Cultural lenses

This topic is something that has been coming up a LOT for me lately. I am slightly obsessed with giving my learners access to high-frequency vocabulary; if I know they are likely to use it, I will move heaven and earth to give them lots of opportunities to practice it. (Case in point: my beloved circumlocution unit). As I get more and more invested in the ideas of cultural responsiveness and intercultural communicative competence, I keep finding that my students need language to describe healthy reactions to stimuli that may be uncomfortable.

Let’s get our students used to the feeling of putting their own feelings under the microscope, as well as the culture they’re studying.

We know that a lot of the activities that gain the most traction, impact-wise, are cultural lessons that focus on significant differences between student and target culture. The other edge of that double-edged sword is the disproportionate response our kiddos can have to differences, and their lack of ability to express this response in any kind of positive or constructive manner.

We know that noticing and reacting to differences in a potentially negative way is a natural part of the progression towards intercultural competence. (For more information on IC and its stages, see this post series.) We have evolved as a species to notice and remember things that are different from our previous experiences; for most of human history, fear of the unknown kept us alive. When we’re learning to appreciate the different, however, this instinct can seriously get in our way.

Now, I’m not showing my students intentionally disturbing images in class (that would be mean and unnecessary), but I do want to draw their attention to significant cultural differences wherever possible. As a result, they have Thoughts and Feelings, and they need to be able to express them.

Example: “I feel uncomfortable when I see a person eating a snail.

Okay, but why do you feel uncomfortable?

There’s the rub. I don’t want my students to stop with the emotion they’re experiencing; I want them to examine themselves as much as they do the target cultures. They have the reactions they do because of their own cultural lenses, the values, experiences and geographic and demographic milieux that have shaped them as people.

“I feel uncomfortable when I see a person eating a snail, because in my culture snails are pests, not food.”

BINGO! Now we have a thorough examination of stimulus, reaction and REASONING that honors the student’s feelings while not indulging them as boilerplate reactions. We feel the way that we feel, and that’s fine, but that’s not to say that WE are the normal ones and the people causing us discomfort have somehow done something wrong.

Now, it’s awfully helpful if they have this language BEFORE they see that first discomfiting image. Enter the Cultural Lenses Questionnaire.

This is a document that I have all of my students fill out at the beginning of the year; if they have the language to do part or all of it in French, they do, and if not, we go with English and scaffold the vocab they need.

Once we’ve established some of the variables that affect their reactions, we test them in specific and methodical ways. (Graphic organizers may be involved.) This formulaic expression of feelings and the potential motivators behind them establishes an expectation that we can revisit throughout their language learning careers.

What tools do your students use to process their reactions to cultural differences?

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