Language is Culture in Motion

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43 thoughts on “Language is Culture in Motion”

  1. Thank you, Mark!
    ACTFL is under-theorized, because it’s positions are the result of non-SLA expert FL teacher opinions.
    I totally agree, that we need clear definitions!
    We also need rationale. Why the “3 modes”? (A: in order to get teachers to focus on what students CAN DO, not know about a language). Why “presentational mode”? Did ACTFL intend for FL instructors to assess every single unit in all 3 modes? . . . I hope not.
    Then, the majority confuse ends with means, such is the mighty power of washback among an SLA under-educated teaching population.
    The 5C’s make for good politics – they sound impressive – but in reality, if our kids could leave our classrooms able to have a conversation, then that would be justification enough for the class. How many people judge our effectiveness by asking a student: “Do you know the cultures of all the target language countries?”, “Can you compare and contrast your L1 culture with the L2 culture?”, “Can you compare the linguistics of your L1 with the L2?”
    And then there are the “AP themes” which are corrupting instruction. There are now FL departments that teach the same 6 AP themes as “units” at every level of HS instruction. As if language proficiency depends on kids being knowledgeable in that theme. Absurdity!

  2. “ACTFL is under-theorized, because it’s positions are the result of non-SLA expert FL teacher opinions.”
    Good one, Eric.
    Who are the FL teachers learning from at the university level? The top of the feeding chain is apparently another group not well-versed in acquisition theory.

  3. Alisa Shapiro

    …and whose culture are we supposed to be disseminating? A while back Eric and I were emailing about this…most languages are spoken widely and across oceans and groups…whose do we choose to represent the ‘Culture’ of the language we teach? My Costa Rican friend, who is an English WL teacher in her native land, told me she uses American country music to help teach our culture…and yet I wouldn’t know a country song/performer/lyric it it hit me in the face! And she is representing our ‘Culture’ with that content! My former (retired) Peruvian colleague hated that folks always focused on Macchu Pichu, Nazca lines, and ancient Native Americans when they taught about Peru – and never about her modern-day homeland….So, what to cover? Who decides? Aren’t we creating stereotypes by omission, and how ironic is that?
    I love the phrase, ‘LANGUAGE IS CULTURE IN MOTION.’
    The rest is Social Studies, and for novices, really burdens the cognitive load; may or may not interest the Ss, isn’t necessarily interactive/collaborative, and prolly won’t stick. I do admit that I taught a wonderful unit on the Sawdust Carpets of Guatemala (during Holy Week) at the peak of my content-related frenzy – after 30+ yrs speaking Spanish, I had to learn/teach a work I’d never encountered before (sawdust = asserín)! Talk about LOW FREQUENCY! I’m sure I could go back and T/CI-ify it, insuring I was narrow, deep, in-bounds…do some circling, embedded readings, etc – show a cool info video…but no acting/drama, eliciting details, student creativity etc would come of it – maybe after they pass the intermediate level…

  4. There are many facets to the concept of “Language is culture in motion.” There is history, perception, social structure, modern “culture” and more in every phrase of language…though certainly not time to “learn” about these things while creating an “acquisition-friendly” classroom.
    However, becoming functionally fluent in another language allows each person to explore the lives of the people who speak it FROM THE POINT OF VIEW of the native speaker, from the native speaker. It is the most memorable and powerful cultural lesson available.
    with love,

    1. Your second paragraph, Laurie, and how life-changing and enriching it’s been for me, is a major motivator in my being a Chinese teacher. Being a living bridge between those realms (English-speaking and Chinese-speaking) and getting to experience both.

      1. Yes! I totally agree. The shift in perspective from me as a “teacher” to a “connector” has been life-changing. I feel more like a conduit, simply facilitating and experience and a flow that is already there but is perhaps covered up by mindset and needs discovering / remembering. I love your image Diane, of a “living bridge.”

  5. I always want to ask people what they mean when they refer to “the culture.” As if there were a single “Spanish-speaking culture.” Really? Most of what ends up in the lesson plans perpetuate stereotypes and “the single story.”
    It’s no coincidence that this post came up today, since i just sent this link out to our Costa Rica group. As we prepare for our trip, we’re digging into this, identifying our own filters, biases, assumptions, etc.
    Chimamanda Adichie, “The danger of a single story”

    1. That’s a great TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie. I used it last year when I taught an African American History class. Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun” is one of the best books I’ve read in some years, by the way.

  6. Not to mention, Judy, the high vision of poetry made by the Quebecois out of their new land in the New World, born of ice and snow and having nothing to do with Parisian city poetry. I am so glad that you pointed this out. In fact, this discussion about what culture really is, in my view, totally deconstructs the limited view that existed in WL classrooms before. Now I understand why the very word culture gave me a slight case of nausea whenever I heard it – I knew something was off. What people we have in this group! What thinkers! What bold characters!

    1. Ben said: “…the very word culture gave me a slight case of nausea whenever I heard it …”
      omg! me too! And to think I spent so many years bashing myself for not doing those units “everyone else” seemed to be doing.
      and Diane, YES!!! “The deeper, daily culture of living in a Chinese context, which is experienced through language and interaction, is much less often addressed as “culture” but that’s what every expatriate in China really experiences every day in China and needs to understand. It’s best taught as we talk with students and use language, right? That’s how I think of it. Those things come up as we speak with students and might become a culture pop-up, or better will be a natural part of the discussion in the target language. In the same way correct grammar is taught in context by example, that’s the main way I want to help my students encounter and understand Chinese culture.”

  7. There is a big problem in Chinese circles related to “culture,” too. Chinese teachers trained now in China are getting taught “culture” in the form of Beijing opera mask craft projects, paper cutting artwork, maybe tai ch’i, calligraphy, and maybe some folk dance. Also Chinese traditional folk stories from thousands of years ago, holiday traditions that are in many cases no longer practiced, etc. These are topics I’ve heard often discussed and shared by Chinese teachers.
    The deeper, daily culture of living in a Chinese context, which is experienced through language and interaction, is much less often addressed as “culture” but that’s what every expatriate in China really experiences every day in China and needs to understand. It’s best taught as we talk with students and use language, right? That’s how I think of it. Those things come up as we speak with students and might become a culture pop-up, or better will be a natural part of the discussion in the target language. In the same way correct grammar is taught in context by example, that’s the main way I want to help my students encounter and understand Chinese culture.
    Those artifact-type activities as “culture” instruction is sometimes used as a measure of a teacher’s potential quality as a teacher. It was for me by two Chinese nationals who were supposed to evaluate my Chinese when I interviewed. They did not like my saying that culture is something I teach constantly, embedded as we talk in class, because it naturally arises as the students encounter the language. The culture in the form of projects isn’t valueless, but it better be done in the target language, and it’s not the bulk of what culture is anyway.

    1. It was for me by two Chinese nationals who were supposed to evaluate my Chinese when I interviewed. They did not like my saying that culture is something I teach constantly, embedded as we talk in class, because it naturally arises as the students encounter the language.
      And I bet these two Chinese nationals were highly esteemed in their school and district. It is a reminder of the colossal task we’ve chosen to undergo in shining the light on SLA and CI among FL teachers. The Chinese teaching world I gather especially so. I’m so happy you found a CI hub in CO, Diane!

  8. …the culture in the form of projects isn’t valueless….
    Projects in my view, since they are forced, are devoid of value. Ergo, projects on culture must be valueless. If a kid’s heart isn’t into it, if it’s required, then there is no value. In my opinion.

    1. Well, one worked for me with littler kids (grade 4 esp.) but I wouldn’t be doing the same thing with high schoolers! I was also dealing with the “fun” down the hall in Spanish and French classes for grade 4 as perceived by the 9-year-olds who would choose a language based on 8 weeks in each language during grade 4. So I made a CI way to teach them a dance.
      First we worked with the words “left, foot, hand, right” and “like this” and I sort of taught them a sort of NE China folk dance with some brightly-colored fans and handkerchiefs by giving directions in Chinese. It was mostly a way to get them to listen and then to move. Sort of a TPR way to teach a dance. Even the boys and the skeptical kids turned out to love it. I’d let them do whatever dance they wanted for the last couple minutes of the class when we finally did dance to the music.

      1. I’m going to have that this coming year – 10 weeks of French and 10 weeks of Spanish for every 6th grader and then they choose. I’ll be doing some thinking this summer.
        Yeah, the “fun” talk is such a drag.

        1. If the program will let you, Ruth, hopefully the students will have fun getting to understand and use the language. Do you have a predetermined scope to cover? Or will you lay that out?

          1. Hi Nathaniel,
            Yes, I hope they will have fun getting to understand and use the language. Lots of them really do and others find ways to complain and be negative. C’est la vie.
            Luckily, I am free to plan what I will do. I haven’t really delved into it yet this summer, just gathering and mulling around thoughts and ideas. Basically I’ll just do what I do (slow, simple French), but there are details to work out for ways to engage. TPR in different forms will definitely play a role and simple mini-stories. I like the Gouin Series idea, too, Robert.
            I can’t get away from feeling like it’s a competition, and I don’t like that. The Spanish teacher will probably have some “fun, cultural” activities (to get us back to the culture topic of this post).
            I’m trying to increase my numbers. The French program was cut a few years ago, and I am trying to build it up. Spanish is way more popular, kind of the default at this point, even if we are right next to Quebec. And Spanish seems easier to the kids I think.

          2. I totally empathize, Ruth. One reason I moved to a high school is that there’s less of that feeling of being tested & compared (by 9-year-olds nonetheless!) before someone chooses your language. Then there’s the ignorance of Chinese, and of how it can be taught to all for fluency instead of as an intellectual weed-out class. I still have that issue at high school, but the kids predominately don’t even see me before they choose a language. It feels better to me.
            My previous school had a very bubbly, popular, grammar, games, and performance tasks Spanish teacher, and an incredibly diligent, gentle, grammar and cultural projects and food events French teacher, and me. I didn’t like feeling in competition either. I know the French teacher & I both felt it even though as people we were supportive of each other and got along well.

          3. Hi Ruth,
            If I understand this right, you have 10 weeks to convince (sell) 6th graders that they will enjoy your French class. Is this correct? Hmmm… some thoughts:
            1. Use the questionnaire to do some PQR which will lead to some very easy mini stories. Add a simple quiz and a simple reading (give them a sense of accomplishment!) –> This will introduce the basis of TPRS/CI. It will also give them a sense of how much fun the stories can be.
            2. Yes, some games:
            A. Simon says –>good for TPR –> use some silly commands: Simon says bounce on a pogo stick, mow the lawn, be a sprinkler; alternate between French and English, gradually using to more and more French.
            B.Heads up, Seven up –> first in English, then in French (vocabulary opportunity)
            C. (I have a 2-3 other games if you want.)
            3. Keep things moving, change the activity every 12-13 minutes (their age and their ability to stay focused.)
            4. Use ¨Disco 5 a day¨ (on YouTube)
            5. Teach the song ¨Petit Cochon¨ from YouTube (set to Lady Gaga’s ¨Poker Face¨)
            6. Teach the song ¨Aux Champs Elysées¨ by Joe Dassin. Great for chorus refrain and images of Paris. (Sell Paris!)
            7. Consider this: finish your ten week session with a French Culture Day (food!) Have students bring in crêpes, baguettes, brie, croissants, Nutella, whipped cream, fruit, drinks, plates, napkins, etc. Watch a movie in French with English subtitles while the students eat their food. Tell the students you have these Culture Days periodically throughout the year. (A good break from the hard work of TCI)
            8. I organize a trip to Europe for 8th graders. This is another incentive to take the French class.
            I hope some of these ideas might be of help.

          4. Thank you, Don! I just had a busy weekend so didn’t get back to you. These are many of the things I do, too, but some new ideas for sure. I do want to do more with music, as long as I can make it good CI. It is important to include action and not stick with something for too long.
            Sure, I’d like to hear about your other games, too.
            Last year I used 5 a Day with 7th and 8th graders, and they loved it. I try to keep some things for later, so didn’t use it with the 6th graders.

          5. Don and Ruth and everybody I just want to say how much I appreciate the sharing of ideas on sixth grade strategies here. We become better teachers by the help and society of each other. I remember working with Don at iFLT in Denver, when the Turks were here, and now he is sending in all this stuff on sixth graders and Ruth is always up there in the North somewhere taking notes on everything and clarifying and adding. This is the essence of our work together, and as we enter our ninth year together, I just want to say how grateful I am to everyone for all the fine ideas we have shared over the years. Plus, those in Denver and Chicago last year, guess who’s coming in from Scotland to teach us Gallic? Looking forward to a fun week and we will check in here when we can, and any big new ideas or important clarifications will certainly be recorded here at the end of the week.

      2. In a recent article on TPRS, Krashen suggests using TPR to teach activities, including exercises, (especially yoga instruction), simple self-defense techniques, simple magic tricks, cooking, and juggling. So teaching dance steps fits right in with this, Diane.

        1. Nice to hear that!
          At iFLT in some war room time, I am hoping to try out some TPR as a way to teach frequent classroom instructions (get a whiteboard/paper/pen, etc.). Where I would like to improve is at making TPR more interesting than just basic commands.

        2. I was thinking about introducing the rules with TPR. Just a thought that popped into my head earlier today.
          Robert, I find it interesting that Gouin is referred to in both Asher’s Learning Another Language Through Actions and Contee Seely’s (w/Elizabeth Romijn) Live Action Spanish. Asher says that Gouin is in almost complete harmony with TPR (he finds no evidence that Gouin allowed for the silent period (3-14ff). Seely attributes TPR to three sources: Guoin and his use of series, Harold Palmer who used actions for language teaching, and Asher who provided decades of research (30 years as of 1989) for demonstrating the effectiveness of TPR (xii).
          My first week of French was a Gouin type series. The focus was on memorization (although we had to recite it as we acted it out). It was an output activity. Training and experience in TPRS could make that a more interesting and more CI-based. And may provide a way to think through a lot of text-based stuff I may have to do this coming year. It could be more input-based by introducing it through TPR and possibly more TPRSy by adding details and problems.

  9. I think that it helps to remember that “fun” has been used in the traditional arena as a comparison to verb drills, memorized lists and worksheets. It has primarily been added to make language learning tolerable. Having spent well over a decade of my career doing just that, and being lauded for it on many levels, I can tell you that first you think of something fun, and then you struggle like crazy to find a way to add language to it. It is, at best, superficial but entertaining.
    Even 6th graders are wise enough to figure that out. It is one of the reasons why teachers struggle with classroom management while doing “fun” activities. Students instinctively know that the “value” of the activity has been compromised (ouch, I am wincing at my own words….but I believe them to be true.) and they “forget” that they are supposed to be learning and just go for the “fun”.
    Students of all ages will truly appreciate that in your class they are a) actually USING the language to communicate and b) having fun while doing it. The difference is subtle but powerful. It won’t take them long to figure out that what they are doing in your class is real.
    with love,

    1. That’s a good way to think about it, Laurie. I’m sure you are right about kids knowing when their learning is being compromised by fun, and loving it when they are really learning and having fun.
      Maybe I’m too sensitive, but those few who are vocally negative (even when what they say is ridiculous) really get me down sometimes and then here comes the out-of-body experience. ;^)

    2. What I’m thinking here relates to all levels.
      I can’t help wondering though, if a little bit of pure fun in the context of French class (even if not in French if they are just beginning) that relates to the broad ideas of French cultures might be good just because it may spark some true interest or enthusiasm for some kids and it might give them a taste or perspective that is new. One example given somewhere on the blog here is Robert’s German Christmas party.

      1. I’d be thinking, “Okay, we’re not focusing on language acquisition today. If some spontaneous language happens or some particularly interesting related word or phrase just has to be introduced, that would be great, but we’re just going to do something fun to learn about how people live in some French-speaking place.”
        I know time is precious and we never will have enough TL time, but isn’t there value in that once in a while, even in English for beginners? Not a graded project that is forced and required, just a dip into another world.
        I’ve been just trying to get a handle on TCI and I haven’t done anything with culture beyond the pop-up bits and the odd video or song or delicious snack. I want to, somehow.

        1. I kinda bet that you could do slow CI for 10 weeks with the last day throwing a French food fest and the kids would say the next week, “Wow, that class was so fun!”
          But yeah, it’s very interesting hearing from the veterans here on the topic of making class fun. As Laurie and Robert were saying, what can be more fun than escaping from the grind of the left side of the brain into the pleasures of the right side!
          Diane, your reflection on feeling competitive with a colleague makes me think about how corrosive such dynamics can be. And that kid that wanted wanted to play games and “lord over” his classmates would be hysterical if it wasn’t so bothersome cuz he, like kids I’ve had, can derail the L2 train so catastrophically (It’s about time we threw that CI train image in here again!).

          1. Venting here: Seriously, it was a major reason I was willing to leave when I saw the job listing for my school in CO. There were several other factors, but the sick feeling each spring as I was supposed to be checking on upcoming grade 5 enrollment was awful. There were so many factors besides who I was & how I taught involved. Major one, I think: parent fear of/lack of experience with Chinese language; secondarily, social dynamics at that very networked, very socially connected private school. I didn’t feel it was “personal” but that didn’t help it feel less awful.
            (Plus, why does everyone ask how many students take Chinese? This is true at both schools — it’s often the second question someone asks me. I’ve begun sometimes to ask in response, what do you wish to learn based on student numbers? or something like that. Now I’m just griping and venting because this PLC feels safe to do that in. We all face this to some degree in the US, I think, because of the lack of priority for fluency in more languages than English.)
            Thankfully, my Spanish teacher dept. chair and French teacher colleague were helpful in this area. They didn’t seem to understand the sick feeling enrollment gave me, but they did support getting a fairly even distribution among the 3 language choices in grades 5-8 — it had to work out for our whole schedule to work. High school is different: I don’t need to gain 1/4 to 1/3 of the students, more like 1/20 to 1/30 for my job to feel secure. Way less pressure, and no “testing period” of 8 weeks in class before deciding.

    3. I had parent-student-teacher conferences (at my initiative) to address this topic with two 8th grade boys a couple of years ago. One of them directly said, “Language class should be fun.” What he meant was, language class should be all games that he could win and lord over his classmates (at least, that’s what he did if we ever had a game-like thing). They were outliers in that they didn’t see the language in use in the classroom as a benefit. They thought they’d like to be in Spanish instead. (Which they wrongly perceived as all competitive games.)
      What I told the boys and their parents about how I teach was there are 3 principles I’m seeking to follow as best practices:
      1. Providing lots of Comprehensible Input (I described what that meant in SLA, briefly)
      2. Making that interesting and fun: personalizing by involving student ideas, moving, acting, drawing, using video & music, making up stories and scenes in class (noting to the boys that they like competing, but some of their classmates do not).
      3. Balancing #2 with what works with their class from a classroom management perspective: if they mess it up, talk in English, become overcompetitive, cheat, lose sight that it’s Chinese, not gym class, etc. — then I don’t do that activity again. I told them about 50% of what I was trying with their class (because it was heavy on CI but I knew they’d think it was “FUN”) actually worked.
      Things did improve after those conferences. I really wonder if 2-3 years later, those boys have gained any sense of perspective on their experience in my class. I know what their high school teacher is like!

    4. I would like to propose a distinction that may seem slight to some, but I believe is very important.
      We talk a lot about “fun”, and both grammar teachers and “eclectic” teachers often spend a lot of time looking for fun activities.
      Those of us who us T/CI have adopted the prevailing language, but I think using the term “fun” with students sets up wrong expectations. There are days when my class genuinely is fun, but that is not my daily goal. My daily goal (besides comprehensible, compelling, etc. language) is for the class period to be enjoyable and enjoyed by all.
      Today I spent time with friends. We talked, walked around town and saw different sights, had lunch in a garden, had ice cream and then currant cake, and talked some more. It was not a “fun” day, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable (and enjoyed) day.
      To me, “fun” in the school language classroom setting has an almost manic edge to it, as evidenced by many students’ being basically out of control during fun and games time. On the other hand, a fourth-year class that passionately discusses in German which Hogwarts House is the best is enjoyable without that edge. So is reading a “choose-your-adventure” book in German as a class and deciding together what to do at each point.
      Just my thoughts on the matter, for what they are worth.

      1. I agree with you, Robert, but the word is vague with a range of definitions. I’m not looking for manic fun and games in my classroom, that’s for sure. I too am looking for enjoyment and engagement, but I sometimes use the word “fun” to describe those times, too. It’s a few kids who bring in the desire for “fun” as they define it (fun and games) and some of them have a hard time getting past it. I don’t give it to them in the way they want, but I want them to enjoy being in class.
        When I wrote above about the idea of having some cultural activities that were “pure fun” and not focused on language acquisition, I wasn’t thinking of crazy wild mayhem, maybe just something different and enjoyable.
        If I’d spent the day as you did, I might have said that I had fun! 😉

  10. Hello all,
    I would like to add a little comment late in this thread about culture.
    I love the concept “culture in motion”. This is so different from teaching discreet items that most likely won’t even be valid from TL country to TL country, as if culture were a bag of tchotchkes to pick from and showcase.
    To me the teaching of the language itself in a CI manner is the best way for students to understand, compare and contrast the perspectives and practices of another culture to their own. It is happening all the time we are teaching. Language represents point of view, and world view (cosmo visión).
    Some examples of how I see this in my language—Spanish and in English:
    In Spanish one “puts on” an emotion the same way one puts on a hat (se pone triste, se pone un sombrero). They are both going to be removed sooner or later—no need to worry. In English the person becomes the emotion (big difference! maybe in English one is more invested in the emotion? I’m not sure). To this you add a preposition and you “put yourself to an action” (se pone a bailar), in English you begin to dance.
    Another example of language being the culture: it took me many, many years of living in this country and Speaking English day-in and day-out to use the first person plural more or less correctly: in Spanish: “Mary and I we go to the park” (Mary y yo vamos al parque). Maybe because we just like the repetition that we both do something together, maybe because many of us are hot-blooded or gregarious, maybe because we are insecure, whatever. In English “Mary and I go to the park” means the same thing, but sounds very lonely to me.

  11. Laura –
    I love your insights here on culture. Another one that I often share is “Happy Birthday” vs. “Feliz Cumpleaños.” As I explain, to me the difference is that in English-speaking countries we celebrate just one day – the day of our birth – no matter how long ago that was. However, in Spanish-speaking countries they celebrate LIFE – living, – and COMPLETING another successful year of it.
    Another example: (and not just in Spanish, but in other languages as well) in English we say that we ARE # years old. That those years identify us. But, in other languages, we HAVE so many years (I like to say “of experience,”) that adds to who we have become, or developed into.
    Yes, language DOES = culture and the way a society/culture has evolved.
    “Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.
    “Constant change
    No matter what culture a people are a part of, one thing is for certain, it will change. Culture appears to have become key in our interconnected world, which is made up of so many ethnically diverse societies, but also riddled by conflicts associated with religion, ethnicity, ethical beliefs, and, essentially, the elements which make up culture,” said De Rossi. “But culture is no longer fixed, if it ever was. It is essentially fluid and constantly in motion.” This makes it so that it is difficult to define any culture in only one way.”

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