Category Archives: Cultural Exploration

How do you “teach” culture in a foreign language class?

Let’s begin by looking at quote from Moran:

“Culture is the evolving way of life of a group of persons, consisting of a shared set of practices associated with a shared set of products, based on a shared set of perspectives on the world, and set within specific social contexts.”

–Patrick R. Moran,  Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice

You can look at this approach to understanding culture through the diagrams below.  Essentially what can be seen and experienced in a culture is highly influenced by the perspectives of the culture, though the perspectives are rarely easily described nor seen.  There is also a dynamic influence of each element on all of the other elements.

How do you "teach" culture in a foreign language class? (French, Spanish) wlteachger.wordpress.comWhen students come across a “new” elements or phenomenon in a culture that is different from their own, encourage them to consider the questions below in an attempt to understand why something may happen the way that it does, rather than passing judgment based on their own cultural lens. This moves them beyond comparing the “foreign” culture to their own.  They will instead come to understand why things are the way they are based on the perspectives of the particular culture.

  • What are the products?
  • What are the practices?
  • Who are the people involved?
  • Which specific communities take part?
  • Why do the people need the product?
  • Why is practice important in a particular community?
  • What people or communities are not involved in a particular practice?
  • What people or communities do not use a particular product?

Many of these concepts are well beyond an adolescent’s comprehension. I have adapted the wording to make it more approachable and age-appropriate:

Teaching Geography with Invisible Maps in the Foreign Language Class

Students remember geography better when they can visualize locations without referring to a map.  One way that students can hone this skill is to have them make “invisible maps” before they look at actual maps.  Basically, the teacher has students take out their invisible maps and hang them up in front of them.  The teacher does the same with her map in the front of the class.  The teacher then stands behind the invisible map and draws on countries, cities, rivers, oceans, streets or landmarks.  As she does this, students draw the locations on their invisible maps as well.

The teacher should draw each location on several times and have students draw several times as well.  As the activity moves on the teacher can simple say the names of the locations and students can draw them on their maps.  At the conclusion of the activity the teacher gives students a blank map with the names of the locations that they had drawn on their invisible maps.  You will soon see how quickly the students are able to match the names to the locations because they are now able to visual the locations in their head and then transfer that knowledge to the actual map that they are working with.

One thing to keep in mind is that the teacher needs to draw the map backwards because she is standing behind the invisible map and facing students so that the locations are in the correct place for students when they mimic the drawing that the teacher is doing.  This takes some practice and I recommend that you photocopy the map on a transparency that you can flip over and reference when you first try this out.

Using Proverbs in the Foreign Language Classroom

Using Proverbs in the Foreign (World) Language Classroom (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comProverbs will very often reflect the history and values of a community of people (Ciccarelli, 1996). Since these phrases tend to be short, the vocabulary and sentence structure don’t require a lot of time to understand linguistically. When a new vocabulary list is presented to students, consider providing a few proverbs or idioms that use some of the words and engage a conversation about how the phrase might be important in the target language culture as well as who might use it and in what circumstances. This is also a great opportunity to have students reflect on cultural similarities and differences as they consider whether or not the proverb exists in English, and if not, why?

Here are some proverbs by language for use in the classroom:

Reference: Ciccarelli, A. (1996). Teaching culture through language: Suggestions for the Italian language class. Italica, 73(4), 563-576.

Adding Culture to the Foreign Language Curriculum

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As second language teachers, we know that the culture associated with a language cannot be learned in a few lessons about celebrations, folk songs, or costumes of the area in which the language is spoken.  Culture is a much broader concept that is inherently tied to many of the linguistic concepts taught in second language classes.  Through the study of other languages, students gain a knowledge and understanding of the cultures that use that language; in fact, students cannot truly master the language until they have also mastered the cultural contexts in which the language occurs.

In THIS concise article, Peterson and Coltrane discuss how to teach culture in a way that challenges preconceptions.  They suggest teaching methods that include role play, the use of authentic documents, film, proverbs, and student resources.  This is an article that I read while in graduate school studying Applied Linguistics and the ideas have always guided me in the classroom.

Read the article HERE

Foreign Language Tongue Twisters

Foreign (World)Language Tongue Twisters. (French, Spanish) wlteacher.wordpress.comIf you want students to practice their pronunciation and to have fun while doing it, try out some tongue-twisters.  This is a great way to have students focus on their pronunciation without relying on repetition.  It’s fun to make it into a game and see who can say it the fastest.  Once students get more comfortable with the pronunciation they can begin to make their own tongue-twisters in the target language.  This would be a great opportunity to see if students understand the sound-symbol relationship between letters, letter combinations, or characters.  Very often as well, the content of the tongue-twister is a window into the culture.

Here are some tongue-twisters to get you started:

Rao k’ou ling (Mandarin)

Tongue-Twisters (English)

Virelangues (French)

Zungenbrecher (German)

Scioglilingua (Italian)

Hayakuchi Kotoba (Japanese)

Trava Linguas (Portuguese)

Trabalenguas (Spanish)

Online Spanish Grammar and Culture

There is a great site available through Colby College that gives students an opportunity to practice Spanish grammar structures, everything from regular verb conjugations, to comparisons, through the subjunctive.  This site also has many audio clips, readings, and interactive cultural activities to help students master Spanish grammar concepts and structures.  There are great activities to be done together as a class or given to students individually.

You can see the site HERE.

Using Authentic Documents in the Foreign Language Classroom

Using Authentic Documents in the Foreign (World) Language Classroom (French, Spanish)

The use of authentic documents in the World Language classroom has become more and more important in recent years as teachers are becoming more aware of the importance of exposing students to culture in the classroom.  Here are some ideas concerning the use of authentic documents in the classroom, as opposed to documents created to mimic the culture.

Traditional attempts at understanding difference, particularly cultural difference, have typically focused on institutions, achievements, publications, and well-known public people.This can be most obviously displayed in various “Cultural Notes” or “Culture Capsules” in various foreign language and history textbooks. (Kramsch, Galloway, Moran)

A true understanding of another culture must move beyond what Moran refers to as a Functionalist View, which presents only institutional and assumed collective perspectives of a country or culture.This might include the presentation of cultural “facts” such as “All Quebecers speak French and want to separate from Canada.”By approaching the study of culture from what Moran refers to as a Conflict View, students can come to understand that there are various opinions and perspectives within any culture and these must be understood in order to arrive at a more appropriate, and perhaps empathetic perception of the culture.

The most effective way to provide students with opportunities to understand cultural perspectives from an insider’s point of view is through the use of authentic documents that are created by members of the foreign culture for members of the foreign culture (Galloway,).

The teacher’s guidance through the process of interpreting film clips, commercials, literature, photographs, web sites, and products of the foreign culture will help students to conceptualize it in a way that is not influenced by their native culture. (Kramsch)


Galloway, V. (1992). Toward a cultural reading of authentic texts. In Heusinkveld, P. R. (Ed.), Pathways to Culture. (pp. 255-302). Yartmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Kramsch, C. (1988). The cultural discourse of foreign language textbooks. In Singerman, A. J. (Ed.), Toward a New Integration of Language and Culture, pp. 63-88. Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

Moran, P. (2001) Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Why Teach Culture?

Here is an excerpt from Romona Tang’ article, “The Place of “Culture” in the Foreign Language Classroom: A Reflection”.


“According to Pica (1994: 70), the question “how necessary to learning a language is the learner’s cultural integration?” is something which “troubles teachers, whether they work with students in classrooms far removed from the culture of the language they are learning or with students who are physically immersed in the culture but experientially and psychologically distant from it”. Numerous other researchers have tried to address issues along similar lines, including Gardner and Lambert (1972) who postulate that learners may have two basic kinds of motivation. The first is integrative motivation, which refers to the desire of language learners to acquire the language while immersing themselves into the whole culture of the language, in order to “identify themselves with and become part of that society” (Brown 1994: 154). The second is instrumental motivation, which refers to the functional need for learners to acquire the language in order to serve some utilitarian purpose, such as securing a job, or a place at a university. The argument is that such instrumentally motivated learners are neither concerned with the culture from which their target language emerged, nor interested in developing any feelings of affinity with the native speakers of that language.”

You can read the entire article HERE.


Brown, H. Douglas. 1994. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents.

Gardner, Robert C., and Wallace Lambert. 1972. Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House.

Pica, Teresa. 1994. Questions from the Language Classroom: Research Perspectives. TESOL Quarterly, 28(1): 49-79.

Geography and Culture

Teaching geography is sometimes on of the more difficult concepts to convey to students. We hate to simply have students memorize a map, label cities, rivers, and borders and call that a culture lesson, but sometimes that is all that we have the time to do. Based some readings in cultural studies, many teachers are turning to the expert approach to teaching about places in a particular region.

Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 8.45.10 AMIn this type of activity, each student is responsible for becoming the expert on a particular place (city, town, neighborhood) and can present this information to others in the class. What usually happens is that students find cultural pieces of interest in what the other students have learned and will often inquire further. For younger students it is helpful to have students ask each other about their “expertise” and have questions to be answered.

For more advanced levels, students can be responsible (in the target language) for more historical aspects of a particular place and can even begin to do some research on social structures or issues. This information generally available on line in publications that are written in the target language countries. For example, illiteracy rates or public assistance may be appropriate for high school or college students, whereas important buildings and neighboring towns/cities would be a better option for elementary and middle school students.

Ultimately, the goal in teaching geography in a foreign language classroom should include awareness of the people that create and live the culture associated with it, rather than just a series of dots on a map.

Teaching about the Hispanic World

If you are looking for a way to introduce the rich and diverse world of the Hispanohablante, you can access a great unit online that was created by the Comm Tech Lab at Michigan State University.

In this unit, students use the Internet to explore Spanish-speaking countries around the world.  Students move beyond a superficial understanding of countries and cultures and engage in a deeper understanding of the people and ways of life.

You can access the full set of lesson plans and online resources HERE.