Learning Language through Culture

Language learning may be compared to excavation of an unknown culture. Firstly, one finds small pieces of something. They do not fit together. But with more and more work, the discoveries make sense and reveal fascinating complex. In this matter, Katka Šturmová is a skillful guide of all “archeologists”. She teaches Czech as a second language and specializes in using culture as a sophisticated tool to improve the socio-cultural competence of her students.

This August, Katka Šturmová will be teaching at summer language course “Czech and Czech culture” organized by Charles University in Prague.

How can culture contribute to language learning process?

Culture is a key to understand what people think. It helps you to apprehend what their language really means. Take for example British culture which was formed by the fact that Britain had been maritime power for centuries. Lot of things British people say has actually something to do with sea or sailing. Common expression “give me a hand” means help me. It was originally used by sailors, who always had to use one hand to hold ropes on their ship. Therefore they could help the others just by giving them the other spare hand. Another famous expression is “worst things happen at sea”. In the similar way, Eskimos use more than 20 names for snow – each of them describing different type. And finally, one African native tribe uses the same gender for dangerous things and women. By exploring the culture, you find out what the people really mean by saying something and why, what their values and beliefs are. Thanks to this, you can get closer to them.

What do you think is particularly typical for Czech culture?

Lot of people would say that meetings with calm and well tapped beer are something like a corner stone of Czech culture. Indeed, we have around 20 different expressions for being drunk – as Eskimos have for snow. Some of them are euphemistic; some of them sound rather rude. Anyway, most of Czech rude words contain the letter “R”, which is significantly emphasized during swearing. But Czech culture has definitely much more to offer. Czech and Moravian lands have beautiful folklore traditions. And just to get back to British maritime idioms – Czech idioms are inseparably connected with countryside and village life. Generally speaking, Czech people are very good at improvisation; there are lot of handy craftsmen as well as talented artists and dedicated scientists among them. Education also stands very high among Czech values.

How do you show this culture to your students?

We try to organize rather informal meetings with Czech natives. During summer language course “Czech and Czech culture” in August, we also invite important personalities such as writers, composers, architects or movie producers to meet with the students. The students may see their work and discuss it with them right afterwards. Previous years, our students had the chance to meet great personalities such as Zdeněk Miller (Little Mole´s author) or Arnošt Lustig (author of Jewish stories from WW2) who unfortunately passed years ago. Last year Emil Viklický (jazzman and composer) gave us private performance in Palffy Palace and he even played the piano together with one of our students from the USA. Experience like this offer powerful insight both into culture produced by Czech intellectual elite and by everyday life.

And how difficult is it to persuade the celebrities to participate in such meetings with foreign students?

Well, I think that it used to be easier earlier, when the foreigners learning Czech were much scarcer and therefore exclusive. But even today, most of the people are helpful. They may get interesting feedback from foreign students of the Czech language, sometimes very different from Czech audience. And they also feel that their help is appreciated. The meetings offer students common context. Then the students have something to discuss (ideally in Czech).

Lots of friendships are born thanks to this and we even had a couple of Englishman and Russian girl that met during the Czech course and got married. I met them at our first meeting of “Friend´s of Albertov” this year, with their beautiful son.

Czech is a language of just 10 000 000 people, which is quite a small nation. Who are the people interested in learning it?

The students come from all over the world. Interestingly, lot of students from Asia come here and learn Czech because they are impressed by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. Some of the students have Czech ancestors and want to learn their language. Others want to live or study here. I´ve already met quite a lot of men who want to learn Czech because of their Czech girlfriends. There are rumors that Czech girls are the most beautiful in the world and those men say it´s truth (and totally worth learning this language).

Should every teacher of foreign language pay attention to familiarizing the students also with particular culture?

Well, this is a disputed question. Of course, if you want to know the language because you want to study mathematics or electronics in the Czech Republic, you may well get on without being taught the culture. On the other hand, if you want to do business here or be in more intensive contact with Czech people, introduction to Czech culture shall definitely help you. The teacher should therefore reflect the needs of the students.

And what are other qualities that you as a teacher try to achieve?

I always try to be patient and supportive. For example, I sometimes hesitate whether to interrupt a student when he or she tells a story and make a mistake. If I interrupt and correct him/her immediately, s/he may feel disturbed, less confident and think I am not interested in the story. If I wait till the end of his talk, he may already fix the mistaken wording and keep repeating it next time. I try to encourage the students, be bit self-reflexive. I would also like to have the valuable ability to turn every situation in fun and be able to joke almost every time. Humor is undoubtedly as strong mean of learning as the culture. But, well, it is very hard to achieve spontaneously.


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