The Case for Teaching American Culture in Adult Education

Connexeo - 04/30/2018

Adults who are taking English as a Second Language courses are often newcomers to the United States. And while they need to learn the language in order to thrive in this nation, a large part of adapting is to learn about U.S. culture.

American culture, an article in Live Science states, “encompasses the customs and traditions of the United States” -- religion, food, fashion, arts, beliefs about right and wrong, dining customs, rituals, sports, political attitudes. And because the United States is a melting pot, almost every region of the world has influenced American culture.

Many facets of American culture have also influenced the language that adult ESL students are learning. American theater, film and television have coined words that have reached the mainstream of American English lexicon (“the show must go on”), as has the U.S. sports and business worlds (“that deal was a home run”).

U.S. culture is varied and full of influences from around the world. ESL students should be exposed to it, as well as the language.

David Stevens, director of The Language School and author of Spanish and English conversation books, wrote about attending a Spanish-language immersion program in Barcelona at age 18 and not having learned the importance of Spanish culture beforehand. An avid basketball fan and pickup player, he traveled with his ball, but could not find decent basketball court or pickup game – even though Spain has one of the most competitive leagues in Europe and its national team frequently medals in international competition.

He later took a university course on cross-cultural communication and realized his error. In preparing for a summer trip to Buenos Aires, he realized that soccer – football in Argentina – was the national obsession there. A guidebook suggested asking a native whether their favorite team was Boca or River Platte, which have a rivalry like the Yankees and Red Sox in baseball. Stevens asked an airplane companion that question, conversation was started – and the companion surprised Stevens with a ticket to a Boca-River Platte match while he was in town.

The Busy Teacher website suggests using movies and TV shows to help teach American culture – specifically older sitcoms such as “Full House” or its current, original-cast update, “Fuller House.” Ask students to describe the core values the characters demonstrate. How do these fictional Americans – in one case, a proud Greek-American – feel about their home, family, belongings, careers? The piece suggests watching a variety of shows, and for students to look for common attitudes and actions. Interesting approach.

Another good example is “One Day at a Time.” The original portrays a divorced mom raising two teenage daughters in the 1970s. The reboot also features a divorced mother of two – this time a teen daughter and a tween son – but with a grandmother who immigrated from Cuba. Students can compare the views, morals and mores of the middle-class, WASP family of the original to the lower-middle-class, Cuban-American, Catholic family of the reboot.

American music comprises several genres, and influences the US culture. While classical, rock and pop have their European roots, and Latin rhythms have influenced all types of sound, the American beat can be found in rhythm and blues, jazz, country, bluegrass, rock, pop, rap, hip-hop, swing, big-band, folk and everything in between. A good discussion on culture could be to have students show how the music of their home country influenced American music – and vice versa, with Santana being an example.   

Entertainment isn’t the only cultural entity to be taught. Look at food. The Chinese food served in the United States is quite different from that eaten in China. Tex-Mex isn’t real Mexican food. Have students compare what a typical American dinner would look like to one in their home country. What about breakfast? And, just like there are restaurants of international cuisine in the U.S., are there “American restaurants” in students’ home countries, and what do they serve?

Holidays are much different in the USA – especially Independence Day and Thanksgiving, and Santa Claus is largely American and certainly Western. Contrast American holidays and celebrations to those in the students’ home countries. For example, how is Christmas celebrated differently? Is there as much focus on presents and decorating, and are there different religious rituals?

Sports holds significant impact on the US culture.  What the world knows as “football” is called “soccer” in the United States. American “football” only occasionally uses the foot and is not popular outside the U.S., Canada and London. Baseball does not have much of a following in Europe and Africa, nor does hockey in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Cricket, rugby and team handball have very small footprints in the Americas.

If you’re teaching ESL courses in Texas or elsewhere where high school (American) football is an obsession, take your class on a field trip to the Friday night lights, so they can experience the pageantry: Not just the football action, but the tailgating; the cheerleaders; the bands, both during the game and at halftime with the baton twirlers and the dance team; the maniacal student section. It’s a part of American culture that shouldn’t be missed.

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