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Teaching Strategies

4 Ways to Incorporate Culture in World Language Instruction

This experienced teacher places language in its cultural contexts to boost student engagement and learning.

September 4, 2020
Illustration concept showing many cultures around the world
Anna Godeassi / The iSpot

I believe that in some world language courses, there is a strong focus on language skills, but culture is overlooked. Sometimes it’s even missing from the curriculum entirely. This represents a missed opportunity for student engagement: Without cultural contexts, students are robbed of a full and engaging language learning experience.

It shouldn’t be this way. Effective world language instruction merges language and culture. After all, we language teachers strive not only to equip our students with the language they need to communicate but also to ignite curiosity and create global awareness and cultural competence.

4 Ways to Incorporate Culture in World Language Instruction

1. Do your research: Before you can teach your students about cultures associated with the target language, become as well-versed and informed as possible to avoid perpetuating stereotypes. This is often done innocently and unintentionally, but it can have harmful effects. Avoid making blanket statements about cultural or ethnic groups, such as, “Spaniards enjoy attending bullfights regularly.” Instead, present the cultural point as a piece of information: “In Spain, bullfights are considered traditional and enjoyed by some, but are controversial.”

To learn about other cultures, consult authentic sources such as news outlets, podcasts, and literature. When it’s safe to do so, consider traveling to communities in which the target language is spoken.

Seek the perspectives of individuals of the cultural heritage that you are teaching about in your classroom. You might even invite some guest speakers to speak directly with your students.

2. Brainstorm cultural connections using themes: Rather than planning lessons or units around specific vocabulary or grammar-based points, think in terms of themes, and brainstorm some cultural points that tie in to these themes. These cultural points within your thematic units have the potential to spark student interest and engagement.

Here are some examples that can be adapted for any level:

  • If your unit theme focuses on the environment, concentrate on culturally focused subtopics such as the seasons or weather patterns, environmental challenges, and/or environmental innovations in target language communities or countries. In my own Honors Spanish 4 classes, for instance, I center my unit on the environment around the country of Costa Rica, which is known for its environmentally friendly practices and ecotourism.
  • If your unit theme is about eating habits or foods, home in on mealtimes and popular dishes in target language communities and countries. Explore the dietary habits or patterns most followed in these communities.

As you come up with connections, keep checking in. What, and how much, cultural knowledge are students gaining? Ideally, they should acquire insight into the daily lives of people who speak the target language.

3. Compile authentic resources: As you weave cultural connections into your thematic units, compile authentic resources that support these connections. Search for video clips, songs, images, infographics, or articles directly from the target language community or country. You can locate some of these authentic resources on Pinterest or YouTube, or by visiting countries’ tourism websites. To learn about current events around the world, you might check news channel websites. You might collaborate with other educators to establish a resource bank.

4. Make cultural comparisons: A vital part of teaching a language through a cultural lens involves examining one’s own cultural norms and traditions. Students should not only be immersed in the cultures associated with the target language but also make comparisons with their own backgrounds. When students are required to do some self-reflection, they’re thinking critically about how their cultural backgrounds and traditions compare with those of the target language community or country of study.

For instance, when I teach my students about the daily siesta time in Spain, I always ask them to reflect: I ask, “How does the daily schedule of a teenager in Spain compare to yours? If you could have a siesta each day, would you enjoy it? Why or why not?”

When the unit plan ties in to the cultures associated with the target language, students grow accustomed to making these comparisons regularly. By the end of the school year, your students will have gained not only skill in another language but also cultural knowledge that will leave a lasting impact on their lives.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • World Languages
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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