Friday, 13 August 2010

Intercultural Understanding

If I had £1 for every time a student has said to me, "Why doesn't everyone speak English?", I would currently be in the Caribbean soaking up the tropical rays and sipping cocktails on board my private yacht, and not in cold, rainy Washington. 

It's a question they often ask in exasperation or to deliberately disrupt the lesson, and so my reply has often been similarly exasperated, along the lines of "It's not something that's quick to explain so if you come back at 3.30 I'll tell you all about it for half an hour."  And that usually does the trick.  Some students have been genuinely curious, and I have given them my quick "Because of history, geography, politics and religion" explanation.

In retrospect, it's a question that we should take seriously and do our best to answer in depth.  Because you cannot completely understand or appreciate a language without knowing something about the country or countries where it is spoken.  The two are inextricably linked.  For example, the Spanish phrase "hacer puente" does not always mean "to bridge" in its strictest sense.  Scratch the surface and you find out about a tradition for taking days off that you'll wish you had, and then dig a little deeper and you discover how many holidays Spanish children get compared to British children. 
What is Intercultural Understanding?  Here are two definitions:

  • Intercultural Understanding is the ability and willingness to see things from a different cultural perspective..... It is respecting different ideas and lifestyles and recognising that your culture is not superior to others.”

  • Appreciating the richness and diversity of other cultures.....Recognising that there are different ways of seeing the world and developing an international outlook.”
For me, Intercultural Understanding addresses and disproves the stereotypical views that Britons so often have about people from other countries, proves that our way is not necessarily the only way or the best way, and allows students access the rich and vibrant culture of the target-language country or countries through their language studies.

The photograph at the top is one of a series that I took to make a CrazyTalk video for a training session I was giving.  The little figure is one of a set of "World People" that can be purchased from the Early Learning Centre (and who you may recognise from Gorseville!)  I use them often to explain about stereotyping.  Is this what French people look like?  What do they really look like?  And interestingly, go a step further and examine why we have this stereotypical image of French people.  The BBC's "Coast" programme explains very well about the Onion Johnnies, who would have been the first and only contact that many British people had with the French.

I am a big fan of the Intercultural Understanding strand of the KS2 Framework, and am pleased that it is part of the KS3 Framework as well.  I've done my best to include Intercultural Understanding in my KS2 Spanish lessons over the last year, and I have to say that it has been harder than I anticipated.  It seems a bit false somehow, especially when you only see the children once a week, to depart from the "thread" of your lessons and stick something intercultural in.  What I have done so far, formally in any case, has been looking at the Spanish-speaking world (thanks World Cup!) and highlighting certain fiestas such as San José, San Fermín and la Fiesta Nacional de España.

After some useful tweets and research over the last couple of weeks, I have come to the conclusion that Intercultural Understanding, in my setting at least, would best be covered little and often, as a "drip-drip-drip" approach, rather than as one-off occasional lessons.

I was reading Danny Nicholson's blogpost "Powerful Images to Give Lessons Punch", where he suggests displaying a photograph on the board at the beginning of the lesson to stimulate questions.  In the MFL lesson this could be a photograph of a fiesta, place, child or house from the target language country, or something a bit different like a Google DoodleFiona Joyce tweeted the Google Doodle link and I could see its potential for intercultural work, as Google Doodles are something with which our young people are very familiar.  Here's one to start you off:
It's from August 27th 2008.  Which Spanish fiesta does it represent?

In September, one of the first things I will be teaching my second-year-of-Spanish pupils is the months of the year.  I am starting to make the flashcards, and have decided to put images of fiestas on each month's card, such as Reyes for January, San Valentín for February, San José for March and so on.  This will give learning what is essentially twelve words a bit more depth and purpose.

I thought I would share with you some of my favourite Intercultural Understanding links.


Equipment that children need to buy for La Rentrée:  What do our children buy to return to school in September?

Videos showing playground games

Collection of playground games from all over the world

24 heures de la vie d'un enfant: Study the daily routines of children from all over the world

Ton scooter est japonais: Poem reminding us that many of the things we use in our daily life come from other countries.  An easy model for students to replicate.


Playground games from El Huevo de Chocolate

More playground games

European Playground Games, including Choco-choco-la-la, which my KS1s and daughter love

Calendar of Spanish fiestas

Semana Santa: origen de las procesiones

Spanish customs and culture

Map puzzles: of each continent and more.  Perfect for perfecting your South American geography!

Colours in Cultures: In the West we wear black to mourn.  In South America the traditional colour is purple.

I would be interested to hear about how you teach Intercultural Understanding, and any good resources that you have come across. 

You can also read a blogpost I wrote about Intercultural Understanding for José Picardo's Box of Tricks blog.