7 Easy Ways to Jumpstart Teaching Culture in the Foreign Language Classroom

Language and culture are flip sides of the same coin.

When you have one, you necessarily have the other.

As a language educator, you’re already fully aware of this.

After all, language is a verbal expression of 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.

It’s why in Japanese, refusing an offer sometimes requires about three lines (two of which may involve apologizing), when a simple English “No” might suffice in a similar situation.

The American writer Rita Mae Brown once said, “Language is the roadmap of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

Beyond vocabulary and grammar rules, somewhere in the world, there’s a group of wonderful people who use the language you are teaching in the classroom. They use it to buy milk, to chat with friends, to comment on Facebook statuses, to make songs and movies with.

Theirs is a culture so beautiful, it can make the pages of a language textbook spring to life.

As teachers, we are always looking for ways to make our lessons interesting, right? We go to great lengths just to maintain student interest in our classes.

Well, culture is a very powerful hook. It can heighten the interest and motivation of your students.

In the prism of culture, language classes instantly become exciting and educational experiences.

So how can we bring all this beauty and excitement into the classroom?

In this post, we’ll discuss powerful techniques you can use to teach culture in your language classes.

6 Slick Techniques for Teaching Culture in the Foreign Language Classroom

1. Expose Your Students to Authentic Materials

If you don’t already know, authentic materials are what native speakers use on a daily basis. For example, you find yourself walking on the streets of Paris, taking in the French scene, when suddenly, a young chap hands you a flyer. You look at it and discover it’s about a free concert that evening. What you have in your hands right there is authentic French material.

Now, unlike French language learning textbooks or language learning podcasts, a flyer has no intention of ever teaching French. It assumes the reader speaks the language and instead informs him/her about something. It’s the same thing with French newscasts or shows. They’re made for the French audience. When you listen to a French newscast, the anchors don’t bother slowing down to carefully enunciate each word, right?

Exposing your students to authentic material gives them an unparalleled look into how the language is wielded on a day-to-day basis by native speakers. It takes the language out of the classroom or language lab and into a natural setting. There’s nothing constrained or contrived about it. Your students hear authentic pacing and pronunciation and not the simplified version in educational audiobooks and podcasts.

When the going gets tough, your students will often ask themselves questions like: “What’s in it for me?” “Where can I use this?” “Am I just wasting my time?”

Authentic materials continually demonstrate to your students that there’s a whole culture, a whole group of people who use the target language on a daily basis. It tells them there’s a door waiting to be opened and what lies inside makes all the effort of learning the language so worth it!

Google Images can be a great source of authentic materials to bring to class. For example, if you’re teaching French, type “French ads” in and you’ll be flooded with great French-language ads that have linguistic value. Not only are the images likely to be visually arresting (memory aids, anyone?), but the text they come with is likely to be direct and to the point, so your students can learn a lot from studying them.

Speaking of authenticity, the most ideal immersive experience for language students is a several-month stint in the country of interest. There’s no better way to soak up language and culture. But unfortunately, traveling and living abroad is hardly practical. Not everyone can afford to buy a ticket and up and leave.

So we go to the next best immersive thing: video.

Video offers your students unparalleled stimulation of the senses. A few minutes of it can show so much culture, your students can feel like they’re sitting outside a café in Europe, watching a whole city pass them by.

YouTube is a great source of authentic videos. The world over, native speakers are producing videos for their fellow natives and language learners can pick up so much by following some of these channels.

For example, if you teach the Spanish language, you can tell your students to subscribe to channels like enchufetv, benshortstuff or werevertumorro. And if they start exploring the comments sections of those channels, they’ll be able to see how native speakers write and talk to each other.

2. Compare Students’ Own Culture with That of the Target Language

Your students’ own culture can be used as a foil for the target culture. They’ll be able to appreciate it more because they’ll have a way of comparing practices and traditions. The quirks of the target culture can make for memorable points of comparison.

You can, for example, highlight that while Americans shake hands when meeting strangers or acquaintances, bowing is the norm in Japan. Meanwhile, the French (oh, the French!), in addition to handshakes, can sneak in a kiss (or four!) on the cheek.

The concept of time is an interesting cultural quirk as well. In Japan, 9 o’clock is exactly that: 9 o’clock. If you’re scheduled to have a meeting at that time, expect to have it at that time. In places like Latin America, India and the Middle East, however, the concept of time is more fluid: 9 o’clock is more of an estimate.

You can use cultural differences such as these to make the target culture very vivid for your students. But don’t forget that we are using culture as a vehicle to teach language. So don’t worry, for example, if you can’t find a cultural equivalent like the ones above. It’s okay.

The thing is, even the absence of a cultural equivalent can be used for juxtaposition. The very absence makes for a memorable lesson.

Because of its novelty or unfamiliarity, you can milk a single cultural practice for some excellent language lessons. I already mentioned that by teaching language, we are also inadvertently teaching culture because they are two sides of the same coin. In the same manner, by discussing cultural features, you can also teach the language. Don’t miss the opportunity to teach not only simple vocabulary, but whole concepts, by discussing a particular feature in the culture.

Take Arabic and the religion of Islam, for example. You can use Islamic culture to teach vocabulary along with concepts like adhan (call to prayer), salat (prayer), iftar (breaking of the fast) and halal (lawful).

Simply by discussing the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, you can touch on a rich variety of vocabulary that goes along with it.

3. Introduce Your Students to Live Native Speakers

For your students, there’s nothing like having a native speaker standing in front of them, talking about her culture. You may be a native speaker yourself, but when a visitor comes in, everybody snaps to attention. She has that “halo” effect where everything she talks about is gold.

You can make this a really memorable learning experience for your students. So choose carefully who you place in front of them. Choose someone interesting, who can confidently speak in public and who knows how to tell a good story.

You’ll also need to discuss with the speaker beforehand the things she can talk about so she doesn’t talk about things the class has already learned by heart. Ask her to talk about what it’s like living in her country. What are some practices and traditions? What kinds of things might make a Japanese person tick, for example? What food do the Spanish eat for dinner, and at what time? What’s winter like in Russia? What sports do Koreans tend to love? Do the French really eat frog legs and snails? If so, what do they taste like?

In addition to culture-heavy topics, you could also ask her to deal with some language-related topics. Ask her, for example, to name the different ways the Spanish say “goodbye.” She could explain the differences between adiós, chao, hasta luego, hasto pronto and nos vemos and discuss their nuances.

If yours is an advanced language class, you could ask her to talk about linguistic tricks: the short cuts, the grammar rule violations that native speakers commit. This will help your students understand that language is very much a living, breathing creature.

4. Food: Always a Good Idea!

There’s a saying about the fastest way to a man’s heart: It’s through his stomach. The same goes for teaching culture.

When your students eat something new and different (that’s maybe even a little weird to them), the fact of cultural diversity will be driven harder into their minds. There’s nothing like tasting something new (and surprisingly good!) to understand that a new language is a different way of seeing, using and arranging things.

A cooking class and a language class in one? It’s not at all impossible. You don’t even have to know how to cook in order to effectively teach culture! The ingredients and recipes themselves, as well as the process of cooking and the thought behind the steps, will do that for you. These elements will grab your students’ attention and make them understand that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

So if you’re lucky enough to be teaching those languages that are tied to great gastronomic traditions like French, Italian, Spanish or Japanese, you can easily teach culture via food. Again, you don’t have to be an Iron Chef to do this. (You can even learn with your students!)

As always, don’t forget to take advantage of the linguistic side of culture. Food can be a great vocabulary-teaching tool.

Take Japanese for example.

If you just teach your students the word yaki (to grill or fry), they will in no time remember what takoyaki, teppanyaki and teriyaki mean.

You can even mix and match: If tori is Japanese for chicken, what would yakitori be? (Grilled chicken!)

Okay, let’s move along, because this is making me hungry.

5. Teach Memory-friendly Songs

If I ask, “In the alphabet, what comes before the letter S?” some people may have to resort to singing the alphabet song in order to come up with the right answer.

We know that songs are good mnemonic devices. That’s why we’re able to easily memorize hundreds of songs without consciously doing so. We don’t memorize the lyrics, we just sing them. The tune, cadence, melody and harmony all help our brain remember.

In addition, songs are a good way to teach culture. You can feel the flavor between the lines.

Children’s songs are a good way to start. Some great examples are “Oranges and Lemons” (English song about different churches in London) and “Bahay Kubo” (a lively Filipino song about locally-grown fruits and vegetables).

As always, you shouldn’t miss the chance to teach language. Words embedded in a song have a special ability to be remembered. So instead of memorizing vocabulary, your students can simply sing it.

You are actually giving your students a serious leg up when you teach language using music. Not only are you making it easier for them, you’re also giving them a break from the sermon-type teaching that’s endemic in language classrooms today.

So lead your class in a song. Pair the words and phrases with exaggerated and creative actions/gestures to further cement them in the memory. You can easily find songs for teaching the target language, whether it’s French, GermanSpanish or even Latin.

If you can play an instrument, all the better. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching a room full of professionals. Songs are not for kids alone. They are for anyone who wants a faster way of memorizing and understanding language.

6. Use Online Resources That Add Value to Your Lessons

I have a theory that Google already has the solutions to all your problems. They are just sitting there, waiting for you to happen upon them.

If your goal is to teach culture in the language classroom, there are several online resources that you can run to.

Check these out:

  • World Stories: This is a repository of children’s stories from all over the world. Each story reflects the culture of a country. So if you’re on the hunt for tales that not only teach beautiful moral lessons but give insightful peeks into a culture, this site is a good bet.
  • Great Websites for Kids: Here’s an extra-robust collection of different websites that are great for teaching kids about different cultures and their histories, geographies and religions. If you want to bring extra value to your language lessons, check them out.
  • Time for Kids: The children’s version of Time has a special section that deals with different countries and interesting facts about them. There are pictures that your students can view on their own to go on a trip around the world, all while sitting at home!
  • Scholastic.com: This site has a great section on teaching cultural diversity. It includes lesson plans, articles and activities that language teachers can use to supplement their core language programs.

These resources show the “big picture” and feature the multiplicity of cultures and perspectives that exist. Before you go and zero in on a target culture, it’s a good idea for you to get students to understand that there are not just two cultures in the world (“mine and others”).

You will make it so much easier for your students to learn a language once you’ve planted the seed of diversity in them. They’ll not struggle so much with difficult grammar rules once they internalize that there are other beautiful and equally valid ways of seeing things.

So when you teach that in Spanish, adjectives often come after the noun or that there are “male” and “female” objects, you won’t get so many wrinkled noses and twitching eyebrows. Astonishment maybe, but not resistance.

When your students see the big picture, they’ll accept differences with an open mind. They’ll find it so much easier to internalize that apples can also be called manzanas.

This is really one of the reasons why it’s vital to teach culture in language classes. It not only breathes life into grammar and vocabulary, making them so much more interesting, but makes us appreciate and celebrate our differences—which, in the greater scheme of things, are responsible for us having so many ways of identifying exactly the same object in the first place.

So there you go. Six incredibly effective ways to teach culture in a language class.

Try them out. You’ll not only pack your lessons with interesting bits of information, you’ll witness students becoming more motivated to acquire the language you are teaching.

That’s a win-win!

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