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Cultural mirrors – Television drama
in the EFL classroom
by Dr Richard Kiely
- 4

The development of how this piece of television exploited in the classroom shows three main features:

1. Questions arise at different levels as the students’ curiosity is stimulated: Language form: the meaning of words and phrases;
Affective aspects of language use: the way anger, empathy and reticence are expressed in language (and other means of communication);
Social context of language use: the ways the situation make the language meaningful and appropriate;
Identity and language use: the ways in which language use is performance of identity;
Identity management: the ways in which individual identity is framed in interaction and community.

2. The cultural elements are accessible to students of English through both the exploration of differences and similarities. Approaches to teaching culture often focus on the differences, a kind of othering which can lead to stereotyping and language learner alienation (Kubota 1999; Kiely 2003). In the case of this television segment, both the cultural content – family life – and the medium – TV situation comedy drama – were familiar to most students. What they observed and discussed could be related to aspects of culture in their own national context, or some community within this. Responses to The Royle Family segment viewed also had a strong personal voice, particularly evident in gender terms: female students tended to see the interactions from a woman’s standpoint, identifying with (or at least recognising) Barbara’s discourse of long-suffering wife fed up with husband. While this feature was less evident among male students – there were always fewer of these anyway – some noted understanding Dave, particularly his not wanting to be involved in his in-law’s family row, and not wanting to discuss the menopause with his father-in-law.

3. The relationship between culture and language across these lessons changed in a way which informed my pedagogic approach, and provided the spur to write up the experience. I began using this video segment for listening comprehension, as a sample of language to be a) understood, and b) mined for instances of language which the students could generalise from, which would raise their language awareness, and which they could use appropriately in their own interactions in English. The cultural elements provided both a frame and a background for this linguistic tableau, one which would have impact as teaching material, and which would have a learner-training function through raising awareness of the value of television viewing. In class the language focus, even with advanced students proved difficult and frustrating. The gap-filling, the activity assigning personality adjectives to the different characters, and comprehension questions to clarify the main narrative, did not work well – they seemed imposed on the text, lacking engagement with the cultural elements which resonated with the students. By the third exploitation of the segment (see Lesson 3 in the table above), the focus was on brief prediction tasks, and then comprehension questions (Why is Barbara unhappy? and Why is Jim unhappy?). The student activity was to attempt explanation from the viewing the video segment, and then find supporting evidence using the complete transcript of the segment as a resource. Working in pairs, students invariably provided complex and culturally coherent accounts of the unhappiness observed. Significantly these accounts derived from a bringing together of the viewing/transcript data, and their own understanding of relationships and family life. At one level, this represents the fundamental communicative teaching principle of meaning first. In relation to the role of culture in EFL, it illustrates, in addition, the value of exploring first the purpose and context of interactions, then analysing the linguistic forms which realise these. An ongoing reflection theme, focussing on the resources students draw on to produce and support their coherent accounts, complements the cultural and linguistic dimensions to provide opportunities for a critical and complex perspective on culture and language use.

These three features of the pedagogic approach embedded in the six lessons in Table 1 can be related to wider issues in integrating an explicit culture-learning dimension to the EFL curriculum. The next section sets out four ways in which culture can be integrated, and related The Royle Family segment to these.

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