84.03.06: Teaching Culture: Beyond Language
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Teaching Culture: Beyond Language

Deborah Peck

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What is culture? According to Ruth Benedict, "Culture is what binds (people) together.” (Brown, p. 46). Culture is all the accepted and patterned ways of behavior of a given people. It is that facet of human life learned by people as a result of belonging to some particular group; it is that part of learned behavior shared with others. Not only does this concept include a group's way of thinking, feeling, and acting, but also the internalized patterns for doing certain things in certain ways . . . not just the doing of them. This concept of culture also includes the physical manifestations of a group as exhibited in their achievements and contributions to civilization. Culture is our social legacy as contrasted with our organic heredity. It regulates our lives at every turn.

The goal of this unit is to demonstrate to foreign language teachers how they can incorporate the teaching of culture into their foreign language classrooms. In this curriculum unit, I will define the different types of culture; demonstrate its relevance to second language learning; and give suggestions as to when and how both formal and deep cultures can be incorporated into the already existing curriculum of a beginning language course. Although this unit is intended for use in my introductory French and Spanish classes, parts of the unit are interdisciplinary.

Of what value is culture to second language learning? For the foreign language teacher, the reasons are many. Culture shapes our view of the world. And language is the most representative element in any culture. Any item of behavior, tradition or pattern can only be understood in light of its meaning to the people who practice it. A knowledge of the codes of behavior of another people is important if today's foreign language student is to communicate fully in the target language. Without the study of culture, foreign language instruction is inaccurate and incomplete. For foreign language students, language study seems senseless if they know nothing about the people who speak it or the country in which it is spoken. Language learning should be more than the manipulation of syntax and lexicon.

Humanistically, the study of different cultures aids us in getting to know different people which is a necessary prelude to understanding and respecting other peoples and their ways of life. It helps to open our students' eyes to the similarities and differences in the life of various cultural groups. Today, most of our students live in a monolingual and monocultural environment. Consequently, they become culture-bound individuals who tend to make premature and inappropriate value judgments. This can cause them to consider the foreign peoples whose language they are trying to learn as very peculiar and even ill-mannered. In 1980, the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies stated, "Foreign language instruction at any level should be a humanistic pursuit intended to sensitize students to other cultures, to the relativity of values, to appreciation of similarities among peoples and respect for the differences among them.” (Wilkes, p. 107)

When should the study of culture begin? Should culture be postponed until students can study it in the target language? Won't special emphasis upon culture be wasteful of precious class time? Shouldn't cultural materials be postponed until students have greater maturity and greater language competence? Ideally, the study of culture should begin on the very first day of class and should continue every day there after. Because of the large decrease in enrollment in second and third year language courses, the concept of culture can be communicated to only a small number of students unless this is done in the earliest phases of their instruction.

What type of culture should be taught in the foreign language classroom? Nelson Brooks has identified five meanings of culture: growth; refinement; fine arts; patterns of living; and a total way of life. He believes that patterns of living should receive the major emphasis in the classroom. It is patterns of living that are the least understood, yet the most important in the early phases of language instruction. He labels this meaning of culture as culture 4 and defines it as follows:

"Culture 4 (patterns of living) refers to the individual's role in the unending kaleidoscope of life situations of every kind and the rules and models for attitude and conduct in them. By reference to these models, every human being, from infancy onward, justifies the world to himself as best he can, associates with those around him, and relates to the social order to which he is attached.” (Brooks, p. 210).

From the point of view of language instruction, culture 4 can be divided into formal culture and deep culture. Formal culture, sometimes referred to as "culture with a capital C”, includes the humanistic manifestations and contributions of a foreign culture: art; music; literature; architecture; technology; politics. However, with this way of looking at culture, we often lose sight of the individual.

The most profitable way of looking at culture is to see what it does. Deep culture, or "culture with a small c,” focuses on the behavioral patterns or lifestyles of the people: When and what they eat; how they make a living; the attitudes they express towards friends and members of their families; which expressions they use to show approval or disapproval. In this sense, culture is a body of ready-made solutions to the problems encountered by the group. It is a cushion between man and his environment. If we provide our students only with a list of facts of history or geography and a list of lexical items, we have not provided them with an intimate view of what life is really like in the target culture.

How to incorporate culture into the Foreign Language classroom

Now that the what, why, and when of incorporating culture in the foreign language classroom has been established, a focus on the how is needed. Better international understanding is a noble aim, but how can the transition be made from theoretical matters to the active, crowded, and sometimes noisy foreign language classroom? One problem in all classroom work is the involvement of students' interest, attention, and active participation. Learning activities which focus on active rather than passive learning are the best.

Traditional methods of teaching culture in the foreign language classroom have been focused on formal culture and passive learning. Students do need both a geographical and historical perspective in order to understand contemporary behavior patterns but this can be done with "hands on” activities. Beginning foreign language students want to feel, touch, smell, and see the foreign peoples and not just hear their language.

Cultural Islands

From the first day of class teachers should have prepared a cultural island in their classrooms. Posters, pictures, maps, signs, and realia of many kinds are essential in helping students develop a mental image (all are available from Gessler Publishing Company). Assigning students foreign names from the first day can heighten student interest. Short presentations on a topic of interest with appropriate pictures or slides add to this mental image. Start students off by making them aware of the influence of various foreign cultures in this country. Introduce students to the borrowed words in our English language or the place-names of our country. This helps students to realize they already know many words in the target language (i.e. poncho, fiesta, rodeo). Some of the foods they eat are another example of the influence of foreign cultures (i.e. taco, burrito, chili).

A good introductory activity is to send students on cultural scavenger hunts to supermarkets and department stores and have them make lists of imported goods. You might also want to take students on a tour of a local Hispanic community. Subsequent activities might include: sending students out to interview shop owners; inviting bilingual students to your class to tutor students or to talk about a certain topic and maybe help narrate a slide show; inviting guest speckers (contact local Spanish Cultural Association).

Celebrating Festivals

Celebrating foreign festivals is a favorite activity of many students. Even though this activity takes a lot of planning, it works well as a culminating activity. My Spanish-speaking students start by bringing in recipes from home and then we put our own cookbook together (See bibliography for Cooper's book). We then prepare for the festival by drawing posters, decorating the room, and preparing some of the foods in our cookbook. At Christmas time, we fill a pinata with candy and learn some folk songs and folk dances (Most textbooks have songs at the back of the book). This kind of activity enables student to actively participate in the cultural heritage of the people they are studying.

Kinesics and Body Language

Culture is a network of verbal and non-verbal communication. If our goal as foreign language teachers is to teach communication, we must not neglect the most obvious form of non-verbal communication which is gesture. Gesture, although learned, is largely an unconscious cultural phenomenon. Gesture conveys the "feel” of the language to the student and when accompanied by verbal communication, injects greater authenticity into the classroom and makes language study more interesting. Gerald Green in his book Gesture Inventory for Teaching Spanish suggests that teachers use foreign culture gestures when presenting dialogues, cuing students' responses, and assisting students to recall dialogue lines (Examples of dialogues and appropriate gestures are given in the book). At the beginning of the year, teachers can also show foreign films to students just to have them focus on body movements.

Culture Capsules

In Ursula Hendron's article on teaching culture in the high school classroom, she suggests using culture capsules. The culture capsule teachers through comparison by illustrating one essential difference between an American and a foreign custom (i.e. dating, cuisine, pets, sports). The cultural insights from the culture capsule can be further illustrated by role playing. For example, Hendron suggests teaching dating customs in Spanish-speaking countries by creating an illusion of a plaza mayor in the classroom with posters, props, music or slides. Students pretend to be young Latin-Americans and act out a Sunday paseo.

Brigham Young University also publishes culture capsules entitled "Culturgrams” for over eighty different countries. Each "culturgram” is divided into sections on family lifestyle, attitudes, customs and courtesies, and history. After studying these, students can compare and contrast the foreign customs and traditions with their own.

Cultural Consciousness-Raising

Attitude is another factor in language learning that leads to cross cultural understanding. Helen Wilkes believes that the totality of language learning is comprised of three integrated components: linguistic, cultural, and attitudinal. As foreign language teachers, we all teach the basic sounds, vocabulary, and syntax of the target language. Above we have seen methods of introducing culture into the classroom. The remainder of this paper will focus on effecting attitudinal changes.

Most foreign language teachers would agree that positively sensitizing students to cultural phenomena is urgent and crucial. Studies indicate that attitudinal factors are clear predictors of success in second language learning. However, effecting attitudinal changes requires planned programs which integrate cultural and linguistic units as a means to cross-cultural understanding. The following method for effecting attitudinal changes is adapted from Helen Wilkes' article "A Simple Device for Cultural Consciousness Raising in the Teenaged Student of French.” The organization of the notebook can be a useful tool in any discipline, but it can be of special importance in the foreign language classroom as a cultural consciousness raising tool. Helen Wilkes suggests that from the very first day of school the foreign language teacher should have students begin organizing their notebook. The notebook should be divided into four sections: El Vocabulario; Los Ejercicios; La Gramática; Un Poco de Todo. Each section of the notebook will have an illustrated title page.

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