“As an Irish teacher of EFL, what stereotypes have you encountered?”
I have worked as a language trainer in Germany since 2004, and the vast majority of my students have been native Germans. As this was largely my language teaching context, it gave me an insight into how Germans view my homeland, Ireland. In many cases, they were very familiar with the country and were well informed about its history and culture. However, I also came across quite a few cultural stereotypes and misconceptions about Ireland. This was often expressed in the form of harmless questions, and not meant with any negative connotations. It did however, occasionally irritate me, and cause me to try to dispel several of these myths.
Images of Ireland
Generations of German people have read Heinrich Böll’s famous book about Ireland called “Irisches Tagebuch.” Obviously Böll’s 1957 portrayal of Ireland as a green fairy tale does not reflect the current social, cultural, and political landscape of modern Ireland. The book led to an influx of German tourists into Ireland in the following years. In the long term, it may have led to people thinking of Ireland is an undeveloped country of farm lanes, thatched cottages and sheep, something which has stuck in the collective imagination of many Germans. The reality is that, in the years that have followed, Ireland has undergone a lot of cultural and demographic changes. This portrayal has very little to do with modern day Ireland.
A lot of people in Germany were also presented with a very negative image of Ireland through the media. This was often colored by the historical conflict in Northern Ireland, known as “The Troubles.” Students would often ask questions like: did you experience violence during the conflict? In reality, the conflict mainly effected Northern Ireland, and most of the residents in the south of the country were largely unaffected. Due to the students’ limited knowledge of the complex background to this part of Irish history, I always had to actively make it very clear that the conflict in Northern Ireland is not representative of the entirety of Irish culture.
There are quite a few famous stereotypes, for example, the drunken Irishman, which certainly is a mental image of the Irish that many people hold. Of course, my students often held these beliefs before getting to know me. In some cases, these stereotypes may have influenced my students’ expectations of me as their teacher. My response was always to replace these assumptions with a deeper understanding of Ireland, its development and culture.
Some students expected me to have a strong Irish accent, which I don’t have because I moved around Ireland a lot during my childhood, and my mother was born in England. In a sense this meant that I had to defend my Irishness, as a lot of people would say: “oh, you don’t have an Irish accent, do you?” People would also often ask me the question: “will you go back to Ireland?” as if leaving one’s country was betraying this sense of Irishness.
Challenge the stereotypes
What I came to acknowledge is that the way students perceive and interact with me as an individual could be affected by the burden of cultural stereotypes and misconceptions about my country. In the end, I had to challenge the notions of cultural stereotypes, replacing them with genuine appreciation of Ireland and the warmth and friendliness of its people. The most useful way to do this is to show people that stereotypes are not true and are never backed up by real facts. It is also important to encourage cultural exchange, curiosity, and an appreciation for diversity.
Ruairi Braddell is a CELTA-qualified English trainer. He was born in Cobh in southern Ireland, but spent a large part of his childhood in Donegal. After completing a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music in 2001, he moved to Germany in 2003. He has worked for corporate customers in various economic sectors, such as plastic and steel production, pharmaceutical, finance, and insurance. Ruairi started working full time for Learnship as a content writer in 2021 and became Business English Editor in January 2022. Ruairi has also taught business English at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, and specialized in English for the Fashion industry at the Mode Design College Düsseldorf. Check out his blog: www.englishexpert.de