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Culture and Foreign Language Learning

Authored By: 
Daniel Shabasson, Spanish Teacher

The idea of introducing culture to the foreign language classroom has gained in traction since I started teaching Spanish. Many language instructors agree that some culture should be incorporated into the instruction as long as it furthers the learning of the language. However, there is little agreement about how much culture should be taught and whether students should be tested on their knowledge of the culture or merely tested on their proficiency with speaking, reading, and writing the language. There is always the risk that putting too much emphasis on teaching culture, and testing on it, could distract from learning the language, which I believe always should be the primary focus of any foreign language course.

Then there is the question, which culture should be taught?  For example, there is no one single culture common to all Spanish speakers. Spanish is spoken in various countries by various peoples with different ethnic and religious backgrounds and different historical experiences. Should one place more emphasis on the non-material aspects of culture (e.g., cultural values and norms, spiritual or religious beliefs, social structures) or stick to the material aspects of culture (music, food, clothing, etc.)? There is also 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).

In my experience, the best solution usually involves gearing the instruction about culture to the particular interests of the students. The “little c” aspects of culture are great to support students in learning Spanish conversation, and give us an object of color and focus to accompany verb declensions. As a result, it typically becomes easier to discuss the non-material aspects of the culture, as well at the “big c” elements of culture, as students gain proficiency in the language.