Saturday, May 14, 2011

The day I doubted there were seven continents ...

When Pam Mandel recently wrote about having visited all seven continents, a commenter reminded me that lots of people don't believe there are actually seven continents to visit. This was something I learned loud and clear when I was teaching English to multicultural classes, but it sure surprised me at the time!

Who would've thought that some "fact" like the number of continents in the world could be so culturally-bound? I've learned to avoid it in class because there were usually more answers to the question of "How many continents are there?" than there were people in the class, and it often got controversial.

But these are the "facts" as I understand them. Growing up in Australia - and as far as I've heard, in any English-speaking country - I was told, absolutely matter-of-factly, that there are seven continents. Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, and my own country of Australia. We were even taught to be proud of the fact that we were the only country that was a continent, as well as being the smallest continent. (Back then, I never thought to ask where places like New Zealand fitted into this model). For a good twenty years or more, I absolutely took this fact to be one of the surest facts I knew. There are seven continents.

I started having doubts when people in other countries asked me how Australia could be a continent ("It's just a country, isn't it?) and when many wanted to lump North America and South America into a single continent, "America". It was hard to argue with their logic.

After spending time teaching groups of people who all come from different parts of the world, I've seen the conflict that such a topic can provoke. Students from places like Brazil and Colombia, for example, always argue that America is a single continent (and they also differ from my old geography teachers on where North and South America would begin and end if they did, in fact, exist). A Russian student told me quite emphatically that Europe and Asia are actually one continent called Eurasia - also with impeccable logic because if you look on a map, they are clearly not separate landmasses, and Russia of course "belongs" to both.

And then there's the Australia problem. Many of my students want to call this either Oceania or Australasia, so that a bunch of other otherwise continent-less countries in the Pacific can be included. Again, pretty difficult to argue with.

So basically, I throw my hands in the air now and I'll never discuss continents again. But I'd be pleased to hear your opinion in the comments, of course!

[Thanks to Horia Valan for the pic via Flickr CC]


  1. There are 7 continents. Thats it. No arguments. My travel site's first page will go meaningless if it is otherwise!!!

  2. Ha ha, I see what you mean Manoj!!! But I'm afraid there are plenty of people in the world who *would* argue with you!!

  3. I checked the Darlings Oregon Scientific Smart Globe (one of these electronic talking globes) and it says there are 7. Who am I to question this?

  4. Ooh, an electronic talking globe, that sounds rather cool!! But we probably need to ask, say, a Portuguese-speaking electronic talking globe before we can be sure ... got one handy?!

  5. I say forget continents and go for tectonic plates! Everywhere is on a tectonic plate, but it's hard to decide which continent many bits of land belong to... But then, some bits of land belong to two (or more) tectonic plates. RH

  6. You got me thinking and Wikipedia-ing Ron, which told me that the primary plates are:
    African Plate
    Antarctic Plate
    Eurasian Plate
    Indo-Australian Plate
    North American Plate
    Pacific Plate
    South American Plate
    ... in other words, 7! So maybe we're not so far wrong here in English-speaking countries?!

  7. oh this question used to get me all flustered in class too! you are so right it would create a long and tedious discussion with no clear resolution. i stick with you - there are seven. kayde has been learning about continents at school and that is what he is being taught (love that my three year old is already learning about continents, countries, flags etc. - his passport may never need dusting off with all this encouragement to appreciate other cultures!)


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