Learning a foreign language is about learning a foreign culture

02.08.2017 / Paul Westlake

Learning a foreign language is destined to be learning about a foreign culture.  What exactly does this mean?

It’s not just information on how others communicate.  It is not just a collection of facts and figures. It goes much deeper than that. We have to shed some light on why and how other cultures use language. Communication requires understanding. But it’s very difficult to ask pupils to step into the shoes of an ‘alien’ culture and see it in relation to their own.

The importance of please in English is self-evident but do we really know how to use it and when not to use it? It can be very confusing from the point of view of the foreign learner. “Please don’t do that!” “Don’t do that, please! “Don’t do that!” “Would you please not do that!” etc. I know you know it’s tricky and definitely ‘alien’ for our pupils. I still mess up in Finnish by using an inappropriate term in a certain situation – and I live here! So, how can we expect our pupils to get it right? This is the real intercultural challenge; not just learning about how tall the Statue of Liberty is (93m) or why English policemen usually wear helmets (to protect their heads). These facts are important, too, but it is the implicit relation of culture and language that has to be addressed – and from the offset. We do our best in our educational materials but the real knowledge is imparted from us teachers.

How much are we supposed to know? In grades three and four we have to consider the American, British and Finnish way of life and, even more challenging, the so-called international norm brought on by the internet. The international norm? What’s that? Who defines it? Is it an escape from culture or a just a modern hybrid? These are big questions, which have to be addressed.

At least I can safely say that in the service area, context-based English language performance has improved dramatically over the past three decades here in Finland. In the nineties, shop assistants, although polite, used to struggle with simple terms. If I used English with them they would use the phrase “Here you are” as a free translation of “olkaa hyvä”. This didn’t always work. On several occasions I had already purchased something and been given it together with a receipt. I then said “Thank you.” and the assistant nearly always responded (trying to be polite) by saying “Here you are.” This, of course, can only be said as you give something to someone, not afterwards. I sometimes thought I had forgotten something and said something like “Yes?”, much to their and my confusion. That doesn’t happen any more. They usually say “You’re welcome.”

Last summer in Savonlinna, I was delighted when a young trainee waiter filled my coffee cup and said “There you go.” I said “Thanks.” and he responded with “My pleasure.”

I loved it. It made me feel as if I was at home in Britain. Mind you, I’m not so sure that all Britons are as polite as he was – nowadays.