Topic 5 – Geographical, historical and cultural framework of English speaking countries. Didactic application of the most significant geographical, historical and cultural aspects.

Topic 5 – Geographical, historical and cultural framework of English speaking countries. Didactic application of the most significant geographical, historical and cultural aspects.

Although Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by the largest number of people, English is spoken in all continents, and therefore, it is the most widespread language on earth: It is the language spoken in the British Isles, North America, Australia and New Zealand. It is also largely spoken in India as well as in many other countries in Asia and Africa that formerly belonged to the English Empire and the Commonwealth. It is estimated that there are 300 million native speakers and 300 million who use English as a second language and a further 100 million use it as a foreign language. It is the language of science and research, aviation, computing, diplomacy, tourism, and of course, business and commerce. It is the official or co-official language of over 45 countries and is spoken extensively in other countries where it has no official status.

English plays such an important part in the cultural, political or economic life in the world that we might say it has become the world’s lingua franca . For all these reasons, English is also the most widely studied language in the world. In many parts of the world, English is now regarded as a basic skill, like computer skills, which children start to learn at an early age.

In this topic we will look at the geographical, historical and cultural framework of the main English-speaking countries, as well as the didactic aspects of this topic in the Spanish Primary School context.

We will start with the history of the English language. The history of English can be traced back to the arrival of three Germanic tribes to the British Isles during the 5th Century: Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the North Sea from what is the present-day Denmark . The inhabitants of Britain previously spoke a Celtic language that was quickly displaced. Most of the Celtic speakers were pushed into Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, and one group migrated to the Brittany Coast of France where their descendants still speak the Celtic Language of Breton today. The word English derives from the name of the language spoken by the Angles.

During the next few centuries four dialects of English developed:

* Northumbrian in Northumbria, north of the River Humber

* Mercian in the old Kingdom of Mercia

* West Saxon in the Kingdom of Wessex

* Kentish in Kent

During the 7th and 8th Centuries, Northumbria’s culture and language dominated Britain but the Viking invasions of the 9th Century brought this domination to an end. Only Wessex remained as an independent kingdom and by the 10th Century, the West Saxon dialect spoken in Wessex became the official language of Britain, and the base of the English language of today. This language is known as Old English, a language that used the written alphabet called Runic. The Latin Alphabet was brought over from Ireland by Christian missionaries, and has remained the writing system of English.

The vocabulary of Old English consisted of an Anglo-Saxon base, with borrowed words from the Scandinavian languages (Danish and Norse) spoken by the Vikings who arrived in the island, and also some Latin words that entered the language as a result of the introduction of the Christian faith. Celtic words survived only in a small number of place names, among them, the name of the river Thames. Although the British Isles were part of the Roman empire, there are very few linguistic remains from the period of the romanization of the British Isles. Among these remains we have the –caster and –chester in names such as Lancaster and Manchester. –caster and –chester derive from Latin “castra” which means “military camp”.

One of the most important events in the history of the English language was the Norman Conquest, in 1066. William Duke of Normandy defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and introduced the Norman dialect as the official language of England. For many years two languages were spoken in the country: the ruling class – the king’s court, the nobility and the clergy– spoke Norman, and the peasants (lower class people) continued to speak Anglo-Saxon. Eventually, the two languages influenced one another producing what is known as Middle English. Middle English is a mixture of the old Germanic Anglo-Saxon and Norman, which was a Latin language. The main characteristics of the Middle English period :

● Reduction of inflections

● Disappearance of the grammatical gender. Old English has masculine, feminine and neuter gender

● Fixed word order in sentences

● Loss of many Anglo-Saxon words and introduction of thousands of words of Latin roots.

In 1399, King Henry IV became the first king of England since the Norman Conquest whose mother tongue was English. But his English was very different from the English spoken before the Norman Conquest.

By the end of the 14th Century, the dialect of London was the standard dialect of what we now call Middle English. Chaucer wrote in this language.

Modern English began around the 16th Century and, like all languages, is still evolving.

Since the 16th Century, because of the contact that the British had with many peoples from around the world, and the Renaissance of Classical learning, many words have entered the language either directly or indirectly. New words were created at an increasing rate. Shakespeare coined over 1600 words. This process has grown exponentially in the modern era.

Borrowed words include names of animals (giraffe, tiger), clothing (pyjama, turban), food (chocolate, spaghetti), scientific and mathematical terms (algebra, geography), drinks (tea, coffee), religious terms (pope, Islam), music and art (piano, theatre), political and military terms (commando, guerrilla, parliament),.

Languages that have contributed words to English include Latin, Greek, French, German, Arabic, Hindi (from India), Italian, and Spanish (e.g. potato, tomato, mosquito).

The list of borrowed words is enormous. But even with all these borrowings the core of the language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. Only about 5000 words from this period have remained unchanged but they include the basic building blocks of the language: household words, parts of the body, common animals, natural elements, most pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and “basic” verbs, such as eat, drink, sleep, run, etc. are of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Moving on to the geographical aspect of the topic,

Great Britain or the United Kingdom, is situated in Western Europe and includes England, Scotland, Wales and the northern part of the island of Ireland known as Ulster. It is only 36 kms from France and is now linked by the tunnel under the English Channel. Its size is nearly 250.000 sq km and holds a population of over 60 million people, of whom 2.2 per 1.000 are immigrants.

Welsh and Gaelic are spoken by part of the population in Wales and Scotland respectively. The UK is a constitutional monarchy. At the present moment, the monarch is Elisabeth II; she is also the head of the Anglican Church. There are two big political parties: the conservative party and the labour party. The capital is London.

GB, the dominant industrial and maritime power of the 19th century, played a leading role in developing parliamentary democracy and in advancing literature and science. At its zenith, the British Empire stretched over one-fourth of the earth’s surface. The first half of the 20th century saw the UK’s strength seriously depleted in two World Wars. The second half witnessed the dismantling of the Empire and the UK rebuilding itself into a modern and prosperous European nation. GB is one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a founding member of NATO, and of the Commonwealth; it is currently weighing the degree of its integration with continental Europe. It is a member of the EU, but it chose to remain outside the European Monetary Union for the time being. Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly were established in 1999.

Labour force by occupation is as follows: agriculture 1%, industry 25%, services 74%

THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND occupies the largest part of the island situated west of Great Britain, from which it obtained independence in 1921. The national language is Irish, but the official one is English. The major religion is Catholicism. Its capital is Dublin. The major river is the Shannon. The size of the country is 70,280 sq km, and has a borderline of 360 kms with Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK). The population is around 4 million people.

Ireland is a small, modern, trade-dependent economy with growth averaging 8% over the last decade (1994-2004). Agriculture was once the most important sector, but now it employs only 8% of the population. The industrial sector employs 29% and the service sector 64%. The unemployment rate in this country is only 4.7%. Ireland joined the euro currency system in January 1999 along with 10 other EU nations, among them Spain.


Britain’s 13 American colonies broke away from the mother country in 1776 and were recognized as the new nation of the United States of America by the Treaty of Paris in 1783. During the 19th and 20th centuries, 37 new states were added to the original 13 as the nation expanded across the North American continent.

After the end of the Cold War in 1991, the US remains the world’s most powerful nation state. The economy is marked by steady growth, low unemployment and inflation, and rapid advances in technology.

Geographically, the US borders both the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Pacific Ocean, between Canada and Mexico. Its coastline is 20.000 km long. With nearly 10 million sq km and a population of 300 million, it is the world’s third-largest country by size (after Russia and Canada) and by population (after China and India)

There are many ethnic groups: white 77.%, black 13%, are smaller percentage are Asian and Native-American (Asian 4.2%, Amerindian and Alaska native 1.5%) . The number of Hispanics is around 35 million, which makes Spanish an important second language spoken in the US.

The US is a constitution-based federal republic, with a strong democratic tradition. It is made up of 50 sates and 1 district, District of Columbia. The capital is Washington, DC. The national holiday is Independence Day, celebrated on the 4th of July.

The president is both the chief of state and head of government. The president and vice president serve four-year terms, are elected by representatives who are elected directly from each state. The main two parties are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There are two legislatives Houses: the Senate and the House of representatives, which Americans call Congress.

The US is the world’s greatest military power and has the largest and most technologically powerful economy. In this market-oriented economy, private individuals and business firms make most of the decisions, and the federal and state governments buy needed goods and services predominantly in the private marketplace. Long-term problems in the US include inadequate investment in economic infrastructure, rapidly rising medical and pension costs of an aging population, budget deficits, and stagnation of family income in the lower economic groups.

The United State’s northern neighbour, Canada, is the second largest country in the world and has a population of 33 million, with 90 percent concentrated within 160 km of the US border. The country consists of 10 provinces and 3 territories. The chief of state is Queen ELIZABETH II, represented by the Governor General. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who is elected for five-year terms. It is a rich country in natural resources and has a high living standard. The capital is Ottawa, the country celebrfates its national holiday on July 1st, Canada Day, and the national emplem is the mapled leaf, which appears on the Canadian flag.

AUSTRALIA is the world’s smallest continent but sixth-largest country. The population is 21 million, mostly of European origin. A minority of the population are Asian and Aboriginal. The national holiday is Australia Day which is celebrated on 26th January. The country has a Western-style economy with a high GDP (Gross National Product) and a high standard of living. The national currency is the Australian Dollar. The capital of Australia is Canberra, and the major cities are Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.


Children are fascinated by what other kids do in other countries. Learning about other cultures is a bridge to internationalization and to an appreciation that English is truly a language spoken by real people (besides the teacher!)

Children who start to learn a foreign language early in life can better understand their native language as they become conscious of the existence of language as a phenomenon. Their cultural outlook is wider than that of monolingual children who often believe that their own culture, their language and their customs are the only ones that matter in the world. The introduction of a foreign language into the child’s world helps to develop tolerance toward people of other nationalities and in the long run contributes toward international understanding

The aspects related to the topic that we are dealing with that should be taught in Primary school include the following:

They should be able to locate on a map the main English speaking countries, and know the names of the capitals.

They should be familiar with the important landmarks and the place where they are found. For example, the Big Ben, the statue of Liberty, The Sydney Opera House, etc.

They should understand the difference between being “English” and being “British”, as they are two distinct concepts that are often confused in our country.

They need to be familiar with different varieties of English, especially British and American English. This can be achieved by using audio material with both forms of spoken English.

Other aspects that are relevant to our young students are:

– typical food : pies, pudding, fish and chips, the Thanksgiving turkey, etc

– Traditional nursery rhymes and traditional songs that British and American children are familiar with.

– British, Irish and American festivals and holidays: Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween, etc.

Finally, I would like to point out that familiarity with socio-cultural aspects of the target language is important. Socio-cultural competence is one of the five basic competences that a student of a FL needs to learn or acquire. In this sense, the introduction of Socio-cultural Competence as one of the four blocks of contents of our Curriculum is an important innovation.