Teaching cultural awareness in an intercultural class 2



This post has been inspired by the book I have just finished reading: In the name of identity: violence and the need to belong, by Amin Maalouf. Read that I strongly recommend for several reasons: it is a thought provoking book about what makes up an individual: he says there is no one fixed, unique identity, but a series of what he calls ‘allegiances”: nationality, religion, gender, class… the individual, therefore, is the sum of all their surroundings, society and acts of free will and quirks of personality. I particularly loved that thoughtful liberalism, that enthusiasm for a rights based ideology of individual freedom. But that’s not all, it can be found an interesting discussion about the dominant ideology in the media and the culture, the negative possibilities of globalization, like the loss of local identities at the hands of homogeneity, that the fundamentalists might feels.

In short, this is a book that argues for understanding, tolerance and a hard realisation that violence and fanaticism can have very real reasons, rooted in fear, misery and poverty. A must read!!!


But what I want to talk in this post is about the necessity of teaching cultural awareness in class. In a previous post, I already wrote about the importance of teaching culture in a language class, but I want to focus here in something that is happening in our classes. More and more often, there are different cultures present in every classroom, and it’s the teacher work to make sure that she/he is incorporating a multicultural education, based in the equality of every single culture and focused in the values of these cultural differences amongst the students.

Moreover, it’s so interesting and enriching for students, as well as the teacher, when the students discuss their native culture with their foreign-speaking classmates at the same time that they are provided with a real experiential content. Few months ago, I was lucky to be in a Spanish class, beginners, in Ireland; so the majority of the students were Irish, but there were also Polish, French and Latvians. What an amazing class! The purpose of the class was obviously to learn Spanish and Spanish culture, but we were learning as well Irish, Polish, French and Latvian culture. This multicultural diversity in class motivated the students to talk and express themselves in order to show the rest the different behavior or customs in their country. It was also interesting to see how the students left the class with a wider perspective in the perception of the reality, because they recognize openly that everyone in the world is not “just like me”.

As I said, it is the teacher’s responsability to promote this multicultural understanding. And there are so many ways to do so… The role-play, for instance, help in the process of cross-cultural dialogues while at the same time it provides opportunities for oral communication. Other techniques, like readings, films, simulation, games, culture assimilators or culture capsules can be used for language teacher to help them in the process of acculturation in the classroom.

I finally hope that teaching of cultural standards may stop pigeonhole thinking and avoid establishing further stereotypes. Because is not only about culture, but about the individual self, aware of its roots and defining himself as the spider web, with links to individuals from other cultural contexts. Because identity is not only a matter of where you are born, but a whole life time process which assimilates all kinds of life-experiences as I said in the beginning with Maalouf book.






The stages of language acquisition 1

Few days ago I came across this video while my research for inspiration for a post for my blog. I really loved it, it’s so clear that you don’t even need to read the text in the video or my post, even, because a picture is worth a thousand words, but it would be nice if you do, though…

When you learn a new language, it is the second or the umpteenth, you will follow the same process you used to learn your first language. You will go through the same stages as you went through when you learn your mother language since your firsts days of life.

1. The silent period.

Because when you are a baby you don’t speak much, in the same way as when you are in the first contact with the new language, in general, you listen, take notes, write never ending lists of words and useful expressions, but don’t jump to talk unless you are asked, and then, you use the shortest way, monosyllabic words, yes and no, and fix formulas. You observe and imitate.

2. The early production.

When you actually can speak with 2 or 3 word sentences, you can understand what the other person is saying but your answer is limitated, so you use yes or no answers, single words or repetition.

3. The speech emergency.

You can give little speeches, but often with some mistakes. You understand what you’re told and can express what you want to say with longer but still simple sentences. It’s the moment when you start being more independent, so you speak more, but you make more mistakes, which as I said in a previous post, is great.

4. Intermediate proficiency.

You start to produce complex sentences, express you opinion and thoughts, as well as translate ideas from your native language to the new one.

5. Advance fluency.

The use of the grammar and vocabulary is the same as a native or very close.

I am sure you recognize yourself in one of more of this stages. And if you are in the silent period, don’t worry, reach the fifth one is just a matter of work, practice, some study (yeah, I’m afraid some study is required) and practice, practice, practice. And, of course, the support and guidance of the teacher is very advisable, so for all the learners of Spanish out there in the need of some help, don’t hesitate in contact me, I’m here to help!


The purpose of language 6

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, language is:

‘a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings’.

There is no doubt that the most common use of the language is the communicative. We need the language whether to have a intimate conversation with our friends, or give a speech in front of hundreds of people, but the main purpose is to transmit an idea, a thought. To communicate.

But is it the only one? Certainly not. We use the language for other purposes too.

Imagine you are in a bar in, let’s say in Tokyo, and you spend an evening talking to your friends. You’re not ‘communicating’. You’re rarely communicating. You’re not presenting them with any information that changes their belief systems. You’re simply engaged in a kind of social play. You’re establishing social relations and creating warm interactions or determining your relationship to someone or whatever. This is the social function. I agree that this could be considered derivative of communication, but communicate and socialize are not always the same thing.

In the same way, you’re not communicating when you are having an argument with someone. You’re not listening what the other person has to say. You’re arguing. You’re just expressing your opinions or your emotions. There is not an exchange of information there, so there is not communication neither.

Finally, the language has a cognitive function, which means that humans, we use the language to transfer our thoughts in and out of our mind. Have you ever realized that when you think, you do it in a particular language? In my case, I do it in Spanish, but it happened to me that sometimes, I do it in English as well. It is very common when we are living in a country where our mother language is not spoken, we end up thinking in the new language. So, we use a language in our inner speeches, and we are not communicating at all.

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.

~Oliver Wendell Holmes


Error correction: what, when and how? 2

To err is human

      We all make mistakes, that’s an inevitable fact. And despite what many would think, making them is not that bad, because it’s mostly from the error, that, both, the students and the teachers learn. It’s mainly from the acknowledge of the error that the solution comes.

The knowledge of being wrong is only a starting point” (Corder, 1973)

First of all, it is important to distinguish between ‘mistake’ and ‘error’. A mistake is made with lack of intention, can be product of the fatigue or carelessness, but it can be corrected by the one that made it, whereas an error is due only to the lack of knowledge.

The source of the errors are mainly two:

1. Errors caused by transfer of the learner’s first language (called technically “Interlingua transfer”). This kind of error is very interesting because it means that the student is investigating the new system of the language he is learning, and resorts to his mother language to improvise in the target language.

2. Development errors (“Intralingual errors”). These are result of partial learning, when the learner knows some rules and tries to apply them in general. One very common error in this group is to overgeneralize, for instance, in the english language would be something like “I goed to the beach last week”. Other thing that the student tends to do is to build up concepts or hypotheses about the target language from their limited experience with it. (ej. I don’t know why did he go: did is there because why is a question mark…).

It is essential for a teacher to investigate about errors, in order to recognize the strategies a learner use to acquire the new language and the difficulties the learner bumps into. Only by knowing all that, the teacher will be able to create materials and resource to easy the student’s life.

Besides, the error tells the teacher how far the student is regarding to the language he’s learning and what remains for him to learn, and following this progress, the teacher can carry on the studies in accordance with what the learner needs to know.

Error is a source of feedback for the teacher, showing him how effective his teaching style is and what changes has to be made to get better results with the student.

Error correction

      How should teachers correct students? What kind of feedback should they give? Does each error need to be treated?

      In general, the teacher’s job is to point out when something has gone wrong and see if the student can correct himself. Then, find out if what the student says or writes is just a mistake, or if it is an error. However, the technique of correction is not simply pointing the error repeatedly and going through the same set of exercises over an over again. Remember that mechanical learning produces mechanical answers and most of them are wrong. On the contrary, the teacher needs to understand the source of the error, so that he can provide appropriate remedy, which will resolve the learner’s problems and allow him to discover the rules by himself. So, again, the source of the error is an important clue for the teacher to decide on the sort of treatment.

A good error correction should lie on determining which is the information that needs to be presented to the learner and what statements should be made about it. Since it is absolutely impossible and counterproductive for a teacher to deal with all the errors of the students, a hierarchy should be established to correct only the significant ones. In such a hierarchy, the priority should be given to errors which might affect the communication and cause misunderstanding, for instance, small errors like following example usually need not be corrected as the message is clear and correction might interrupt a learner in the flow of productive communication (ej: I gave she a present). On the other hand, global errors need to be corrected, since the message is not understood clearly (ej: Daddy my car happy tomorrow buy).

For oral works, I would recommended that students making mistakes during a fluent speech should not be interrupted, but be reminded of the mistakes and talk about the reasons. Whereas for correcting written works, I don’t correct the students’ mistakes directly but instead, put marks indicating there is something wrong with that sentence, word, or punctuation, and the student should find out which the error is and solve it.

      To err leads to perfection.

Corder, S.P. (1973). Introducing applied linguistics. Middlesex, Penguin.
Erdoğan, V. (2005). Contribution of Error Analysis to Foreign Language Teaching.


Culture as part of the communication 5

[the Red Queen] “But you make no remark?”

– “I didn’t know I had to make one-just then” – Alice faltred out.

– “You should have said,” – the Queen went on in a tone of grave reproof, – “It’s extremely kind of you to tell me all this”

(Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)

“Señor,” said Sancho, “I see well enough that all these things your worship has said to me are good, holy, and profitable; but what use will they be to me if I don’t remember one of them?

(Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes)


          I am sure that every student of a foreign language is going to find himself, at some stage, in the same situation as Alicia with the Red Queen: unsure about what speech they have to use with a particular interlocutor, or how to materialize their communicative intentions, without any idea what is it that their interlocutor is expecting from them and if they should participate in a certain context. In sum, what ritual communication patterns must be followed.

          In the other hand, sometimes, the students get so overwhelmed with all the cultural information, not lived or experimented by themselves, not linked with their necessities or tastes, that they become “Sanchos”. They recognize the interest of those informations but they are sure this is not they way to interiorize that knowledge.

          And here is where it comes the importance or necessity of teaching culture as a insoluble part of the communication.

          But, what is culture?

          I won’t paraphrase definitions from others, for me, culture is what has been acquired or learnt inside the society, like the traditions or ways of life. This guided and repetitive behaviors and ways of thinking and feeling shared by one community. 

          So language and culture must go hand in hand, because both are essential in the communication. Knowing the language is not enough in a real situation since we use so many cultural elements in our speech that someone who doesn’t know this cultural aspects is going to hear a completely indecipherable message. 

          In the same way, when we learn a language and then we go to another country with the expectation of it, we use that language but follow our cultural patterns, which sometimes creates a feeling of frustration, of not understanding what is going on.

          I have a practical example: I have used this exercise in some spanish classes. Imagine this situation: a middle age person goes to another middle age person’s house to get back a book, they are acquaintance, but don’t know each other very much. There are 4 dialogues and the student has to chose the most likely to happen in Spain.


A. Good morning, what would you take?
B. Yes, a Coke, please
A. Want a drink?
B. No, thank you very much
… (after a while)
A. Well, goodbye. Until Monday
B. Goodbye, until Monday
A. Want a drink?
B. No, thank you very much
… (after a while)
B. But now yes, I am thirsty
A. Want a drink? A beer, a Coke …
B. No, no thank you very much
A. Or a coffee or tea …
B. No, really, thank you
… (a little later)
A. Are you sure you do not fancy a coffee or a soda?
m Well, yes. A cup of coffee, if you take it too …

        I got varied results between the students, but if you ask a Spanish, the answer will be always and without exception (so far…) number 4.

          For me is clear that teaching a language has, as main purpose, the communication in general and to communicate with the natives in particular, so whenever the teacher organizes a didactic unit, it has to bear in mind the vocabulary needed, the grammar included and the cultural element underlying. For instance, if the topic in class is “how to ask in a café, restaurant or bar”, i will plan my class around some vocabulary (drinks, food…), some tools (how to ask and answer), some grammar (question structures, verbs) and some cultural aspects (what register is used in a bar, what would expect the waiter for the customer, the register language and behaviors in those situations).

          I just need to have in mind my culture and the one of the student in order to keep a distance that will allow the student to reflect about the difference and how this differences affect the language, so that my student has information enough to know what it’s expected from him in every communicative situation, so he could chose whether to adapt himself to the cultural assumptions in every situation, or keep being foreigner, but at least he would have the tools to be in control of the situation.

          Maybe, understanding the culture as part of the communication, leaving the stereotypes away and focusing in what makes us different and equal, could lead us to a better understanding of the others, which is always very positive and highly enriching.

Why learn a new language?

Why spend time and effort in learning a foreign language when I can travel and communicate with the people without speaking their language? 


Well, there are so many reasons that I would need hundreds of posts, but I’m going to set out only the couple of ones that works for me. The reasons why I learn another language and the positive effects I can take out of it.

I love languages with all my heart, starting for my mother language, Spanish, and continue with all the rest. I speak French and English and started learning Chinese and Italian, even though I stopped temporarily due to a lack of time… but I’m determined to retake them some time in the future.

When I was a teenager, the main reason why I was interested in learning English was only to understand the lyrics of the songs but that was the beginning of it all…

The interest in learning and improving my English made me go to England for the summer months. Living in another country and interacting with people in another language that wasn’t my own opened my mind. It was the first time I saw a different way of doing things, of acting and thinking, and that was great. I just wanted more. Two months wasn’t enough, I really wanted to stay longer and keep learning; it wasn’t only about the language anymore, because the languages are inevitably entangled with the culture, the people. So when I came back from my “British experience”, my motivation for learning a new language was renewed and wider, and it was tangible. It wasn’t only for my CV or being more competitive – which is still a good reason – but because knowing a new language would allow me to know a new culture, first, which would widen my horizons. That was great!


After that experience, I started to learn French, and I chose very carefully the academy. I absolutely wanted a native teacher, not only for the obvious reasons: it’s their mother language, but because a native teacher would be from another country, with another culture and another way of thinking, which was terribly attractive to me.

I finished college and four months later I was on my way to France. I got a job as a Spanish assistant teacher in a high school. I was ecstatic. I was going to do the two things I love the most: teaching my own language and learn another one. Wasn’t it wonderful?

The time I spent in France was absolutely enriching. I improved my French to the point of being able to communicate in all kind of situations and express my feelings without any problem – I’ve got to know that one of the most difficult things in learning a language is express emotions – but, what was better, I understood another culture beyond the stereotypes.

And here comes other reason that moves me to know a foreign language, the fact that with the language, you learn, not only a culture, but a new pattern of thinking. It’s clear that every different language is constructed upon the necessities of communicate something of every different group of people and their ways of seeing the world, so these two aspects would have prevailed in the construction of the language. Getting to discover this underlying patters takes time, but is something that I think should be in the base of every good teaching method. It now comes to my mind that every language teacher I’ve met tell the students not to translate from their mother language, but to think in the language they want to communicate. That might be harder and more difficult, but it will be better in order to improve your communication and knowledge and broad thinking in the long run. I personally love the moment when I reach the level when I stop translating and start thinking in the foreign language.

Finally, the last positive outcome of learning a new language for me is that knowing another language and another culture gives you the opportunity of having an outside perspective about you and your culture. It will make you multicultural and give you a new view, a new way to see yourself.