Teaching British Culture

If you teach teenagers, some of them may be planning on going to Britain this year for a summer course. Especially if they stay with a host family, they’ll be learning far more than the language – they’ll also be experiencing, possibly for the first time, what it’s like to live in a different culture.

What can you do to help prepare them for what they’ll find? One way is through a quiz. Here’s one that’s based on mistakes and incomprehensions that my own previous students have reported. They were predominantly Italian. The quiz obviously needs to focus on the differences between British culture and that of the students who you are teaching, so if you want to use the quiz with another nationality you may find that some of these questions are irrelevant and others need to be added.

You’re in Cambridge for a summer course, and you’re staying with a British family. Do you know enough about British culture to cope?

1. You’ve just arrived. What do you say and do?

Say Hello to every one in the family.
b) Say Hello and shake hands with everyone.
c) Say Hello and shake hands with the mother and father of the family.

2. Your landlady asks you if you’re hungry and if you like Welsh Rabbit. What is it?

a) The animal in the picture, cooked in tomato sauce.
b) Grilled cheese on toast.
c) A type of cake.

3. The next morning you come down and see your landlady in the kitchen. What do you say?
a) Good morning
b) Good morning Mrs.
c) Good morning madam.

4. You have to catch a bus to the language school. You arrive at the bus stop and wait next to the stop. Suddenly you see that all the other people there are looking at you angrily. Why?
a) You’re listening to your walkman and walkmans are not allowed in the street in Britain.
b) British people queue at the bus stop. The first person to arrive stands next to the stop, the second person stands behind the first person, the third behind the second and so on. And they get on the bus in that order. You went straight to the front of the queue. In Britain this is called “pushing in” and is very impolite.
c) Your mobile phone is ringing. British people always turn their mobile phones off when they’re in public.

5. Your lessons are from 9.30-1.00 and the school organises sports from 2.30-5.00 every afternoon. You need to get to the shops. When is the best time to go?
a) Before lessons – British shops are open from 8-12.30 and 1.30-5.30.
b) In the evening – shops in Britain stay open till 8pm.
c) At lunchtime. Shops in Britain are usually open from about 9.30-5.30

6. You notice that a lot of people seem to call you “love”. Your landlady said it, a shop assistant said it, and a person you asked for directions in the street said it. Why?
a) It’s quite usual in Britain to call people who you don’t know “love”.
b) They like you a lot.
c) You didn’t understand correctly. They really said something different.

7. After school, some other students invite you to go for a walk. But you don’t want to be late for dinner with your host family. Do you have enough time?
a) Yes, for an hour or so. Dinner will probably be at about 7.
b) No problem. British people rarely eat before 8.30.
c) No. Dinner will probably be at about 6pm. You have to go straight home.

8. It’s Sunday lunchtime – the most important meal of the week. You're having roast lamb, potatoes and carrots, a mixed salad and strawberries. On the table there’s a little pot of mint sauce – vinegar containing chopped mint leaves. What do you do with it?
a) Put a small spoonful on the roast lamb.
b) Nothing - it's for a salad, which will be put on the table after the meat course
c) Nothing. You're having strawberries for dessert and you'll put it on the strawberries.

What are the uses and limitations of a quiz like this? It obviously can’t prepare the students for every difference they’re going to meet. But some are more important than others. The questions include areas where there is a real possibility of creating hostility or offence – like the example of queuing – and here the quiz does aim to give information.

With some of the other situations, the aim is different. Take the questions on food – they may never meet either Welsh rabbit or mint sauce while they’re in Britain. But it is quite likely that the food in general, and the way it is presented, will be different. The specific questions are important only as examples and as a springboard for discussion : What would happen if you got something like this wrong, and what could you do to make sure you don’t. If they poured the mint sauce on their strawberries, it would be unlikely to offend anyone – but a reaction of amusement on the part of the host family could be horribly embarrassing. So the question leads on to a discussion of : What would you do if you saw something on the table which you didn’t recognise? What would be best – to keep quiet, guess and pour the mint sauce on your salad (how do you think the family would react and how would you feel?) or to say immediately “We don’t have this in my country. What is it?”
The quiz also risks making generalisations that may not be true in specific instances. Maybe the student will stay with a family that doesn’t eat until 8.30 – not everyone is typical. And what’s the answer to (1) ? In some families it might be (a), in others (c). Again, awareness of the dangers of stereotyping can be raised by asking them to think about stereotypes of their own culture – for example,  Italians eat pasta every day. True for many but not for all.

The aim of the quiz is therefore firstly to make the students aware that there will be cultural differences, secondly to forewarn them about some of the major areas where there is the danger of causing offence, and thirdly to lead into a discussion of how they can avoid misunderstandings and what to do if they arise.

Quiz Answers
1 c (or possibly a); 2 b; 3b; 4 b; 5 c (b on some days in large towns); 6 a, 7 c (possibly a); 8 a.


For a great discussion of the British use of the address form love, see this article from The Guardian