Here is my essay from the Bryn Mawr College Cookbook. It’s about how food can be used in language education, so it might be some food for thought for those of you learning a new language.
The Secret Weapon
During my years teaching English in Sweden, I’ve frequently come back to food as a topic of conversation in class. I don’t do this just because I happen to be very interested in food. Many students don’t want to talk about politics or religion, because of an understandable desire to avoid conflict, and only some are interested in sports, movies, or books. But everyone has an opinion on food, and no one is afraid to try out their English, no matter how tentative, when the subject is as basic, and as essential, as food.
Beginning students tend to prefer to simply repeat the English words for various foods, tasting the words in their mouths. Intermediate students like to talk about what they ate for breakfast that day or what they usually eat on certain holidays, or they enjoy announcing which foods they like or dislike and why. The most advanced students discuss food memories, and they laugh at mistranslations or other silly mistakes, such as the misspelling of “pea soup” not uncommonly seen on English menus in Sweden, or the student who insisted he liked to drink “bear,” or the woman who advised that crying babies should be fed “glue.” She meant “gruel,” although that’s not necessarily so much better.
But whatever their level, all of my students are very curious to learn about food in the United States, and to compare it to food in Sweden, Poland, Lebanon, Russia, Denmark, France, Japan, or wherever they originally come from. And learning about the eating habits of Americans seems to teach by extension. A student might ask about typical American Easter foods, but then the class wonders whether all Americans celebrate Easter, and what other religions exist in the United States, and how the different races and religions get along, and suddenly we’re talking about issues much bigger than what Americans generally eat for a yearly holiday meal. Starting with that most everyday of subjects – food – helps the students gain a deeper understanding of a country and a culture that seems very far away to them.
A little physical reinforcement of all this new knowledge doesn’t hurt, so I gladly bake for my students, bringing in American treats. For example, they have enjoyed fudge, oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate chip cookies, muffins, and brownies. I make them guess at the ingredients and tell me the names in English: “Oatmeal in a cookie? Strange, but it’s really good!”
More than once, though, the dinner tables have been turned. Students eagerly tell me about their national dishes or favorite foods, and they teach the class the correct pronunciation, and bring in recipes, pictures, or even samples. I’ve been offered, among other items, ice chocolates, traditional Swedish curd cake, freshly baked scones with jam, spiced wine, gingerbread, and “lussekatter,” the Swedish buns made with saffron.
I’ve almost come to think of food as a secret weapon not only for language education, but also for inter-cultural understanding. It’s long been known that breaking bread together has a symbolic meaning, but I didn’t quite expect that just discussing bread could have such significant benefits as well. Using food as a subject and a starting-off point, my students enthusiastically practice their English while simultaneously attempting to learn more about what people and cultures outside their own country are like.
Seeing how food makes them more curious and more open has made me realize that the time has come for more people to literally talk turkey.
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