One of the areas of teaching a language which I’ve always found fascinating is making students more aware of the relationship between language and culture. It’s interesting to explore how culturally loaded language use and our individual or collective perception of language is, especially since this is often done unconsciously. This process of cultural interference/influence is ongoing and we are rarely aware of its impact unless we stop and start reflecting not only on what language denotes, but most interestingly what it connotes as Roland Barthes would say.
A few days ago I read this great article written by Vassiliki Lismani at EFL Magazine on the role of semantics in speaking classes and how objective our interpretation of words we assume to have a universal meaning is. This reminded me of my love for Semiotics ever since I was an MA student of Audiovisual Translation and how it has affected my own understanding of the ways dominant ideologies use and repurpose popular culture and in turn how this manifests itself in our language expression. This process of identifying visual stimuli as “texts” which are carriers of cultural information was extremely helpful in our jobs as subtitlers/translators, but I also think that it is necessary in ELT. Making learners more aware of the ways images, films etc. communicate information (often indirectly) builds not only their linguistic skills, but most importantly their cultural and intercultural understanding.
Semiotics in our life
As a field, Semiotics examines sign processes and the way sign systems “function” in order to communicate ideas and information. In the case of language it sheds light on how meaning is created and then communicated. We realise then that it offers us a tool through which we can make more sense of the world around us and most importantly of both our local and dominant-international cultural landscape.
We might not be conscious of it, but we are all semioticians in the sense that we spend all of our daily lives interpreting signs which allow us to “navigate” the different landscapes we find ourselves in. We also do so as teachers when we ask our learners to delve deeper into their own perception of the world when they have to explain why they feel so about a topic, support their opinions with arguments, or why specific signs/ gestures are used in their first language.
What I love to do though is extend this discourse by digging a bit deeper so as to make students more aware of what is taken for granted or what we feel is right/should be so without often knowing why. I think this process of scratching beneath the surface of our own individual preconceptions allows us to better understand ourselves and the way culture affects the shaping of our reality and the world around us.
“Film Poster Spoilers” activity
One of my favourite activities in doing so which is a personal influence of my MA years is analysing film posters. The task is called “Film Poster Spoilers” as I feel that film posters often give us much more information about a film before watching it than we realize and is often done in 3 stages. It’s an activity which I work on with my B2+ learners. but can be adapted to lower levels as well.
Stage 1 is a speaking task typical of exams at the B2+ level in which students are asked to describe what they see in a given picture. Through this stage students have the chance to practice descriptive vocabulary, prepositions of place and tense usage. We often record it on students’ mobile phones as it can be useful for Stage 2. Stage 2 is called “Zooming in/Zooming Out” and involves a series of questions that relate both to the poster as a whole but also focuses on specific details on it. The questions of this stage follow more or less the following pattern: “What can you see? Is it what you expect? If not, how is it similar/different to what you’d expect to see? What do you think it tells the audience?” etc.
Let’s take for instance the Avengers film poster:
In Stage 1 students would be asked to describe what they see in the poster. In Stage 2 there would be a series of questions relating both to the “big picture” aka the poster as a whole (for e.g. In terms of names/titles which name or title stands out? Is this what you’d expect? Why? What about the other names/titles? What are the dominant colours of the poster? Why do you think this is the case? What is the position of the characters in the poster? What do you think this hierarchy was chosen? What does it tell the audience?) as well as to specific details in the picture (for e.g. What can you see in the background? What is happening at the building on the right of the page? etc.)
Once we’ve analysed the poster in class students are then asked at Stage 3 to find a film poster, prepare an analysis of it and then present it in class next time. Once this is done, they are asked to write a short reflection essay on how the task has helped them -or not- understand more about the way images and visual information are used to communicate ideas and cultural information.
Wanna buy a celebrity T-shirt? task
As an extension to the previous activity I bring in class pictures of T-shirts with historical figures or famous people on them. I usually choose people that my students are familiar with. Still, regardless of whether they know the personalities on them or not I ask them what they know or think they know about these people.
Then, we search for information about them and their lives in online encyclopedias. Once this is done we go back to the T-shirts and try to understand why these specific people were chosen and why. In the end, students are asked to say why they think customers could buy this T-shirt for and what they think the T-shirt says about them. As a reflection task, students are asked to either write or create a video on whether or not they feel that these characteristics/attributes that customers would like the T-shirt for relates to the historical figure’s life.