Vol. 4. No. 3 R-6 May 2000
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Eureka! Discovering American English and Culture through Proverbs, Fables, Myths, and Legends
Planaria J. Price (1999)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. Xxi + 210
ISBN 0-472-08547-6 (paper)
US $17.95

ISBN 0-472-00285-6
US $22.50

ISBN 0-472-08594-8
US $42.00

Eureka! is geared to high intermediate to advanced ESL students seeking to improve their language skills and cross-cultural competence. This text brings together thought-provoking and well-known proverbs, fables, myths, and legends of the Western world, which students are bound to encounter again and again in the media. Cassette tapes are available, but seem to have been an afterthought, since there are no references to them in the text. The readings become progressively longer and more difficult as learners make their way through the book. Yet a single section could be used in isolation to spice up a number of other ESL courses.

Addressed to instructors and students alike, the preface gives practical, introductory information on language acquisition and the English language. It sets out to bolster the confidence of even the most frustrated student. Price writes that learning English is possible if one simply becomes acquainted with its features and rules: "Learning a new language is like playing a game. Just learn the patterns and rules and soon you will win!" (p. xvii). A familiar tone has its advantages, but statements like these may strike some students as patronizing.

The book is divided into four parts covering fables and proverbs, Greek and Roman myths, legends, and miscellaneous material (such as a collection of proverbs in alphabetical order with definitions, and a list of common themes, including two ideas for expansion activities). The book closes with a short list of suggested readings and an appendix offering students a place to compile their own vocabulary lists. [-1-]

Each section follows a similar format: pre-reading exercises, background notes, a reading selection with comprehension checks, discussion questions, diverse vocabulary activities (multiple choice, crossword puzzles, and matching exercises), and cultural notes. Students are asked to find the moral or lesson of the story by choosing one of three proverbs, the one they find most relevant. Students with different cultural backgrounds may indeed disagree and suddenly find themselves wrapped up in a debate. In general terms, the exercises are based on sound pedagogical considerations, such as learning vocabulary in context and personalizing information in partner work or small group discussions. Nevertheless, there are several major limitations that should carefully be considered before adopting this text.

Teachers will need to supplement the text heavily in order to ward off monotony. One can only speculate on Price's motivation for posing the same question ("What was your favorite sentence in this story and why?") in literally every section. And while cross-cultural awareness is certainly a legitimate goal, it can be achieved without doing the same type of writing and speaking exercise at the end of every section. One is left with the feeling that some of the activities were not completely thought out, a typical flaw of single-author textbooks. For example, students cannot be expected to know how to write "in correct American form" (p. 13) without some guidance, even at the paragraph level.

The most disappointing aspect of Eureka! involves imprecise wording, exaggerations, and an unfortunate choice of examples in several cultural notes. One such instance involves the American attitude toward making mistakes and lying. The text reads: "In the United States, it is generally thought that it is OK to make mistakes, but it is never OK to deny that you made a mistake" (p. 32). Such an extreme generalization, using the word never, has no place in cultural descriptions of a diverse society. Not all Americans think or act alike. One also wonders whether students will pick up on the comic undertone of the following cultural note, explaining the importance of working hard in America: "Doing nothing in public is called loitering and it is against the law!" (p. 23).

Price tends to overlook or ignore the contradictions in American society. Just because the Declaration of Independence claims inalienable rights for all does not automatically mean that they were realized in all parts of American society, as one is led to believe in the following: "The Declaration of Independence states that all humans are created with the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of their own happiness. To judge someone by family or social status takes away each person's freedom to determine his or her own life by his or her own work and ideas" (p. 193). If Americans are not generally conscious of status or family names, then why, for instance, are some celebrities able to make the transition into politics with little or no political experience? American society was and is diverse and should be represented as such.

Because the cultural notes tend at times to be misleading and the format repetitious, I find it difficult to recommend this work. However, since there is little to offer ESL students in the area of fables, proverbs, legends, and myth apart from a few good dictionaries and individual chapters in textbooks, experienced instructors with time to create material and exercises of their own, may indeed use the book by sifting out the usable material. Eureka has potential, but it misses the mark.

Sabrina Voelz
Universitaet Lueneburg, Germany

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