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The Early Bird Catches the Cookie: Language as a Door to Culture

One of the pieces of being an ESL teacher and coordinator that I really enjoy is the intersection of two or more worldviews, as expressed through language. I enjoy introducing a new concept to my high school students, because I often am surprised where the lesson will take me. What parts of the background knowledge will my students know, and which parts will be totally unfamiliar to them? Better yet (from my point of view), which parts will they understand in the context of their culture,  producing a completely different meaning to my American ears? It is the interplay between varying “packages” of prior knowledge that I find most meaningful. When either I, as the teacher, or my students, from their various backgrounds, realize where we are coming from, it helps to make where we are trying to go become clearer.

Idioms and metaphors are a good example of a peek inside a culture. When a character says that someone else is sweet like mint-chocolate and that he thinks of himself as a raisin cookie, my Asian students did not get the reference at all, since their culture does not prize sugar in the same way as Americans do.  As a matter of fact, when I brought in those two flavors for them to taste, they all preferred the taste of the raisin cookie, which completely undermined the literary comparison. However, the idiom “the early bird catches the worm” was supported culturally by most of my students, and many of them had the same idiom in their own language.

I love that language is more than the arbitrary meaning of words. My students can memorize the meaning of an idiom, and even be able to use it in context correctly. But, often, they resist using the idiom if it does not resonate with them culturally. My job, as the ESL teacher, is to help them make the necessary connections between their home culture and the new American culture.  In that way, the students will be able to not only use English fluently, but also come to understand how they can express who they truly are, even in a language that is not their mother tongue.

Laura Wittmann, Maine Regional Representative

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