Thursday, 18 February 2010

Book Review: 'Britain for Learners of English'



Britain
for Learners of English

by James O'Driscoll
Oxford University Press 2009
ISBN 9780194306447
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From the blurb:
"Britain for Learners of English: This book provides all the information a student of Britain and British culture needs to know.

What's it like living in Britain today? Find out about the country and its people in this new edition of Britain. All the information is completely up-to-date and illustrated with new colour photographs."
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Leafing through the pages of Britain for Learners of English procures a strange sensation in one who has abondonned his homeland for the continent more than 15 years ago. It's all in there: our dual house political system; our quirky Queenie and entourage; our disparate and dwindling religious institutions; that other great disseminator of belief - the BBC; right down (or up) to the Sun, fish 'n' chips, bingo holidays in Skegness and practically everything else in between which goes to make the British so, well, British.

Britain for Learners of English does have a quite specific brief. it's for 'Learners of English who need to know more about Briatain', and, as such, it does a sterling job. Make no mistake, though, this is no cheery modern general English course book, although it is somewhat cheery, with its appropriately illustrated articles on all aspects of British life and culture.

No, this book falls much more comfortably into the traditional 'text book' category, reminiscent of university courses which would use a 'course text' and where there was much less interaction than in your average modern communicative English class. Which is probably one of its target audiences anyway, people studying  a British culture module as part of a wider qualification. And for this it would seem to be very apt.

In the aim of stimulating discussion, I suppose, each chapter ends with three or four questions along the lines of:

Why does the British Prime Minister continue to 'advise' the Queen when everybody knows he or she is really just telling her what to do? (from 'The Future of the Monarchy')

What aspects of Christmas in Britain, and the customs associated with it, are different from those in your country? (from 'Holidays and Special Occasions')

It is often felt that newspapers' invasion of privacy goes too far. Legislation to control it has sometimes been drafted, but has never become law. What problems are there in Britain with getting legislation like this approved? What arguments can be put forward in favour of keeping the status quo? How is the press controlled in your country? (from 'The Media')

There's one question from the Holidays and Special Occasions chapter I can't fathom at all: There is a science fiction story in which beings from outer space fly over Britain one night and conclude that planet earth is full of barbaric, cruel people. Which night was it?

Can they be referring to the 25th December? Publishers / authors please elucidate!

There are also suggestions for future study such as reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol, or watching Question Time on the BBC, or looking up cricket on the internet. Ahh, cricket... how terribly, terribly British (well, English)!

An interesting distinction is made between the terms country, nation and state, country relating broadly to all of Britain, nation pertaining more specifically to the regions or people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and state bearing more political and governmental connotations. And indeed, the main regions that go to make up the UK of GB and NI are well covered, with information on history, culture and autonomy, along with one of the most intriguing features of this book: how people actually feel about all this (and each other!).
Britain for Learners of English has, therefore, two main thrusts: facts and feelings. And it's this clever interweaving that makes each chapter a particularly interesting read.

One of the best ways of knowing what to read if you don't have to read from cover to cover is by looking at the index. You immediately see lots of tempting and intriguing references such as whips and Whigs, masculinity and the Manic Street Preachers,  smog and slavery, Punjabi and prostitution. I have to confess a twinge of sadness that neither Marmite nor cheddar cheese has made it into the list, and nor has deep-fried Mars Bars or porridge or caber or spurtle, but haggis and kilt have (my origins are Scottish in case you hadn´t guessed), and for less obvious reasons so have booze cruiseswingometre and Tiggywinkles. 'Go figure', as our transatlantic cousins would say.

Alternatively, you can just read all the wonderful little side-column boxes and discover weird and wonderful facts along the lines of this...
What's in a name? In England, the notion of the honour of the family name is almost non-existent (though it exists to some degree in the upper classes, in the other three British nations and among ethnic minorities). In fact, it is very easy to change your family name - and you can choose anything you like. In the 1980s, one person changed his surname to Oddsocks McWeirdo El Tutti Frutti Hello Hippopotamus Bum. There was no rule to stop him doing this. All he needed was £5 and a lawyer to witness the change.
and this...
A nation of gamblers: In 2006, around £25 billion was wagered - that's around £500 for every adult in the country. By far the most popular form of gambling was the national lottery, in which 57% of adults took part. the chart below shows the percentage of people who gambled in other different ways...
and this...
The Fat Duck: People say horrible things about British food. so it was something of a shock when, in 2005, an international panel of more than 600 chefs, food critics and restaurateurs named no less than fourteen British restaurants in the world's top 50.

Number one on the list was The Fat Duck in Berkshire (between London and Oxford). This is the restaurant which introduced the world to such delicacies as sardine-on-toast sorbet, bacon and egg ice cream, snail porridge and orange and beetroot jelly. With a menu like this, British food does not look so boring after all!
So whilst BFLOE's brief is for learners of English who need to know about Britain, it would actually make an interesting resource for learners of English who don't need to know so much about Britain, and even for people like myself, native speakers, who just want to brush up a bit and enjoy looking in this well informed mirror to see what we really look like, inside our heads and out.

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Hotch Potch English: 'The English Language Teaching (ELT) Review Blog" ~ Book Review: 'Britain for Learners of English'
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Copyright 2010 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
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