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The "cultural context" of language and how you do it!

(30 Posts)
HopeForTheBestExpectTheWorst Sun 28-Nov-10 09:20:09

Following on from something that came up on another thread here, I'd be interested in hearing how you help your child to get the cultural context of your minority language.

- Points copied from the other thread:
I remember a while ago hearing that when someone here in Germany refers to a "sandwich" they picture something different to what an English person does, although the definition is actually the same. That got me thinking about the idea of cultural context, and how, if you want your child to be truly bilingual, it has to go beyond just the spoken language and into the subtle meanings and references that the language brings with it.

- (from MIFLAW (hope it's ok to copy this!):

To be honest, for bilingual kids, any materials AT ALL are really only "nice to haves" from a linguistic point of view, except in expanding vocab in areas where the parents have no real interest (and that sounds a lot more specialist than what you are proposing.) What they DO add, though is CULTURAL input. It's all very well my child knowing the French for everything Noddy says and does; if she calls him Noddy instead of Oui-Oui, she is going to get blank looks from a French child growing up in France and the conversation will be a non-starter. So what I look for in materials is much more to do with authenticity and shared experience than with "teaching" the language.

I'd be really interested to hear how other parents feel about this.

belgo Sun 28-Nov-10 09:24:37

I had a discussion with my dd1 about the word sandwich the other day. Both girls had asked for sandwiches, and I had given them the english version. But they actually meant the flemish version, which relates to a type of slightly sweet bread roll.

I agree with Miflaw, I like my children to watch films and books etc in the original language but with something international like Harry Potter, where all the names are different in flemish, then it helps to know them both for the cultural references.

frakkinup Sun 28-Nov-10 18:10:03

What I find interesting is playing word association/making word webs with bilingual children. They consistently associate different things or put different words on the web in the different languages.

I agree that it's good to know the names and the cultural perception of international exports (like Noddy or Harry Potter).

Additional materials are definitely more for cultural input than linguistic in my view. Children don't learn that much language from, say, the Teletubbies or In The Night Garden but a child who isn't familiar with those is at a cultural disadvantage.

Even at an advanced level I don't tell my university students to watch BBC/CNN purely for the linguistic input. They need to be able to understand the cultural contexts as well.

belgo Sun 28-Nov-10 18:23:46

frakkinup - I totally agree. A friend of mine was finding a language course very hard, and saying she didn't have enough time to read the local newspaper or listen to the website as advised. But I found it very important that she does do that.

I was with a group of very interesting foreigners yesterday who live in my town and they were saying how safe it is, how there is never anything bad that happens. I asked them if they ever checked the local news and of course they don't, which means that they don't really have a clue of all the bad things that happen, so their perception is that the town is very safe.

MIFLAW Mon 29-Nov-10 10:34:32

When I taught EFL, my lessons with Advanced/Proficiency students were based around the premise that I was training them as spies - so each lesson would begin with 10 general knowledge questions which we would then discuss. The thinking was that, as a spy, your English might be perfect, but if you don't know who lives at No 10 (or, for that matter, the significance of two little ducks) you are quickly going to get discovered and potentially shot.

I think that, while the method is clearly not suitable for small bilingual children, the thinking behind it is just as vital.

At the same time, I find it a bit narrow and limiting to be monocultural in French - for example, as we are in exile (and perhaps because I am not a native) who says that the culture of French is the culture of France? My daughter (aged nearly 3) is very familiar with Trotro, Tchoupi and Leo et Popi - but has also proved partial to Bumba (Belgian) and Pacha et les Chats (Canadian). This is especially important to us as much of the content on TV5 is not French at all but from Canada, Belgium and (to some extent) Swiss.

What do others think of this aspect, which arises from not being in the country? To put the boot on the other foot, if you are bilingual in France, is British TV preferable to, say, American or Australian(or vice versa), or is it all good as long as it's native?

midnightexpress Mon 29-Nov-10 10:38:36

Marking my place. V interesting thread.

abeautifulbutterfly Mon 29-Nov-10 10:46:46

MIFLAW to answer your last question from our perspective (bilingual Polish/English (GB), living in Poland), there are two issues:

First, none of these cultures are "preferable" per se, but there is the question of my own (British) cultural background and connections, hence what materials I can get from family and friends in the UK, and also the references my kids need to function when we visit the UK (silly thing, but calling St Nicholas Father Christmas and not Santa).

Second there is the issue of what materials are available to me here. Till recently the only Eng-lang bookstore in my city was a (superb) American new and 2nd-hand bookstore, so my own childhood canon, for instance, has been massively enriched by an American one I previously had no experience of (Curious George, Maurice Sendak, etc. - not to mention the chocolate browniesgrin) Amazon is ok but you end up paying as much for the postage as for the books so that makes it a bit prohibitive in the long term.
In itself this is great for me as I find attitudes such as my DMum's, who considers everything American practically the work of the devil hmm, rather annoying, and would not like to cultivate it in my kids.

Having said that, ELC has just come to our shopping centres (evidently in some kind of deal with Mothercare, as they share premises in every outlet), and they have just started stocking Jolly Phonics workbooks which is a great find!!!

frakkinup Mon 29-Nov-10 11:01:05

For me I want to raise DC with French-French and British-English linguistically and culturally, even if we end up living in Brussels or Washington. In my eyes their nationality plays a big part in the cultural context of language and I want them to feel equally at home in France or the UK, which means knowing the prevailing cultural trends. It's especially important for me because as a child I didn't get all of that popular cultural input and as such flounder when people reminisce, which is never a comfortable feeling even though I spent a large portion of my early life in Britain. I think that could potentially be worse for an expat raised child if they never watched the same TV that their contempraries did.

However....there is so much imported American culture now that it matters less to a certain extent for English.

In fact, for English, being a hugely global language that many people speak as a second language but very well, the cultural context is almost indcidental unless you actively want to strongly identify as a particular brand of English. People are less fussed about which flavour of English you are than which flavour of French. There are scads of bilingual English/French children running around Paris who have an Australian au pair, membership to the American library, a South African parent, attend the Anglican church and go to a bilingual school with a mix of pupils which is just as diverse. Their language is fine and culturally they have a finger in every pie so they could probably hold their own with children from wherever. Then you see the difference between even Metro-French and outre-mer-French children you start to realise that if you want to identify as French-French (metro-French) because they hold that nationality things like a common culture become a LOT more important.

That's partly why I'm going to bite my tongue and put the DC through at least the primary French education system. No-one in England gives a monkeys because the types of schooling are so diverse and you could have come from Mars and it be fine, but the standardised education system in France is a cultural marker that no fluency in language is going to compensate for.

I'm stealing your 'training them as spies' approach, MIFLAW. It sounds very sensible!

HopeForTheJingleBells Mon 29-Nov-10 11:01:06

I have a friend who was brought up in rather unusual circumstances, having been born in the UK, then sent to an Arab country until she was5 or 6, and then moved here to Germany.
With her mother she spoke arabic, with her father German, and the family language was English, although none of them is a native speaker.

Her english is excellent, no question about it. And she speaks exclusively english to her ds.

However, she is missing the cultural references, and while her son will no doubt speak good english, he will never, ever be "culturally bilingual" - she does not have the possibility to pass that on to him.
I notice it every now and again eg we went round for lunch, and she'd made scones.
But she served them as a "bread", ie with ham, cheese etc and made little sort of filled rolls with them.

Of course, there's no reason not to do this (it tasted great!), but if you say to someone from the UK "scones" they will probably think 1. tea, clotted cream, butter, jam, and then possibly 2. cheese scones, as a savoury thing.
But I don't know anyone who would make them into little sandwiches iykwim.
"Scones" is something she has heard about, knows that it's British, looked up the recipe and then made, but without any personal cultural reference points.

Actually, I suspect that food is a very big part of what we are talking about here. I tend to cook a wide range of stuff from all over the place, but obviously there are some things which are just typically British (no! I DON'T mean fish and chips (although we have that too)).
Bangers and Mash, with Onion Gravy.
Bog standard dinner, no? Except that my friend would never cook this, it's not something that she knows.

HopeForTheJingleBells Mon 29-Nov-10 11:07:31

Very interesting points about the French in France/Canada/Belgium/Switzerland thing too MIFLAW.

I agree with frakkinup about it perhaps not being such an issue with English language as it is so global, and there are so many influences from America, Australia, Canada etc etc

I think it's about not feeling that the country and culture of the minority language is "other" or foreign.
I want my ds to feel that he is part British. Not just that he speaks fluent English.
I guess apart from all the things that we've mentioned here, the other big factor is actually spending time in the country itself. I'm sure that must play its part too.
I notice when we go to the UK, ds blends in well with his cousins, he's not obviously foreign in any way.

MIFLAW Mon 29-Nov-10 12:03:08

I see where you are all coming from. I wondered if this might be the case.

Because we are "doing a Saunders" ie I speak exclusively in French to my daughter even though I am NOT a native speaker, I have no emotional attachment to a particular culture (though the vast majority of my time functioning in French has been in France); my daughter and I mix with bilinguals from a variety of backgrounds (from French to Antillais to Laotienne to Magrhebin to Neo-Caledonienne - is that even the right word?); and, though I would like us to live in a French-speaking country later, it could be France, Belgium or even Canada for all I care; I am much more prepared to "wait and see" and, in the mean time, am trying to stay ready to spring in any direction!

frakkinup Mon 29-Nov-10 12:21:24

MIFLAW: I anticipate that happening to us (the multi-background thing) and my response will probably be along the lines of 'well garbage is the American term, at home we call it rubbish' so even without actively promoting the British English word I'm probably going to be separating it unconciously into an us/them thing. If DC comes out with 'garbage' I'll encourage them to use the British word, partly becauses that's the word I use (and therefore all their British family use). I imagine DH will do the same thing for French, as in insist that the 'French' word is used rather than the local word: maison not case, enfant rather than marmaille, abeille instead of mouche a miel (which I think is quite sweet!)...

MIFLAW Mon 29-Nov-10 13:35:18

"abeille instead of mouche a miel" - that's a great word! Where are you then?

frakkinup Mon 29-Nov-10 14:08:38

Ile de la Reunion! Mi koz kréol....

Or rather I don't really but most people here do.

MIFLAW Mon 29-Nov-10 14:51:53

Is "koz" "causer"?


frakkinup Mon 29-Nov-10 15:49:38

Nice try but 'koz' is 'parler'.

So mi koz kréol is je parle créole in reunionnais creole. Half the time it's comprehensible and the other half the time I have no clue what they're saying to me!

MIFLAW Mon 29-Nov-10 15:52:34

Yes - that's what I meant. "Causer" in the sense "to chat to" - "j'ai causé un peu avec J-P pendant la récré".

frakkinup Mon 29-Nov-10 15:53:04

Unless of course you were meaning causer/discuter in which case yes, you would be right.

MmeLindt Mon 29-Nov-10 16:12:49

Interesting thread.

Until we moved to Geneva my DC had very little contact with British culture, aside from my influence.

Here we have a few British friends and some American/Australian friends so they have very varied cultural references. And of course the Swiss French locals.

I like the fact that they are more conscious of the culture of Britain but realize they are seeing Britain Lite. Some celebrations are just not done here, such as Guy Fawkes.

I guess we take the advantages of them being multilingual and weigh that up against them not being fully culturally bilingual.

belgo Mon 29-Nov-10 16:50:27

MmeLindt - I think it's quite useful to be able to pick and choose the parts of British culture that I want to expose my children to - no X-Factor for example!

They didn't know what trick or treating was until this year when my American friends organised trick or treating.

I will take the children to England one year for the 5th of November. I also take them to Rainbows/Brownies when we are there.

belgo Mon 29-Nov-10 16:52:27

All of my children are huge fans of Bumba, but he is largely ignored by my foreign friends even though they have small children.

cory Tue 30-Nov-10 09:20:30

Very interesting thread.

In our case, a lot of the cultural context is supplied by dcs' Swedish cousins during the holidays- also, dd is the kind of person who will instantly make friends, so she knows a surprising number of people her age in Sweden given that she only spends a few weeks a year there- and she knows a surprising lot about them: what's big in Sweden, what they listen to, what slang phrases are going out of fashion. She'd make a good spy grin

Actually, I think I'm a bit the same, not as friendly as dd, but very interested in local colour- my scones would have been served with jam and clotted cream from the word Go. I don't think people often think of me as foreign or worry that I won't understand their references; they just don't see the furious thinking going on under the surface.

I will not protect dcs from aspects of Swedish culture unless I would protect them from similar aspects of the culture in which they live iyswim. I mean, I don't think small children need to watch Big-Brother-type television, but I don't want them to take away an idea of Sweden as a cosy, idyllic, culturally immaculate place with no real people in it.

moondog Tue 30-Nov-10 09:27:16

Things are much easier now with the Internet and dvds and what have you.
When I grew up in the Pacific in the 70s speaking Welsh it was very odd to come back to Wales occasionally.
People thoguht we were hilarious, speaking a dialect from a small mountain village despite living 10,000 miles away.

I had a fascinating conversation with an American once who had married an Estonian (in times of Iron Curtain) and had not only learnt Estoniain herself but brought up their children in the States speaking it. The father died before the Iron curtain came down asnd when she and her children finally went there, it dawned on them that they were speaking 50s style Estonian as that was when the father had left. So they were removed geographically and temporally but they still belonged.

Belonging to somewhere is to me them ost precious thing of all and you can belong to somewhere even if you don't live there.

mamsnet Tue 30-Nov-10 09:47:53

Great thread, everybody. I hadn't wandered on to this board for a long time and you have all given me lots of food for thought this morning.

I'm Irish, living in Spain and my DCs are, I hope, culturally and linguistically bilingual.

Can I just add that having one's DH on board is a huge help. MIne speaks excellent English (with an Irish accent grin ) and I think his enthusiasm and support has been paramount. If it were ever to be a competition as to which books we read/ DVDs we watch etc, I think he would have won, just because he is on his home turf. But he's a sweetie.. and he does a mean Gruffalo!

Maybe we do practise a bit of positive discrimination towards English in this house, but I figure that soon enough my children will choose to watch the dreadful Spanish TV their peers are watching..

AussieCelt Wed 01-Dec-10 09:32:16

Bilingualism is very different from biculturalism. I am English/French bilingual but my cultural point of reference is almost exclusively Australian.

What reminds me most of this is humour. Even though I'm a native French speaker, I find French jokes hard to 'get' because the humour is alien to me. It took me years of living in France to get French humour but I still don't find a lot of it funny. But I do find Québecois humour funny even though I've never been to Canada. And I don't find American humour terribly funny, in the same way yanks don't get Monte Python and Billy Connolly (whom I adore).

However, through growing up speaking French and being exposed to French culture, even as an 'outsider' I feel very comfortable in other cultures and my social circle is strongly immigrant from a wide variety of cultures. I don't resonate with monolingual English-speaking Australia one bit.

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