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Teaching Cultural Literacy to Foreign-Language Students
by Alexander Bessmertnyi


In my understanding of the process of teaching and learning English as a foreign language I have been greatly influenced by the ideas and observations of Professor Eric Donald Hirsch, Jr., which he expressed in his book Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know (Vintage Books,1988).


The book was a bestseller in the United States, and caused a nationwide debate on American educational standards.


Professor Hirsch introduces some important linguistic terms-- cultural literacy, shared knowledge, background information --applying them to teaching American students. He states that being taught to decode elementary reading materials and specific, job-related texts cannot constitute true literacy"(p. 11).


According to Hirsch, cultural literacy is the network of information that all competent readers possess. It is the background information, stored in their minds, that enables them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications, relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they read" (p. 2).


In one of the issues of the New Yorker magazine, famous for its cartoons, I came across a picture of two ancient Greeks talking on the street.


"ACHILLES!" exclaimed one of them. "How s the wife? The kids? The heel?"


And in the London Times many years ago I saw a witty cartoon concerning the Middle East events of the day with the following caption:


AN EYE FOR AN EYE FOR AN EYE FOR AN EYE FOR AN EYE


I am convinced that the idea of cultural literacy can and must be applied to teaching foreign languages as well. Unfortunately, the prevailing tendency now is to give a basic competence in the English language proper, with a minimum of cultural references.


In the course of teacher training in our country, students are supplied with some basics of British and American history and geography, but not enough for cultural literacy.


I can t but agree with Professor Hirsch that "to understand what somebody is saying, we must understand more than the surface meanings of words; we have to understand the context as well. . . . To grasp the words on a page we have to know a lot of information that isn't set down on the page" (p. 3).


Once, in the course of teaching listening comprehension, I was reading to my high-school students the following humorous story.


NOT IN A THEATER


When my husband walks down the street, he is often stopped by people who comment on his resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. One evening a man leaned over and whispered the now familiar "Do you realize how much you resemble Abraham Lincoln?" during a play we were attending.


My husband protested, "Please, sir not in a theater!"


In order to fully appreciate the humor of the situation the listeners must know the circumstances of Lincoln s assassination and, possibly, have some previous information about the assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and, ideally, about the activities of the 16th president.


Every good teacher supplements the textbook materials with a lot of additional items, such as songs, poems, games, stories, and plays. The big problem has always been what to choose. The most valuable and workable part of the book Cultural Literacy for us teachers is the appendix, "What Literate Americans Know."


This long list includes 5,000 really essential items. This "List" provided by Hirsch and his colleagues directs me as a teacher to what is worth knowing and paying attention to. From the people and cultural phenomena indicated in this appendix I made my own list of priorities. It contains the items I know fairly well, and I introduce them to my students whenever the chance arises. Often I make some additions to Dr. Hirsch s list, depending on what is worth knowing from my point of view now, at this moment.




Popular songs


Quite definitely on my list are the following cultural figures:




Louis Armstrong Hello, Dolly
What a Wonderful World
Frank Sinatra My Way
Strangers in the Night
When I Was 17
Ella Fitzgerald Lullaby of Birdland
Summertime
Let s Call the Whole Thing Off
George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue
Porgy and Bess
It Ain't Necessarily So
Swanee
Bing Crosby Now Is the Hour
White Christmas
Walt Disney Mickey Mouse
Disneyland
Bob Dylan How Many Roads
Langston Hughes I, Too, Am American
Dreams
Scott Joplin
Elvis Presley
Carl Sandburg
Dr. Seuss
Ragtime
Simon & Garfunkel El Condor Pasa
Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Beatles Yesterday
Lady Madonna
Michelle


Very good material for practising pronunciation is provided by the fragments of lyrics sung by the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. (All people from the List!)


My students each have a special notebook for this purpose. It consists of numerous exercises based on well- known lines. This kind of phonetic drill gives them enjoyment and the pleasure of recognition.


  1. Many times I've been alone, and many times I've cried.
  2. I've seen that road before.
  3. You left me standing here a long, long time ago. (The Beatles, The Long and Winding Road )
  4. These are words that go together well.
  5. I will say the only words I know that you'll understand. (The Beatles, Michelle )
  6. Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.
  7. Suddenly I m not half the man I used to be.
  8. There s a shadow hanging over me.
  9. Why she had to go I don t know, she wouldn't say.
  10. I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.
  11. Now I need a place to hide away. (The Beatles, Yesterday )
  12. Is there anybody going to listen to my story? (The Beatles, Girl )
  13. I did it my way. (Frank Sinatra, My Way )
  14. Strangers in the night exchanging glances. (Frank Sinatra, Strangers in the Night )


As is obvious from each of the fragments, they contain the difficult English sounds and sound combinations that are daily practised in enjoyable and familiar contexts.




Proverbs


An essential part of the List is Proverbs. There are approximately 100 common ideas like:


YOU CAN'T TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS
WHEN IN ROME DO AS THE ROMANS DO
WHO PAYS THE PIPER CALLS THE TUNE
TIME AND TIDE WAIT FOR NO MAN


In the introductory article to the section "Proverbs" in The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (p. 46), Hirsch writes, "On many occasions when people invoke proverbs in speech and writing, they simply allude to them, rather than complete them."


If someone offers you a fruit and says, "An apple a day," the communication will fail if you don t know the relevant proverb; you will be an outsider.


This division of English-speaking people into outsiders and insiders helps us understand the importance of cultural literacy for successful communication. Let me tell you a couple of my linguistic observations.


They say that in a California physician s waiting room hangs the notice


AN APPLE A DAY DOESN'T DO IT


Only the "insider" will be able to enjoy the humor of the warning.


Let's take another English proverb from the List


WHERE THERE'S SMOKE, THERE'S FIRE


I read somewhere about a Minneapolis printing company that did not want its employees to smoke on the premises. So it issued the following dictum


WHERE THERE'S SMOKE, THERE'S FIRED


If you haven t heard the original proverb, you will hardly appreciate the fun of the pun.


The "outsiders" (people lacking target- culture literacy) who are not aware of English proverbs and sayings often feel confused when they come across fairly common humorous versions like,


A STITCH IN TIME SAVES EMBARRASSMENT


IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED, THINK HOW MANY PEOPLE YOU'VE MADE HAPPY


A NEW GROOM SWEEPS CLEAN AND ALSO WASHES DISHES


TOO MANY COOKS SPOIL THE FIGURE


These proverbs provide material for linguistically minded jokesters who keep finding room for improvement in them.


For example, we all know the saying TO MAKE ENDS MEET , meaning "to earn what it costs to live." Have you heard the new version: YOU CAN MAKE ENDS MEET, BUT YOU CAN'T MAKE THEM LIKE EACH OTHER?


Take another proverb from the List,


LAUGH, AND THE WORLD LAUGHS WITH YOU; WEEP, AND YOU WEEP ALONE


The revised version goes like this:


LAUGH, AND THE WORLD LAUGHS WITH YOU; SNORE, AND YOU SLEEP ALONE


Or, HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY transforms into HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY, ALTHOUGH SOMETIMES KEEPING YOUR MOUTH SHUT IS EVEN BETTER.


There are many more graceful alterations of the proverbs that we are supposed to know so well:


EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY, FOR TOMORROW YOU MAY DIET


PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN GLASS HOUSES SHOULD BREATHE ON THE WINDOWS BEFORE TAKING A BATH


FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT (AND CHILDREN)


At the end of the term I usually arrange a special quiz, "Who Knows More English Proverbs?" where I ask the students to do two things: (1) complete a proverb, and (2) recollect a proverb according to the definition given.


Complete the following proverbs:


  1. Absence makes the heart . . . (grow fonder)
  2. You can t have your cake and . . . (eat it, too)
  3. If you can t stand the heat . . . (get out of the kitchen)
  4. Make hay while . . . (the sun shines)
  5. Marry in haste . . . (repent at leisure)


What English proverb can be used here meaning . . . ?


  1. People are attracted to others who are like themselves. (BIRDS OF A FEATHER FLOCK TOGETHER)
  2. Misfortune does not occur twice in the same way to the same person. (LIGHTNING NEVER STRIKES TWICE IN THE SAME PLACE)
  3. Large undertakings take time. (ROME WASN'T BUILT IN A DAY)
  4. Take advantage of favorable circumstances while they last. (STRIKE WHILE THE IRON IS HOT)
  5. A visual image can convey an idea or an emotion more effectively than words. (ONE PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS)




Some useful categories


To show how much can be done in the direction of cultural literacy in the course of teaching English as a foreign language, let me show what particular entries in the List we have managed to cover, item by item.


Homonyms. While teaching listening comprehension at the early stages I find it useful to dictate specially composed sentences containing homonyms. Students are required to write these sentences on the chalkboard and in their notebooks:


This man has a big nose and he knows it.


The book was new and everybody knew it.


I often see his son at school. I see the sun in the sky.


He told me an interesting tale about a mouse with a long tail.


Our clock has no hour hand.


Their books are over there.


I read that red book last year.


These two exercises are too simple for me to do.


Puns. At later stages of learning English I introduce puns. I begin by giving students the definition from The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: "[A pun] is a humorous substitution of words that are alike in sound but different in meaning."


Puns are very common in English, and I give my students lots of examples. The most enjoyable has always been this one:


On a British street a policeman stops a car. In the car there is a visitor from another country.


Policeman : (holding up his hand) Stop!


Visitor : (in car) What s the matter?


Policeman : Why are you driving on the right side of the road?


Visitor : Do you want me to drive on the wrong side?


Policeman : You *are* driving on the wrong side.


Visitor : But you said I was driving on the right side.


Policeman : That s right. You re on the right, and that s wrong.


Visitor : A strange country! If right is wrong, I m right when I m on the wrong side. So why did you stop me?


Policeman : My dear sir, you must keep to the left. The right side is the left.


Visitor : It s like a looking-glass! I ll try to remember. Well, I want to go to Bellwood. Will you kindly tell me the way?


Policeman : Certainly. At the end of this road turn left.


Visitor : Now let me think. Turn left! In England left is right, and right is wrong. Am I right?


Policeman : You ll be right if you turn left. But if you turn right, you ll be wrong.


Visitor : Thank you. It s as clear as daylight.


Limericks. Another way to instill cultural literacy in the students minds is to introduce limericks.


A limerick is a sort of humorous five-line verse. I begin with the most famous limerick in Russia:


There was a young lady of Niger,


Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.


They returned from the ride


with the lady inside


and the smile on the face of the tiger.


Then I explain the structure of its rhyming parts, and after that I give the students a word and see if they can produce other words that rhyme with it; for example,


now, cow, how, wow, plough France, dance, glance


Later I invite the students to compose a limerick using the first given line:


There was an old lady from Slough. . . .


Soon the first limerick was ready:


There was an old lady from Slough


Who flew to the moon (don t ask how)!


Her broomstick got bent,


To earth back she went,


How her cow laughed: Bow-wow-wow!


Of course, to compose limericks requires some special talent or skill, so usually we just learn by heart as many classical limericks as we can.


Nursery rhymes. Every student learning English as a foreign language should go through nursery rhymes, included in the List. We try to master them all in elementary classes. Our choice coincides with that of Professor Hirsch:


  1. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
  2. Hey Diddle Diddle
  3. Hickory, Dickory, Dock
  4. Jack, Be Nimble
  5. Jack and Jill
  6. Jack Sprat
  7. Little Bo-Peep
  8. Humpty Dumpty
  9. Little Miss Muffet
  10. London Bridge Is Falling Down
  11. Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
  12. Mary Had a Little Lamb
  13. Old King Cole
  14. Old Mother Hubbard
  15. Peter Piper
  16. Rock-a-bye, Baby
  17. Simple Simon
  18. Three Blind Mice
  19. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
  20. There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe


(By the way, they say ironically that perhaps the old woman who lived in a shoe "who had so many children she didn't know what to do" hadn't known what not to do!)


Simile. I also introduce simile to the high-school students and give them numerous examples, such as


AS EASY AS ABC


AS STRONG AS A HORSE


AS BRAVE AS A LION


AS SWIFT AS AN EAGLE


AS BUSY AS A BEE ( a husband who is always as busy as a bee may one day find his honey missing! )


AS MAD AS A MARCH HARE


AS MEEK AS A LAMB


AS FIERCE AS A TIGER


AS STUBBORN AS A MULE


AS MISCHIEVOUS AS A SACKFUL OF MONKEYS


AS SLIPPERY AS AN EEL


AS SNUG AS A BUG IN A RUG


AS PLEASED AS A DOG WITH TWO TAILS


AS QUIET AS A MOUSE


Idioms, sayings, and clichés. Along the same lines I work with the contents of the List dealing with idioms, sayings and clichés. There are about 100 of the most common expressions of this kind on the List.


After introducing this picturesque side of the English language to my classes, I perform the exercise that I call "In Other Words" or "Figuratively Speaking," where the students are required to take the hint and complete the situation with the idiom in question. For example,


Tom likes to boast. People who know him well usually take the stories of his fantastic achievements skeptically, or in other words, WITH A GRAIN OF SALT.


Our neighbors bought an expensive microwave oven. Hard as it was for our budget, we bought one, too. The reason was purely psychological we wanted, figuratively speaking, to KEEP UP WITH THE JONESES.


I m going to walk to my office. On the way I ll drop into the post office to send a telegram to my mother. In other words, I m going to KILL TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE.


The great Italian singer Pavarotti is on tour in our city. Difficult as it is, I ll try to get tickets for his performance. I ll do everything possible and use all my connections. In other words, I will LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED.


When my friend went to live in the United States, he didn't feel comfortable there. As he didn't know English very well, he didn't understand the customs. In other words, he felt like A FISH OUT OF WATER.


If you want to buy a new car, you'll have to work hard. Figuratively speaking, you'll have to KEEP YOUR NOSE TO THE GRINDSTONE.


I rarely go to the theater. In other words, I go ONCE IN A BLUE MOON.


We decided to buy our teacher a present. We purchased a nice tie and planned to give it to him on his birthday. Somehow, he found out about it because one of us LET THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG by asking him about his taste in ties.


You have a good voice; please sing something for us. Don t be too modest. In other words, DON T HIDE YOUR LIGHT UNDER A BUSHEL.


John won a high-school chess competition once, but always lost after that. So his victory was purely accidental. It was just A FLASH IN THE PAN.


Jack got up in the morning in an angry mood. In other words, HE GOT UP ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE BED.


George was very selfish. He always put his own interests first. In other words, he was constantly LOOKING OUT FOR NUMBER ONE.


Little Sam stole his friend s bicycle. Then he had pricks of conscience and decided to confess. He wanted to MAKE A CLEAN BREAST OF IT.


My old aunt always exaggerated the seriousness of her illnesses. Whenever she had a cold, she thought she was dying. In other words, she MADE A MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLEHILL.


When John was guilty of something, he always blamed others. He never took the responsibility on himself. In other words, he was always PASSING THE BUCK.


Elliot is very active in all kinds of clubs and societies in his high school. His mother often reproaches him for that. "You are participating in too many activities," she said. In other words, YOU'RE SPREADING YOURSELF TOO THIN.


When the criminal was released from prison, he decided to start a new, honest life. In other words, he wanted to TURN OVER A NEW LEAF.


When I asked Grant to tell me the truth, no matter how shocking it was, he avoided getting to the point and started to speak about irrelevant things. In other words, he was BEATING AROUND THE BUSH.


Prince Charles is a wealthy person because he was born into a wealthy family. In other words, HE WAS BORN WITH A SILVER SPOON IN HIS MOUTH.


Brian was a workaholic; he worked too long and overextended himself. In other words, HE BURNT THE CANDLE AT BOTH ENDS.


Let s talk frankly, calling things by their real names. In other words, LET'S CALL A SPADE A SPADE.


Jane and I used to be madly in love with each other. Recently when we met she seemed not to notice me at all. In other words, SHE GAVE ME THE COLD SHOULDER.




A summing up


And, of course, a good way to sum up your work on cultural literacy is to hold quiz-like competitions with questions on the most troublesome items of the List.


I think that the authors of future textbooks of English for Russian students should take a look at the List in order to make their books more true to life and literate in the general sense of the word.


P.S. I have just received the latest issue of Newsweek magazine. On the last page there is an interview with Egypt s Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary General of the United Nations. The interview is entitled "An Ounce of Prevention." From my memory I extract the whole proverb-- An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure --and realize for the umpteenth time the importance of being culturally literate.




Alexander Bessmertnyi is in charge of English language teaching in Moscow School No. 45. In 1989 he visited and taught in an American high school through the US-USSR High School Academic Partnership Program.
 

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