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Teaching and Learning: Language and Culture

Janet Glass Dwight Englewood School, Englewood, New Jersey
Rutgers University

Alfred Nobel’s Peace Prize wished to reward, “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations.” What could be more critical today? As teachers of world languages, our medium is language but our message is one of cultural ambassador. Besides, what is more intriguing to a student than to learn how to make a new friend from another culture, to enter another world? This motivation is what stimulates our students’ curiosity and helps them master the language. But once hooked, how can we make the most of their interest?

Five Senses Culture

We can start by integrating culture into the whole language instruction process, making sure that culture underscores every language activity and is at the core of the unit. We can go beyond cultural “awareness,” and try to experience the target culture in the classroom with smells, touches, simulations, tastes, rhythms, and video clips. Learning is enhanced when exchanges with people from the target culture happen early and often. As Byram says in “Developing Intercultural Competence in Practice,” …the task is rather to facilitate learners’ interactions with some small part of another society and its cultures…and encouraging them to investigate for themselves the otherness around them.” * Let’s lift it off the page!

Measuring Culture

When it comes to culture, students are always asking, “Does it count?” Although we have currently come a long way in measuring the language proficiency of our students, we are challenged to do as well with testing cultural appropriateness. Culture has to be taught systematically and then, assessed. How powerful it is to show students evidence of their own cultural competence, yet more exploration in how to best assess cultural competence is needed.

Seeing Our Own Culture With New Eyes

As language teachers, we also make the most of students’ interest when we show how language shapes our thoughts, and leads to how we behave. Most of us don’t become aware of our own cultural assumptions until confronted by another worldview. When I was in Japan, for example, people frequently apologized as part of their daily conversation. They said, “Sorry I disturbed you,” when calling someone on the phone. How does this habit of polite language reflect its culture? Accepting responsibility is a very high priority in Japan. As a result, we find it is a culture that discourages blame and is relatively free of lawsuits. Cultural instincts become internal, hidden, and subconscious. Through the target language, we strive to have our students uncover these influences, empathize with the people, and be able to interact in culturally appropriate ways.

Research Says

Meanwhile, research has confirmed what we have sensed. In a survey of young students studying language and culture, their responses to “People from other countries are scary,” and “Hearing a language that’s not English makes me nervous,” was a resounding. “No!” Students not in the program answered, “Maybe,” and “Yes.” So, as we make the foreign become familiar, the familiar will become a bit more foreign. By bringing cultural experiences into the classroom, measuring the outcomes, aiming for deep understanding and exchanges, we put linguistic and cultural abilities together and at the forefront of our shrinking world. ¡Sí, se puede!


Wright, David A. (2000). Culture as Information and Culture as Affective Process: A Comparative Study. Foreign Language Annals, ACTFL, vol 33, no. 3, pp.330-341, May/June.
Kennedy, Teresa et al. (2000). The FLES Attitudinal Inventory. Foreign Language Annals, ACTFL, vol 33, no. 3, pp. 278-289, May/June.
Byram, Michael, Nichols, Adam, & Stevens, David. (2001). Developing Intercultural Competence in Practice. Multilingual Matters Ltd, p. 3.

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