Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Teaching the universal culture

Many proponents of 2nd language teaching have often claimed it necessary to not only teach a language but also the culture. In the case of French language education, this culture would be the Québécois or French (France) culture. I have heard many professors from French backgrounds discuss the importance of conveying the context in which the language is being spoken to the students. I do not agree with this assertion.

As Julie Barlow and Jean Benoit-Nadeau claim in their book “The Story of French”, French is the world’s second international language after English in terms of number of countries where it is spoken. That is to say, its culture is universal and cannot be watered down to two places where the language may have originated.

As an immigrant who learned French as a second language and now teaches it in high school, I can say that I am not “culturally enriched” in the language. Instead, I teach French as a tool for communication. It can be used to express ideas orally and in writing. Unfortunately when French is taught in the context of its founding country or province, many universal truths are missed.

French is spoken in over 52 countries in the world and is a dominant language in Africa. Although the accent varies, it is widely spoken and understood. I remember going to Nairobi, Kenya and teaching French at the Aga Khan Academy. The kids did not have textbooks, only paper and pens. I was the textbook and they took copious notes. Did I talk about France and Quebec as I taught them? No. Here I was, halfway around the world and I was teaching French – as a communication tool.

As a French Immersion teacher, I teach novels. Many schools over the years have taught typical French and Québécois novels in which there are many cultural expressions and thought. I have shied away from Québec plays and instead teach “La Route de Chlifa” – a wonderful novel about a boy from Lebanon and his experiences during the war. It is fraught with many ideas. One such idea is to leave a country of strife during the war but then to get an education, go back and improve the living conditions of the people in the country.

The novel does not teach us about the French culture. Instead it teaches us about others’ culture, of their strife and of their ways to cope. It simply conveys these ideas in French. French is a means to an end. Let's make it a universal end.

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