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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Chiew’s interview with me

Here’s an interview that Chiew (@acliltoclimb) conducted with me for his website http://iasku.wordpress.com/

Learning English through a TV series

This is a true story I often tell my students.

Quite a long time ago, I went out with an Italian who was relatively new to London. He hardly spoke any English when we met, and we used to have conversations, negotiating meaning in Italian and the little Spanish I knew, with a huge Italian-English dictionary between us. Shortly after we met, I gave him a simple gap-fill exercise that required him to transform the verbs into the past tense, and he spent about 5 minutes understanding the instructions ‘Fill in the gaps with the suitable verbs’, and getting quite frustrated. I soon realised that it was quite impossible to teach someone whom I was involved with.

Watching TV together was always quite a challenge and the psychological block he had grew as he struggled to understand what he was hearing. Finally, I suggested that we watch DVDs of the American series 24 together and assured him that we would have English subtitles on, and that he should feel free to pause at any point and I could either try and explain what was happening, or we could check the dictionary together. Very reluctantly, he agreed and these subconscious English lessons began.

The first 5 episodes took us ages to get through as he would yell ‘stop’ every other second. But as the general plot and the characters of the series became clearer, it became easier for him to deduce meaning from the background information he now had. And as the storyline developed, he became more interested in what was going to happen, and was happier to deal with the ambiguity of certain words. He found himself not wanting to pause the DVD when he could grasp the gist of each scene, especially when it would interrupt the flow of the action on screen.

One day, as I was watching TV, he walked into the room and started watching the TV programme with me. About five minutes later, he exclaimed, ‘There are no subtitles on!’ I was quite amused as I had thought it was something he would have noticed immediately, but instead he said, ‘I understood everything! And I didn’t even realise the subtitles weren’t there!’

We went through 3 seasons of 24 in 3 months (that’s about 72 hours of TV) and a couple of months after that, he proceeded to take the Cambridge First Certificate in English. Bear in mind that he had not had any formal English instruction up to this point, and had not really spent much time reading or writing in English (aside from text messages to me). To my surprise, he not only passed the exam, but had an ‘Exceptional’ in his reading paper and an ‘Excellent’ in his writing!

So here’s why I strongly recommend watching TV series with subtitles to any student.

  1.  You don’t have to keep getting to know new characters and new plotlines as it is with films. The background knowledge of the story helps you deduce meaning from context more easily.
  2. Words, phrases and grammatical structures often repeat themselves in a TV series. We looked up the Italian translation of the word ‘to threaten’ and ‘threat’ about 5 times when watching the first 2 episodes of 24, but by the 25 time, he not only understood what it meant but also how it was used.
  3. Reading subtitles does help one’s listening skills. One is able to not only hear the words and phrases but also make the connection between how it’s said and how it’s written. After some time, the brain starts to associate the way things are pronounced and the individual words that actually make up the utterance.
  4. We often use prediction stages when providing receptive skills practice in the classroom mainly because the very act of predicting helps better understanding of the text, regardless of whether our predictions are right or wrong. We predict the end of the story as we read the beginning of it. We predict the end of a sentence before we finish it. We predict the other half of a collocation before seeing it. And this is a skill that everyone uses subconsciously in our L1. We often try to help our learners transfer those skills when reading/listening in an L2, but when watching a fast-paced TV series like 24, the learner starts to use those innate prediction skills automatically as they get more involved in the plot.
  5. There’s nothing like getting addicted to a good series. You will soon forget that you’re doing it to improve your English and become genuinely interested in the storyline. This interest motivates you and propels you to watch one episode after another as the excitement builds. Before you know it, you’ll have had hundreds of hours of listening/reading practice, alongside being exposed to hundreds of lexicogrammatical structures. That’s more exposure than any English course can provide.

So what TV series would you get your teeth sunk into?

Here are my top 3 criteria when picking a TV series.

  1. Go for something that doesn’t feature too many social or romantic scenarios because they tend to be heavily laden with phrasal verbs, colloquialisms and slang. (Sex in the City is out then…)
  2. If you want to go for a comedy series, ensure that the comedy doesn’t depend too heavily on witticisms, plays on words or cultural references. (that immediately excludes The Thick of It and Yes, Minister).
  3. More important than the first 2 criteria is this: Ensure it’s a genre you love. Motivation rules.

So, what would you watch? Here are 20 suggestions I often give my students.

  • 24 (of course)
  • Dexter 
  • Prison Break
  • The Office (UK or US version)
  • Lost
  • Desperate Housewives
  • Six Feet Under
  • Ally McBeal
  • The West Wing
  • Heroes
  • House
  • Modern Family
  • Lie to Me
  • CSI
  • Fringe 
  • Supernatural
  • The X Files
  • True Blood 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • The Killing (new US version)

Are there any you would add to this list? I’d like to know what works for you.

Why I brought back the foreign language lesson to the CELTA

Many Celta trainers I know have taken the foreign language class out of their Celta timetables in favour of other more ‘practical’ input sessions such as classroom management. But looking back at the times when I was training up to be a teacher, I realised how some of the most valuable lessons I had learnt have come from those demo foreign language lesson and decided to give it top priority by dedicating a good 60 minutes to it on Day 1.

But before looking at the reasons why I’ve chosen to do so, let me first outline the foreign language lesson that I usually deliver. And for those teacher trainers out there who claim not to speak a foreign language, I hope this brief lesson plan would serve to reassure you that you do not need to speak a foreign language well to carry this out.

I usually do the foreign language lesson in either Chinese or Japanese, depending on the profiles of the candidates. Evidently, I’d choose the language that trainees are most unfamiliar with.

Materials: 6 items of realia – A box of English tea, a tin of green tea, a bottle of milk, a jar of coffee, a can of Coca Cola and a bottle of mineral water.

Procedure: I greet the students in the foreign language, and set out the items on the table. I start with one item, say, the English tea, modelling, drilling chorally and then individually. I then do the same with the second item, the green tea, before moving back to the English tea and the green tea again. Every time I introduce a new lexical item, I go back and drill those that I had done previously.

When the six items are drilled sufficiently, I draw a chair and a table on the board with a customer sitting and a waiter standing. Because my drawing abilities are so bad, I mime the waiter with my scarf over my arm just to ensure understanding of the context. I then mime the following dialogue line by line, but with the introduction of each line, I drill the phrase and everything I covered before.

Waiter: Hello

Customer: Hello

Waiter: What would you like?

Customer: I would like some English tea/coffee/water/etc…

In pairs, students role-play the dialogue with the help of the dialogue written on the board.

I then add  the rest of the dialogue.

Waiter: Would you like anything else?

Customer: I would also like some milk/Coca Cola/ etc…Thank you.

Waiter: Thank you.

Again, in pairs, the students role-play the dialogue. Just before they swap roles, I erase the dialogue off the board and have students do the role-play from memory.

At the end of the demo, the trainees discuss what they think each phrase from the dialogue meant in English and how they felt during the lesson.

During feedback, I take the opportunities to unpack the stages of drilling (model, choral, inidividual) and get them to notice other features of the lesson e.g. my seating position during the lesson, how I monitored, the effectiveness of pairwork, etc.

But one could argue that these are features that could be highlighted in any demo and not necessary through a foreign language lesson, but here are some other points that I find the foreign language lesson making very effectively.

1. It’s scary being a learner. 

Some of my trainees have never had the experience of learning a foreign language before. But even those who have might need a reminder of how it feels to be a learner - After my foreign language lessons, trainees often say they felt insecure and anxious when placed in a situation where they couldn’t speak the language. It brings attention to how language is such a core tool of communication to the rest of the world that without access to it, they experience a sense of panic and a loss of control over their surroundings. Some are surprised at how it makes them feel like a child and are better able to relate to how the high status professionals might feel being taken far away from their comfort zone.

2. Context is everything.

Choosing to do my foreign language lesson as a situational presentation, trainees are able to deduce the meaning of the lexical phrases without the need for any translation. But more importantly, it is good chance to draw attention to the fact words and phrases are often remembered through the context they were encountered in and are not stored in the brain separately, but in clusters e.g. with other related lexis or in lexical sets. When attempting remember the lexis a few days later, trainees will quickly realise lexis is more easily retrieved when the words/phrases are given a context, ‘a place to belong to’.

3. Drilling isn’t boring… and it isn’t just about pronunciation.

The foreign language lesson is a good chance to introduce drilling, and to demonstrate the importance of drilling, not just for pronunciation practice, but for memory retention and getting their tongues round the language. Being on the receiving end can help trainees see that drilling is not boring for the learner at all, and is in fact confidence-building. It is often the teacher who feels bored because he/she already knows the language item well.

4. Pronouncing unfamiliar sounds in a foreign language can be frustrating.

Especially when trainees have not had the experience of learning another language, it might be hard to relate to how difficult it might be to first recognise and differentiate what might seem like similar sounds in one language but totally different phonemes in another, and then try to contort their muscles in strange ways to make sounds that don’t exist in their language. Repeated drills of more difficult sounds can drive that message home.

5. Language learning isn’t always about learning single words.

When covering the Lexical Approach and introducing language chunks like collocations later in the course, I refer to how they learnt the phrases in chunks during the foreign language lesson without necessary understanding what the individual words meant, and highlight the fact that it takes the brain the same amount of effort/energy to remember a chunk/phrase of words as it takes to remember a single word, and encourage trainees to present language in their chunks and collocations.

6. It can take multiple encounters with a language item before it is retained and produced.

Trainees get to have first-hand experience of how long it can take to remember a new lexical item and how quickly we can forget it. By asking trainees again a few days later for the lexical items they learnt (and having them admit they’ve forgotten quite a fair bit of it)demonstrates the difference between short-term and long-term memory and the importance of recycling language and how language acquisition is not a linear process. What is taught is not necessary learnt.

7. Don’t overwhelm learners with too much information at a go.

When trainees try to squeeze in too many language items into their 40-minute lessons, I often remind them of how many lexical items they covered in their foreign language class (6 nouns and 5 phrases) and how close to feeling overwhelmed they already were.

8. Don’t just say them, board those new lexical items.

Too often do I see trainees who attempt to deal with emergent language by simply telling the learners the word or phrase, and not actually bothering to write the words up on the board. This can be extremely frustrating for many learners who find it easier to process and to remember lexis when they can actually see how it’s written. This also gives learners a chance to copy the new lexis into their notebooks. In my foreign language lesson, trainees are drilled the lexical items first and are given the written forms much later. They often report feeling a sense of relief when they are able to see it written down. This is a feeling worth referring to in order to encourage the boarding of new lexis and keeping a column for emergent language on the board.

9. A tolerance for ambiguity is crucial to being a good language learner.

Trainees often see reading and listening texts as a mere conduit for new language and are often not aware of the different subskills and strategies used unconsciously when reading or listening in their first language. Very commonly, when reading for gist or specific information, trainees give their learners way too much time, resulting in the learner attempting to decipher every single word and feeling dejected when they encounter one or two unfamiliar words. Sometimes such a psychological block created by just a couple of words can lead to learners giving up and not feeling competent enough to carry on reading. This need to cling on to every single word and this intolerance of any ambiguity in the foreign language is a sense easily conveyed through the foreign language lesson. Trainees can then better understand the need to develop their learners’ tolerance of ambiguity and the importance of training train learners to skim and scan so as to enable the transfer of such skills from their L1.

10. This is what a beginner’s class looks like.

This is the only time they will see a beginner’s class. Arguably, when teaching English as a foreign language, there are very few real beginners, but nevertheless, learners will encounter elementary students when they go out into the ‘real world’ and need some idea how they might deal with teach the very basics, with the help of some realia and mime, while still maintaining a communicative approach in the classroom. Trainees get to see that it’s totally possible to teach such a low level class even when the teacher is unable to speak their learners’ L1.

Obviously, these points can still be made through the use of other demos and discussions, but aside from the fact that one demo conveniently embodies so many of the key issues surrounding language learning and acquisition, more importantly, I brought it back because I will never forget how much enjoyment we got out of the foreign language lesson back when I did my Celta.

11 things I learnt in London – a pseudo-ethnographic exploration of British vs Singaporean culture

How time has flown. As of the 5th July 2011, I’ve been living in London for 11 years. It was 11 years ago when I wrote a ridiculous feature called ‘a Singaporean Bimbo in London’ for a Singaporean newspaper and it still makes me giggle to remember the girl that I was. Looking back, there has been some valuable lessons in those 11 years, somewhere…and perhaps living here both as a participant and an observer could somewhat make me an ethnographer of London pop culture, albeit not a systematic or academic one. On that note, here are the top 11 things I’ve gathered from my past 11 years.

1. Personality

My assumption: Enthusiasm and confidence are clearly positive things.

My experience: I used to greet my fellow housemates with a loud and cheery ‘Good Morning!’ and one day, overheard a conversation between two of my housemates that went something like this, ‘What’s she on? Nobody can be that enthusiastic. I can’t trust her. It seems so insincere’.

Lesson learnt: Enthusiasm and overconfidence can be regarded with suspicion (especially coming from a woman)

2. Intonation

My assumption: Coming to a country that speaks the same language, I immediately assumed that what I said would be understood in the same way too. Now, if you are not familiar with the Singaporean accent, imagine putting the word stress on the last syllable of every word, and the last word of every sentence. Now imagine this situation.

My experience: I was living a houseshare and the bins regularly were filled up but not emptied. After taking out the bins for the 11th time, I politely asked a housemate, ‘Could you take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ I later heard rumours that I was very aggressive, and so I tried to change the way I said things, ‘I was wonderING if you could possiBLY take the rubbish OUT, PLEASE?’ to no avail. To them, I was still aggressive.

Many years later, when shown Gumperz’s research that featured two different accents saying ‘That’s the wrong one. It’s the Wembley account,’ to a bank manager and how they were perceived differently, I suddenly realised that the unconscious placement of my sentence stress and intonation had created an impression I had no intention of making.

Lesson learnt: Accents may be part of your identity, but that identity could be misconstrued (so please don’t judge me for changing my accent…)

3. Forming new friendships                                                               

My assumption: The thought of moving overseas almost seems like an adventurous prospect. A chance to start over, to start afresh.

My experience: Most people I have met have close friends they have met at university or at school, and those seem to be the main friends that stay with you for life. Coming to a new environment in my mid-twenties only means that most people already have an established circle of friends, and this makes the task of making friends even more challenging.

Lesson learnt: By starting afresh, this includes the social circles that you’ve built. And if you don’t go to the pub, you might have problems making new friends.

4. Indirectness

My Assumption: People say that the Brits are very indirect and pride politeness.

My experience: I wrote long-winded work emails in the belief that I was being polite and indirect. When asking for time-off, I would write 3 paragraphs explaining why I needed it. When I received what I considered to be curt and abrupt replies, I spent nights worrying that I had offended them.

Lesson learnt: Generalisations can backfire. Context is everything. Regarding emails, it is totally acceptable to get to the point.

5. Perceptions of attractiveness 

My assumption: Being cute and silly is what you do when you flirt. Girliness=Sexiness. When showing affection, hit the member of the opposite sex playfully.

My experience: When I did the very same things that would have worked for me back in Singapore, the guy I was hitting (on) said, ‘What’s up with you? Grow up!’

Many years later, I had a heated discussion with a British friend about what she thought was the ‘infantilisation of women’ in Far Eastern cultures…strangely, we never saw it as infantilisation…just uh…cute?

Lesson learnt: What is considered attractive and flirty can be extremely different culture to culture.

6. Machismo

My assumption: Being romantic, liking romantic comedies and cheesy love songs are not gender-specific characteristics. (Some of my male Korean students will even attest to romantic comedies being their favourite genre of films)

My experience: Countless discussions with British and European men quickly brought light to the fact that it is just not cool for a man to like romantic films and cheesy love songs. This is further affirmed by the phrase ‘chick flicks’. But it is not just the British men who are wary of the Hollywood brand of romance. Several years ago, when I heard someone say, ‘Your eyes are like the stars in the sky’, I instantly responded with a cynical ‘Oh please…’, at which point I thought, ‘Oh my! I’m turning British!’

Lesson learnt: Cliched romantic notions could be considered not just very girly, but rather insincere.

7. The Media

My assumption: In Singapore, there is a relatively heavy-handed censorship of the media. The number of tabloid newspapers and reality TV shows far exceeds those in my country.

My experience: A student pointed out to me that she found it admirable that the mass media in Britain constantly chides celebrities for having cheated on their wives. When I probed further, she said that many women in her culture would not want to talk about their partner’s infidelity as they feel it might be a reflection of their unattractiveness. She added that if such news was in the papers in her country, the men would probably want to pat the celebrity on the back and celebrate his manhood. The open criticism of such behaviour in the media, whether it be on tabloids or the Jeremy Kyle Show leads to a public mentality that cheating is unacceptable, no representation of one’s manliness and definitely not the norm.

Lesson learnt: Tabloid media can serve to uphold certain values in society and reflect the beliefs and the values of a culture (and can be good ‘fry-your-brain’ entertainment too).

8. Studying

My assumption: When I was at school, the popular kids were always the ones who had the straight As, in addition to excelling in other extra curricular activities like the piano, dance, chess. The boys who studied hard were the ones other boys wanted to be, the ones that the girls were drawn to.

My experience: I was never really the hard worker or the star pupil back at school, but perhaps growing up and finding a passion for teaching and Applied Linguistics has propelled me to put quite a bit of effort into my teaching qualifications. But I soon realised that one’s grades or knowledge is not something one should publicise.

Lesson learnt: Studying and the procurement of knowledge is best done quietly (otherwise you’ll be known as a nerd)

9. Class

My assumption: Having money and being upper class are considered desirable qualities. Coming from a country that had moved from third world to first world in such a short period of time, a rat race had developed to push people to compete so as to learn more, produce more and achieve more. The fight for status and the 5 Cs (Cash, Car, Career, Condominium, Credit Card) was what elevated the country’s economic status.

My experience: The rich and upper class are sometimes treated with disdain. Many have a fierce pride in their regional accents. People protest against bankers’ wages. Of course, it is no secret that the TEFL world I work in is populated by liberals in pursuit of fairness, but I would like to think that it is a fair representation of the majority.

Lesson learnt: Being or sounding posh can be detrimental in the UK. Obviously, I frown upon any kind of discrimination, but the citizens of the UK can be proud to be striving towards the values of altruism and meritocracy.

10. Wit 

I could almost write a whole blogpost dedicated to this. But better yet, read pop anthropologist Kate Fox’s ‘Watching the English’ which dedicates a whole chapter to this topic, and a whole section to irony.

My Assumption: There are several things I had taken forgranted in this area. Among these are – humour is important but just one of many character traits that could be nice to have; Mr Bean was a good representation of British humour; winding someone up is usually done with malice. But the examination of different brands of humour deserves much more than just a few throw-away sentences that can hardly summarise the underlying features of what we intrinsically find funny.

Situation: Couple of years ago, I stumbled upon a Singaporean friend’s video on Facebook that was shot during a house party. A boy at the party teases a female friend as being very girly in front of the others, she throws her hands up, stomps her feet in a girly manner and screams, ‘Ai yoh! Don’t sabo (Singaporean English short for sabotage) me! You always like that one!’ (translation: Oh my! Don’t tease me! Why are you always like that?) and the rest of their friends laughs along at her display of ‘cuteness’.  Upon watching this video, I intrinsically found myself laughing adoringly, relating to the scenario. There was a part of myself that understood that brand of humour, despite knowing that there was a stark difference between that and British wit. At that moment, I realised that humour was something deeply entrenched in our upbringing.

Lesson learnt: In Britain, humour is everything. Irony permeates everyday life and best delivered with a dead-pan face. I love the wit of Mock the Week, the self-deprecation of Little Britain, but I probably will never really be able to ‘do it’ the British way. And that’s ok.

Most importantly,

11. Speaking the same language does not mean having the same culture.

The above might seem pretty obvious, but it was something I simply hadn’t considered when I started living here. Basic concepts which I took for granted as universal were clearly not. And these are concepts no book about culture could shed light on.

I’m glad these 11 years have taught me that.

A Singaporean Bimbo in London – a newspaper article I wrote in 2000.

This is an article I wrote for a Singaporean newspaper called The New Paper (yes, I know…) 11 years ago, shortly after I arrived in London. In light of my 11th anniversary blogpost, I’m rehashing this article, published on 14 January 2001.

The few of you who are asking where the Triple Nine-cum-Speak Mandarin Campaign girl has been this last year. I’m back. All right, maybe not physically, but in literary spirit I am back to enliven my fellow countrymen of my discoveries in Europe. Mainly, the self discovery of the Singaporean bimbo.

Rumours that Chong Chia Suan had gone to London after her filming in Prague to ‘discover new showbiz opportunities’ were floating around. Fact is, upon realising the tip of my bimbo-quotient iceberg, I decided to stay on in Europe to uncover the rest of it.

It began in Prague when I mistook one of the assistant directors to be American when he clearly had a British accent. The truth was, no matter how I had pretended to be Ms-Know-All in the past, I really couldn’t distinguish accents very well. After all, this is the same girl who had to read the subtitles to Trainspotting to understand what the movie was all about.

A stuntman who saw that I did not know anything about Europe at all suggested that I go to London, it being the centre of the arts and everything, to learn a few things. My lesson began almost immediately as I crossed the channel from France to London by rail. My mind was instantly fogged with bimbo-ish ideas of france being on the other side of Europe from London. Voila! They were actually right next to each other. But, hang on a second, weren’t they supposed to be two big and different countries with separate cultures and languages, united by the one similar desire to beat each other at everything? So, how could they be neighbours?

Bimbotic revelations continued as I walked the streets of London, ecstatic that the places on my Monopoly board REALLY did exist. There I was, all by myself, in the middle of a busy street, jumping up and down, giggling uncontrollably and yelling to anyone who would listen, “Hey! Trafalgar Square! Piccadilly Circus! Bond Street and cheapo Old Kent Road!”

And I started to sob at the sight of those red toy buses and postboxes I used to play with, here, blown-up life-size, and moving for real.

At first, I thought I could get away with the excuse that being Singaporean, I lived a sheltered life and did not know quite as much about the rest of the world. My new Finnish flatmates soon caught on to the fact that my ill-knowledge of the world was incurable when I actually believed them when they told me that penguins were kept in residential backyards, and that polar bears were sold in pet shops in Finland. They found my stupidity quite funny at first, and repeatedly tried to convince me of ridiculous trivia which sounded perfectly plausible to me, starting with the high rates of deaths in Finland caused by men peeing out in the minus 50 cold to the number of Finnish people who lived in igloos.

I stood uncontested as the very personification of ‘bimbo’. For a while. They soon tired of insistence that the capital of Switzerland was Stockholm, Holland was just another name for Denmark, Budapest was a Middle-Eastern city, and Netherlands used to be part of Russia.

Thankfully, the people of England seemed to not only forgive, but are deliriously obsessed with stupidity. Top television programmes readily feature cerebrally-challenged people. Think Harry Enfield, the Monty Python Series, The Fast Show, and those of you not familiar with any of the above, you force me to mention – Mr Bean.

Compare this to the highly-rated programmes in Singapore which tend to feature more intelligent people like Mulder and Scully, Phua Chu Kang, the cast of Friends…er…well…never mind…

I must admit that following through with my bimbocity was rather fun and attention-grabbing at first, until it became really life-threatening. I openly told a Scotsman, who worked as a baked beans taster for a major supermarket chain (this is true!) that Scotland was part of England! Along with my lucky stars, the man had a great sense of humour, probably owing to his job, and I was let off the hook. My fellow actors in class, upon hearing about the incident, marvelled at how I survived it without landing in hospital.

Now you know why I cannot return to Singapore until I succeed in becoming remotely intelligent, or my trip would have been for nothing. Meanwhile, I am still trying to figure out if my flatmates were teasing when they said that salami was made from horsemeat.

Intercultural Dining Etiquette and Table Manners

This week, a future mother-in-law wrote a enraged email to her step-son’s fiancee criticising her fussy eating habits and lack of table manners after her visit to their family home. The email went viral and was published in the Metro on Wednesday, and this piece of authentic material soon found its way to the English language school. In the staffroom, a debate ensued as to whether the future mother-in-law or the supposedly impolite girl in need of finishing school was to be blamed, and it soon became apparent that this would make for great discussions in our classes. Nevertheless, my colleagues weren’t sure if the article would be suitable for my low-intermediate class. Determined to grade the tasks (and discussions) and not the text, I brought the article into my classroom, and the discussion that actually emerged was more interesting than I could have ever expected.

It soon became obvious during the reading and discussions that the mother-in-law’s perception of what was good etiquette and appropriate manners was very culturally biased. And the following questions regarding etiquette arose:

When you are a guest at someone’s family home,

1. Do you normally wait for everyone (including the female hosts) to be seated before starting on your food? Should you say something before starting?

2. If you don’t like something, should you force yourself to eat it or do you find a way to refuse? What would you say?

3. Do you normally take small helpings of the side dishes (e.g. the potatoes, salads, etc.) throughout the meal, or do you take one big helping that will last you for the rest of your meal?

4. Should you finish everything on your plate or can you leave some if you have had enough?

Question number 1 initially seemed to invite unanimous responses of ‘yes’es’ but after some probing, it was revealed that in Japan and Thailand, the female hosts of more traditional families often remain standing, waiting to serve the guests, and don’t sit down to eat until everyone else has finished.

Question number 3 brought up some interesting cultural differences. Most Europeans thought it appropriate to pile on one big helping  onto one’s plate right at the start of the meal, but most Chinese students found this rude. A meal was meant to be an occasion for sharing, and the ‘this is my share and that is yours’ attitude didn’t go down very well with them. Taking just one piece from a side dish and eating it before going for another piece was the accepted approach.

In response to question 4, the Arabic students agreed that in some families, finishing the food on a plate would mean more is desired, and this would prompt the host to refill the empty dishes with more food. This would usually be pre-empted with an offer to refill the plate, which the guest can politely refuse, but if the host is unable to speak English well, they might enthusiastically refill the plate without asking.

This discussion prompted more questions about guest etiquette to be written up on the board and the discussion continued in groups.

5. What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s house? What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s wedding?

Most students agreed that something should be brought but the items ranged from wine to food, and even flowers. As for weddings, most Asian and Arabic students agreed that money should be given as a present, much to the surprise of the Europeans. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean students all insisted that the start of a couple’s life together would cost a lot of money, and therefore, the guests should be obligated to give more than the cost per head. A wedding would therefore bring in a profit for the happy couple to have a headstart in life. The Europeans, however, saw it as the happy couple treating their friends to a meal, and shared concepts such as wedding lists.

6. Where should you sit when at the dinner table? How should you sit? Where should you place your hands?

Some cultures had elaborate rules when it came to seating positions, which was often based on seniority, and which direction the host should face. The Japanese and Koreans agreed that it was rude to cross one’s legs in front of those more senior than oneself, but they disagreed as to how to place one’s hands. In the Japanese culture, both hands (and arms) should be seen above the table at all times. One hand ought to be holding the bowl of rice while the other hand held the chopsticks. The Koreans, on the other hand (no pun intended), found the holding of the bowl to be ‘beggar-like’ and insisted that the bowl should be left on the table, while one hand picks from it either with chopsticks, or more commonly, a spoon. Elbows, we all agreed, should be kept off the table.

7. Where do you place the cutlery to indicate you are still eating? Where do you place them to show that you have finished your meal?

Those that used knives and forks agreed that placing them side by side on the plate indicated that one had finished with the meal, but there was less agreement as to what to do with cutlery in the middle of the meal. Some suggested we should cross our knives and forks on our plates to indicate that we were not finished, but some were adamant that this was rude. The use of chopsticks was less familiar for the non-Oriental students, who were surprised to learn that one must never stick the chopsticks in their rice bowl as it resembled the incense used when praying to the dead. The Oriental students all agreed that placing the chopsticks back down on the table beside the bowl was the most polite way to do this, although the Korean and Japanese students reacted in horror when the Taiwanese students remarked that they also placed them together across the top of the bowl.

8. How many courses are usually served, and in which order?

Talking about courses reminded me of an experience I had with some Spanish visitors who came to London some years ago. They had wanted to try some Chinese food, so I had some dishes delivered. You probably already know this, but the Chinese don’t typically do ‘courses’, except for dessert and tea/coffee. All the dishes are placed in the centre of the table, and each person gets their own bowl of rice. One then takes what they want to eat from the dishes in the centre and ‘shares’ the meal with everyone at the table. But when I placed the dishes in the centre of the table, my Spanish friends started to eat out of the vegetable dish until it was empty, and then proceeded onto the Lemon Chicken. Despite my continual insistence that they had to mix all the dishes together, they stuck to their belief that the ‘salad’ had to come before the meat dish, and the rice came last. Imagine my shock when they finished off the meal chomping down on the plain rice in their bowls once all the dishes were done with!

9.  What do you normally drink with your meal? Are there any codes of behaviour to observe?

The Chinese students were keen to state that Chinese tea was usually drunk after the meal and not during, contrary to what Chinese restaurants in London would have you believe. The Japanese students, however, saw drinking green tea during the meal as totally normal. While the tea at the Chinese table should be refilled by the person seated closest to the teapot, when it comes to alcohol at the Japanese and Korean table,
it is customary for people to refill each other’s glasses/cups, and not one’s own. But the most interesting comment came from the Koreans, who said that when drinking alcohol in front of someone more senior, one should always turn away (about 90 degrees from the person with more seniority) and sip from their glass with their hands covering it.

10. How much time do you usually spend at the dinner table?

This brought up some stark differences. Most Europeans and South Americans saw dinnertime as time for communication with the rest of the family, and would spend anything from 1 hour to 4 hours at the dinner table. Those from the Far East were more efficient with their meal times and would typically finish a meal in 5-20 minutes, unless a guest was present.

This lesson went on for about 3 hours, throwing up lots of useful lexis and grammatical structures in addition to very useful speaking practice. The discussion/debate was definitely not about what I had expected it to be, but going with the flow definitely allowed us to learn so much more about each other. In a time of international business dealings, an understanding of the social norms and etiquettes of different cultures is becoming more important than ever. And lessons could be made so much more fruitful if we could kill two birds exchanging such information whilst providing practice of English. Meanwhile, on a more selfish level, I’ve learnt lots too.

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