AWARENESS Sub-competency

The Relationship Between Language and Culture

phone talk.JPG

1_ICLT: My wrap-up reflection
    (A journey from my personal constellation to the eye piece of cultural telescopy
    [a linguist-in-the-making aspect])
2_ICLT: Cultural Implications in Cartoons
    (Practicing media literacy for cultural self-knowledge.) 

In this essay, I describe my journey in language teaching from my initial dive into the teaching pond, to my burgeoning awareness of the importance of knowing something about my students’ culture, and how I might use this knowledge to enhance their language learning and ultimate competency.
I quote from my ICLT wrap-up reflection document listed above.

I began this course with my own amorphous outlook on the tapestry of culture inhabiting this planet. I finished it with knowledge of how to bring structure and definition to possibilities in societal and linguistic interaction.
— France Menk, ICLT_Wrap-up Reflection

I have always been intrigued by and drawn to cultures outside my own. In primary school I learned that, though my classmates were from the USA, we each had different cultures. Perhaps because of this awareness of my differences from my classmates, I turned to learning about cultures in other countries. When we were given assignments to investigate places around the world, I would travel in my mind to those far away places where people spoke languages I had never heard: Afghanistan, the Ainu of Japan, the Tuaregs of Morocco, etc., and write about them. Through my parents’ and my own travels, I learned about cultures more directly. Eventually, I became enmeshed in international politics and grew to see how language and culture were entwined. As an artist, I strive to understand linguistic culture through translanguaging: using my entire linguistic repetoire: political illustration, cartooning, and photojournalism, as well as specific linguistics of languages themselves. And so, I came to SIT to deepen my knowledge of how language and culture become the force  of power they endow to us all.

My reflection (1_ICLT), and my presentation (2_ICLT), describe the power of visual  language and how it is influenced by culture. In 2_ICLT, I describe a lesson I gave to my cohort to experience awareness of their culture. Even though most came from the USA, they had different cultural lives.
I describe how I used words and cartoons for the experience.

First, I presented a powerpoint showing a few politically charged cartoons from different countries.
I showed them one at a time. In the first showing, I had removed all captions and identifying marks. Then - popcorn style - I asked them to talk about what they thought the cartoons represented. I then showed them the original cartoon with the original captions, and asked them to think about what they learned about themselves and about the medium of visual language. Here was a mistake of mine. I had assumed the group was equally politically aware of current events and cultural dichotomies. I neglected to start from what my group knew. In many cases, they simply did not know the political connections in the cartoons and their captions.

Before SIT, I had had English language teaching experience with students from different cultures, but with some fluency in the language. Here are samples from my path to greater competency in the understanding of the bearing of language and culture on language learning and teaching.

I spent four years in Australia working as a political cartoonist and photojournalist. I also did some freelance English teaching at a private language school in Melbourne. My first student, an Australian high school student from a low socio-economic segment of society, needed remedial help with reading and writing. His personal references were limited to sports and pop music. I started out being completely proscriptive in my teaching. I knew little about his segment of Australian culture, and he was not forthcoming. His school was unsupportive. Although I had taught other subjects successfully, I found myself disconnected from his learning and taught too deductively - in hindsight. He also needed more time than the few hours a week I was able to give. I felt inadequate and asked the school to select someone else.

Another student, whose cultural background was less distant from mine, was highly educated in both his L1 and English. A German business executive, he had been sent to Australia for two years, and wanted to speak more colloquially. His English was academically excellent, but culturally out of sync with the era and place. It was because of his ability to express himself clearly, that I began to see a way to connect with his needs in the way he needed to learn. His formal mien and reserved vocabulary created a disconnect from the very relaxed Australian speech modes. He became a partner in my teaching as I discovered how he needed to be taught. I set out by learning what he liked  in athletics, in reading, film, music, etc., and used those subjects as bases for showing him
how Australians might converse about them. 

My confidence level improved, but I was still flying by the seat of my pants! (Idiom used in the
USA to mean “I learned as I went along.” And, it could mean, “I had no idea what I was doing!”)

Here in the USA, I tutored a highly intelligent prep school student. He had developed a paralyzing writer’s block and needed to write a successful college application essay. He   was sophisticated and well-traveled. His father, born in Germany, is a well-known music producer, and his mother a sucessful entrepreneur in the arts. His career path was percussion performance and music composition. I was able to find a connection from his approach to music composition, to writing, through my own knowledge of music and love of writing. I am also familiar with his family’s
sub-culture. (He is now at Bard.) This very positive - and enjoyable - experience was a trigger for
my wanting to be a more knowledgeable teacher. On to SIT!    

My internship was in a refugee intake center. My classes were large and fluid. Students came and went. Here is where I realized, in a very experiential and conscious way, the powerful connection between language and culture. The cultures my students represented varied widely. This was the most exciting and fruitful experience in my language teaching. I had never had students who spoke no English. Participatory approaches, my own language knowledge, and all the other techniques and approaches I learned at SIT helped me create a class of safe and enjoyable learning. I incorporated what I knew about their cultures into their learning about the differences between the land of their L1’s, and the USA. For example, with my students from Arabic speaking countries, I had deliberate conversations about cultural mores here, and what was, and was not, acceptable language and behavior. I discussed, in particular, the appropriate language and behavior for men with women, as I am aware of the restrictions and attitudes they live with in their country of origin. These students gave me my most profound learning experience in language teaching to date.

After we returned from our internships, we had an assignment in ICLT to bring a visual
to class that showed how culture had come into our teaching during the internship. In these visuals, we were to define the relationship between language in the classroom, and culture.

Here is the sketch I did in class to show how culture had come into my teaching.                                


I am now an intrepid example of Paulo Freire’s, “Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.”