Teaching language and culture in the same breath

Female college professor pointing at green chalkboard and lecturing

A few years ago, an answer appeared on a chapter exam in Spanish 101 that literally took my breath away. The answer my student wrote was Mexico City. Of course, there is nothing alarming with such an answer unless you know the question. The question, I am sorry to report, was What is the capital of Spain? Let me give you a moment to recover. No doubt you may be able to trump this example with stories of your own, but let me begin by emphasizing that in foreign language acquisition courses, in addition to teaching students about the target language, we also have the wonderful and critically important privilege of teaching culture in the same breath.

Most foreign language educators have four basic course objectives for their introductory language classes. We aim to develop skills based in reading, writing, listening, and speaking in the target language. The objective topics include vocabulary centered around family, university studies, leisure activities, shopping, travel, and food, to name a few. In addition to these four common core learning goals, the fifth and equally important objective deals with cultural awareness.

What exactly do we mean by cultural awareness? For the sake of simplicity, I will lump general notions of everything from art, music, literature, famous people, geographical locations, history and politics, to cuisine, customs, traditions, holidays and celebrations, and pop culture of a particular country into the broad category of “cultural awareness.” You see, we foreign language instructors do not simply want our students to know how to read, write, listen to, and express “Hola, ¿cómo está usted?” (Hello, how are you?), but we also want them to understand that when they speak Spanish, in this case, they must consider the audience they are addressing. And thus begins the fascinating discussion of how to translate the word “you” into Spanish, what this means, and why it is important. We teach the social and cultural implications of subject-pronoun choice, the risks with making errors, etc. This leads to rich conversations about stereotyping, diversity, social hierarchies, and global citizenship. Although cultural awareness may be an inch deep and a mile wide, we need to make sure that our students are at least digging in this type of turf.

How do we increase cultural awareness? First, I would highly recommend that instructors assign the cultural videos, interactive cultural resources, and virtual art tours linked in many Pearson foreign language texts and MyLanguageLabs. This brings culture to life for our students and allows them to use picture cues to help them understand content spoken in the target language. In this way, they are not only exposed to grammatical concepts, vocabulary, sentence structure, simple dialogues, cadences and rhythms of the language while they listen to and view the videos, for example, but they are also immersed into a deep and rich world where culture is woven into everything they see and hear.

Second, I have found that the graded cultural discussion board is a wonderful tool in the online arena for advancing ethnic mindfulness. The vast array of Pearson foreign language textbooks offer countless launch points for cultural dialogues simply by encouraging students to flip through the pages. Culture is deeply integrated throughout the texts and online laboratories and often is the icing on the cake as students chew on grammar and vocabulary. The various text editions are chock-full of beautiful photographs and mind-grabbing information, statistics, maps, realia, and spotlights that not only solicit unlimited “ah ha” moments from our students, but encourage them to broaden their mind, dismiss preconceived stereotypes and biases, and open the door to a new world of attentiveness to ethnic diversity.

Third, in addition to videos, text and lab resources including machine-graded cultural activities, and instructor-graded discussion boards in MyLanguageLabs, I require my students to compose journal entries in English about various cultural topics. At the end of the course, they consolidate their perceptions into a capstone cultural awareness essay where they piece together what they have learned during the course term as well as how this affects them personally and practically. Essentially, they articulate their own discoveries and conclusions — they self-evaluate.

How do we measure whether our students have advanced in the area of cultural awareness? How do we really know if their knowledge base has broadened? We grade and offer feedback on the discussion board posts and responses, the journal entries, the final essay. We assign the videos, etc., to enrich cultural exposure. Of course, we can also assess important knowledge bits like countries and capitals, history, the cost of living in Colombia, etc., through simple objectively-oriented machine-graded workbook assignments, quizzes, or exams. In all of these ways, we are fostering a more lasting mark of a cultural education by helping our students explore the world, see beyond themselves, assimilate their knowledge, compare and contrast their understanding, and reflect on how this new cultural awareness impacts them personally.

I also offer credit to my students for completing an end-of-term qualitative survey where they can numerically rank what they knew at the beginning of the course versus what they know toward the end of the course regarding their cultural awareness. In every class I have taught, this statistic is markedly higher at the end of the course. From the students’ perspective, they are successfully learning about culture, and their lives have been enriched in meaningful ways.

Allow me to share comments from three of my students regarding their advancement in cultural awareness:

“This class has opened my eyes to how much I do not know about the Hispanic culture.I am happy to be taking this class, particularly studying Chapter 6 (from the textbook Unidos), to clarify the truth. For some odd reason I had always thought shopping in a Hispanic country was like shopping at a farmers market. To my surprise, I learned their shopping is similar to ours in that they have big malls, shopping centers, supermarkets, and small mom-and-pop businesses. This class has taught me the Hispanic culture is not as “foreign” as my preconceived ideas had me thinking it was. I definitely feel more comfortable with meeting and making Hispanic friends.”

“This class has been a wonderful cultural experience. I have learned so much I feel like it helps me relate more to the Hispanic culture. There are a great many similarities to my value system and beliefs. I feel way more comfortable trying to communicate when I have Spanish-speaking customers come into my job. While I am still not fluent, I can understand enough words to figure out how to help.”

“I think the videos we watch before assignments are very helpful. It’s nice to know what it’s like in different Hispanic cultures and really gives me the travel bug to go to those places. I definitely think this class has helped my understanding of Hispanic culture in the US. The Hispanic community is so family-orientedI wish I saw it more with my family. This class has really made me more comfortable when speaking to those that speak Spanish.”

In conclusion, foreign language instructors are about the business of not only teaching how to read, write, understand, and speak the target language, but we have the expressed charge to help our students comprehend, evaluate, and appreciate a world far beyond their own. Many of our students are in desperate need of this type of invaluable education as they are competing in the professional marketplace with peers who hit the bull’s eye because they know that the capital of Spain is Madrid and that Mexico City is the captivating capital city of Mexico, our neighboring country to the south.


Professor Walker used MySpanishLab for her online courses and participated in a user study, which statistically showed the growth of students in the course. Read the full report.


About the Author
Victoria Walker

Victoria Walker

Victoria Walker teaches at Bluegrass Community & Technical College, Asbury University, and Campbellsville University. She has been using MySpanishLab since its inception and has served as a faculty advisor and reviewer for Pearson for about eight years.