Teaching a foreign language is an exciting opportunity to guide students through the communication methods of other countries. But as all language teachers know, some of the most important language class lessons extend far beyond grammar. In fact, one of the most important elements of foreign language lesson plans is exposing students to new cultures.
From new foods and traditions to historical events and belief systems, there’s an endless amount of material to work with when teaching students a foreign culture. The following lesson plan ideas will help you immerse your foreign language students into fascinating cultures and make their language learning more meaningful.
Why Teaching Culture Matters
You could spend the entire year focusing on reading and composition without incorporating any lessons about culture. But culture gives language lessons context to help students understand where words come from and why they’re important.
Knowing about the culture of the people who speak a language helps students be more prepared to actually communicate in real life.
For example, an American speaking French won’t have the same worldview as a native French Candian. Therefore, it’s important that the American learn about the cultural nuances and belief systems of French-Canadian speakers in order to converse with them mindfully and respectfully, explains Julia Taleisnik, volunteer development director at AFS Intercultural Programs.
Another way to look at it is that language is the verbal expression of a culture. “It conveys our experience as a people. This is why Mongolian contains a rich vocabulary surrounding animals and French is a go-to language for food,” according to online language learning site FluentU. Culture also helps explain certain slang terms and shortened words that a student is likely to encounter in the real world.
When teaching English as a second language, for example, you’ll want to teach commonly shortened words like “gonna” and “wanna” so that students can understand a native speaker. While textbooks tend to focus on formal reading and writing, it’s a foreign language teacher’s job to teach conversational language, says linguist Jennifer Wagner, Ph.D.
How to Teach Culture
Teaching culture can be overwhelming because there’s simply so much information to tackle. And, not all countries that speak the same language have the same culture.
To make the task easier, Spanish teacher Daniel Shabasson suggests dividing culture into two parts. “There is…a distinction to be drawn between so-called “big c” elements of culture (the great writers, artists, and musicians who have made lasting contributions) and “little c” aspects (features of daily life, popular culture, and social customs),” he explains.
He suggests using little “c” elements to accompany conversations and help students learn about verbs and pronouns. Big “C” elements can be discussed later on and will become easier to talk about as students deepen their language proficiency.
Another idea is to focus on different elements of culture during different units. For example, during a unit where students are learning to ask questions, you might discuss food and elements of that country’s food culture. This lets them learn the fifth skill of language acquisition, which “emphasizes the learner’s ability to perceive, to understand, and ultimately, to accept cultural relativity,” according to the University of Texas at Austin.
Literature, Music and Film
Literature is an important element that immerses students in the finer details of culture. One example is a Spanish lesson for grade 9-12 students on the famous Latin American poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The lesson has students analyze two of the poet’s sonnets, which introduces them to the ideas and themes of the Golden Age. It asks them to consider why Sor Juana is an important figure in the Baroque movement and in Latin American culture.
Literature lessons can also be accompanied by hands-on activities that reinforce the cultural elements learned in the piece. For example, Leanne Seel at Frenglish Learning offers lesson plan ideas for a unit on French North American history. This unit includes information on First Nations in Canada before the arrival of Europeans, and how they adapted to and were influenced by the French. Hands-on activities, like making a canoe craft, playing a land ownership game and dramatizing the fur industry in a role play activity, can all accompany the lesson.
Music is another great way to teach language while also helping students immerse in a different culture. Starting a lesson with a song to introduce a theme will capture your students’ attention. “You can extend the learning further when you have students truly analyze a piece of music from a cultural perspective, including the music, lyrics and historical context,” writes Stacy Torino at WeAreTeachers. She suggests asking students to consider what the song means for different listeners, and how it is tied to certain events or traditions in the culture.
Films can help students learn about culture as well. Translator and teacher Christine Roll says they’re a great way to promote awareness and interest in other cultures while fostering a respect for diversity. The protagonist in the film often serves as a tool for building empathy and understanding for someone different than the viewer.
“Films can help learners to see the world from somebody else’s point of view and put themselves into the shoes of people with whom they have few or no opportunities to come into personal contact, for example refugees or ethnic minorities in their own country or abroad,” she explains.
Social studies teacher Karen Daley offers a lesson plan idea that teaches students about emigration and cultural identity. She shows her students a documentary about Sudanese people coming to a new city for the first time and how they maintain their identity. The video serves as a launching pad for a discussion so students can see the connections between their own cultures and the cultures they’re learning about.
Educator Kieran Donaghy recommends seven films for teachers who teach English as a second language, each with a lesson plan. In a short film called “The Present,” students are asked to explore themes about teenagers and disability, then write a narrative and discuss themes on the topic. This helps gives students an idea of how disability is approached and discussed in English-speaking cultures and promotes the idea of empathy and accessibility.
In addition to teaching students about culture through the arts, consider incorporating lessons on the country’s traditions. One great lesson to teach French language students is centered around the distribution of pastries (galettes des rois or king cakes), a popular tradition that marks the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Sara Walker at BrightHub Education suggests asking students to research the history and significance of the king cake, which has deep roots in many cultures. Have your students try to find an authentic French recipe, and do the metric to imperial conversions to bring a bit of math into the lesson.
You could also look at how different cultures celebrate the same holidays. For example, an Italian language classroom could teach about Christmas in Italy and explore the similarities and differences between American and Italian Christmas.
A great place to find resources for this is Teachers Pay Teachers. Spanish and Italian teacher Karen E. Murano offers an Italian Christmas activity that includes a holiday foods vocabulary worksheet. Another idea comes from Lisa Finelli at the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University. Students learn about the significance of the Mexican celebration, Día de los Muertos, then create traditional Day of the Dead decorations and displays that demonstrate cultural understanding.
Images by: Sarah Pflug, Barn Images, Burst
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