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Language of the street

Protest banners, graffiti and even sewer covers can inspire lessons

Protest banners, graffiti and even sewer covers can inspire lessons

The Occupy protests that have swept the world over the past few years have taught many people many lessons. But one lesson the organisers perhaps did not expect has led to a change in the way I teach Hebrew to foreign students.

The shift began because my students were frustrated that the banners they saw at Occupy protests in our city of Tel Aviv seemed nonsensical. They weren't, of course, but when we are learning a language we often fail to recognise the importance of history and context. The banners simply used language that we don't tend to learn in the classroom.

This was an interesting lesson for me, and one that led me to start holding classes in and around Tel Aviv using a portable whiteboard.

The resources of the city are plentiful: I use shop fronts, street signs and anything else I come across to teach language and history. The words on sewer covers, for example, are really interesting. In Hebrew, the word for "municipality" has changed since the 1950s, when there were reforms in our orthography. So, today, the old spelling for "municipality" means "chives". From this small sewer cover, we begin to learn a lot of history.

My students and I journey into all sorts of environments. One favourite is the spice market. We learn the names of the delicacies, with their roots in Arabic and Farsi, which demonstrates Tel Aviv's diverse cultural heritage. We also visit the historic Trumpeldor Cemetery for an insight into the lives of the famous political and artistic figures of the city. And we use bumper stickers and graffiti to understand contemporary culture.

It's not all about being outside, though. I also use HaKochav HaBa, the Israeli version of The X Factor, to teach my students about the fundamentals of Israeli society. We gather around the television with a mint tea and I show them how to decipher all the inside jokes and stereotypes, and the inner workings of the Israeli music scene.

This new approach has had a massive impact. The best way to break down complex grammar and colloquialisms is by looking at the world around us. Because it's real life and contextual, my students remember things much better than if we were merely reading from a dull textbook.

They still have difficulties, of course. We each have our own linguistic inner self and we don't all take on a new language in the same way. Some students are faster at picking up grammatical structure, but that does not mean their understanding of speech will be good. They all need a lot of support, because every student has a different story and different needs. It's a bit like therapy, really.

All the students benefit from this real-world approach, and they seem to really enjoy it. After the lesson on the sewer cover, I got a message from a student saying, "I just spotted the same structure on the sewer cover next to my house. I was so excited!" This sort of enthusiasm makes it all worthwhile.

Guy Sharett teaches Hebrew in Tel Aviv, Israel. Find out more at

top 10 real-life language resources

1 Das Kino

Krieg der Sterne may not mean much to students, but tell them that the film involves lightsabres and a small green being with big ears and they will soon work it out. The titles of Hollywood favourites translated into German will get cinephiles excited about learning the language.


2 Signs of life

Ask students to translate these French signs and say where they would be found - in a shop or on the street.


3 Road test

Ensure that your students can navigate the roads of Europe with confidence by giving them a quiz that tests their translation skills.


4 House points

Get your class perusing property in this Spanish translation exercise featuring house and flat adverts.


5 French factor

Reality television may be a much-derided art form, but this resource uses the French version of The X Factor to lead students into a discussion of the country's music and culture.


6 Manga method

Introduce manga comics to language lessons with resources from the Japan Foundation.


7 Advert assistance

Awaken your students' inner critic with German advertisements so awful that your classes won't be able to stop themselves engaging with the language.


8 Matching mission

In this matching task, students must rely on their translation skills to pair German signs with descriptions of their purpose.


9 Pop process

This comprehension activity enlists the help of a Spanish pop group to teach students the language.


10 La musique

Listen to songs from a variety of genres - and watch the videos - for a discussion of la musique franaise.


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