2011 ACTFL National Language Teacher of the Year
Clarissa Adams Fletcher
Dunwoody High School, Dunwoody, GA, SCOLT, Spanish
“Can you really separate language from culture? Is one worth more than the other?
Communication is culture, and because culture colors everything we do or say and how we react, real communication cannot exist apart. It is impossible to learn language without culture for many colloquial expressions are based on it. Vocabulary is based on it. However, to communicate at a level beyond that of a passing tourist, you must understand the culture. It is easy today to put words in a translator, but to know local phrases might be the difference between closing a business deal or not. It most certainly will make the conversation about the local celebrations more meaningful and entertaining. In fact, it may help you find a place to eat when others are hungry. It unlocks doors to relationships and connections that exist only to those who look beyond basic communication.
The ability to enter a “foreign” land and comprehend on various levels is special. Enter without understanding the culture and your experience will not be a rich and receptive.
The value of learning a language and culture is seen in human connections forged in and outside of class. It is measured by social networking technology that maintains these connections. It is measured by the money spent on song downloads from class that are now on your iPod. Pop music has a different sound based on the culture of the country. The music of Julieta Venegas and Alejandro Sanz is pop but the sound varies from “ranchera” to “flamenco”. It is measured by the realization that birthday celebrations with family or mourning the deceased in a cemetery is customary. But, perhaps for others it means building altars in their house or having quinceañeras to celebrate. It is measured by how often you realize that you are writing in your new language, because a particular word sounds better. Ultimately the value will be seen by how we mature into globally competent citizens.
Students who choose to study languages want to communicate with peers, family and others. However, what they truly desire is to integrate into the society. This is only achieved by reaching a level of proficiency in the language open through cultural knowledge. The novice learner simply wants to speak the language. The excitement is sharing the moment when they are able to give a simple exchange not only with words but also with the appropriate gesture-a kiss on the cheek. Although it may be a simple exchange, at that moment, the seed is planted. Since the study of language can be demanding, the link between culture and language is essential. As students gain knowledge of the culture and can communicate with native speakers, their connection to the language is strengthened. Undeniably, it is the integration of language and culture that makes language learning so engaging. Learning a language teaches you what to say, but learning the culture teaches you when and how to say it.”