This week I would like to address Dr. Thomas Garza’s module on “Culture” found on the University of Texas Foreign Language Teaching Methods website. After recapping some of his high points, I would like to discuss how I have seen culture presented to myself and other students of French and then expand upon how I feel that I could contribute to teaching culture in the future.
Some of the more exciting points that I thought Dr. Garza made were: 1) the importance of cultural competence to communication in a language, 2) the importance of integrating culture into every activity possible, in order to maximize efficient use of class time, and 3) the difference between “Culture” with a big “C”, and “culture” with a little “c”.
In my own learning experience, culture seemed to be presented as “interesting tidbits” or “fun trivia” apart from grammar and vocabulary. It was actually always my favorite part of class because it was a both a break from “language” and an opportunity to learn about people, as opposed to verbs. Cultural “faux pas” always made for some amusing comic-relief in class. I don’t think that I personally began to pay attention to the cultural appropriateness of certain words and modes of communication until I was actually living in the target culture and it became of vital importance to me. I feel like in the class for which I am a TA here at UTA there is a much more concerted effort by my professor of record to include culture in vocabulary and grammar discussion and grammar and vocabulary in culture discussion. This may, however, be due to the time constraints that teachers here face. As a high school student and lower-level undergraduate student I have been particularly fortunate to have had between five and six hours of French class per week, compared to the standard 3 here at UTA. Therefore, I have not experienced the wild time-crunch that exists here, but I have seen it in my TA class.
Finally, the difference between “Culture” and “culture” was not one that I had ever seen made before, but it makes sense to me and I like it. Those who object are welcome to provide evidence to the contrary, but based on my own experience, I have found that “culture” with a little “c” tends to be taught (when it is explicitly taught) in the lower levels of foreign language instruction, and “Culture” with a big “C” tends to be mostly taught at the higher levels of foreign language instruction. What I mean is that day-to-day “survival” culture is taught to people looking to “survive” in the language or culture: For example, how to purchase a train ticket, or how to buy stamps for a letter would all be small “c” culture items that one might find in the first few semesters of L2 instruction. Big “C” “Culture includes ideas, events, and objects that inform a culture’s view of the world and/or themselves. This makes me think of “The Cannon” that is introduced to upper-level undergraduates and then terrorizes graduate students as they continue their second language education. It seems to me that big “C” Culture is part of what needs to be known to be “educated” or “well-read” in a culture.
I readily agree with the fact the cultural competence is essential for effective communication in a language and that culture should be integrated into all parts of class. That is simply a question of careful lesson planning. What I question is how and when to introduce different aspects of culture. Yes, it is good for students to get a broader view of a second culture by understanding what artwork is important to them, but for students who are only looking to use their French to vacation in Paris or Quebec, is that really a practical use of their time? Would they not be better off focusing on more down-to-earth concerns such as locating bathrooms and libraries in foreign countries? Or, if they are only in class to fulfill a requirement, would they be more interested in the art, history, and religion(s) that inform that culture?