I had wrongly assumed that all my virtual students shared my view about the relationship between language and culture. I believe that when you learn a language, you also learn a culture. Furthermore, when you teach a language, whether you are a native or non-native speaker, you serve as a cultural guide, if not an ambassador of sorts. However, a YouTube viewer was recently puzzled over an exchange I had with another viewer regarding cultural differences. The second learner asked why the discussion was even relevant since I am teaching a language, not a culture.
Is it really possible to teach without a cultural context? I think not, and I’ve addressed this question before in another post. From my point of view, most of the choices we make as teachers integrate language with culture. We choose photos, songs, and other media to prompt discussion and illustrate target words and structures. Our explanations include jokes, examples from current events, and references to our personal lives. Even a choice of topic, such as a holiday theme, reflects the target culture.
Of course, teaching through video is different from teaching students face-to-face in a classroom, but nevertheless the authentic language models in a video reflect the culture they live in. For example, when I participated in YouTube’s “On the Rise” contest back in December 2011, I suggested they use an old video on New Year’s resolutions to represent my channel. I liked the various contributions I was able to include in that lesson, and in particular I was pleased that my key guest speakers represented Americans well. They spoke with mix of optimism, honesty, humor, and goodwill. They were easy-going and willing to share information. All that is a reflection of the American character. In fact, you can look at any other lesson in that playlist of “Mini Lessons,” and you’ll see that each video tries to convey information about American culture as well as teach the language.
In my most recent lesson with Natasha, my beginner student, there’s a moment when she pulls out a large sum of money from her wallet, and I’m genuinely suprised. It’s not that I’m easily impressed by someone who has more money than me, but rather I don’t see the point of carrying around cash when you can use plastic. I respond to her display by showing her my credit card. This whole exchange reflects a bit of the American lifestyle. It sparks thought about amounts of money, forms of money, and attitudes toward money. To me, the exchange makes no sense unless you put it in a culture context. Do you agree?
What are your feelings about the relationship between language and culture? I’d love to hear from you.