As anyone who has traveled to a new country can attest, language and culture are inextricably linked. While many language learners have dutifully conjugated lists of irregular verbs, religiously memorized the dialogues in textbooks, and painstakingly filled-in page after page of worksheets, they often arrive in a new country completely unprepared to actually tackle any real-world tasks. For example, what do you say when you want to pay for a ride on the subway? How do you make a doctor’s appointment over the phone? And what do you do if your travel plans go awry? Can you just hop on the next train, or do you need to change your ticket in advance?
Accomplishing tasks like this is not just a matter of stringing the right words together; these daily activities also involve interacting with a human being in a different culture. How do you get someone’s attention? How do you apologize? How do you end a conversation? These are things that language learners immersed in a new culture learn by observation; by, for example, paying attention to what the person at the front of the line says when he or she orders a latte. Significant research on second language acquisition has found that language learners need access to large amounts of input or examples of the target language as it is used by fluent speakers, which is what enables them to learn both language and culture in context. This is why immersive language experiences are so important for teaching language with culture.
Take, for example, the following exchange between a box office attendant and someone attempting to buy tickets for a performance:
Customer: Hi, are you still open?
Box Office Attendant: Yeah.
Customer: Okay. I ran here. You close at 8?
Box Office Attendant: We’ll be closing shortly, yes.
Customer: Do you have any weekday matinee showings?
Box Office Attendant: Wednesdays are the matinees.
Customer: What time?
Box Office Attendant: 2 o’clock on Wednesdays.
Customer: 2 o’clock, okay. Um, I need, I guess–
Box Office Attendant: Excuse me, the show’s on, could you please keep your voice down.
Customer: I’m sorry.
Box Office Attendant: Thank you.
This invitation into language interchanges laden with cultural information is highly motivating to students; authentic materials are successful in part because of their appeal, as students experience a special thrill when they realize they’re beginning to understand and participate in what was once someone else’s linguistic and cultural domain. Many diligent language learners observe fluent speakers completing tasks like ordering from a menu or introducing a friend in hopes of imitating that; however, while trying to spy discreetly, learners can’t ask for clarification or repetition. Language learners should always remember that asking for help is not something that only language learners do – fluent speakers make mistakes and need help, too!
Katharine Nielson, PhD
Katie is VP of Curriculum and Pedagogical Research at Voxy. She has her PhD in Second Langauge Acquisition from the University of Maryland and has spent the past fifteen years teaching Spanish and ESL, developing and evaluating curricula for online and face-to-face language instruction, and researching how adults learn languages. Previously, she worked at the Center for Advanced Study of Language, where she led research projects investigating the effectiveness of technology-mediated language training products.