Iceberg model of culture… how to break the ice?

The Iceberg Theory underline the fact that just like an iceberg, culture is made of a visible and an invisible part (Edward T. Hall – 1973, 1976). The visible manifestations of culture are just the tip of the iceberg. However, it is the lower, the hidden part of the iceberg, that is the powerful foundation of these visible manifestations. One challenge for any foreign language teacher is to help the target language learners to have a glance of the country where the language is spoken and to be balanced according to students needs, interests, and maturity. Most of the time we are so focused on language, literature or specific cultural aspects, that we forget implicit manifestation of culture.
As far as I am concerned, I tried differents interculturalists strategies and tools to break the ice and go beyond the tip of the iceberg.

Here are some ideas that I share with you:

  1. Overcoming Stereotypes

    As everybody, our students have stereotypes about my home county and about French people. So, I thing that I like to do is creating a positive atmosphere where I share quite often about French values, myths, habits… and I compare them with their own perspective on French people. By this way, the students overcome stereotypes engage effectively and are more eager to discover, rather than relying on racial or ethnic stereotypes. For example, we speak about people’s habits in our second unit as is it very meaningful in term of values (family, work…) In the third unit, where I teach about people description, I also give them a cultural understanding and tolerance message by working on famous French people whose background are international because of the many migrations, such as football player coming from Central Africa or singers coming from Maghreb region.


  2. Meals/food

    Everyone eats, but students can experience the differences in diet from one culture to the next.To borrow Marcel Mauss, meals can be a ” total social fact” especially some meals eaten during religious festivals, such as Christmas, easter…In class, we talk about their meals and their share dishes typical in their countries. Students research also about French food (eg. King cake traditionally eaten in January), taste French food and cook French cakes. In November, Grade 5 students will even invite their parents and serve them a French breakfast and present their learning to them, as part of our French food festival. Last year, Grade 4 student eat “crepes” at a French restaurant downtown.

    cuisine-2 cuisine

    resto-1 resto-2

  3. Holidays/historical events
    I do like to let my students know about holidays and historical events thanks to my blog, where they can read some information about their origins and the way French people celebrate them.
    e.g: Here is a post written about the festival celebrated in France on 8 May every year.
    The students can compare with the traditional holiday from their native culture.
  4. Clothes 

    In France, many regions have different traditional dress. I could have asked my students to bring some pieces of formal or traditional dress…Me, I do not have any traditional clothing from my hometown. But, during our third unit about describing people, students learn how to describe people with colorful traditional clothes (as it is the case in some French spoken countries in Central Africa for example).   Recently, when a famous French fashion designers passed away, I took this event to show that how clothes can reveal  about country values and perspectives. For example, Sonia Rykiel is a symbol for her struggle to promote woman freedom and respect. I used my blog for this chat with my students:

  5. Music

    In class, when students are doing creative activities, we often listen music from different parts of Francophony (Canada, Comores, Marocco…).  The fact that students could hear how the same language is used in different countries, accents, instruments, rhythms… is just a great cultural experience!

  6. Traditional Stories

    Traditional stories such as folk tales or tall tales are another way to bring culture and history into the classroom. So I read extracts of French books to my students and we compare the stories that they know and that are quite similar in French and in their mother tong. Last year, we went in field trip at the French Institute library so that Gr 5 students could be familiarized with a place where there are plenty of French books…

  7. Body language
    Even though some face emotions are quite similar in many countries in the world (joy, hate, disgust…), it is obvious that non-verbal communication is an important part of how people communicate and there are differents from culture to culture. Hand, arm gestures, touch, eyes contacts could be quite inappropriate or rude in Asia but not in France. So, Grade 2 to grade 5 students can experiment it in class. For example, many students are surprised by ” la bise”, the traditional French kiss to greet people.

    Last year, on 21th February, we celebrated the International Mother Language Day. To make students aware of these cultural differents, Grade 4 and grade 5 students participated in a fun activity: they compared some easy gesture commonly used to indicate: number, actions…they could understand that While some gestures are vulgar, others are as innocuous as shaking or nodding one’s head.

  8. Art 

    Besides discovering some of the most famous museums of Paris (Le Louvre, Orsay, Beaubourg…) through short videos, my students learn more about French culture thanks to some artists like Ben. Also, they participated in creative activities linked with cultural events. For example, Students created posters to present Cannes international Movies Festival and they chose their favorite poster among a selection of posters created since the early 50’s by international designers.


    10. Ecology
    Last year in France, an international conference called ” COP 21″ had been organized to speak other environment issues and for politics to make a change in the world. All the students discovered what does ecology means in France and to what extent French people support ecological projects.Making research, creating collage or slogans, making presentations…all of them participated.
    cop-2 cope-la-dernier cope-autre


To conclude, there are thousands of ways to share our culture and break the ice in class. I humbly date to present you some of my strategies but…there is still a lot of work to be done around this issue!

One thought on “Iceberg model of culture… how to break the ice?

  1. Hi Valerie,

    A while back, I was asked how Foreign Language Teachers could contribute to SPELTAC. Wasn’t this a course for English Language Learners? I am so happy you wrote this post, as it partly answers that question. The big ideas behind SPELTAC are so much more than just English Language Learning. They are about addressing cultural and linguistic diversity in international schools and through our approach to language in the curriculum, developing international mindedness. Thank you for highlighting how you do this in your classroom!


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