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Friday, April 17, 2009

How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (3)


by Ann Abbott

Re-brand culture.

How is “culture” packaged in the Spanish curriculum at your institution? From what I have seen, culture is typically “branded” in these ways:

  • Intro textbooks show folkloric, full-color photos and short descriptions about some “unique” cultural practice or product. Activities often ask students to use Spanish vocabulary and grammar to talk about their own—usually very “gringo”—experiences and activities. Sidebars say, “Oh, yeah, these are the people who actually speak Spanish and here are some neat facts about them. Now go back to talking about how many college classes you have on Tuesdays versus Fridays.”

  • There is usually a course on the books called “Hispanic Culture,” “Hispanic Civilization” or some variation on that. The course and the textbook are usually chronological presentations of “important” historical moments, political figures and artistic products. Students think they’re signing up for a course on Mexican/Spanish/Argentinean/etc. festivals, foods and fun. What do they get? A history class.

  • Literature classes ask students to analyze cultural products, but usually within the rather hermetically-sealed world of texts and textual analysis. Yes, texts (literary and visual, from high and popular culture), reflect cultural practices. But analysis of the text itself is usually the primary learning objective.

In a Spanish community service learning course we need to integrate language and culture more smoothly. Their linguistic exchanges in the community are also inter-cultural exchanges, with real weight and consequences. Sometimes that means that we need to circle back to language constructs they have already learned, but they learned them divorced from their cultural context.

For example, every intro textbook presents “” versus “Usted.” But in the classroom, do they ever have to make a split-second choice about what form to use with whom? Do they ever feel that dread in the pit of their stomach—Oops, I think I just said when I should have said Usted. Have they ever had someone in a class say, “Joven, no me trates de tú.” Probably not. What happens to them in the classroom if they choose badly? Probably nothing. That’s different in the community, and it gives them a context in which to develop a grounded cultural understanding of a language choice.

Likewise, every intro textbook teaches students to form commands. Even if students have mastered the grammatical structures (many have not), when our students are in the community, do they know how to tell someone to do something without being pesado/a, sin caer mal?

We need to literally re-package culture. Instead of separating language and culture, we need to merge them.


Other posts in this series:
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (1)
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (2)
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (4): Culture is everything, everything is culture.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (5): Analyze your emotions.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (6): Wrestle with shadows.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (7): Develop skills of observation.
How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (8): An example.

Related posts:
How do you "teach" cultures?
What do we mean by "culture" in the foreign language classroom?

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