the differences.

  4. Cory Koby says:

    I do not have any great comment, but this topic reminds me of the sometimes competing realms of “linguistic translation” vs. “cultural translation”.

    As Yoshiko said, giving directions here is a most amazing challenge (thus the proliferation of NAVI systems!).

    Your topic here helps me understand why my “giving directions” unit has always been such a toughie!

    Keep up the great work (and words) Barbara!

  5. […] posts over the past month or so have been from guest authors, I did make a few contributions! In How Culture Matters and How Context Matters I used examples from my life in Japan to explore ways that culture can […]