Reader Q+A: Cultural Learning for Homeschoolers


This week’s Reader Q+A is from Barbara, a member of our Facebook group, who asked me: 

What is the best way to incorporate not just language skills, but the interesting cultural and historical info related to the area and people you are studying?

First, I have to say that I love this question! Learning languages within the broader context of history and culture is so incredibly important—not just because it helps to motivate students, but also because it helps them to become informed global citizens

Since I’ve written before on practical ways to do cultural learning at home, I won’t reiterate what I’ve already said in that post, but I will share a few other ideas for how you might integrate it into your homeschool. Regardless of what formal methods (curriculum or otherwise) you use to learn about other countries, I think that there are two simple things that you can do to bring cultural awareness into your homeschool: 

  1. First, teach yourself to model meaningful cultural comparisons. You can compare cultures across any number of variables: food, dress, manners, art, dancing, etc. I like this list of 50 questions on culture from Wooster College, which is designed for students preparing to study abroad, and provides a very comprehensive overview of all of the cultural elements that may differ from one country to another. That list assumes that you’re interviewing someone from another culture, but it could also be used to jumpstart conversations with your kids around the culture(s) you’re studying. Once you get a sense of what cultural variables are, you can start to make observations across any materials you’re using—be they foreign language read-aloudsmusic in a foreign language,  or even television shows—no extra planning required. If you need additional ideas for hands-on cultural learning projects, read-alouds, or other materials, don’t forget that I have literally hundreds of those collected on my Pinterest boards, for students studying almost any language (no Klingon yet). 
  2. Second, learn to ask why. This really brings us to the next level of cultural study—and it’s the one that requires a bit more preparation and creativity. After making those cultural comparisons, it’s important to ask “why?” That second step gets you beyond simple comparisons and can help you have a deeper appreciation of the culture that you’re studying. Here’s an an example from our family: my older son loves corn tortillas, and we (in our true Mexicophile fashion), like to serve them in a big, warm pile, with salt and slices of lime on the side. A few weeks ago, I was pointing out to him that Mexicans eat a lot more tortillas than Americans, and he, of course, asked the reason why. Because I know a bit about Mexican history, I was able to explain how corn was the staple crop of the Aztec empire and has been a major food source in Mexico for centuries, but I could have easily found that answer with a quick Google search. So when you find your kids interested in a particular element of the cultures that you’re studying, I recommend diving deeper, and using online resources as much as possible to help you answer this question. I think that you'll find that it really grows their understanding of the countries and people that you're focused on. 

Now, say you’re taking these suggestions, but you still want to do something a bit more formal. Well, summer is a great time to dive into a particular culture and/or point in history—consider it a super-relaxed unit study. This is actually what we’re doing as a family right now. We’re getting ready to travel to Mexico in August, so yesterday, I went to the library and checked out every single book that I could find on Mexico. I didn’t do any research beforehand and I don’t have a master plan for getting through them—we’re just picking one a day and reading it. You have my full and enthusiastic permission to do the same. Just jumping in is probably the hardest part, so don't be afraid to do it imperfectly. Model curiosity for your kids and you'll learn as you go! 

If you’re doing cultural learning at home with your kids, what resources have been most helpful to you? Please share in the comments—we’d love to hear what you’ve found!