Teach Culture Later

Of course, one of the C words in the standards is Culture. Big deal. How can we teach the culture witout the language? Do it in English? That is lost time to CI. We don’t teach social studies, although some language teachers get away with that by talking about Diego and Maria in Argentina having breakfast ouside of a nice cafe.
Those teenagers don’t even exist. The book made them up. Our students sense that, and, when we start talking to them about people who don’t exist, on some level they get that. It is always more – much more compelling – when it is about them. We can get to compelling input only by talking about stuff that directly impacts our students – mainly, them.
Back to the point about culture. Language is the key to unlocking the culture. Why would I waste even one minute in the first two years by teaching culture. Why wouldn’t I set the table for the kids’ more advanced years of study so that they could experience the culture then for real because they know the language?
True, kids can learn about culture from reading in the first two years, but many teachers go off on tangents, sometimes, unconsciously, to show off. Ben been there done that. I stopped when I got how precious each minute is in the first two years for CI, the backbone of teaching grammar and eventually culture.
I also realized how important it is to stay out of L1 in a first or second year class when it struck me that the kids could honestly care less – it’s just what they do at their age – if the Eiffel Tower was constructed in 1892 or 1492. It’s all the same to them.
Columbus is a fictitious character to them whose only role in their lives is to possibly cause them to fail a test. The Eiffel Tower reminds more than a few of them – especially these days – about how poor they are. All but the upper half of the class, mainly those white girls who are 4%ers and who may even major in French one day and actually go to the Eiffel Tower because they are so good at memorizing grammar items and conjugating verbs but they won’t be able to say or understand a thing.
They may even become teachers and burn 96% of their kids into hating languages or, worse, thinking that they suck at it. If not 96%, then half. It’s true, the big problem is poverty. How insulting to talk about how great the Eiffel Tower is to a child for whom it is just an abstraction, a symbol of something they can never attain.
As our economy continues to become only for the rich, these kids don’t need to be taking tests about cultural items that they will never be able to see and appreciate for real. The time in the classroom needs to be devoted to building the kids up, because it may be the only time in their lives – in our classes – when this happens.
That is why I believe that Robert’s focus on the Three Modes is best in terms of assessment and writing curriculum and planning the best way to get kids to the upper levels. We can’t teach culture effectively if the kids don’t have the language, so let’s give them that language first, in the interpersonal, interpretive and presentation modes.
Robert said here recently in talking about the Three Modes this:
The College Board is even helpful here. The new AP Exam has seven sections. There is not a single grammar section there. Even the cloze section has disappeared. Students have to do the following:
-interpret oral communication
-interpret written communication
-interpret a combination of written and oral communication
-engage in written interpersonal communication
-engage in oral interpersonal communication
-produce written presentational communication
-produce oral interpersonal communication
And Robert, there isn’t anything on there about culture, either! Good. We can now begin to focus on teaching the language. The grammar, the culture, all the rest will follow. Notice that presentation of grammar and culture are primarily domains of the textbook. Book teachers teach grammar and culture from the beginning of a course of study. Now they have to step up to the plate and start actually speaking the language in their classrooms. Good for them.



6 thoughts on “Teach Culture Later”

  1. Actually, Ben, the culture (like the grammar) is imbedded in the AP test – but it’s a different take on “culture” than the traditional, typical “Bavarians wear Lederhosen, listen to oompah bands and celebrate Oktoberfest”.
    I agree with you about what most people perceive as “culture”. However, there are elements of culture that are taught easily and naturally. When I count on my fingers in German I always start with the thumb – that’s cultural. (BTW, I got good mileage/kilometerage out of “Inglourious Basterds” because many students had seen it and could relate to the “drei Biere” line with the wrong set of fingers up for “drei”; it’s a key plot element.) When a cell phone goes off in class, I can ask if this ever happens in Germany. (It most certainly does.) I can compare social networking in the US with social networking in Germany – some of my students have German Facebook friends. We learn about the Bundesliga and soccer. I don’t have to take time out from the language to “teach culture” because certain things come naturally and others are easily and relevantly incorporated into discussions with students.
    In levels 3 and 4 I do the more traditional cultural items, but by then the students have the language to talk about them in German. They are also ready (readier) to talk about the larger world and not just about themselves.
    N.B.: On the sample test for German, one question asks students to write about online social networking in their country and online social networking in German-speaking countries. At first that seems like a difficult question, but my AP students would have no problem with it because they know about Facebook.de and are online with their German friends. They can easily write to the prompt.
    Last Saturday I was at a workshop with an AP German reader. She said that with the new emphasis, the holistic grading of exams puts the stress on communication and deducts for grammar only when it interferes with communication. Also, they no longer deduct for wrong answers on the multiple choice (interpretive) section; you just don’t get credit for it. The French exam matches the German exam.

  2. I agree with you Ben. There was a great editorial a while back in the FL Annals titles “What’s the Beef?” that had to do with the same topic. I do have a question though, what if you throw in a little bit of culture in stories, and I don’t mean the textbook type of culture but fun culture? Such as “monsters” in the target cultures? Such as the chupacabra or, as I learned about recently, in Argentina they have the Nahuelito. This is “culture” that I think students would find entertaining and these creatures could find themselves in many classroom stories.

  3. Much of what I consider cultural education is “stereotype busting”. For example, the majority of my students assume all Spanish speakers eat tacos and enchiladas. The target language can be used to solve the mystery of why (insert name of student/celebrity) can’t find tacos or enchiladas in Spain (or a South American country). This person is dying of hunger because they can’t find tacos or enchiladas. So they go to a restaurant and order tortillas (if they are in Spain), receive omelets, and since they are allergic to eggs ….. Several structures could be used to “ask” such stories.
    And because I rarely have subs who know the language, when I am gone my students watch travel videos for Spanish speaking countries (Bizarre Foods, Sam Brown, etc). I have a standard note-taking template that the students use with prompts that work for any of the videos. They get a few points that count as a quiz as long, as I can tell by what they answered that they really watched.
    Also, as Chris mentioned, the Chupacabra, La Llorona, and others make great continuing characters that students love to use.

  4. Ardythe,
    Would you mind sharing that template? I’d love to see it. I like the idea of using those videos with a sub. I never know what to do with a sub because, like in your case, they never speak the language.

  5. Here is the template. This one is specific for three different videos and I converted it to a google doc for sharing. I will split the url so that the filter won’t consider it spam. If it does not work let me know.

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