Culture in the Classroom ~ By: Antonio Pedrett

posted Nov 8, 2013, 1:20 AM by
¡Olé! Last week we celebrated the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos by baking traditional sweet bread (middle school), making piñatas (Preschool/Kindergarten), decorating calacas (1/2 & 3/4), and tied it all together with a fiesta on Friday at the morning recess by breaking open authentic Mexican piñatas stuffed with homemade sweet breads.

There are many ways to learn Spanish and other foreign languages, but perhaps the most exciting aspect to foreign language study is learning how other people celebrate. Making deep connections with rich personal experiences, like cheering on your classmates while listening to Mexican ranchera music and eagerly anticipating the bounty of treats about to spill onto the floor helps to drive the passion for life-long learning. There will be a time and a place for memorizing irregular first person verbs for anyone seriously interested in becoming fluent in Spanish, but to light the spark and inspire self-directed learners at ISR, nothing works better than celebraciones culturales or cultural celebrations.

The graphic below, from the National Standards for Foreign Language Education, illustrates the interconnectedness of the major headings to each other. The circles suggest a uniformity and equality for each of the five rubrics: Communication, Communities, Comparisons, Connections, Culture. However, for many students and teachers the heart of foreign language acquisition is cultural studies.

Learning languages in a classroom, oddly, is called the non-natural learning environment. It may appear to be a contradiction, but the way we learn languages naturally is by being immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a language, not studying the abstract elements of language. Many children on camp may acquire Bahasa Indonesia before they ever enter the Indonesian Studies classroom. The best way to overcome the non-natural learning environment is by focusing the theme of study not on the language of the culture, but on its people.

There was a time when the traditional skill areas of reading, writing, listening and speaking were the core of foreign language instruction, usually vis-à-vis grammar. But in our ever shrinking world, cultural fluency is paramount in the communicative classroom. Just as verbal fluency emerges in stages, so too will cultural fluency. Learning about the myriad cultures in the world of Spanish, with nearly 500 million people in twenty-two countries from Europe, North, Central and South America to Africa and Asia, we’ll truly begin to understand the Spanish idiom Él que habla dos idiomas vale por dos (He that speaks two languages is worth two people). This is not to say that studying Spanish will make you schizophrenic; you may interpose English and Spanish or Bhasa Indonesia (or German or French or Arabic or Thai or Afrikaans or Tagalog or Vietnamese or Mandirin or Bahasa Malaysia or Korean in our school community!) but this will give rise to a great opportunity to see the connections between languages and peoples.

For a truly inspiring, even if somewhat ominous, account of the milieu of languages and cultures and their nexus in our world today, I highly recommend listening to anthropologist, author, conservationist, ethnobotanist, photographer, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Dr. Wade Davis