Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fools' Days?

Another April Fools' Day! Fun to live with such a funny (and sometimes scary) holiday. The origins of such holiday are rather obscure, but some sites such as wikkipedia and hoaxopedia track back some of its origins. Being caught in an April Fools' prank, I started to reflect about the teaching of holidays and foreign celebrations I have witnessed throughout my life as a teacher... and it made me wonder...

Most language schools in Brazil "teach" foreign holidays, often promoting celebrations and parties of those which are not part of our cultural practices. A blatant example is Halloween, a Celtic celebration of the dead which was turned into a good reason for a costume party and some scary activities with kids. Please, don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely into parties! (I just love costume parties!!) What really bothered me was the “what” students were getting from this kind of activity. The supposed reason why most schools “teach” holidays is a possible contact with the culture of the language students are learning. After some years observing this process, I began to wonder what kind of real life cultural input we were really providing our students, with artificial celebrations, which advantage to the student was (hopefully) the learning of half a dozen context-related words which would seldom be used again. Are we really teaching any culture?

On the other hand, as a language teacher, I just can’t ignore the fact that language IS culture (ok, it’s simplistic… I know there’s more to discuss about this issue, but I need subjects for further writings J ) , and there is no way to understand and interact with language without taking a glimpse at the Other represented by this symbolic system which is language, understanding this different perspective, or as the Native American saying goes “walking a mile in another person’s moccasins”. Undoubtedly, celebrating other nations’ holidays is certainly a fun way to do so, to understand what is “celebratable” and how it is done. Holidays may be the remaining aspects of long gone – and sometimes forgotten – habits, such as the long lost celebrations which originated Halloween, but they may give us the possibility of understanding a little piece of the interaction between peoples, their cultures and their beliefs. This is definitely a very interesting part of learning a language.

So… we are left in a rut, right?

A possible solution to this dilemma is to reflect about holidays from an investigative perspective, focusing on aspects which would allow students and teachers to think about the similarities and differences between their native and foreign cultures, as well as to observe more carefully what role these similarities and differences play in the relations between groups of people (yes… politically speaking). Maybe we this is a door to the questioning of our conceptions of homely and foreign are(Freud’s unheimlich?)...

Or maybe we may let it be just another April Fools’ Day prank.

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