Academic journal article German Quarterly

Why Is It so Difficult to Teach Language as Culture?

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Why Is It so Difficult to Teach Language as Culture?

Article excerpt

In her much quoted article in Profession 2002, titled "Traffic in Meaning: Translation, Contagion, Infiltration," Mary Louise Pratt reflects on the difficulty of communication across cultures using the example of the clash in worldviews between the conquered Incas in Peru and the Spanish Crown at the end of the 18th century.1 She refers to the work of translation that was needed then by both sides to apprehend the cultural imagination of the other. Referring to Clifford Geertz's famous essay on translation, she writes: "The path to apprehending the cultural imagination of another people, Geertz says, runs not behind the interfering glosses that connect us to it, but through them" (30). The interfering glosses that connect us to another culture are, in part, the language of the other. Pratt suggests that language learning might best be viewed as an exercise in "cultural translation." The idea of cultural translation is predicated on the ability to understand another culture on its own terms. In Geertz's words: "Translation is not a simple recasting of others' ways of putting things in terms of our own ways of putting them (that is the kind in which things get lost), but displaying the logic of their ways of putting them in the locutions of ours; a conception which again brings it rather closer to what a critic does to illumine a poem than what an astronomer does to account for a star" (10).

A recent report by the Modern Language Association (MLA) calls this ability to understand another culture on its own terms "translingual and transcultural competence" and suggests it should be the goal of every college foreign language major.

The idea of translingual and transcultural competence places value on the multilingual ability to operate between languages [...] Students learn to reflect on the world and themselves through another language and culture. They comprehend speakers of the target language as members of foreign societies and grasp themselves as Americans, that is, as members of a society that is foreign to others. [...] This kind of foreign language education systematically reflects on the differences in meaning, mentality, and worldview as expressed in American English and in the target language. [...] In the course of acquiring functional language abilities, students are taught critical language awareness, interpretation and translation, historical and political consciousness, social sensibility, and aesthetic perception. (MLA 3-4)

Language teachers tend to agree with the notion that what needs to be taught is critical language awareness, interpretive skills, and historical consciousness, but while they find the idea inspiring and exciting, they also find it difficult, if not impossible, to implement. One German teacher wrote for many when she wrote:

I agree that culture must be an integrated part of the curriculum, not something to be relegated to "culture day" and not something treated, as Hadley says, entirely by the MFs" of "folk dances, festivals, fairs, and food" or the "Frankenstein approach" of "a taco from here, a flamenco dancer from here." However I think [people] expect too much from the foreign language teacher, assuming a cultural knowledge and an ability to overlook the teacher's own native attitudes that may not actually be present. I think culture is best taught by direct experience: meeting people from the country being studied (either in "real life" or via letters or e-mail), watching films, or at the very least using realia as tools for learning the other skills. [Teaching] methods [that] concentrate on interpretations of literature and minute dissections of diction, might, because they rely on the teacher 's knowledge and not deductions from the students, not be as engaging. (Gerchman)

The ideas proposed by this German teacher are excellent, especially the idea of engaging the students and providing them with direct experience. Indeed, realia and personal testimonies bring the culture to life in a way that literary or cultural analyses do not. …

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