Photo: neiljs

MatadorU student Jenna Makowski learns that the meaning of words and phrases can have many different layers in varied cultural contexts.

Sometimes, dictionaries just don’t work. The problem with dictionaries is that they fail to capture the full nuance of language, which comes from the influence of culture. Culture shapes the meaning of words. Words have certain associations or connotations attached to them that develop from peoples’ shared experiences. When these words are translated from one language to another, the meaning is often lost, because the same associations or connotations may not exist in both cultures.

It is impossible to translate culture in a dictionary.

But I was wrong – horribly wrong – in my assumption that my students would have no idea what the phrase meant, and that they were blank slates on which I had to write an explanation.

This is something I did not fully understand, until I experienced a direct collision of cultural assumptions in my ESL classroom in Moscow.

I had chosen an article for my class to read that used the phrase “a bright future.” In the context of the article, “a bright future” referred to the upcoming years of a young person who was intelligent, motivated and ambitious, and who, it was believed, would achieve success. Likewise, my own associations were similar. I attached ideas like a college education, motivation and ambition with “a bright future,” because the society where I lived made those same associations. I thought of a commercial I’d seen, sponsored by my local community college. Go to school, study, be motivated and ambitious; this is the recipe for a bright future.

I pinpointed “a bright future” as new vocabulary to teach, assuming that the clichéd phrase might be difficult for my students to grasp, and that I’d have to explain the associations the phrase carried. I was right in identifying the phrase as necessary teaching material. But I was wrong – horribly wrong – in my assumption that my students would have no idea what the phrase meant, and that they were blank slates on which I had to write an explanation. In fact, immediately upon reading it, my students not only understood the phrase, but interpreted it against the background of their own experiences. They gave it a nuanced and shaded meaning that made me re-examine my equally biased interpretation of the words.

The whole process went like this.

“A bright future” was written on the blackboard.

I underlined bright. “What does bright mean?” We established common points of reference: lots of light, shining, positive connotations. Good. “Now what does future mean?” The years, months and days ahead of us. Easy. I thought we were on the same page.

Wrong.

“Now, put those words together. What do they mean?”

Two students glanced at each other and snickered. Another laughed. I noticed sarcasm in their reactions, but I had no idea why. So I asked.

One student wondered if I had ever seen the statue of Lenin in Moscow. In fact, I had run across multiple marble and stone manifestations of Lenin during my time in Russia. I answered, with a tinge of naivety, “which one?” to which they laughed again. I laughed with them.

The laughter faded into a momentary, awkward silence, until one of them took charge of the explanation. She asked, “Have you seen the statue near Oktyabrskaya metro station, the one like this?” She stretched her arm out in front of her body, pointed her index finger and looked upwards.

Yes, I had. “Well,” she explained, “During the Soviet Union, we often saw pictures like this. They said we were going toward a bright future, but we didn’t.”

Many of my students were raised to believe that Lenin’s ideals would lead them toward “a bright future.” But, according to those who judge history, those ideals failed. The Soviet Union fell apart, leading to food shortages, lost savings, and worthless currency. This “bright future” was, in their reality, the country’s dark destruction.

They now use the phrase in ironic contexts. One student gave an example. A group of people at her office had been working to complete a project that they knew would fail, but they were doing it anyway. They told themselves they were working toward “a bright future” and laughed at the ironic disconnect, because they knew the project was doomed to collapse.

A hopeful and positive future vs. economic and social destruction. What vastly different associations are attached to that seemingly simple phrase. What hugely different connotations, and each meaning is so attached to its larger cultural context that simple direct translation is impossible.

More was being taught during that class than the words of a language. It was a lesson in cross-cultural exchange, growing from the collision of culturally-shaped assumptions. My classroom had become a space where my assumptions as a 25-year old, suburban-raised, middle-class, white American woman met the assumptions of my students, each shaped by their own respective experiences and backgrounds.

Teaching takes on a whole new meaning when these collisions occur. In my experience, they led to mis-used words and misunderstandings that forced me to challenge my own culturally-sensitive assumptions and biases. That is the beauty of living and teaching abroad. Viewpoints are widened after exposure to perspectives that differ from one’s one. I hope my students enjoyed the collisions as much as I did.

Community Connection

Can you relate with Jenna’s experience in the classroom? Has there ever been a time when your students ended up teaching you valuable lessons during class time? Share in the comments below!

This article is part of Matador’s Classroom Experiences series. If you’d like to share about your time teaching abroad, check out Matador’s contributor guidelines and submit your piece with “Classroom Experiences” in the title.