Monday, January 17, 2011

Exploring Spanish Cultures

Introduction and Philosophy
In today's foreign language classroom, there is a tendency to focus on the language while either ignoring culture altogether or relying on culture notes in textbooks to fulfill curriculum requirements. Vocabulary is often taught with no attention given to the cultural connotation of the words. Tragically, this produces students who have learned a lot of vocabulary but who are still unable to effectively communicate in the target culture. Students may find themselves in the target culture understanding the words that people say but not understanding the strange looks that they are attracting or why humor seems to slip past them. Despite having learned all of the necessary vocabulary involving visiting a restaurant, a student might find himself confused about how to secure a table, the proper way to attract the attention of a waiter or what to expect in terms of service. The student might interpret the waiter's refusal to bring the check without being specifically asked for it as bad service instead of a polite way of not rushing the customer. For this reason, teaching culture should not be divorced from language learning.

Culture should not be taught separately in the form of culture notes or as tidbits of trivia, but instead integrated into the curriculum in a way that allows the student to acquire the culture at the same time that he or she absorbs the language. It is important that students understand that many of their own opinions and behaviors are a product of their enculturation. Students must not simply memorize the similarities and differences in culture as dry facts, but they must learn to ask why the differences are there in the first place. It is impossible for an educator to teach every cultural difference to a student, but if a student has been taught to analyze the target culture in terms of the values of that culture, then
that student will have a framework by which to process unexpected differences that they encounter in the target culture. Teaching the student to investigate the reasons behind cultural differences teaches him to eventually view culture from the perspective of a native and makes it possible for him to more easily acculturate.

Understanding the relationships between products, practices and perspectives is at the core of any successful culture plan. To facilitate the understanding of these relationships, students should be helped to understand the value systems that govern the target culture, be taught the principles of ethnographic investigation, be exposed to culturally authentic images and be exposed to examples of target culture customs and scripts.

It is important that students understand the underlying values of a target culture in order to fully grasp the relationship between products, practices and perspectives. To help students to gain an initial understanding of the values of the target culture, students can work with a tool such as the Zanger chart. I would begin work with the Zanger chart in level one and refer back to the chart and expand on the information in the chart through level four. Working with the Zanger chart in the beginning of the language learning experience gives students a structure with which to begin analyzing the products and practices and perspectives of the target culture. First, I would take a continuum and assign a numerical value to each notch on the continuum so that it looks like this:

Tradition 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Progress
Loyalty 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Competition
Social Harmony 10..9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Personal Fulfillment
Tranquility 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Efficiency
Modesty 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Assertiveness
Equality 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Social Hierarchy
Enjoyment of Life 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Work Ethic
Cooperation 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Individual Achievement
Independence 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Family Obligations
Religious Piety 10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1 Material Comfort

Next, I would have some native informants fill out the continuum for me and take an average of each answer to make a master chart for the target culture. At the beginning of level one, I would have students take the continuum to several friends or family members and have them fill out the continuum. I would take an average of all of the class's results and make a master chart for our native culture. We would discuss our results as a class and post both charts in the classroom. We would reference these charts throughout levels I-IV. By using these charts, students have something to draw from to help them analyze differences and similarities in the target culture that they will encounter in the classroom and in their own ethnographic research.

Through ethnography, students can gain a profound understanding of products, practices and
perspectives of the target culture. Individual and group research on topics of personal interest via the Internet, interviews with native informants and written publications can expose students to the target culture and help them learn a process which they can use throughout their lives to expand their cultural knowledge. Ethnography requires deep analyzation and reflection that helps students to understand more about their own culture as well as the target culture. Ethnography can be adapted to any level and can either go along with the set curriculum or be a supplement to the curriculum. I have included some type of adapted ethnography in most levels of my culture plan.

Equally important in understanding the relationships between products, practices and perspectives is exposure to culturally authentic images of target culture products. As the students are taught vocabulary, they should not be taught to link the words to images that they already have in place, but to a culturally authentic image. For example, it would be more effective to teach the word “milk” while showing the students a typical box of Spanish milk than by showing them a jug of milk exactly like the one they are used to seeing in their grocer's cooler. Better yet, allow the students to actually taste some of the boxed milk and let them realize that it is served room temperature and tastes slightly sweeter than the milk that they are used to. Have students to speculate reasons why milk might be processed in a way that allows it to sit on a pantry shelf instead of being served fresh like it is in the United States. 
When is milk typically served in Spain? With what types of food? Who drinks it? Is it cooked with more than consumed as a beverage? Why or why not? This simple exercise links product, practice and perspective as it relates to one vocabulary word. It is all too common to allow a teachable moment such as this to slip by and simply offer a target language word to replace the native language word as if it were an exact translation. Presenting culturally authentic images with new vocabulary can be used as a springboard for connecting the products, practices and perspectives of the target culture because the imagery often provokes questions and generates interest. If a culturally authentic image is put in place each time the student learns new vocabulary, this gives the student more and more of a cultural schema through which to filter new information.

In order to help students acquire the new culture and to make connections among the products, practices and perspectives of the target culture, it is important that students see examples of the practices of the target culture and become familiar with the scripts that exist for common situations. Whenever new vocabulary is presented, it should be presented within a culturally authentic context. Students can be exposed to examples of customs and scripts through video snippets and can practice the new information through roleplay activities. With each new example, the students' schemata are added to, which results in more accurate interpretations of new information. My culture plan utilizes these tools.

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