8 Ways Interculturality Can Change the Way Students Learn a Language

Discover the power of interculturality and how it can make a big difference in how you teach culture and language in your classroom.

If you teach a foreign language, chances are you incorporate activities, songs and TV shows from other cultures into your lessons. Language and culture go hand in hand after all, and nothing makes a lesson come alive like real-world examples of vocabulary in action.

But when it comes to teaching culture in the foreign language classroom, some experts say we are only skimming the surface. These experts argue that our entire approach to world languages should come through the lens of “interculturality,” rather than picking a cultural snippet that matches a particular vocabulary list, for example.

What Does Interculturality Mean?

“Interculturality is about teaching students language and culture simultaneously,” says Megan Cory, a teacher and an author at Wayside Publishing, which publishes the EntreCulturas line of Spanish textbooks. “We integrate culture into everything, looking for authentic products, practices and perspectives. Interculturality helps our students learn to respect, appreciate and understand others because they are learning how culture influences the individual.”

It comes down to helping students learn and feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, says Janet Parker, another contributor to the EntreCulturas series and a longtime language teacher. “It’s not just about the words you use,” she says. “It’s your body language, facial gestures and even your tone of voice.”

Parker says one of the easiest ways to introduce interculturality to students is to talk about their own cultures of origin.

“When students learn what they do and why they do it, then they can start learning those things about another culture too,” Parker says. “As they learn the similarities and differences, they’ll naturally learn tolerance and empathy and just be educated in a different way.”

How Can I Incorporate Interculturality Into My Lessons?

Cory and Parker agree that using a compare-contrast approach is effective when it comes to teaching interculturality to students. Here are eight areas and examples they recommend to help students learn culture alongside language.

1. Holidays and celebrations. In the old model of teaching a language, you might have a class Cinco de Mayo party where everyone contributes a favorite dish. The goal of the intercultural model is to go deeper. Talk about the real meaning and history of the holiday, and draw connections between Mexico’s victory over France and unlikely outcomes in students’ lives and cultures. Discuss the misconceptions that abound over the holiday along with those surrounding students’ own traditions. Read multiple perspectives of the holiday to demonstrate that Cinco de Mayo does not have a single meaning to those who celebrate it in Mexico and abroad. When you take the time to explore multiple perspectives, the language learning is more profound as well. You can also take a similar approach when studying other major holidays or celebrations like birthdays and anniversaries.

2. Greetings. How you greet someone involves more than just language. Do you hug? Shake hands? Make eye contact? These are all good questions to have your students research about another culture as they’re comparing it to their own. Aside from reading, have them watch videos online to get an authentic comparison.

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3. Food. Food has always been one of our favorite ways to talk about culture in world language class, and the intercultural model takes it to the next level. When Cory was a teacher, she would have her students research authentic recipes from a specific culture. (For instance, her students would look up how to make a Spanish tortilla.) Then she would have them compare it to a similar recipe in their own culture. So her students would then look up how the Spanish tortilla is different from the Mexican tortilla, for example. After they fully understood the differences, they would then have a cook-off, preparing the different tortilla dishes in the classroom. You might also underscore the meaning of food in different cultures. Have students interview a person from a different culture, for example, about a food that is part of their family’s traditions. Then have students write about meaningful foods from their own cultures. Students will begin to see that food is much more than what you put in your mouth!

interculturality-spanishfood

4. Eating. Dining habits are just as important as food when it comes to culture. How is dinner served? Where do you eat? Invite students to answer these questions in light of their own cultures, and then compare the answers to others. If you’re able, bring in a native speaker from one or more countries and have them do a little demo of what it looks like to dine in that country.

interculturality-eating

5. School habits. Students often think that what happens in their classroom is similar to what is happening halfway around the world, but nowadays it is easier than ever to show them how different school experiences can be. Try Skyping with a classroom in a different country and having students compare their routines, homework and classes. 

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6. Music. Many world language teachers start their lessons with a song, and we love that approach. But you can extend the learning further when you have students truly analyze a piece of music from a cultural perspective, including the music, lyrics and historical context. What does the song mean? Is it related to a cultural moment? Does it have different meanings for different listeners? Next, have students do an analysis of a song from their own culture, and do a side-by-side comparison.

7. TV and pop culture. You can learn so much about a culture by diving into modern TV shows, pop culture trends and more. This is another good area where it’s great to connect directly with students from another classroom, whether it’s across the country or around the world. Have students share what style is popular right now, as well as TV shows, actors, singers, etc. By talking to other students directly from that culture, they will learn so much firsthand knowledge.

8. Literature. Parker recommends comparing similar books in two languages to get a better understanding of the culture. For instance, look at children’s books because the lessons in those can be quite telling. Have students pick out cultural differences in two similar books and present them to the class. Remind them that it’s not just the language that’s different—it’s the thoughts, attitudes and other pieces of culture as well.

interculturality-books

What’s your take, teachers? Could you deepen your approach to culture in your lessons? Does the idea of interculturality appeal to you? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Also, be sure to check out Wayside Publishing and their approach to interculturality online.

Stacy Tornio

Posted by Stacy Tornio

Stacy Tornio is a senior editor with WeAreTeachers. Nearly everyone in her family is a teacher. So she decided to be rebellious and write about teachers instead.

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