When porridge is not porridge: dealing with culturally specific phenomena in English

It happens to me almost every time I’m in Russia. In fact, it’s happened so many times now that I’ve stopped finding it strange and it’s something I rarely even bother to comment on these days. It’s only when other foreigners who’ve not visited the country as many times as I have are present at the same time that I think about it all, to be honest. And it was just such a situation that provided the spark for this particular blog post. I spent three wonderful days doing a training course in Saratov earlier this year, and when we broke for lunch on the first day I went and sat down with a group of teachers – and a lovely Mancunian teacher who just happened to be in the city for a week or so and had chanced upon the event through a friend of a friend. The conversation I then witnessed went something like this:

We got some porridge for you both from up the road.

> Porridge? For lunch. That’s a bit weird.

Try it. Here.

> OK. (Opens the paper carton and peers inside). Sorry, but whatever that is in there, I tell you this: it’s NOT porridge.

It’s Russian porridge.

> Well, you’re doing it all wrong!

The lunch in question consisted mostly of kasha, buckwheat grains cooked in water (or sometimes milk) and served in this instance with grilled vegetables, some chicken and so on. It was served cold as a kind of healthy (and, it must be said, delicious) salad option and was much appreciated. But as had been pointed out, it wasn’t what any British person would ever recognize as porridge, which is a hot meal made from oatmeal and (usually) milk and generally served with some honey drizzled on top, or a sprinkling of sugar or some fruit, although some traditionalists claim to prefer it cooked with water and salt!

The first time I encountered foreign foods masquerading as porridge was actually in Indonesia, where I was once given a breakfast of yesterday’s leftover rice heated up again in some water, and served with friend shallots, eggs, shredded chicken, spicy sambal sauce and other bits and pieces. It was wonderful – and certainly woke me up – but wasn’t what I’d come to know (and love) as porridge.

Which brings me to the point of all these rambling travel memories, which is a question I’ve been asked many times by teachers and learners around the world: what should these things be called in English? And, more generally, how can we best deal with these kinds of culturally specific things in an international context?

Well, I think the first thing to say is keep the local names for them, given that they’re as locally and culturally rooted as sushi or pizza are (and note, by the way, that every students I’ve ever asked has told me that in their language, sushi is . . . sushi and pizza is pizza! These words have just passed into English as the foods themselves have become more widely known around the world). If the conversation about the culturally specific item is happening in situ, the conversation could then go something like this:

We got some kasha for you from up the road.

> What’s kasha?

It’s this! (opens box).

> Oh right. It looks good. Thanks.

If you’re having a conversation in which you feel the need to mention kasha for some reason, and there’s none around to illustrate what you mean, you might say something like:

I often have this stuff called kasha for lunch. It’s a bit like a kind of Russian porridge or something.

With its it’s a bit like, a kind of and or something, this seems vague enough to avoid confusion, but specific enough to ensure comprehension. How much detail you then decide to add depends both on the level of English of the person you’re talking to, and your own. In higher-level contexts, you might up with something like this:

I often have this stuff called kasha for lunch.

> What’s that, then?

It’s made from buckwheat.

> I’ve no idea what that is either.

Oh . . . . it’s a type of grain, you know, like wheat or barley or rice or whatever.

> Oh. OK.

And we often use it as the base for a kind of salad, for lunch, but you can also cook it with milk and have it for breakfast. A bit like a kind of Russian porridge or something.

Given how many of these kinds of culturally-specific items and phenomena there actually are – and not only in the field of food and drink – this may be something you want to tackle in class. The most obvious time to tackle it is when students mention these things themselves and you can then follow up by spending a minute or two looking at how best to explain such things. However, you could also:

  • ask students to write a menu in their own first language. Then put them in pairs and ask them to role-plays a conversation between a local and a tourist, with the local explaining the local-language menu to the tourist in English. You can supplement this either by pre-teaching some phrases for explaining what things are (It’s a kind of meat dish, It’s an alcoholic drink, It’s quite strong – about 40 per cent, It’s a kind of dessert – it’s a bit like an ice cream or something, I guess) via a handout or by using student output as a way of teaching some of this directly onto the board before changing partners round and getting them to try again with different menus – in better English.
  • as a warmer (or near the end of a lesson), ask students to write down in L1 a kind of fruit specific to their country (and that maybe they don’t know an English word for), a kind of vegetable, a kind of drink, a kind of animal, a kind of person, a kind of place, a kind of game or sport and a kind of vehicle. Don’t worry if not everyone thinks of something for every category. You could model the task yourself by saying something along the lines of “Do you know what a bajai is? No. Well, it’s a kind of tiny little Indonesian taxi. It’s basically a kind of scooter or little motorbike or something, with a sort of orange shell on top and a couple of seats in the back, covered from the rain. It’s really cheap, but you do usually have to negotiate with the driver and agree a price before you get in.” If your students are from different countries, they can use this as a model. However, if they’re all from the same country, flip the activity round and have them explain the things in English and see if their partners can guess the L1 word.

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11 Responses

  1. Elmira Tazhibaeva says:

    Its a nice thing for thought,)

  2. Sandy Millin says:

    The exact conversation I had in a student’s journal last night:
    Student: I’ve been in country I don’t know the name in English. It’s between Poland and Russia, capital is Minsk and directly translating from Polish to English it’s white Russia πŸ™‚ It was quite nice experience. I think what I liked the most was bread acid (don’t know proper English name again), it’s a drink, dark bread, is made based on it, it’s fizzy and I heard that it tastes similar to beer but it’s without alcohol. πŸ™‚
    Me: The two words you need are Belarus [which I originally wrote as Bielorussia until I just copied it out!] and kwas. We don’t have kwas in the UK, so you’d have to explain what it means to any Brit.

    This is one of the things that I find quite frustrating with some foreign speakers of English, when they insist on translating things like kasha as porridge (as in your example) or twaroh/twarog as cottage cheese, even after I’ve explained many a time that they’re not the same thing! Though since I’ve also explained what porridge is by equating it to kasha, I guess I can’t really complain πŸ˜‰

    It’s also one of the reasons why I prefer to use a foreign menu rather than an English one once I’m passably familiar with the language. That way, I tend to know what I’m getting. For example, living in Poland you often come across dumplings on the menu. Polish dumplings can be translated as either pierogi (stuffed dumplings, a bit like really small Cornish pasties) or kopytka (a kind of potato dumpling, similar to gnocchi), and I’ve seen both of them listed as dumplings with no differentiation on more than one menu.

    Thanks for the post Hugh (I’m guessing! No clue on the post as to which of you is writing!)

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Sandy –
      Thanks for this, I’m glad it chimes with the experience of others.

      Reading through your response, it occurred to me that it’s also rather odd to assume that the person you’re talking / writing to is a total ignoramus and won’t know what kvas (or kompot or kasha) is.

      If someone was telling me the above story, I’d do exactly what I did as I was reading and go “Yeah, kvas, right?” because I’m very familiar with it. Ditto pierogi, which are a million miles away from my (Lincolnshire-born) mum’s dumplings that go in her Irish stew!

      I think it’s best to start by seeing if the person knows what the thing is, which they may well, and then if not, giving a basic explanation along the lines of “It’s a fizzy bread drink. We sometimes cal it Russian Cola!” or whatever.

      Oh, and yes.
      Hugh btw.

      • Sandy Millin says:

        I agree completely that we should start with finding out what the other person knows. Maybe we should also be encouraging students to use the phrase ‘Do you know what X is?’ more often!

    • Alexandra Dziduszko says:

      Hi Sandy. Kopytka are plural, neuter gender diminutive of hoofs. Like horse hoofs. As you see, translation is pointless, however can be a weird joke πŸ™‚

  3. Zhanna Podolyak says:

    Funny that the English term that stuck is kasha, a generic word for dishes made of grain, and not grechka, the actual name of the dish.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Is that right? Well, I’ve only learned what people have taught me, so blame my Russian friends. πŸ™‚ Good to know, though. Thank you!

  4. Leo Selivan says:

    I like the way you turned what is clearly a mistranslation into a classroom activity. Incidentally, the word “buckwheat” – a very healthy food by the way, which I’ve been eating more and more lately – is also a bit of misnomer in English because it’s technically not a kind of wheat or grain πŸ™‚

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