Teaching Culture in a Comprehensible Input Classroom

Yesterday my friend Diane Neubauer, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, interviewed me for a paper she is writing for a course about my approaches to teaching culture in my language classes. After I finished the interview I had a moment to think about what I had told her and am writing down some of my major thoughts here.

First, I do not practice what I call “Cultural Trivial Pursuit.” This is a term I created to describe how culture is discussed in many traditional classes, where students learn small, isolated bits of information about a certain person, practice, or perspective that is deemed to be of cultural importance. In many cases, students are eventually tested on a whole group of these isolated bits, usually in multiple choice format. In Spanish classes in my previous school, I had to test students on whether or not they knew where Calle Ocho was (Miami, Florida) or the traditional color of a girl’s quinceañera dress (pink). In French class at that same school I had to assess students on whether or not they knew where the Hotel Frontenac was (Quebec City) or if they knew the name of the artistic style that the artist Claude Monet was known for (Impressionism). Reducing cultural information to a shallow, one or two sentence description turns that information into trivial knowledge. Few students will be able to appreciate the cultural information in this form, and those facts will become just another thing that students memorize for a quiz and forget soon after, like conjugated verb forms and isolated vocabulary lists.

Second, I take issue with a certain type of cultural project that students do in many language classes, because the project almost always must be done in English due to the students’ novice level language ability (yes, even in a traditional third or fourth year language class). In my previous school I had to assign a project every year (Year One: A famous French/Mexican building or landmark. Year Two: A region of France/Spain. Year Three: A French/Latino artist) complete with a research paper in English, an oral presentation in English, and a poster board with visuals and captions in English. Then I would have to give up a week of my class to listen to and grade presentations, thus stalling any progress students had been making in language acquisition. During the presentation week any stranger who walked into my classroom might think s/he was looking at a social studies and not a language class!

Finally, I stay away from being stereotypical or culturally inaccurate. I used to have a large Mexican sombrero that a student brought me back from Mexico. It stayed on top of my classroom TV and if students did something especially nice I would let them wear it, which they loved. But I decided to get rid of it once I realized that nobody in Mexico wore hats like that (I think they exist strictly to be bought by tourists). Students also used to nag me about having a food tasting in Spanish class, and then all of them would offer to bring in chips and salsa (or even worse, Taco Bell), which are way more American than they are Mexican. In French class, those begging for a food tasting would offer to bring in croissants or chocolate éclairs, and while they are traditionally French, the ones we get in America are practically nothing like the ones in France, so I usually said no unless students were willing to bring something besides that, which hardly anyone ever wanted to.

So now that I’ve told you what I DON’T do, let me tell you how I DO approach culture in my classroom.

First, I try to combine cultural and linguistic comprehension goals so students understand the cultural implication behind the expressions they are acquiring. For example, when I teach greetings in French, I make sure to mention to students that it is custom to say “Bonjour Madame/Mademoiselle/Monsieur” and not just “Bonjour” in isolation, and that the authentic former is always said when entering a store to the shopkeeper or sales clerk. In Spanish class, I mention that when a woman gets to be of a certain age in Spanish speaking countries she is often addressed as “Señora” even if she is not married, so it is not a direct equivalent of “Mrs.” in English. Another great example is the use of the verb “to invite” in both Spanish and French, because the implication is that the person doing the inviting will also pay. I can think of so many examples where students really need to understand the cultural implication as well as the literal meaning of words in order to understand an expression fully, and I make sure to address that when necessary in my class.

Second, most of the cultural themes presented in my classroom come from novels, either those that we have read together or those that students read independently. Many of the books available from TPRS Books, Mira Canion, and Fluency Matters contain cultural themes, often talking place in a certain country or during a particular period in history. For example, last year in my Spanish 4 class we read Los Ojos de Carmen, which took place in Ecuador. Major plot points happened in areas of cultural significance, so it was both easy and relevant to talk about those cultural topics as they related to the action of the story. I know some language teachers whose entire curriculum is based on novel reading. They do anywhere between four and six novels a year, which potentially means the in-depth study of between four and six extensive cultural themes found in those novels.

Third, my ultimate classroom goal is to aim for depth over breadth. Linguistically I would rather have my students acquire ten words very effectively then have tenuous, short-term knowledge of 30 words. Many other people who teach with comprehensible input (CI) feel the same way, which is why they concentrate on high frequency words and expressions in their classrooms. I apply the same philosophy to cultural topics. Instead of knowing one or two bits of trivia about a cultural theme (again, no cultural trivial pursuit!), I would rather my students have a deeper understanding of a few significant themes, especially if they are themes that I can connect to something in my students’ lives.

And finally, I look for compelling culture to share with my students. When choosing a cultural topic to discuss in class I ask myself, “Will most teenagers find this interesting?” If the answer is “Yes,” I make plans to present it in class. If the answer is “No,” I don’t (When talking with Diane I talked about having to teach students about an area of Mexico famous for its black pottery, about which my students had almost no interest. She responded by telling me about having to teach her students in Chinese class about the significance of and meaning behind Beijing Opera masks, a lesson that she didn’t think was very well received because so few teenagers have any interest in opera. We both agreed that these are the type of lessons we avoid when trying to talk about culture in class.). I have found that most teenagers respond positively to cultural lessons that have to do with popular music, sports, school, and holiday rituals. Discussing quirky traditions is also popular. I have found that cultural lessons about art are usually only compelling if coupled with another theme (like Picasso’s Guernica, which can be linked to a discussion about the Spanish Civil War, for example). And, most importantly,  I only share these cultural themes if I can present the lesson primarily in the target language. That being said, I have found that I can make most cultural topics understandable to novice learners by simplifying the language.

Feel free to visit my resources page, where I have posted a few presentations about various cultural themes. If you teach Spanish, I highly recommend talking about Caga Tiò, also known as the Poop Log!

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