June 13, 2019
Renée Beck

Looking back, I know I loved my life but I realize now how naïve I was when it came to culture. From a small city in Ohio, I lived in a bubble and knew very little about how the outside world functioned. Like many growing up in the early to mid-1990’s, I used America On-line to access the internet. We didn’t have Facebook, Instagram, or any other of the numerous social media destinations that are so prevalent in today’s world. America On-line’s ‘sandbox’ led me to feel comfortable and safe in what I knew as the Internet.

I decided to become an exchange student during the year between my senior year of high school and my first year of college. It wasn’t until I found myself in a small city in the south of France that I truly realized there was a whole other world outside of the small, safe, comfortable city where I grew up. I was learning first hand that while we had a lot in common, there were differences too.

My host family consisted of a mom, a dad, and a thirteen-year-old girl—my French “sister”. I learned a tremendous amount from them and I’ll never forget my first real encounter with a cultural difference while at their dinner table. Yes, believe it or not, a lot of my lessons in France came from sitting around the dinner table. At every meal, I watched and learned as my host family and I ate and discussed our day. My first faux pas, while small in nature, was still a faux pas. One evening, after passing the bread, I placed my piece on my plate. My host dad, quick to teach me a lesson, reached across the table, grabbed my bread and placed it directly on the table—off of my plate. This action took me by surprise and I thought to myself “Why would you put the bread on the table? There will be crumbs to clean up and is this table even clean?!” With this small lesson I began to notice more differences in our cultures. I started to observe more closely and the lessons became more frequent and obvious as my worldview widened.  

My host dad, Jacques, helped me learn everything he could about the French culture. We talked about anything that came up, whether it be a question I had about the French, a question he had about my life as an American, or contemporary news and activities. He made sure that I understood that there were also differences between the various regions of France, as with the United States. We should not make generalizations that the French are all the same simply because they live in France.

One of my favorite lessons was when he told me how you can always tell who the Americans are in restaurants because they eat with one hand under the table. You see, in French culture, it is customary to rest both arms atop the table. I hadn’t questioned this American norm before, but I now look around while eating in restaurants and the memory of Jacques’ lesson brings a smile to my face. Who knew that these little lessons and discussions with Jacques would spark such a fascination with the francophone culture and influence many of my decisions as I moved forward in life?

Since then, I’ve asked myself as a teacher, how can we teach culture in a way that the students can feel the same enthusiasm and walk away from class wanting to learn more? It goes without saying that we all want to teach our students how to communicate in French, but we also need to teach them how to think, to question, and to compare different cultures around the world. So, the answer to my question is very simple: if we want our students to question, to learn, and to want to understand how the world works, culture has to be at the center of each lesson. The vocabulary lists and grammar rules are important tools needed to teach the students so they can communicate in the target language, but that is not our only objective. The students need to feel a connection with the people. They need to see that there are similarities amongst cultures as well as the differences people tend to talk about. It is the culture that keeps the classroom alive and full of curiosity.

Renee Beck

Renée Beck has a passion for analyzing contemporary francophone culture and motivating her students to understand the importance of culture while learning a second language. She enjoys spending time with family and friends, from relaxing in the back yard to experiencing other parts of the world. Renée has studied in southern France and currently teaches in Ohio.

Her publications includes The Francophone Experience series and the French IPA Packs available at Teacher’s Discovery.

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