Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Facilitating the Integration of Culture and Vocabulary Learning: The Categorization and Use of Pictures in the Classroom

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Facilitating the Integration of Culture and Vocabulary Learning: The Categorization and Use of Pictures in the Classroom

Article excerpt


Culture and vocabulary are widely accepted as important elements for language courses, and pictures (photographs, slides, drawings, pictures from magazines, etc.) have long been a favorite tool of language teachers at all levels. Although pictures provide an excellent means of integrating culture with vocabulary acquisition, their use is not only impractical at times but also can be more superficial than substantive. This article discusses these issues, which are both logistical and pedagogical, and their potentially significant impact on classroom implementation. A literature review regarding the integration of culture with the teaching of vocabulary precedes a discussion of how pictures can benefit language instruction. Finally, the article describes an efficient approach for the collection, categorization, and storage of images that will facilitate their classroom use.

Key words: culture, language acquisition, pictures, teaching methods, vocabulary

Language: Relevant to all languages

The Problem

Although vocabulary and culture share general acceptance as essential elements in foreign language learning, there is a lack of consensus as to the best means for their use in the classroom. Some writers and practitioners, such as Hadley (2001), propose the integrated teaching of language and culture as one way of addressing the problem, but then lament that such integration is not yet a reality in many classrooms and textbooks.

In addition, despite evidence that vocabulary is best learned in context, classrooms at all levels are filled with students memorizing paired associate lists of vocabulary items. Commenting on this activity (a favorite not only of too many teachers but also of too many learners who occupy themselves by filling out and shuffling flash cards), Beheydt (1987) stated that it is simplistic to assume that vocabulary learning is "nothing more than the memorization of a series of wordforms with fixed meanings," a practice that "ought finally to be discarded," he asserts (p. 55).

Similarly, classroom practice does not reflect the perceived importance of the teaching of culture. In fact, as early as 1978, at least one writer pointed out that most language education programs do not accomplish their goal of having students learn cultural awareness during their foreign language learning experience (Robinson, 1978). Explaining further, this writer asserted that there are not always means in place to enable students to reach the desired goals, even in programs where culture-related objectives are stated. She also observed that where there has been an increase in the use of authentic materials, this use often has been haphazard at best.

The irony in this situation is that the means to accomplish both objectives have been touted in the literature and used by some teachers for years. Specifically, it is possible to improve the teaching of vocabulary while building cross-cultural understanding by integrating language learning with the learning of culture, as proposed by Hadley (2001). Despite teachers' propensity to teach culture in combination with reading, at least one writer has posited that it would be more effective to combine its teaching with grammar or vocabulary (Spinelli, 1997).

Pictures for Learning Language

While it is certainly a significant undertaking to seek to improve the teaching of culture at the same time as addressing language learning concerns, one way to attend to the set of issues raised is through the effective use of culturally authentic pictures1 or images. In a related vein, the connection between visual representations (pictures or images) and memory goes back thousands of years, a point illustrated by Paivio (1971), who provides an excellent overview of the potential relationship between language learning and images:

Around 500 B.C., the poet Simonides aptly summarized the essence of the imagery hypothesis of linguistic meaning in the phrase "Words are the images of things" (Bowra, 1961, p. …

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