Culture can be defined as “the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs and understanding that are learned by socialization. Thus, it can be seen as the growth of a group identity fostered by social patterns unique to the group” (Center for Advance Research on Language Acquisition).
Films are a highly useful medium for learning about culture. This blog is about using films for studying aspects related to culture in the classroom, especially the foreign language classroom. It will look at the theoretical and practical implications of utilising films to promote students’ acquisition of intercultural communicative competence, which can be defined as “the ability to understand cultures, including one’s own, and use this understanding to communicate with people from other cultures successfully” (British Council). Furthermore, the blog provides teaching ideas for using films of different genres, such as feature films, documentaries, short films, trailers, music videos and commercials. Both English-language films and films in other languages will be discussed.
Films are powerful tools for learning about other cultures and intercultural interaction for the following ten reasons:
- As Ellen Summerfield states in Crossing Cultures through Film (1993), “film helps to create a unique environment for cross-cultural learning because it speaks to our emotions as well as our intellect. Learning about stereotypes, ethnocentrism, discrimination, and acculturation in the abstract can be flat and uninspiring. But if we experience intercultural contact with our eyes and ears, we begin to understand it.” Films can promote awareness, curiosity and interest in other cultures and respect for diversity. They enable students to develop empathy with the protagonist from whose point of view the story is told. Hence, films can help learners to see the world from somebody else’s point of view and put themselves into the shoes of people with whom they have few or no opportunities to come into personal contact, for example refugees or ethnic minorities in their own country or abroad.
- Films are cultural documents and allow students to explore the different elements of another culture such as its products, for example literature, folklore, art, music and artefacts, behavioural patterns, such as customs, habits, dress, foods and leisure activities as well as ideas, such as beliefs, values, institutions (as outlined in Cultural Awareness by Tomalin & Stempleski, 1993).
- Films can promote the competences required by learners in communicative situations. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), put together by the Council of Europe in 2001, differentiates between the general and communicative language competences of the language learner: The general competences comprise declarative knowledge, skills and know-how, existential competence and ability to learn. In particular, films can be used as a tool to help students acquire knowledge about the sociocultural elements mentioned under declarative skills:
· everyday living, e.g. food and drink, meal times, table manners, public holidays,
working hours and practices, leisure activities
· living conditions
· interpersonal relations
· values, beliefs and attitudes
· body language
· social conventions
· ritual behaviour
Regarding intercultural skills, film can be a part of students’ training “to fulfil the role of cultural intermediary between one’s own culture and the foreign culture and to deal effectively with intercultural misunderstanding and conflict situations; the ability to overcome stereotyped relationships”. Under ‘existential’ competence, the CEFR states that “desirable attitudes are openness towards, and interest in, new experiences, other persons, ideas, peoples, societies and cultures; willingness to relativise one’s own cultural viewpoint and cultural value-system; willingness and ability to distance oneself from conventional attitudes to cultural difference”. Films can help to influence students’ attitudes as outlined in the CEFR.
- Regarding the communicative language skills laid out in the CEFR, films often expose students to authentic language and its variations, such as accents, dialects and sociolects, as well as communicative situations and are therefore a useful tool to develop students’ linguistic competence, sociolinguistic competence and pragmatic competence.
- Films can also be used to interpret the paralinguistic (non-verbal) features of spoken language of other speech communities, such as tone and pitch, and body language - gestures, facial expressions, posture, eye contact - and proxemics (the study of human use of space).
- If cultural theories are a classroom topic, films can demonstrate what these theories and abstract concepts mean in real life, e.g. Edward T. Hall’s theory of monochronic and polychronic time, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, for example, power distance and individualism vs. collectivism, or Trompenaars' model of national culture differences.
- Suitable films can be exploited to study some of the eleven global issues that are mentioned in Teaching English (Grimm, Meyer &Volkmann) from multiple perspectives, for instance:
· Demographic aspects: mobility and migration
· Aspects of peace education and non-violence: violence and war, racism, refugees,
· Political aspects and human rights education: human rights, global governance,
immigration laws, multiculturalism, integration …
· Ecological aspects
· Cultural aspects: globalisation and localisation …
· Socio-economic aspects: poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, fair trade …
· Social aspects: religion, living together in multicultural societies and integration,
human rights, gender issues …
· Language-related aspects: English as a lingua franca, business communication·
- A film-based activity can be used as a springboard to train communicative language strategies. Films are multimedia products and, due to the combination of image, sound and possibly text, they can aid listening comprehension. In addition, a film can be a stimulus for other communicative language activities and strategies to be practised in pre-viewing and post-viewing activities, such as production, interaction and mediation.
- Films can be used to train media literacy, which is about “helping students become competent, critical and literate in all media forms so that they control the interpretation of what they see or hear rather than letting the interpretation control them” () and to learn how to become critical viewers regarding biased and stereotypical media representations. Furthermore, films lend themselves to the study of cinematic techniques, such as shots, editing, light and music, and how they are employed to present a viewpoint.
- Finally, films can be regarded as a form of edutainment because they combine pleasure and learning.