Staying Culturally Proficient in the Target Language

This month, I’m focusing on the third National Board World Language Standard, Knowledge of Culture. In my last post, I talked about how overwhelming it can be to stay familiar with the histories of unique communities who speak your target language while simultaneously keeping up with the varying cultural trends of the day. I usually approach this challenge much as I approach the challenge of keeping my target language proficiency up to date, knowing that every little bit helps. Here are some of the things I’ve done (from the easiest to most difficult) to get and keep my cultural proficiency level high.

1) Netflix

In my opinion, there isn’t a more delightfully passive way to stay up to date on culture than to turn on some Spanish Netflix while folding laundry, cooking, or eating ice cream on the couch. The easiest way to stay on top of what the Spanish world is watching is to start watching Spanish language shows and movies and let Netflix’s suggestions be your guide. In recent weeks, I’ve watched The Two Popes, Narcos, La Reina del Sur, and Coco (okay Coco is on Disney Plus, but we’ve watched it like 75 times with my son). I also have to once again plug El Ministerio del Tiempo since it is basically a dive through Spanish history but is genuinely fun to watch.

2) #langchat

I find that our online Professional Learning Network on Twitter is the best source for authentic resources and current materials to use. I wouldn’t have known about the song Soy Yo, the movie Coco, or the March Madness music in Spanish tournament if it weren’t for the good people of the #langchat community bringing it to my attention. Teachers usually do a great job of finding authentic resource treasures, and it helps to stay on top of the cool cultural resources that our colleagues are using all over the country.

3) Apple Music

When my classroom playlist needs an upgrade, I’ll skip over to the Apple music Top 100 lists to see what the top songs are in a handful of Spanish-speaking countries. Usually, I check out Spain, Mexico, and Argentina mainly because they are the first ones that you see when scrolling. Occasionally I can find a couple of songs that aren’t explicit that I can work into class, and every once in a while you can find one that gives you enough of a particular grammar structure to actually dive into a lyric study during a warm-up activity.

4) Authentic Resource searches

I’ll do an more in-depth post on my system for seeking out a solid authentic resource, but I find that the process of looking gets me cultural exposure I wouldn’t otherwise have. When you’re poring over videos of Carnval in Barranquilla in order to find that perfect, school appropriate, interesting, comprehensible piece of gold, you pick up a lot about the realities of what goes on in Barranquilla during Carnaval! Remind yourself of this next time you’re in a wormhole searching for a solid YouTube video to show in class.

5) Get in the Spanish-speaking world

When we aren’t in the middle of a global health pandemic, I recommend volunteering with a community organization that serves the Latin community, and travelling to the Spanish-speaking world for staying up to date on culture. During the time of social distancing, you can still reach out to your native-speaker friends, or to your students. If you’ve got a couple of heritage speakers in class who don’t mind acting as resources, ask them if there’s a song or a TV show that they are obsessed with at home right now that you think you should share in class. Maybe they wouldn’t mind sharing how their family celebrates a particular holiday. I’m always careful with this one to ask kids privately if they mind sharing traditions with others, because often teens in particular don’t want to be singled out, but if you do this in a sensitive way, it can be a very positive thing for everyone in the room. Parents can be a resource too, which is why I send out a survey to them at the beginning of the year asking about their experience with the Spanish-speaking world.

When it comes to cultural proficiency, staying on top of everything can seem overwhelming, but I try to tell myself that every little bit helps. Even something as simple as switching your homepage to BBC Mundo so you can read the headlines from the Spanish-speaking world can go a long way. If you have any tips on staying culturally proficient in the target language, please share in the comments below!

NBCT Standard 3: Knowledge of Culture

The third National Board Standard for World Language teachers focuses on Knowledge of Culture (pages 25-27 here). (Psst- if you have no idea what I’m talking about, check on my primer on National Boards here). First, the standard statement:

As an integral part of effective instruction in world languages,
accomplished teachers know and understand the practices,
products, and perspectives of target cultures and understand how
languages and cultures are intimately linked.

If Standard 2 is where the National Board holds us accountable to practice what we preach in terms of our own language learning, Standard 3 is where we’re held accountable for knowledge of culture. Primarily, there are two parts of this standard; first, we need to have a wide depth of knowledge about our target language’s culture, and second, we need to be able to give our students opportunities to develop that same appreciation.

In terms of teacher knowledge, the standard focuses in on the products, practices, and perspectives that ACTFL loves to champion, and demands that we stay up to date on how those cultural commodities change year to year, in every country and community where our language is spoken. This aspect of language teaching can get overwhelming because the term “culture” within a language can vary wildly. As a Spanish teacher, you would have to know the revolutionary history of Uruguay, what people like to eat for breakfast in Puerto Rico, the most important works of art at the Prado, and what music people are listening to in San Antonio these days. A French teacher would need to be able to discuss creole culture of Louisiana and the history of Parisian haute couture. It is a lot, and the National Board Standard includes all of it.

Of course, it’s not enough to know about all of these aspects of our target culture; we have to know how to provide opportunities for our students to know about them as well. We have to be able to instruct student learning on contemporary target culture societies and their histories; we have to give students an opportunity to interact with these cultures in an authentic way, and, perhaps most importantly, we have to give students the tools and abilities to appreciate cultures that are different from their own.

Instead of writing a two thousand word post, I’m going to write two more posts on Standard 3. In the first, I’ll give you my tips for staying up to date on target culture, much as I did in my post about teacher language proficiency for Standard 2. In the second, I’ll try to give a bird’s eye view on giving students opportunities to appreciate this culture, and what that has looked like in my classroom. Looking forward to making this cultural dive with you.