Using digital video for cultural and linguistic awareness in ELT – an unofficial introduction

Technology as such and technological skills in particular are not crucial for teachers to use digital video to enhance cultural and target language awareness in ELT. The main point is actually multitasking in the sense of the students using multiple senses simultaneously in order to absorb and handle the information given. Listening, reading, writing, speaking and even getting emotionally involved are at the centre of language learning. And whereas videos, be it fictional films, documentaries or newsflashes, have long been recognized as a useful tool in the language classroom, their place in the curriculum have been marginal, because so much information is given in such a short time span that it has been impossible to utilize them effectively in ELT. Therefore they have mainly been used as complementary sources of information or as a means of tuning in to a particular subject. The reason for this has been that it’s been impossible to customize video viewing according to the differing individual needs of students trying to learn the language. The play, pause, fast forward, and the rewind buttons have been in the complete and sole control of the teacher, and the students have had little or no say as to the progress of their viewing. Technological advance in the digital area has now enabled us to offer a radical change of this situation.

The simple passing on of the control of these buttons to the students enables them to take charge of their own viewing process, and thereby giving the teachers a multitude of possibilities to vary their approach of  video in the classroom. The video content can step forward from their hitherto marginal place onto the centre of the classroom stage. This does not mean it will replace the traditional textbooks and workbooks that have looked basically the same for decades, but it will radically change their function, their appearance as well as their use. The book will now be complementary – still essential but nevertheless complementary. It is more or less useless without the video content.

Let’s take an example. I as a teacher might want to introduce my students to the vocabulary and traditions of British food and drink. I could do it the traditional way and present them with a complete text, including dialogues and descriptive passages, and an accompanying wordlist, like this: .

Food and Drink in Britain

 Deep-fried Mars bars

  • British food doesn’t enjoy the greatest reputation in the world, but at least it’s not boring, particularly here in Glasgow, Scotland.
  • ─     How can I help you?
  • ─     Well, what’s the most unique thing that you’ve fried?
  • ─     We have deep-fried Mars bars,
  • ─     Oooh! That’s a candy bar?
  • ─     Yes. You usually serve it with tomato sauce.
  • ─     What?!!!
  • ─     Okay, this is it, ketchup and all! … Mmmmm
  • ─     Very tasty?
  • ─     Very strange….

Jellied eels

  • ─     Jellied eels… Not like lollies, eels!
  • ─     Get it down you!
  • ─     That’s not bad at all! Oh, I’m starting to talk like this now – know what I mean?
  • ─     It works, doesn’t it?
  • ─     This is not good … That’s awful! It’s not even cooked! It’s raw!
  • ─     Ah, you’re braver than me…
  • ─     You mean, you don’t eat it???
  • ─     Never!

The full English breakfast

  • I just don’t understand why so many people disparage the English culinary tradition. I mean, they’ve got things that are good for you and properly named. You’ve got deep-fried fish and chips, you’ve got something called a toad-in-a-hole, but today I’m going to try a cornerstone of their nutritious diet – the full English breakfast.
  • The full English breakfast consists of a fried slice of bread, bubble and squeak which is potatoes and cabbage fried, fried black pudding, baked beans which are boiled, fried sausage, fried bacon, and, of course, a fried egg.
  • ─     Oh, ta…
  • ─     Wow!
  • ─     What is this stuff?
  • ─     That is black pudding.
  • ─     Yak! What’s it made of?
  • ─     You don’t want to know. It’s dried blood.

The Cornish Pasty

  • I’ve come here to this small fisher village of Port Isaac for one thing – this! I’m going to track down the ultimate Cornish pasty! Oh, yeah!
  • The pasty was a snack for the tin miners, and the reason why it’s always got this thick edge round it is that if you work with tin you get poison from the metals in your fingers. So when you eat your food, you don’t want to get the poison from your fingers all over the bit you are going to eat. So you hold on to the rim, eat all the good bits, and then you chuck the crust away!
  • Oh, yes, wow! Traditional pasty filling is simple and very tasty. Flaked, not diced, potatoes, skirt beef, onions, salt and pepper.
  • ─     So you never cook the filling first? You cook it inside the pastry.
  • ─     Yes, and then the gravy that is produced, stays inside.
  • ─     Wow! And that’s what gives it that …
  • ─     That moist.
  • ─     Aaaah…. Lovely! Oh, yeah! Definitely Cornish, I say! That’s lovely, ladies. That was my first real Cornish pasty on this trip… Gorgeous! Like you two, gorgeous! Gorgeous!

Tea and ballroom dancing

I’ve found refuge here in the delicate atmosphere of the Waldorf Meridien Hotel, where tea is served to 4 p.m. and guest dance in the old-fashioned way. It’s really very civilised.


  • Up north in Scotland at the island of Islay at the west coast of Scotland is the mecca of single malt Scotch whisky. Here you can take a tour of the Ardbeg distillery. Scotland’s national drink dates back to around the 15th century, in Gaelic they call it “usquebaugh” , which means “water of life”.  I am talking about whisky. Scottish whisky’s distinctive taste comes from malted barley. The barley is soaked and dried in a kiln over a peat fire – mixed with water and then left to ferment. The weak alcoholic solution, or wart, is then distilled and matured in oak barrels for three to thirty years. This process hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
  • ─    This is 1975 Ardbeg. You will find it very smoky, very fruity and very sweet.
  • ─    Slainte Mhath!
  • ─    Slainte Mhath! What’s that?
  • ─    That means cheers.

Now these text passages are admittedly not ones to be traditionally found in an English textbook. The dialogue is too broken up, too incomplete to be presented as a representative discourse in any language textbook. But this is how we use the language in real everyday life, which is proved by the fact that this is actually a transcript of a 5-minute video clip on somebody experiencing food and drink in various parts of Britain. We have the English breakfast quite accurately described, there is high tea at a fashionable London hotel, the Cornish pasty is to be found here as well as some culinary oddities like deep-fried Mars bars. There is even a visit to a Scottish whisky distillery included here. But does language alone give the student a full picture of what the text is actually talking about. Does a sausage look the same to a Finnish 14-year-old as it does to an Englishman? No, it certainly doesn’t. So a textbook could add pictures, one could very well argue. Okay, here is one of the full English breakfast:


Can I now be certain that my students know what I am trying to convey to them? Actually no. And without more visual material most of the text information would be lost to them anyway. And working traditionally with books and paper poses another problem: how to provide the students with a lot of images without resorting to pure teacher-centered activities with the teacher showing them all the necessary visual imagery in order for the students to get a better understanding. And, as a matter of fact, they would probably have been bored to death by the time I get to the pictures, and most likely not even bothered to look at neither the pictures nor the word list in order to understand all the words probably incomprehensible to them.

Okay, let’s try another approach. Let’s make it into a problem-solving task or a puzzle task, where my vocabulary learning objectives are more defined. The same text is presented to the students in the form of separate cards., but now all food-related terms and words are missing and I have also deleted the subheadings (in order to make it even more into a puzzle I could delete the A, B, C, D, E and F of the remaining subheadings as well as the numbering of the gaps):







This results in a text with 49 gaps with Swedish (mother tongue) clues within brackets. There are also six subheadings to be filled in by the students who are to deduce what subheading might be suitable for each passage. But how can they be supposed to know what words like “torveld” or “brödkant” are in English. And if they do, what use is there to have a text like this. This text was presented in order to make them learn new words, remember? Not to test them on what they are already supposed to know. Well, let’s add the missing English words in alphabetical order –  that might make it more into a guessing game, and therefore perhaps even more motivating.

Skärmklipp ord

There are still some things missing – first of all, there are probably words impossible to guess. Secondly, there is the pronunciation which is always a problem with a language like English where the relationship between spelling and pronunciation is if anything enigmatic. So we need sound. And we still have the initial problem of visual illustration.

The video[1] is the solution to all these problems. First of all we get a context with live persons in real life situations in authentic environments behind the sometimes incomplete lines, We also get an illustration of what all these food things look like, the typical British surroundings and the culture code, for example with the High Tea passage. And the pure guessing game is gone, instead we have a purely cognitive activity where brain cells are activated in various areas of the brain: areas related to vision, listening, combining listening to reading, associating the visuals with pre-conceptions we have of what might be British, as well as complementing existing images with new knowledge, new images. And we get the writing skills involved, as well.


[1] The video clip (from Ultimate UK) cannot be viewed here for copyright reasons. By the way, if you want to use authentic video in your classroom, but are not sure whether you’re allowed to or not, it might actually be worthwhile simply to contact the production company in question and ask whether they will give you permission or not. That’s what I did with Pilot Productions, listing all the different ways I might use it, and lo and behold, they gave their consent, probably too stunned by having somebody ask insted of just doing it. I therefore have their written consent to use their videos in my own classroom teaching as well as in the teacher training, a valuable thing indeed.

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