White guys have big noses and other non-linguistic language lessons

I smell chocolate whenever I muddle through simple Spanish conversations.

My eternal thanks for this delicious associative memory is due to an old Spanish textbook, Churros y chocolate, and its luscious cultural note on Mexican snacks.

My first foreign language textbook: Churros y chocolate.

My first foreign language textbook: Churros y chocolate.

Language textbooks always impart something about a country’s culture, whether intentionally (Mexican snacks are delicious) or not (Chinese think foreigners have gargantuan noses).

The authors of my first Chinese textbook did not actively try to win the hearts and minds of Chinese language students with romantic ideas about the singular deliciousness of Sichuan food. They thought they were diving solely into the straightforward task of teaching their assumed audience — white, middle-aged, foreign businessmen — just enough Chinese to order a beer and state the name of their employers.

Without trying, however, the authors still taught their students something about Chinese culture circa 2005: We think foreigners are friendly, but also hairy, chubby and a bit dopey.

Illustrations from my first Chinese textbook: An easy approach to Chinese.

Representative illustrations from my first Chinese textbook: An easy approach to Chinese.

My new Dutch textbook, by contrast, has launched a purposeful, full-frontal, Dutch culture seduction. In case you didn’t realize, the authors wink, the Netherlands is an utterly fantastic, kick-ass country.

Dutch stereotypes _ expatlingo.com

Orange, tulips and, hey, why mention windmills when we can show you a picture of the lovely Royal Couple?!

The book doesn’t only reinforce romantic stereotypes, it also takes pains to ensure that students of Dutch know that the Netherlands is a multi-cultural society by featuring pictures and dialogues of Dutch speakers of all ethnic backgrounds. No matter who you are, you will be welcome here, the book hints.

Furthermore, it stresses that learning Dutch is really and truly a valuable investment because the Dutch language is used in more places than just Holland! For example, as the world map illustrates, Dutch is used in a sprinkling of Caribbean vacation destinations and might even still be used by elderly government clerks in Indonesia.

Look! Dutch is spoken all around the word!

Look! Dutch is spoken all around the word!

Finally, in addition to teaching students the Dutch words for milk, cheese and bread, the book also reminds students that there are famous Dutch people, not only historic painters, but also modern celebrities!

Cultural note of Dutch Masters _expatlingo.com

I was aware of numbers 1 and 5 before undertaking this Dutch workbook exercise about the occupations of famous Dutch people.

This morning, while staring at the glossy textbook photos after cycling through Utrecht’s lovely Wilhelmina Park, I was left wondering why everyone doesn’t move to the Netherlands.

Then at lunchtime I found myself cycling through a torrential hail storm that filled my hair with sleet and my shoes with water and realized that I was being sold a beautiful half-truth.


Textbook references:

Churros y chocolate. Scott, Foresman Spanish program, level 1. Sometime in the 1980s.

汉语入门 An easy approach to Chinese (I). Sinolingua. 2003.

Contact! Nederlands voor anderstaligen. Intertaal. 2009.




20 responses to “White guys have big noses and other non-linguistic language lessons

  1. Ha ha! Sounds a bit like ‘If you like Latvia, Latvia likes you’ – the most odious FB community ever 😉 You still love it though – aside from the shite weather 😉

    • One hour after the hail froze my bare hands to my bike handles, the sun came out again and all was right with the world. (The Latvia group is a parody FB page, right? 😉 )

  2. I cringe knowing that most Greek language or culture books depict only overweight, moutached yiayias (grandmothers) in housedresses and white-whiskered fishermen in Captain’s hats. And monks. Lots of Monks. No fine, svelte gorgeous specimens such as myself. HA!

  3. I love the Map of where Dutch is spoken. Amazing to think that they were the cash driving exploration. They were the merchant traders. Now they have a few places on the planet tied to their language.

  4. I think the New Practical Chinese Reader series is aimed more at uni students, you can’t go two pages without falling over a famous festival, cultural experience, speech on Mao inspired Chinese feminism “half the sky”, doing a job interview or learning how to address your new Chinese parents in law (you have to go with Mum and Dad, no half measures).

    • Ah yes, I’ve used that one too (once I’d dumped the pinyin only approach). I remember a section all about checking books out of the library and talking to fellow students about their CNY plans. The one photo’d above was rather dire…

  5. Love it! What job does the queen (former queen now) have? Well technically now she’s just a princess again. Great teacher correcting kunstenaar to kunst schilder! artiest to art. painter! Yep. Great place to live but learn to cycle with umbrella!

    • That will be the real test: can I cycle a bakfiets with two children and hold an umbrella all at once! Tomorrow’s challenge…

      (And good point about (former) Queen Beatrix!).

  6. Never thought about Dutch as being used in many other parts of the world, but you’re right. How is the weather there, compared to, say, Seattle? I had the impression it was somewhat similar, but less rain, more snow.

    BTW, was in HK for 3 days yesterday. HK has a Yelp! reviews now! Yessir – you can now trash various HK restaurants, bars, institutions. There was even a listing for the China HK Ferry Terminal Customs Check Point, so that one could review it.

    I. Think. Not.

    • So far I’d say the weather is very, very similar to Seattle. I think it even snows just about as much as Seattle (but ask me in January). Perhaps Seattle’s August is nicer though..

      I think I used Yelp! reviews to help me figure out which curry place to try in Chungking Mansions. Handy. Maybe even in the China Ferry Terminal. I think it is your duty to write a review.

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