The REALIA Project: a window to cultures

People always ask me how long I have been studying English. That’s a good question.  Since my father is a professor of English in China, I was exposed to the English language when I was a baby. My parents have pictures of me “reading” the English dictionary not long after I learned how to sit. When I was six or seven years old, my father started teaching me English seriously, but that didn’t last long; we gave up the “private lessons” because of the frustrations we both developed throughout the limited lessons we had. Our lessons came to an end with my tears and doubts of my ability to learn a different language. I associated language learning with bitterness, not knowing I would soon taste something very different.

It was a beautiful sunny day in June, I met a gentleman from England who was working at my father’s university. Although I couldn’t remember his name, the scene is still vivid to me to this day.

“Oh hello Weiwei! Nice to meet you!” He bent down a little bit.

“Nice to meet you, too.” I said.

“How old are you?”


He continued to say things to me, but that was beyond my level and I started to hide behind my father’s legs. He laughed, people around us laughed. Interestingly, this experience didn’t scare me, but I suddenly wanted to learn the language. I realized English is not just weird letters lining up on paper, but a language that people use in their daily lives, from which they build their relationships and culture.

Culture, that’s what I want to talk about. Thanks to the technology, we are more exposed to other cultures more than we have ever been before. Youtube videos, foreign movies, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, virtual worlds such as Second Life, we are living in a more globalized world. I believe this is a wonderful thing for all educators, especially language teachers. One cannot learn a language without learning about the culture of the language. Language is embedded within our culture. Human beings develop our languages through social interactions, which both shapes and is shaped by our culture in a dynamic system.

Twenty years after that beautiful June day, I came across “The REALIA Project” on my computer at my office desk. I looked out the window—blue sky, white clouds, red-brick building standing behind the layers of trees. With good memories flashing back, I come to my blog to share the REALIA Project with you.

REALIA stands for Rich Electronic Archive For Language Instruction Anywhere.  From the REALIA homepage:

The REALIA Project publishes faculty-reviewed media for the teaching and study of modern languages and cultures. Faculty and students at all levels are encouraged to contribute materials to our searchable, online database. The focus of the REALIA Project is realia: Materials which convey the everyday life of different cultures. “ So far, REALIA’s target languages are Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish.  Because the materials are reviewed by faculty, you are more likely to find materials that have pedagogical value than the materials you find when you do a Google search.

For each image you find on REALIA, you will have some information about the image, including a copyright statement. I find this especially helpful because copyright is always an issue when it comes to using images retrieved from online resources. Generally, you are welcome to use the images on REALIA for educational, and non-commercial purposes only. You will need to give credit to the photographers, whose names are also listed as part of the information.

Another thing I liked about REALIA is that sometimes the photographer provides you pedagogical applications of the photo. I find this very valuable because it tells me what the photographer was thinking when taking this picture and sharing it, and I get a sense of what other teachers like to discuss in their classes and what topics are interesting to their students.

Having a big database of materials is a good thing, but efficiency is always a concern for faculty and students alike. Spending two hours trying to find the perfect picture to use for a five-minute in-class discussion is an unnecessary use of time. In REALIA, I find the “advanced search” to be a time saver. For example, you are an Russian professor and you want to find a picture of certain type of Russian food to share with your students, you may choose to search “REALIA type,” and put “food” in the box. To limit your results to Russian, define your target language as Russian.


You may also try different combinations of search terms until you find the image you want, but keep in mind that REALIA is not an exhaustive resource.  Sometimes the item you have in mind may not exist in REALIA. You may help REALIA to become a more complete database by contributing your own images. Don’t forget your own photo library. Sometimes you tell the best stories by sharing the pictures you took yourself.

Another thing you can do with REALIA is to introduce REALIA to your students, enabling your students to experience culture through a virtual world. It’s very likely that your students will raise questions after seeing photos of the target culture. They could explore in REALIA by themselves, based on their own interests, and you also have the option of making it as part of your class, such as reserving 5 minutes per-class to answer students’ questions that are related to the photos and the culture. My hope for our students is that they don’t experience the bitterness I had experienced when I was a child, but taste the sweetness and fun of learning a different language while being exposed to the culture.

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