I went to a talk today from a very erudite applied linguist called Claire Kramsch. She was talking about the identity of foreign language teachers, and among other things, she discussed the extent to which language teaching should address the target-language culture during the lessons. Home I come, and fire up Llingo for a spot more Thai – and I can put into words something that’s bugging me: the stock photos.

I am learning Thai because I am going to Thailand. My motivation to learn is all tied up with my visit there and I will probably stop studying after I come back (unless I fall in love with the place and decide I want to go back again and again). I am excited about visiting and learning Thai is fuelling that excitement – deliberately.

But in the chapter I am working on now, the words are about the office, the factory, the car park, while in a roundabout way attempting to demonstrate use of the negative (the computer is not red, it’s black), etc. Honestly, it would motivate me more (and I’m motivated already), if the picture of the woman in the office who is sitting not standing, were of a Thai woman in a Thai office. Or even a non-Thai woman in a Thai office. Give me a tiny taste of culture by showing me this, rather than generic white woman in stock office photo. As for the car park – why do you have to show me something that looks like Banbury retail park on a Sunday morning? Show me a Thai car park, number plates! Give me a bit of culture. Just a tiny taste. Why could the stock photo of a computer not have had Thai lettering on it? These little differences in experience are one of the joys of travel, and although I accept that not everyone learns the language in order to visit the country, quite a lot do, and, crucially, it wouldn’t come at any extra cost.

Here’s a Thai car just to prove it: And do you know what? If you said to me ‘the car is white, not black, and is at the car park, not the bus stop.’ I would probably more or less get what you were saying.

Image result for thai number plate

But half the fun, the motivating factor, the magic of learning a language is in a picture like this. I see different lettering on the number plate. I see different types of window stickers on the car. The street furniture is different. There’s even Thai graffiti in the background!

It’s got me thinking about the text books I use when I teach as well – there’s no culture in them either. Generic pictures of people talking about generic things – the extent of the culture shown in the books is the names of the pretend people.

Now, I love learning languages. I like the intellectual activity, the cross-linguistic comparisons. But when I first went abroad at the age of about 10, it was the being there that was magic: the otherness of France, where the little details were different. I still get a kick out of it. I still get a kick out of bringing home a tube of foreign toothpaste or having a tin of foreign food in the cupboard. I wonder at its exoticness and how for peope from that place, the same thing that gives me a thrill must feel mundane, taken for granted.

Of course there’s masses more to culture than a bottle of shower gel with unfamilar wording or lettering, a picture of a car with a different style number plate. But it’s a start, and it’s an easy start at that, which can be delivered in the classroom or indeed the self-instructed online course at no extra cost at all. And who knows, it might start to open minds in the way that ‘my name is Pierre and I watch cartoons every day because they are funy,’ utterly fails to do.




Author: Kedi Simpson

I'm a teacher of modern foreign languages in a UK school and have nearly finished my Master's in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at Oxford University. Former journalist, doula and childbirth educator.

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