Welcome back, fellow language teachers, to Adventures in Language! In this article, we’re covering 5 Do’s & Don’t for cultivating a culturally diverse language learning classroom -- which means we’re talking about cultural competence.
What is cultural competence?
Cultural competence -- the understanding of cultural diversity that allows an individual to recognize, accept, and manage differences between people in interactions (Barraja-Rohan, 1999).
Current pedagogical thinking (Nguyen, 2017) suggests there are three main levels of cultural learning, which range from a superficial understanding of facts about other cultures to a deep and reflective cultural understanding. They are:
When it comes to incorporating cultural knowledge, awareness & competence objectives into district-wide DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) initiatives, the goal is to do it meaningfully -- without exotifying, tokenizing, or stereotyping other cultures. So, the question becomes how can you, as a language teacher, structure your class to help your students build their cultural competence skills? While there is no one right way to do it, there are some best practices - and we’re going to cover 5 of them in this episode! Well, بدون إطالة (Modern Standard Arabic for without further ado), let’s get to it!
#1 DON’T fall into the “traditional customs” trap
The main takeaway here is to help your students see culture not as stuff from the past - but as part of the ever-evolving present. While learning about national holidays, traditional customs, and historical facts can lay a helpful foundation, they alone won’t help students build practical cultural competence skills. Furthermore, too much focus on historical customs and traditions can increase the perceived distance between the student and the target culture. The solution here is to inspire your learners to get intellectually curious and personally excited about the target culture now. To do this, consider incorporating student-driven culture activities. For example, you might assign a reoccurring “Pick your own Adventure” homework assignment, wherein students explore and write about a facet of current culture that interests them (e.g. social justice issues in Brazil, K-pop music trends in South Korea, the latest fashion trends in Tanzania). Student-driven activities are great for encouraging your learners to connect with and explore the culture on their own. For more tips on how to cultivate a student-driven class, check out this video!
#2 DO showcase more than the majority culture
Highlight minority and minoritized cultures. For example, if the Spanish curriculum you inherited focuses only on Mexican Spanish and culture, make a point to include highlights about Peruvian Spanish, Guatemalan history, and Latinx culture in the U.S.. If teaching French, create opportunities for your learners to discover that there are French speaking communities in countries other than France - such as Canada, Morocco, and Belgium. The great thing about this point is that you don’t have to create elaborate, full-length lessons to highlight these various communities. You can do it in small ways. It can be in the photos you choose for your slides, the example sentences you use in class, or the essay prompts you assign on exams. Long story short, when you’re intentional with these smaller decisions on a regular basis, your students end up with a fuller picture of who speaks the language, where it's spoken, and the multicultural fabric that ties them all together.
#3 DON’T rely on True/False or multiple choice
When it comes to measuring your students’ cultural competence skills, avoid True/False or multiple choice questions. Here’s why. Closed-answer questions give the impression that culture is a static construct - something that can be ‘mastered’ by memorizing facts and checking boxes. As you know, you can learn all the past tense verb conjugations in a language, but you can’t ever “complete” cultural competence. There is no such thing. It’s a lifelong process and a moving target. So, if you want to include questions about culture into your exams, opt for open-ended questions that inspire personal connection to and reflection of the cultural content.
#4 DO add cultural competence as a course goal
Go beyond the “core four” by adding cultural competence as a fifth course goal. Historically, curricula for language programs have focused on the core four; that is, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. However, as a language teacher, you know better than anyone just how much culture lives and breathes all throughout language - in the form of idioms, slang, conceptual metaphors, turn-taking norms...etc. The solution? Join the other thought leaders in our teaching community by including Cultural Competence as an equally important course objective. The idea here, of course, is to signal to your learners the importance of cultural competence as a skill that is integral to learning and using a language. Did you know that the Mango app includes it as a core objective? The way our linguists and language teachers have implemented it into the app is through culture notes. The app’s culture notes are in the students’ (L1), which allows us to provide interesting, detailed, and nuanced cultural information that touches on all three levels of learning culture that I mentioned earlier, and that is of particular interest to learners from a given language background. To learn more about how our culture notes work (and some examples), check out the link in the description, which will get you a FREE copy of our White Paper. Beyond containing examples of our culture notes, it’s packed with information about how other features of the Mango app are structured in line with the other principles from SLA research. BONUS: clicking that link will also get you a FREE fun, goal-setting worksheet that you can use with your students (which they’re going to love!).
#5 DON’T take on the role of sole culture ambassador
You of course don’t consider yourself the final authority on the target language and culture. But your students might. Many students are likely to position you as their main source of information when it comes to cultural norms and differences. To address this, regularly include additional voices and perspectives into your classes. Bring in a guest speaker. Assign a podcast episode from the target language with a particular cultural aspect. Invite students to share their experiences and knowledge about the target cultures. The more voices the merrier.
Oh - one more thing! (don’t skip)
Remember that there’s no one right or wrong way to cultivate a culturally diverse classroom. At the end of the day, doing DEI “right” really comes down to being intentional and reflective. So, do your best to incorporate culturally diverse perspectives -- and encourage feedback from your students. Thanks for reading! नमस्ते! Hoşçakalın! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article.
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To explore more about cultural competence, check out:
Nguyen, T. T. T. (2017). Integrating Culture into Language Teaching and Learning: Learner Outcomes. The Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal , 17 (1), 145–155.
Barraja-Rohan, A.-M. (1999). Teaching conversation for intercultural competence. In J. Lo Bianco, A. J. Liddicoat, & C. Crozet (Eds.), Striving for Third Place: Intercultural Competence through Language Education (pp. 143–145). Melbourne: Language Australia.
Wondering what languages were used in this article?
English (recording language)
Hindi | नमस्ते! (numuStay) is both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’
Turkish | Merhaba (MEH.ra.bah) and hoşçakalın (hohsh.CHA.kuh.luhn!) are ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’
Modern Standard Arabic | بدون إطالة (bidoon iTaala) means ‘without further ado’ (literally translates as ‘without long talk’)
Interested in learning English, Hindi, Turkish, Modern Standard Arabic one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!