Language Learning 101: Connect Language to Culture. (Tip #6)

What is the end goal of language learning?

Each family may have a different reason for studying foreign languages in their home: some may do so in order to prepare for travel opportunities, others may do it as part of the college admissions process, and still more may study languages in order to prepare their children for future employment opportunities.

Undergirding all of these motivations, however, is a simple truth: language study is not about language alone—it's about the cultures and peoples connected to that language. We study languages in order to better know those who are different from us—and to make ourselves better known to them as well.

If your daughter wants to work in Mexico, for example, she will not only have to study Spanish grammar and vocabulary, but she will also have to learn how to live like a Mexican. She’ll have to learn how to greet others with a kiss on the cheek, to do her shopping during the week, since many stores are closed on Sundays, and to tip the baggers at the grocery store. She’ll also learn that tacos in Mexico are nothing like what’s on the menu at Taco Bell—they are much, much more delicious.

Anchoring language study within a broader plan of cultural study, therefore, is essential to providing children with a complete experience of language learning. Grammar and vocabulary divorced from culture are tiresome and unrewarding, but contextualizing language learning within a broader cultural framework naturally provides motivation for students.

Luckily, most language curricula are already structured to include this. But if your language curriculum doesn’t, how can you help your homeschool student pursue cultural learning?

Here are some general recommendations:

  • Consider learning alongside your child in English. Here are some ideas:
    • Watch travel shows about other countries that speak the target language. Maybe some Rick Steves or National Geographic?
    • Check out cookbooks from the library that focus on cuisine from a target country. 
    • Combine the above two and watch cooking shows that have a cultural element. Pati’s Mexican Table and Rick Bayless’s show are both great for Spanish learners.  
  • Look for cultural learning opportunities in your neighborhood. 
    • Does your neighborhood or city have any ethnic grocery stores? Take a field trip to study the new foods and compare the experience to your typical grocery shopping. 
    • If your child is older, perhaps he/she could volunteer to teach English to immigrants in your area who speak the target language. 
    • Perhaps your family could get involved with a church ministry that serves people from different cultures. 

And if your child is studying Spanish, may I also recommend my list of our family’s favorite resources? These have all been tested and approved by us personally, and have provided loads of opportunities for discussing what life is like in other countries. They have also been a good motivation for my older, extroverted son to keep practicing his Spanish, because, as I remind him frequently, “The more languages you know, the more friends you can have.”

If you’d like to read more about the importance of cultural education, I suggest this excellent article on how to raise global children.

How have you helped your child make cultural learning a part of his or her foreign language study?

[Image provided by Flickr user Alex Proimos and used under a Creative Commons license]