Who are you?

Blurry (7am – photo skills not optimal!) view of horse market

Recently Tyson Seburn was asking about LGBTQ and how it is represented in course materials. That got me thinking about how culture, interwoven with language is represented in our language courses and our course books. What about our role as teachers or teacher trainers – how do we deal with aspects of culture? Isn’t the language intertwined with the culture? Most schools over here opt for “British English” (RP) and I have even occasionally been corrected by Dutch teachers on my pronunciation of words such as ‘class’ and ‘neither’ as, though not having spent much of my life in the UK I was nonetheless influenced by my fathers’ west coast of Scotland twang.

Having spent much of my life “abroad” (what does ‘abroad’ actually mean?) I am very used to trying to fit in with other cultures and being faced with others’ ideas on my own culture. But what is my culture and where do we get all these stereotypical ideas from?

Am I British? And what British am I?

As I mentioned, I have Scottish roots and only recently was reminded of the fact that the UK is made up of various countries, counties, regions and towns when I heard the BBC’s weather girl Carol talking of ‘guising‘. This reminded me of the highlight of my year in the ‘olden days’, going out guising with Betsy Carreyette (aka Zaynab Hassim) who showed a remarkable artistic talent even back at primary school. Since then she has gone on to become a poet and ceramic artist. Most of my colleagues over here looked totally blank when I talked about guising. But this is my culture – or should I only be teaching the ‘standard’ British culture of bacon and eggs, bowler hats and queuing?

I remember when in France watching Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir (The Avengers) – and wondering if ‘we’ deliberately set out to create this image abroad? And what about the stingy Scots with their red hairy legs, kilts and whining pipes? And the drunken Irish? The Welsh who break into song every other sentence? The funny thing is, I’m willing to bet we all know someone who really does fit the picture! But what about your local GP from Pakistan who still has a thick accent but is perfectly British? And what about, yes, indeed, what about all those ‘army brats’ who may never yet have set foot on British soil, have attended British military primary schools but have shopped and eaten locally – are they British? What is it that makes them British – just their passport? (I say this from a position of authority being myself an ex army brat and my own kids having a British passport but being brought up in the Netherlands).

Having a full time job and a family (3 teens, one of whom is in further – expensive! – education)  means I am unable to (afford to) go to the UK regularly so am I really the right person to talk about the “British” culture? And yet it is part of the curriculum over here for teacher trainees. At least, the “intercultural competence” is part of the curriculum and it depends on how you interpret that. But my trainees look at me for ideas on the British culture – am I the right person for the job? Is anyone the right person for the job? What is “British” and what is “culture” and do these things not change so rapidly (like the language) that people outside of the country talk in generalisations?

And the Dutch? Yes, they have (soft) drugs, yes there is a red light district in Amsterdam, yes they ride bikes and yes they have windmills. But what are they really like? What is the Dutch culture?

Did you know they also have this type of windmill dotted across the very flat countryside


And what about horses? We think of the typical Frisian black and white cows in the Netherlands but there are lots of horses here and not just in the area where the famous dressage champion Anky van Grunsven lives. In my own village we have a horse market which attracts vistors from all over Europe – literally. It’s a big event for which the village is more or less hermetically sealed

Village “closed” – come back after the weekend!

This year (yesterday!) more than 1500 horses (and ponies and donkeys) were bought and sold here (the lowest number ever, mind you),  some decorative little ponies, some for show jumping, others shipped to the south of Europe for food purposes. 😦

The Dutch princess Maxima got into trouble a few years ago for saying there was no Dutch culture. I would like to say something similar and declare there is no ‘one’ British culture. Ok, now I’ve got you suitably riled, there’s space below for proving me wrong!

What is culture? How do you deal with it? How do you deal with aspects of the language which are very specifically linked to culture? What is your culture?


2 thoughts on “Who are you?

  1. Hi Louise – This is a particularly relevant post to me, not because it was inspired by my LGBTQ course materials post, but because culture and intercultural competences is forefront in my mind thanks to a module I’m enrolled in for the MA at Manchester.

    What I relate to in particular is questioning your own culture. As Canadians who grew up in the 80s, I can suggest that we did not have a strong sense of our own culture, as we were (and still are) irrevocably tied to American mainstream pop culture. The way I grew up, the people I was around, those that influenced me and those that I hung around with, the traditions we had, the type of English we spoke–it all seemed beyond me that there were differences between it and everyone else in North America.

    Only after I lived in Seoul where I was faced with an entirely different culture asking me what Canadian culture was and how it was different than America, and when I worked with actual Americans, did I begin to really notice that my culture had a culture, even if fragmented by region. As for articulating what it actually is and how it’s different than Americans, that’s very hard, but it’s there, the quiet patriotism (though this is changing these days), the beer house parties, the attempts at patience and social concern, etc.

    As for culture in my classroom, of course I’ve always been aware of the need to somehow address it with my students–one way that seemed most obvious was tolerance. It also comes out in the academic cultural expectations on writing, interacting in university seminar classes and discourse in intellectual discussion. However, it’s only now that I’m really trying to make a concerted effort to think more concretely about how it otherwise affects my students, my lessons, their experiences and the language we use. Can’t say I’ve come to certain conclusions though. One exercise I recently did was to write an introduction about myself in terms of where I grew up, where I’ve lived and where I am now. Afterwards, I looked at it to determine what it says about my particular personal culture. It’s a fascinating exercise…

    Anyways, before I ramble on indefinitely,…

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have to say I noticed a remarkable difference between Canadians and Americans when at university (a million years ago!). Our uni had an exchange with a couple of Canadian and American universities and I noticed a very similar use of ‘slang’ and humour between the British and Canadians whereas the Americans had a totally different use of slang and our humour was definitely not theirs! But that’s very ‘language-teachery’ to instantly focus on the language aspects. Other aspects of cultural similarities or differences USA/Can were less obvious to me. My only experience of Canada itself is the east coast (Montréal, Québec…) and I noticed the English speakers seem more “European” then the East coast Americans I met in NY, NJ and that region, whereas the French speakers seem much more Americanised than French.Hugely generalised but just an observation. As to the Canadian ‘culture’ hmm – again no doubt way too generalised and over the top TV-soap ideas to mean anything, but the image we are confronted with (and I’m not saying they’re true!): mounties, outdoor active types, no sense of humour,stubborn, protectionist…. Funny though as almost all of my favourite musicians are Canadian (Roch Voisine, Garou, Isabelle Boulay, runo Pelletier, Luce Dufault, Leonard Cohen, to name a few) and yet ‘musical’ is not one of the first things I personally would associate with Canadians.
      I’m not actually sure if culture can be defined, certainly not with internet/tv blasting into every household and allowing us to pick and choose parts of another culture which suits us. And yet we all know that when in another country we have all sorts of issues in our dealings with the locals (do you greet everyone in the doctor’s waiting room; should you queue; do you congratulate the whole family if it’s somebody’s birthday…….). There are, however, some fantastic books out there for studying culture such as “watching the English” by Kate Fox (highly recommended!).
      So I challenge you to define who you are! I know I can’t define who I am but I do love explaining certain aspects of “my personal” culture to my teacher trainees and my secondary school classes!

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