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Archived Information

World Languages
Curriculum Framework
Making Connections

World Languages Content

Culture Strand

Lifelong learners use language to gain understanding of peoples and cultures.

How can we teach about culture in the World Languages discipline?

The novelist Susan Power told a Boston Globe interviewer about growing up in Chicago. Among her fellow Native Americans it was considered impolite, she said, "to ask people direct questions about themselves, whereas among my non-Indian friends, you were considered rude if you did not ask questions and show an interest in people. So I was constantly having to make that shift."

This internal "shifting" is an ability that grows out of an awareness of what culture is and how culture influences behavior. It is a skill we help our students develop in the World Languages classroom. To introduce learners to other peoples' ways of thinking and behaving, the World Languages class lets its members "try on" and experience new cultures through language. World Languages teachers should present all topics within a cultural context. The teaching of culture should not be merely presenting static facts and information about the culture; rather, students and teachers ask and consider answers to a series of questions:

  • What is culture?
  • What are the characteristics (ideas, behaviors, manifestations, cultural artifacts and symbols, etc.) we talk about in order to describe someone's culture?
  • What different groups of people are represented within the culture, including people at different times of history and in different locales (for example, French speaking culture in Algeria, Canada, France, Haiti, etc.)
  • How is culture reflected in human behavior, language, the arts and sciences?
  • What are the differences and similarities among the students' cultures and cultures where the target language is/was used?
  • What is a cultural stereotype? What is a generalization? What are the ramifications of cultural stereotyping and generalizing?
  • How does learning about different cultures inform students' understanding of their own culture?
  • How is "culture" negotiated in interaction across cultures?

At the end of a PreK-4 sequence (Stage 1 proficiency)...

PreK-4 Learning Standards

Students will use selected words, phrases, and expressions with no major repeated patterns of error to:

  1. identify cultural and linguistic characteristics
  2. compare and contrast cultural and linguistic characteristics, identifying similarities and differences
  3. react appropriately in a social situation
  4. examine and analyze cultural contributions of diverse groups

Examples

  1. PreK-2: Children listen to a fable or legend over several lessons, and discuss how the characters' actions represent their culture(s).
    3-4: Throughout the year, learners are exposed to a variety of poetry, music, visual materials, artistic expressions, and community members. They identify cultural and linguistic characteristics of each as part of an ongoing investigation of the question, "What is culture?"
  2. PreK-2: After learning alphabet and counting songs in the target language, students compare them to the ones they know in English.
    3-4: Groups of learners compare and contrast housing structures in a variety of regions of their own culture and of the culture being studied. *(A) (See "How it Looks in the Classroom" following this section.)
  3. PreK-2: In all class interactions, students converse using appropriate gestures and interpersonal distance. *(B) (See "How it Looks in the Classroom" following this section.)
    3-4: Students practice using appropriate expressions of regret when they accidentally bump into each other, step on a toe, or cause something to fall from another's desk.
  4. PreK-2: Throughout the year, students hear stories, songs, etc., from different regions where the language is spoken, and discuss their similarities and differences.
    3-4: Students exchange drawings and songs with target culture penpals from different areas where world language is used, and name similarities and differences in subject matter and themes.

*How it Looks in the Classroom

*(A) A Japanese class learns about housing structures in Japan: the materials available for home construction in various regions of Japan, the importance of earthquake-proofing measures in Japanese homes. They visit the model Japanese home in the Boston Children's Museum. As they learn these things, they pursue a similar line of questioning about their own housing structures. They make drawings of their own homes; they learn that not all students in the class live in the same kind of structures; they learn that certain regions of our state and country require earthquake or flood-proofing measures; they learn about the materials available for building in New England; they learn how their own homes are an expression of their culture(s).

*(B) An elementary school teaches American Sign Language to all students, K-5. The teacher, who is deaf, interacts with her students in the ways of deaf culture. The students, following her model, and the models of the deaf students in their classrooms, immerse themselves in these ways during their language class. They may use a tap on the desk, a touch on the knee or arm, or the flickering on and off of the classroom light rather than verbal attention-getting devices. Students also practice using culturally appropriate interpersonal distances.

In both of these examples, learners are "trying on" the new culture, experiencing it through visual, tactile, artistic, and linguistic interactions.


At the end of a PreK-8 sequence (Stage 2 proficiency)...

Grades 5-8 Learning Standards

Students will use sentences and strings of sentences, and paragraph-length messages with frequency of errors proportionate to the complexity of the communicative task to:

  1. identify cultural and linguistic characteristics
  2. compare and contrast cultural and linguistic characteristics, identifying similarities and differences
  3. react appropriately in a social situation
  4. examine and analyze cultural contributions of diverse groups

Examples

  1. Learners watch a soundless video or film to identify and describe cultural characteristics in the film, such as scenes, gestures, and gender roles.
  2. Students identify and list cultural indicators in literature then write descriptions for use in an oral report.
  3. In role-plays, students demonstrate appropriate attention-getting devices for various settings: a restaurant, a bus stop, a classroom, interrupting two people's conversation to ask a question, etc.
    Pairs describe or demonstrate a behavior important for making oneself accepted in the target culture.
  4. Students write sentences describing the contributions of culturally diverse groups to the U.S. (or other region's) culture, history, language, literature, etc.

*How it Looks in the Classroom

*In a classics class, students read a text, picking out the main ideas. In groups, they discuss how each item teaches them something about the culture of the past. They compare similarities and differences to the modern world. Groups make a collection of items or photos, using library sources, CD-ROM encyclopedias, homemade models of famous landmarks, postcards from modern countries where the language was once used. They describe the relation of their collected items to the texts they have read in class.

At the end of a PreK-10 sequence (Stage 3 proficiency)...

Grades 9-10 Learning Standards

Students will use sentences and strings of sentences, and paragraph-length messages with frequency of errors proportionate to the complexity of the communicative task to:

  1. identify cultural and linguistic characteristics
  2. compare and contrast cultural and linguistic characteristics, identifying similarities and differences
  3. react appropriately in a social situation
  4. examine and analyze cultural contributions of diverse groups

Examples

  1. Students write a target language version of the fable "The City Mouse and the Country Mouse" to compare rural and urban experiences in the target culture.
    Learners explain the cultural basis for words, proverbs, or phrases unique to the target culture. (For example, in American English, what does it mean to be "out in left field?")
  2. Individuals locate and organize information to research the target culture; for example, they use the library, mass media, technological media, interviews, or personal observation to conduct a research project. *(A, B) (See How it Looks, below.)
  3. In order to question generalizations made about the culture, students enact a conflict between cultures, and its resolution, pointing out stereotypes, opinions, and facts.
    Students discuss conventions in the home and target cultures, and relate these to behaviors such as schooling, dating, marriage, work, and family.
  4. Students write an analysis of the actions and choices of a character in literature in terms of the character's societal and cultural norms and characteristics.
    Learners create an art project based on an artifact from the culture, explaining its history and uses; they compare it to similar objects from other regions where the language is used.

*How it Looks in the Classroom

*(A) Students in an advanced proficiency French class write letters via e-mail or fax to a variety of students in France, northern Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, French Canada, the Caribbean, and a Haitian bilingual class in Cambridge, MA. As a class they brainstorm what questions to ask their pen-pals about schooling customs and expectations in their regions. After answers have been received, students role-play the responses of their pen-pals for their classmates.

*(B) In a Vocational Education class, students research vocabulary and cultural practices in the target culture to complete a project such as building a model of a house or repairing a car. For the house, they write blueprints and floor plans in the target language and check material availability within the region studied. For car repair, they learn the names and functions of tools and parts, and explain their work in the target language.

At the end of a PreK-12 sequence (Stage 4 proficiency)...

Grades 9-12 Learning Standards

Students will use sentences, strings of sentences, paragraph-length, and essay-length messages, with some errors which don't interfere with meaning to:

  1. identify cultural and linguistic characteristics
  2. compare and contrast cultural and linguistic characteristics, identifying similarities and differences
  3. react appropriately in a social situation
  4. examine and analyze cultural contributions of diverse groups

Examples

  1. Individuals and groups consider societal norms and problem solve a situational cultural dilemma.*
  2. Students learn to use an etymological dictionary to trace, compare, and describe linguistic roots; for example, why does the Spanish word perro not derive from the Latin root canis, while in French and Italian, chien and cane do?
  3. A student writes a short story about the faux pas of a guest to another culture who was unaware of cultural differences.
  4. Learners analyze the cultural context of the dialogue of a play; a group dramatizes a scene, showing what inferences have been drawn from the dialogue.

*How it Looks in the Classroom

In an Arabic class, students are given situational cultural dilemmas to analyze and resolve:

A Middle Eastern woman is working as a nurse in the United States of America. In the hospital where she works, everyone calls her by her first name. She finds this lack of formality demoralizing and so upsetting that she considers quitting her job, but decides to speak to her supervisor about the problem.

Individuals hypothesize about why this happened, then discuss in groups what might happen next, and how both sides of the cultural gap could deal openly with the problem. As part of their research, students interview community members about the dilemma and its possible solutions. Discussions, interviews, and presentations are carried out in the target language.

Adult Basic Education classes can use this sort of activity for both linguistic practice and cultural understanding. ESL students, as well as students of other languages, profit from the opportunity to discuss and analyze puzzling cultural situations.






Last Updated: January 1, 1996
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