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Monday, April 20, 2009

How to Teach Culture in Spanish Community Service Learning (6)


by Ann Abbott

Wrestle with shadows.


“Hidden” cultural differences can be our biggest problem. When differences in viewpoints and practices remain unexamined they can leave students with mistaken impressions or reinforced stereotypes. For community members, they can create a lack of confidence in our students and our partnerships. Students may understand the words a person speaks, but misunderstand the culture within those words.

On the one hand, there are words and phrases that we think we understand, but they are really false cognates. Darcy recently reminded me about the words “ordinary” versus “ordinario.” In Spanish, it’s an insult. I remember a friend who was surprised that en absoluto meant “absolutely not” or “no way”; he had always thought it meant the opposite, “absolutely!” Yes, textbooks often provide lists of false cognates, but these two examples don’t always appear on those lists.

On the other hand, there are times when we get all the individual words right, but their combined effect reveals divergent cultural expectations. When I looked at all the ironing that my mother-in-law did, I viewed it as a burden she bore. Watching her iron socks, towels and even underwear made me feel bad. She did all the laundry even when we visited (long story!), so I once told her, in Italian, “Thank you, but you don’t need to iron our towels and socks.” She never said anything to me, but much later my father-in-law told me that I hadn’t respected her work. (As you can see, direct communication versus indirect communication was another cultural difference between us.) I thought I was respecting her as a person because I wanted her to work less. If he would have never told me that, I would have never even imagined that I had insulted her.

Furthermore, this issue made me think more deeply about ironing in general. In the US, we throw our clean clothes into the dryer, and a dryer sheet makes the towels come out fluffy and soft. In Italy and other countries, people don’t use dryers. Air-dried towels are indeed stiff and sometimes creased. Pressing them with a steam iron does make them nicer. Yes, there is a cultural difference (in broad terms) between how people in other cultures take care of and preserve their clothing, tablecloths, towels, sheets, etc. and how Americans have a tendency to wash, wear, throw out, get something new. But underneath that broad generalization are some really practical issues—local circumstances and realities often form the basis of cultural practices. Sometimes local circumstances evolve but the cultural practices remain, making it more difficult for one to understand the “why” behind a cultural practice.

We cannot always take our students back to the “origin” of every cultural difference they encounter when they work in the community, but it is good for them to consider the question itself. We also can’t always be with them in the community in order to point out cultural misunderstandings that remained invisible to them. But we can provide them some concrete examples and raise their awareness in general about how to wrestle with shadows, or even see the shadow in the first place.

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 (3): Rebrand culture.
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 (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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