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Foreign Language Curriculum Frameworks

Cultures Strand

Integrating Culture into Foreign Language Study

What is Culture?

The concept of culture, as developed by anthropologists more than a century ago to describe primitive societies, is now generally used to describe the perspectives, practices, and products of any identifiable group or society. The underlying assumption of the modern view is that any group, organized for whatever political, social, economic, or religious purpose, will fashion its own indigenous culture. That modern assumption has influenced the way the Oxford English Dictionary now defines culture: "...the distinctive customs, achievements, products, outlook, etc., of a society or group."

Implicit in this formulation is one fundamental principle: each such interest group must be held together by a common language, for without it, customs, perspectives, and products could not easily be shared. Language is thus perceived today as the main medium for the expression of culture, as well as a central influence in shaping its development. Culture cannot therefore be fully understood apart from language, for the two are so inextricably intertwined with each other as to make each essential to the nature, and even the existence, of the other.

Language and Culture: A Symbiosis

The implications, for the study of language and culture, of their tightly interdependent relationship were not fully realized until well into the twentieth century. Serious students of culture long held the belief that language had no relevance to the validity of their research. The objectivity of the scientific method they had adopted as their own gave them the comforting assurance that their observations and analyses of any society had to be true. By the 1920s, however, progress in the development of linguistics as a science compelled many social scientists to concede that their native language definitely affected their own view of the real world, and therefore could powerfully condition the way they thought about, and analyzed, social problems and processes. That realization led them to reason that the language used by the people they studied must exert a similar effect on them, and that both influences needed to be taken into account in their studies.

From that time forward, language and culture seemed less and less separable from each other to serious social scientists, for they recognized more and more the extent to which every social reality, including their own, was in part, at least, the product, over time, of a complex three-way interplay of influences among the people of the society, the language they used, and the culture they created. Those intricate reciprocal interrelationships among people, language, and culture, they realized, are the dominant internal forces within a society that determine what is distinctive about it. That, in turn, explains why each identifiable society or group is discernibly different, in small ways or large, even though each also shares the characteristics of many other societies or groups around them.

A striking historical illustration of that principle is familiar to Americans, because of the way American society evolved following the massive immigration of English-speaking Puritans from Britain into the country in the seventeenth century. Before long, Americans became native speakers of English as were the British, but no one could mistake the accent or the vocabulary of the one for the other, and that remains true today. The Englishman consults his solicitor, for example, while the American calls his lawyer. In tall buildings, the British use a lift, the Americans take the elevator. What the English call chips, we call French fries, whereas what we call chips the English call crisps, and so on and on. In spite of the overwhelming effect of a common origin, which makes them much more alike than unlike, the two cultures have nevertheless become perceptibly different. A British wit remarked that England and the United States are divided by a common language. That witty observation suggests that it is, indeed, often through language that the distinctiveness of societies manifests itself most clearly. It is through language, after all, that we construct our sense of reality, by naming and describing what surrounds us in the world we inhabit. As one scholar has remarked, "the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group." 8

Language And Culture: The Learners' Tasks

To begin the study of a new language is also, necessarily, to begin the study of a new culture, because of the symbiotic relationship between the two. The first task of the learner might therefore be to gauge the implications of that fact for the learning process itself, and to understand the subtle ways in which the learner's native language and culture can sometimes interfere with the learning of a new language.

A simple example of the way learning a language may compel learning a culture at the same time can be seen in the usage of the second person pronoun in Spanish or French: the singular form is tu in both languages, the plural form is usted in Spanish and vous in French, but in both Spanish and French, the plural is very often used as a singular, for cultural reasons. Those cultural reasons have to be learned along with the forms: usted and vous, as singulars, connote courtesy, formality, and deference towards one's peers, while tu connotes intimacy, as between spouses or very close friends, or between parents and children, but also condescension or a status difference between individuals, as between masters and servants. Moreover, in both languages the nuances in the usage are constantly shifting, as social customs and attitudes change, with the result that in each generation, the rules to be learned are slightly different. What appeared to be a simple grammatical principle at first, to the learner, will have turned into a subtly nuanced problem in social behavior, expressed in language, because of the cultural component that second person pronoun usage has acquired over time in some languages.

An equally simple example of how one's native language and culture can sometimes interfere with one's efforts to learn another language can be seen in the misapprehensions generated by the act of translation as provided by dictionaries, especially the translation of words that are basic to any society, and, in some form, familiar to everyone, such as bread. The student of French learns that the word pain means bread. The student of German learns that Brot means bread. The student of Latin learns that panis is the word for bread. If all three students are American, they will likely have pretty much the same image in mind for what those three different words really mean: perhaps, a pre-sliced loaf wrapped in plastic, the typical product of American culture, but they will not know what the ancient Roman word or the modern German or French word actually meant, except in the universal sense in which all bread is the same. In actuality, bread affords a vivid example of how, in any society, people, language, and culture interact over time and produce a distinctive product, in many ways like bread all over the world, but in certain other ways, such as shape, taste, size, or ingredients, different and quite specific to their own culture.

The example of bread suggests what the main task of the learner of a new language and culture ought to be. As a learner, you must avoid being unduly influenced by the biases of your own language and culture and open yourself as fully as possible to all the nuances of meaning that the words of a new language can convey, including the cultural component often deeply embedded in those words.

Language and Culture: The Teachers' Tasks

Two pedagogical imperatives emerge from our analysis of the reciprocal influences that language and culture constantly exert on each other in the evolution of any society. The first is a practical consideration: the relationship of language and culture is such a tight weave that "language" and "culture" really cannot be teased apart and compartmentalized for teaching purposes. They are best taught in closely integrated conjunction with each other by emphasizing the full meaning conveyed by words, phrases, or idiomatic expressions that have a clearly identifiable cultural component, such as the word for "bread" in any language.

The second imperative is the critical importance of instructing students in the various ways available to them for learning about the cultural components embedded in the language they are studying, and of thus empowering them to unlock the secrets of the language, which dictionaries often neglect and which native speakers take for granted. The more thorough their knowledge of the characteristic perspectives, practices, and products that reflect the culture, the more competent students can become as skilled readers and listeners in their second language. If they are only taught the language, denuded of its cultural accretions, they will have acquired a dry, bare-bones medium of communication, utilitarian but devoid of imagination, style, or the richness of the human spirit.

The Learning Standards and sample scenarios that follow offer many techniques for including cultural content in the classroom. Such educational enrichment is crucial especially for the most advanced students if they are to attain a truly superior understanding and appreciation not only of a foreign culture but of their own culture as well. The thorough integration of language and culture both in a foreign language and in the native language should help move students even closer to the lofty educational ideal of becoming genuinely cultured citizens of the kind Matthew Arnold envisioned in one of his most celebrated definitions of culture: "the acquainting of ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit."

Learning Standard 4

Students will demonstrate an understanding of the traditions, perspectives, practices, and perspectives of the culture studied, including human commonalities as reflected in history, literature, and the visual and performing arts. In classical language study, discussion and writing will be in English.

Proficiency Level

Learning Standard Components
*applies to classical language learning

Stage 1:

at the end of

  • grade 4 in a PreK-4 sequence
  • grade 8 in a 6-8 sequence
  • grade 10 in a 8-10 sequence

Using selected words, phrases, and expressions with no major repeated patterns of error in the target language, and English when necessary, students will

  1. Use appropriate words, phrases, expressions, and gestures in interactions such as greetings, farewells, school routines, and other daily activities.*
  2. Interact appropriately in group cultural activities such as games, storytelling, celebrations, and dramatizations*
  3. Identify distinctive cultural aspects of the target culture presented in stories, dramas, films, and photographs*
  4. Identify distinctive cultural products from the target culture such as toys, clothes, foods, currencies, games, traditional crafts, and musical instruments*
  5. Identify distinctive contributions made by people in the target culture*
  6. Demonstrate knowledge of artistic expression in the target culture by identifying, learning, and performing songs, dances, or memorizing poems; by identifying and making examples of crafts or visual arts using traditional techniques such as brush painting, paper folding, or mosaics*
  7. Demonstrate knowledge of the target culture's geography by naming features such as rivers, mountains, cities, and climate on maps*

Stage 2:

at the end of

  • grade 8 in a PreK-8 sequence
  • grade 10 in a 6-10 sequence

Using sentences and strings of sentences, and recombinations of learned words, phrases, and expressions, with frequency of errors proportionate to the complexity of the communicative task, and English when necessary, students will Perform Stage 1 Learning Standard Components

  1. Identify patterns of social behavior that are typical of the target culture*
  2. Interact appropriately in social and cultural activities, such as
    • for modern languages: exchanges in a restaurant, at a bus stop, in a store, or in a classroom
    • for classical languages: in triumphal marches, weddings, and/or funerals*
  3. Identify distinctive aspects of the target culture presented in print literature, visual arts, films, and videos, and relate these to the cultural perspectives of the target culture*
  4. Identify historical and/or cultural figures from the target culture and describe their contributions*
  5. Identify, place in chronological order, and describe the significance of important historical evens in the target culture*
  6. Identify, on maps and globes, the location(s) and major geographic features of countries where the target language is or was used*

Stage 3:

at the end of

  • grade 10 in a PreK-10 sequence
  • grade 12 in a 6- 12 sequence

Using sentences and strings of sentences, fluid sentence-length and paragraph-length messages, in the target language, with frequency of errors proportionate to the complexity of the communicative task, students will

  1. Identify interactions, patterns of social behavior, social norms, customs, holidays, and special events that are typical of the target culture, and discuss how they reflect language and cultural perspectives*
  2. Identify and use verbal and non-verbal cues appropriate to the target culture in a variety of situations
  3. Identify artistic styles in the target culture and discuss the meanings of examples of music, dance, plays, epic poetry and visual arts from various historical periods in the target culture
  4. Identify artistic styles and cultural characteristics in literature, popular periodicals, music, theatre, visual arts, commercials, films, videos and relate these to the language and perspectives of the target culture*
  5. Identify significant political, military, intellectual, and cultural figures and describe how they shaped historical events and/or the target culture's perspectives*
  6. Describe the relationship between social establishments such as schools, religions, governments, and the perspectives of the target culture*

Stage 4:

at the end of

  • grade 12 in a PreK- 12 sequence

Using sentences and strings of sentences, fluid sentence-length and paragraph-length, and essay-length messages, in the target language, with some patterns of errors that do not interfere with meaning, students will

  1. Describe the evolution of words, proverbs, and images and discuss how they reflect cultural perspectives*
  2. Analyze examples of literature, primary source historical documents, music, visual arts, theatre, dance, and other artifacts from target culture(s) and discuss how they reflect individual and cultural perspectives*
  3. Describe conflicts in points of view within and among cultures and their possible resolutions; and discuss how the conflicts and proposed resolutions reflect cultural and individual perspectives*
  4. Distinguish among knowledge, informed opinions, uninformed opinions, stereotypes, prejudices, biases, open mindedness, narrow mindedness, and closed mindedness in literature, primary and secondary source documents, mass media, and multimedia presentations about and/or from culture; and discuss how these presentations reflect cultural and individual perspectives*
  5. Analyze how participants' accounts of the same events can differ; how historians' interpretations of events can change over time; and how participants' and historians' interpretations of events can reflect individual and cultural perspectives*

Cultures: Sample Stage 2 Learning Scenario

A Classical Wedding

Strand/Standard: Cultures, Learning Standard 4
Grade Level: Grades 6-8, Latin
Assessment Criteria:

Use Stage 2 Proficiency to

  • Identify patterns of social behavior that are typical of the target culture
  • Interact appropriately in social and cultural activities
Activity summary: Students in a Latin class re-enact Roman wedding. Students receive printed information from their teacher about Roman marriage ceremonies. This includes a marriage contract, the sequence of events, and the script participants will read during the ceremony, along with pertinent vocabulary in Latin and its English derivatives. After discussing the information, students choose roles. There will be a bride and groom, priest, augur, and many other Romans who will participate in the procession to the groom's house. After students have enacted the ceremony in Latin, they compare Roman weddings with weddings in American culture.
Materials needed: Vocabulary and derivative lists, handouts on Roman marriage
How students work: Whole class or in groups
Adapted from Standards for Foreign Language Learning

Cultures: Sample Stage 4 Learning Scenario

Les Multiples Visages de Cyrano

Strand/Standard: Cultures, Learning Standard 4
Grade Level: Grades 11-12, French
Assessment Criteria:

Use Stage 4 Proficiency to

  • Analyze examples of literature, primary source historical documents, music, visual arts, theatre, dance, and other artifacts from target culture(s) and discuss how they reflect individual and cultural perspectives
Activity summary: Students read Rostand's play, Cyrano de Bergerac, view the French feature film of the same title with GÉrard Depardieu, and perhaps the Jose Ferrer film, Cyrano. Students then compare the play with the film commenting on the fidelity of the film to the original text. They then compare the American film Roxanne to the original story, analyzing its interpretation of the themes. Studying a variety of theatre and film reviews in French, students then write their own review in French of either the play or one of the films.
Materials needed: Texts, VCR, and videocassettes of the films.
How students work: Individually and in pairs or small groups

Last Updated: January 1, 1999
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