The Culture Club

The cry goes up: TPRS doesn’t teach culture.

TPRS is a language acquisition method based in Comprehensible Input. As such, it believes that the road to acquisition lies in having students hear and read lots of language that they can understand completely. So where does culture come in?

Culture is often mentioned in curricular documents — or not! Sometimes culture is assumed to be classroom observances of major festivals: Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, Dia de los Muertos. A paper cutout, some coloring and glue, and we have culture. Sort of.

There’s nothing wrong with activities that yield a paper product. We need visual products to display. They provide “evidence” of “learning” and “engagement” (and unless you videotape, and can get people to watch the product, and the people can understand what’s going on in the language after the first week, it’s tough to show people acquisition!) They make nice backdrops for newspaper photographs and Parents’ Night activities.

But what is culture? Surely it’s more than festivals and holidays. As a person from One Culture who has been previously Married to Someone from Another Culture while living in a Third Culture, I would offer quite a different definition of culture: Culture is what you think is normal.

It’s difficult for FL teachers who have not had the chance to live in a target-language-speaking country for a long period of time to really feel culture from this perspective. But try living with someone from a different culture (preferably a thick-headed, stubborn person who has difficulty imagining that anyone else has a different experience or background than he — not that I’m thinking of anyone in particular here! 😉  )  and you’ll soon find out that culture is in the little things: the time that’s “normal” for dinner, the way it’s “normal” to greet or entertain guests, the things that are “okay” and those that aren’t “okay”.

It’s important for students to learn about festivals and traditions and history, of course. But I doubt that a knowledge of festivals will prepare them to get along with people from different cultural backgrounds.  What will do that is being exposed early and often to the idea that there is more than one way to think about things, even things that they take for granted. Things they believe are “normal” or “not normal”.

I believe that the best tool we can give students to reach out to the world at large is fluency in a language other than English. Second, though, and a very close second in my mind, is the ability to realize that there are other ways of viewing the world, some of which go quite counter to what we believe is “normal” or “right”. I think that this kind of culture is best taught using that old TPRS standby, the pop-up.

In the course of talking about — well, anything! — take time to think about what activities, thoughts, words or ideas might be viewed differently in the target culture, and just mention it briefly, as you would pop-up a grammar point or a particularly difficult sound. I personally don’t see anything wrong with saying (as a person not from the TL culture) things like “It seemed strange to me when I lived there, but the people who live in County X do this” or “Lots of people from Country Y like to do ABC. I didn’t really get into it, but it’s quite normal in that society.”

The other question that comes to mind is: how much culture is “enough”? If we’re talking about festivals and traditions and history, how much information is enough, and at what level? I don’t know the answer to this, but I suspect that it, like the amount of language that is “enough” at any level, is a smaller amount than most textbooks or programs include. If culture of this sort must be taught in English (since the target language is not yet mature enough in the students to discuss those ideas) at the lower levels, it is taking time away from acquisition. So how much factual culture (traditions, history, festivals) really needs to be included and memorized in the first year, and how much of that can we provide through pop-ups and carefully selected level-appropriate readings in the target language?  What can safely be left for later levels, and what is the most crucial thing for students to “get” early and often?

With only a few hours per week (if you’re lucky) to give input and get students fluent, how much time can be diverted from that task? Absent “mental health days” and administrator requirements, which are both great for project work with paper, scissors and glue, I think we owe it to ourselves and our students to keep on track with the input. Any block of time that isn’t input isn’t input…and there had better be a really well-considered reason for it.

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