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by Erica Fischer on May 4, 2012

Teaching Language, Teaching Culture

As language educators, we know that language and culture are inseparable. During our recent #langchat twitter conversation, we explored what we can do to overcome resistance from students to learning about the culture of target language people groups.

To start off the conversation, we all acknowledged that culture in the world language classroom is important. Next we asked, “Why is culture important?” Our participants responded:

  • @DiegoOjeda66 reminded us that culture intertwined with language. In fact, the two are inseparable, and together they constitute the most important aspects of a society’s identity.
  • @tracy_dinesen stressed the need to remind students that the goal of learning language to communicate with others – and that means knowing how to do so in a culturally acceptable way.
  • But bear in mind that many students don’t see learning culture as such a chore – @Marishawkins points out that teaching culture is one of the easiest ways to engage students. In fact, it is often the motivation that leads many students to choose to study a particular language.
  • @DiegoOjeda66 pointed out that students already live in a multicultural society, and thus need tools and understanding to successfully navigate the world they live in.
  • @dr_dmd added that students need to make connections between their own culture and the cultures they encounter in the rest of the world. Helping them find similarities and differences is critical to understanding and acceptance. Additionally, it is important that students become aware of the fact that they also belong to a distinct culture.
  • Students may arrive in class with a sense that they are “normal” and others are “weird.” We as teachers want to discourage and eliminate this type of thinking. @SECottrell has banned the application of the term “weird” in her classes on the cultural differences. Help students understand that every family or group has its own “weirdness” that may seem “weird” to an outsider, even if it’s perfectly normal to you.
  • Encouragingly, @RonieWebster and @dr_dmd shared their observations that the efforts to promote tolerance and acceptance have helped language students more readily accept cultural differences.
  • All languages and people groups have sub-cultures and variations. @dr_dmd also pointed out that no culture is fixed, static, or set in stone. @trescolumnae continued with this idea, stressing that it is critical to help students understand that languages can have many cultural contexts.

Tools to help students understand culture:

We need to use many kinds of tools to ensure that students aren’t limited to one view of a culture, i.e. only getting their information from Hollywood or an isolated encounter with one subgroup from a culture, as @alenord pointed out. @jjezuit is hopeful that teaching culture well can help break down stereotypes. Some of our participants shared some tools that they use to work towards these goals:

  • @SECottrell and @casamsf1 shared that the Peace Corps workbook titled “Culture Matters” has been very helpful to many teachers. It can be downloaded at:
  • Another fun way to pique students’ interest is through the introduction of candy and foods from a particular culture. Encourage them to take note of the differences in flavors, packaging, availability, advertising, etc.
  • Showing commercials from other countries is another interesting way to expose students to the everyday culture of a people or group, while also providing target language input.
  • Having a class engage in correspondence with someone from your own culture who is currently experiencing the culture of your target language, or who has experienced it in the past. @Marishawkins and her students spent a year corresponding with a Peace Corps volunteer and learned a lot!
  • @jjezuit pointed out that culture can serve as a bridge for making connections to other disciplines, making it easier for students to relate to a foreign culture.
  • @CoLeeSensei suggests pointing out “why we say things that way” as you are teaching the language. This is an indirect way to make students aware of culture in the language. Similarly, idioms and common expressions are great avenues to embrace culture in your language classroom.
  • Present social norms and codes such as traffic signs to help students understand similarities and differences.
  • Photos can be a great source of cultural content for students to reflect and question what they see in a language community. What are people doing, why might they be doing those things, what is similar and different to the student’s life? @alenord offered an example: Show pictures of how mango trees grow in yards instead of apple or pecan.
    @mme_henderson advocated the use of the cultural triangle is a great way to have students to reflect on culture
  • @mme_henderson also offered a link to this culture iceberg drawing

Celebrating Diversity

Some of our attendees work in diverse communities and students come to class with a foundational understanding of cultures. @dr_dmd and @cadamsf1 mentioned celebrations in their communities to celebrate the diversity that is present in the local communities. Conversely, other teachers lament the fact that they live in homogenous communities and it is more difficult (though arguably also more important) to help students embrace the fact that we have a multicultural world and gaining the tools to navigate that world is critical.

Teaching Perspectives:

The ACTFL guidelines list culture focus items as: Products, Practices, and Perspectives.
@cadamsf1 describes Perspectives as addressing the “why” of what people do. As @trescolumnae points out, the easiest items to cover are products and practices, while perspectives is more challenging for most students. Here are some thoughts our participants shared on teaching students to approach a culture with a different perspective:

@trescolumnae likes to use passages of text that illustrate distinctly non-American perspectives and then discuss them with students.

Showing students how their perspective changes their understanding can be done with very familiar items, like a tree viewed and described a large distance, versus that same tree viewed and described from up close, when you can touch it, climb it, hear the wind in its leaves, etc.

You can also illustrate this important life lesson by showing a small portion of a painting or photograph and having students give their perspective on what event is taking place; then zoom out and show the full scene so they realize that is just one piece of a larger puzzle. An example of how this can be done is to look at one corner of the painting of the Wedding at Cana and have students describe what is happening. Later show them the full picture and ask them to restate their impressions of what is going on in the scene. It is a quick way to show them that perspective matters and changes drastically based on what you see and what remains unseen.

@Marishawkins reminds us that another useful tool for emphasizing the importance of perspective can be the use of news clips from other countries, which often present the same events with a very different perspective from that of the news in North America.

It is also important to find things that are relevant to students’ lives – such as music – so that they are more eager to explore the culture of another people group.

Look for opportunities to teach them manners of other cultures. What is rude behavior? What is polite behavior?
Everyone is familiar with teaching students about foods of a culture, but let’s delve deeper and teach our students why certain foods are important and how they are prepared and eaten. What traditions and celebrations have grown around those foods? Why? We want to go beyond the superficial and develop deeper driving questions to promote inquiry into cultural practices, products and perspectives. @dr_dmd suggests using project-based learning to successfully accomplish these worthy goals.

@CoLeeSensei asks her 4th year students to reflect on what they have learned about the Japanese people by studying their language. She also moves to 100% authentic materials to facilitate students’ engagement with the culture.

Towards the end of our chat, our participants were feeling quite inspired and started sharing very specific ideas for incorporating culture into their classrooms. @DiegoOjeda led the charge with this list of topics to cover:

  • Gestures
  • Personal Space
  • Greetings (He notes that in Columbia you shake hands with male colleagues and kiss female colleagues on the cheek EVERY day.)
  • Daily life.
  • Social behaviors for dating, work, phone conversations, eating, etc.
  • Current events
  • Improvised ideas: Sometimes the best moments to discuss culture are not in our lesson plans.
  • Organize debates on cultural topics

Skype connections with people in your target language culture are always highly recommended by #langchat attendees.

Several teachers discussed the pros and cons of teaching culture when you are a native speaker vs. when you are a non-native speaker. The conclusion is that either way, you need to network with other teachers to ensure you keep an open-minded perspective on your own perceptions of culture.

Thank you!

All of our participants made thoughtful and enlightening contributions to our discussion of the importance of cultural education in the classroom, and the multitude of ways to build language skills by teaching culture. A special thanks to our moderators, @DiegoOjeda66 and @dr_dmd.

To reference the full archived chat, visit our GoogleDocs page. Please join us next Thursday at 8pm EST for our next invigorating discussion. And if you have a particular topic you’d like to suggest for a future #langchat, send us your idea on our suggestion page.

See you next Thursday on #langchat !

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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