Cultural Intelligence and Content-Based Learning

Plug in the sun

Today's world language students not only need to be able to communicate in a new language, but also understand the culture, history, way of life, and ideas of people from other countries.

This cultural intelligence is key, as students will be joining a global workforce and competing for jobs with people from around the world, says Shari Albright, executive director of education at the Asia Society.

"We need students that can adapt quickly to change, be problem solvers," Albright says.

To create global thinkers means changing the lessons. If you're teaching French, you know that identifying the Eiffel Tower doesn't mean students understand French culture. Language courses instead should focus on preparing students for meaningful interactions with people from other cultures, inspiring curiosity about the lives of others, and encouraging them to be open to sharing new ideas, says Donna Clementi, from Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota.

A focus on communication skills for language students has left the culture side as almost an afterthought, a piece to throw in at the end of a unit, Clementi says. Instead, teachers should start their instruction units with the culture piece and build from there.

Clementi suggests handing language students index cards and asking them each to draw their view of the world. Students may draw pictures of the globe or continents mapped out, or they might scribble the names of countries or draw people holding hands in harmony.

Whatever the end results, no two will be alike. The lesson illustrates different perspectives, and is a great launching pad to a discussion about those differences, Clementi says. Keep the cards and let students revisit their perspective and see how it changes as the class moves forward.

Another way to introduce culture beyond the obvious signs and symbols of a country is to take a subject such as the environment, and get students talking about it in the language they're learning. That means planning the unit, asking the question, such as, "Are you green?" and then giving them the vocabulary they need for the specific lesson. 

"If those vocabulary are useful in answering this question, students are going to be more engaged in wanting to remember those words," Clementi says. "Rather than teaching about language, we're actually using language to learn content."

In an environmental lesson in a Chinese language class, you can discuss--in Chinese--what the United States does to help the environment, actions that China takes, and what the students themselves do to be "green." Then ask what's important about taking environmental action here and in China. Students also might listen to scenes of daily life in China, watch a video clip, or look at pictures. Beginning students can use keywords, such as the colors and shapes, to describe what they see or hear, and more advanced students can have discussions and create projects about the global issue, Clementi says.

It doesn't end there, Albright and Clementi both agree. Take it to the next level and inspire your students to take action on the issue, asking them what they could do locally to help the environment.

"If we only teach about the world, but don't get them to the point of taking action, it's not an interesting learning experience for kids," Albright says.

Clementi advises teachers to pick a topic that's important for students to discuss and that will help them understand the world, the culture of the language they're studying, and their own culture. And at the end of the semester or year, have them look at their index card to see how their view of the world has changed.

As teachers, it's about "saying to yourself: I have a bigger mission than making sure that my students know 25 vocabulary words," Clementi says. "My bigger mission is to try to help them think about the world."

Discussion question:

Have you used a global issue in your language class? Tell us about it.