Paralysis by analysis

On a social media group for teachers, the following question (actually pretty far removed from the title of this post!) was recently posted:

Could you share resources that you’ve used to infuse your TPRS lessons with cultural perspectives?

As I waited for my server to let me into my own blog — some sort of crazy wintertime slowdown or something — I started thinking about how we are inconsistent in the TPRS world. Again, not about this question specifically — it just made me think about it.

We are firm in our belief that we do not want to analyze grammar in class. We don’t want to separate grammar or structure out and “deal with it” separately from the language it’s in and the meaning it represents. Given what we know about how language is acquired, that seems like a Good Thing.

But then we accept other ideas that are purely and squarely in the realm of analysis. Like, how Culture is to be taught as something separate that has to be “incorporated” into content. Like (if we’re going to be honest here) how there are sufficient differences in language between presentational, interpersonal and interpretive as to merit separate consideration of each, tracking how much time or effort goes into each, and separate assessment of each.

And I think lots of times, we become paralyzed because we are so worried about fulfilling all the requirements of these artificial categories — so concerned about checking all the boxes — that we forget that language doesn’t live in a box.

It’s all language, folks. Language doesn’t care if you’re putting it on a billboard or whispering it into someone’s ear. It’s just language. (Okay, I’m assuming a fairly “ordinary” language, not one with a high and low form, or oral Chinese versus newspaper grammar, and that kind of thing. But we don’t usually deal with that so much at the K-12 levels anyway.)

So — back to culture. First of all, what IS culture? I think culture is what any particular group of people tends to believe is normal. The “right” way to do things, to think, to react.

It’s easy to do a unit on Day of the Dead, or Chinese New Year, or whatever. It’s not so easy to do a unit on “how Spanish people think about other countries”.

Fortunately, TPRS comes with micro-everything. We micro-differentiate, we micro-lecture about structure (pop-ups), we progress in micro-steps because we know the brain craves repetition until it feels confident about things. Culture — in the “how people think” — sense fits beautifully into the micro-model of TPRS teaching.

Every sentence is an opportunity to teach culture. Even if you are asking a story and your kids have decided that Bob the purple and red hedgehog is living on Mars and running a taco stand, Bob will encounter things and Bob will react to them, and then we pull out the time-honored TPRS tool of “compare and contrast” and we can compare Bob and whatever hedgehog culture he comes from to actual cultures in our target language (for it’s unusual for there to be only one, unitary culture anyway). What would a Spanish man say if he were in Bob’s tiny little hedgehog shoes? What would a Chinese customer say if he ordered a taco from Bob’s stand and Bob treated him the way Bob treats people, says the things Bob says?

Everything that is said in a story is normal for someone in that story. That’s why stories have been great teaching tools for centuries. Teaching  culture only involves pointing out (through pop-ups) the normal and all the alternative normals we want to include.

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