Culturally Relevant Language Learning

earthboy south america Culturally Relevant Language LearningIn the previous three blog entries on this topic, I argued for the wisdom of not employing a teaching approach that reduces language down to its sub-components, a bunch of grammar rules and vocabulary words.  By doing so, something that is akin to a rich, vibrant, meal is transformed into a bland pablum.  The learning experience, by extension, also becomes bland.   This blandness is the result of untethering language from the source that feeds it, culture.  In this blog entry, I’d like to talk about what a learning environment that is conjoined to its cultural roots would actually look like.  What does it mean for a learning environment to include culture?

If language is a fish, then culture is the water it swims in.  While dissecting a fish might be a very useful method for learning about a fish, ultimately, wouldn’t it be strange and illogical to not also consider and study the environment where the fish actually lives?  This is why I feel that when learning a language, it’s important that the students literally dive right into the cultural waters.  Culture is what gives language its texture and flavor.  It’s what drives interest.

So how do you cultivate this in a learning environment?  The first and most important thing I consider when creating a language learning experience that includes culture is taking the time to identify and assign the right teacher to teach the class.  As I’ve probably said countless times, the teacher is the biggest determining factor in the quality of a learner’s experience in the classroom.  Learning is NOT a simple function of knowledge transfer.  True learning has a large component of inspiration and imagination involved.  Learners are always pulled into the learning process by the magic of a great teacher’s presence and passion and not, as many would have us believe, by the efficient dissemination of information.  We’re not computers that simply need information downloaded into us.

So what does a teacher have to do with the inclusion of culture in a language learning experience?  Isn’t culture related to things like food, music, and art?  Yes!  But where do food music and art come from?  They come from people.  They are all expressions and extensions of a group of people that banded together to create a common language.  Culture is what binds a group of people together.  Language is ultimately a part of culture rather than the other way around.

Where I really started to notice that language cannot be separated from its cultural connection was when I was hanging out with the English speaking expat community in Korea when I was a teacher there in the 90′s.  In that English speaking expat community, there were Brits, Scots, Irish, Australians, Canadians, and South Africans.  Although English was the common language we all shared, there was definitely some noticeable measure of connection loss because the reference basis for a lot of our communication was at times incredibly different.  Even something so little as having a different English accent made communication feel very different when speaking English to an English expat hailing from a different English speaking country. It felt really different and often, there was a really different connection.  We were speaking the same language and yet we were speaking very different languages it seemed.  We often had very different senses of humor, tastes in food, tastes in music, etc.   It was that experience that led me to begin to realize that the binding element in a multi-cultural group of people speaking the same language was not language as much as it was culture.

In the forth and final post in this blog series, I’ll speak more specifically about what measures can be taken to ensure that a language learning experience is appropriately culturally-relevant and engaging.



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