I have officially completed my second year as a teaching assistant! And I got my car back Thursday night, so I could drive it to work and back one last time. I finished my last few hours by having the students play Apples to Apples, Scattergories and doing a mock speed dating session.
Over the past two years, I’ve been noticing some common themes in the way English is taught to French students. Foreign language education is more advanced here than in the US, where all I ever learned was verb conjugations and vocabulary lists in high school. However, just because English is taught in this way doesn’t mean the students actually learn more… Plenty of my students apparently learned nothing over the past seven years of English classes. But some of them were surprisingly good, so it really just depends on the student and their motivation and desire to learn.
In France, language education seems to be much more culture-based, with more use of authentic materials, and it involves learning how to write/talk about common subjects that are (stereotypically) associated with the English-speaking world. The focus is more on communication, meaning, and expressing your ideas/opinions instead of on the grammatical forms.
I vaguely remember learning about some aspects of French culture/history when I was in college, such as May ’68 and the presidents of the 5th Republic… but that was in a class specifically called “French Culture.” I never really learned about important cultural differences when I was in high school.
So here are the main topics that my English classes were always learning about:
Blues & Jazz music
Junk Food & Obesity
Environment & Global Warming
Racism & Slavery
Most of these are very “American” topics or problems, so I wonder how much the teachers really know about these subjects since they all studied British English in the UK. Sometimes I got the impression that students were learning overly-stereotypical ideas about Americans. It didn’t matter how much I explained that there are plenty of Americans who don’t own guns, and who are not overweight, and who do care about the environment (like me!!) Some of the students will always believe that all Americans are violent, obese and ruining the planet.
But then again, how can you effectively teach the culture of a foreign country that your students have never been to and may never go to? All they know about the US is what they see on TV or in movies, which we all know is never ever fake… They will never be able to experience the culture, especially one that is so diverse in a country that is so large, so they just take away small snippets of stereotypes instead. Is that better than learning no culture at all?