Modern Foreign Languages - Similar but different

22nd June 2012 at 01:00
There really is no place like home at this year's Olympics

Nobody really thinks too hard about their own culture until they find another to compare it to. A lot of my pupils think that everywhere is exactly the same - just like home.

Cultural awareness is often presented as an add-on to language classes. But you do not need to choose between culture and grammar. There are many opportunities to combine both. And with the Olympics approaching, what better time to explore different countries and their cultures?

A mixture of English and the target language can be used to teach the key facts as well as specific words related to a particular competitor, their sport or country. As English and French are the official languages of the Olympics, the official bilingual website will help pupils to do research by accessing authentic documents in French. Interviews with famous Olympians such as David Douillet, France's judo champion, or German tennis star SteffiGraf (pictured below) can then be written up and performed by pupils.

Use the topics you teach to show similarities and differences. Focusing on the similarities will help pupils to avoid stereotypes and consider the differences from a more equal footing.

The routine of school offers a fantastic opportunity to develop cultural awareness. Why not look at the different training regimes of French, Spanish or German athletes? You can go on to discuss children's school routines in those different countries.

Photographs can help to highlight similarities - and differences - and can make topics like clothes and uniforms more engaging. The opening and closing ceremonies of past Games feature many examples of national fashion and costumes that can be described by pupils.

A lesson on greetings in a foreign language can be transformed by using videos, pictures and websites. For instance, pupils can learn how people in France exchange kisses on each cheek to say hello and goodbye. In Spanish class, they could compare different styles of housing with homes in the UK.

I like to challenge stereotypes by showing videos of world music artists. In preparation for the Olympics, matching national anthems to the correct countries is also a good way to revise the names of the countries and reflect on national identity.

Last but not least, make best use of your native speakers. Whether they are foreign language assistants, link schools abroad, parents, visitors or native language teachers, they are living proof that people and cultures are not all the same.

Isabelle Jones is head of languages at the Radclyffe School in Oldham and teaches French and Spanish. She speaks at language events and blogs at

What else?

Hear Isabelle speak further about the Olympics and intercultural values in a presentation available on her blog at bit.lyLDQz46

Or start comparing cultures with a selection of photos exploring tourism and leisure in French and Spanish shared by Isabelle on TES Resources.

In the forums

Discuss A-level languages in the TES MFL forum. How scary is it to move to teaching sixth form?

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