Cultural awareness is an idea, a concept. So how do you perform it?
What is cultural awareness?
In my total overhaul of my old performance assessment rubric, I’ve inserted an entire box with a mesh of the exact wording of ACTFL’s cultural awareness performance descriptors. One of the several colleagues who are helpfully picking it apart with me asked me about this box:
My biggest question is not about wording or formatting; how do we make students aware of what this stands for and practice this in the classroom? So really, my question is: as a teacher, what do I look for to cite as evidence in that box?
Good question. We’re told we’re supposed to be looking for this, but what exactly does it look like?
To answer this question, let me copy for you these performance descriptors and then give you a couple of pertinent examples having to do with eating habits.
Novice cultural awareness performance
Here’s my adaptation of ACTFL’s descriptions:
I can use culturally appropriate, memorized expressions in contexts I have practiced a lot. I can show I’m aware of some obvious cultural differences, but I usually use my own culture to understand the target culture. I can use basic conventions of written and oral language I have practiced.
Intermediate cultural awareness performance
How do students show intermediate cultural awareness?
I can recognize and use culturally appropriate vocabulary, gestures, and expressions in familiar situations. I can conform to differences in behaviors and perspectives in familiar situations. I show increasing knowledge of target culture in communication, including conventions of language.
Dogs and iced tea
Now let me give you a couple of examples to try to make this clearer.
When I was 18, I went to England to visit my brother, who was stationed at Mildenhall Air Force Base at the time. He took me to Cambridge one day and, being determined as I was to experience all the British culture I could, you can imagine my delight when I saw that there was a Chili’s restaurant in town. Of course we had to eat there. And being the Georgia girl I was (am), I ordered the drink any proud Georgia girl does.
Me: “Sweet iced tea, please?”
Waitress: “I’m sorry, we don’t have iced tea.”
Me: “But this is Chili’s. It’s an American restaurant.”
Waitress: “Dearie, you’re in England. We don’t put ice in our tea. I can bring you a pot of tea with sugar cubes and a glass of ice, if you like.”
Me: “But it has to be brewed sweet. It’s not the same.”
Such cultural awareness I had! But this helps me illustrate for you a basic tenet of novice cultural awareness: I usually use my own culture to understand the target culture. It was Chili’s, for heaven’s sake. An American restaurant ought to have sweet, iced tea, regardless of what country’s land is under its foundation. Right? That was me understanding the culture through the lens of my own.
Here’s another example. Recently our local television news station ran a story on three dogs that a dog rescue group saved from being featured as culinary treats at a dog meat festival in South Korea. The story was rife with cultural judgments: the dogs were being rescued, their rescue touted as heartwarming, the practice of raising dogs for food labeled devastation and cruelty. The group’s leader is quoted:
These dogs were supposed to be somebody’s dinner…and we were just so enlightened to be able to save these three dogs…. We don’t even begin to touch the devastation that’s going on there with these dogs…. This is three dogs out of thousands….
Can’t you hear her using her own culture to understand the target culture? After all, dogs aren’t food, they’re pets, right? I mean, that’s just cruelty.
Performing linguistic cultural awareness
I think I’ve made my point. But what does this look like in linguistic performance? I’m not sure how to tell you, exactly, except that I can give you some examples.
Once I had a fourth-year student sit for a summative interpersonal assessment. I don’t remember the task but I remember that he said one way he interacted with the Spanish-speaking cultures here in our city was to order tacos at the store near his house. Not at the restaurant, at the store. If you know the culture you know what we’re talking about. Those little tiendas where you can get all manner of goods and while you’re at it, you can order some tacos de barbacoa and sit and enjoy them with a glass-bottled Coke at a little plastic table.
My student didn’t drop this comment on purpose. He also didn’t do it because he didn’t have a word he needed (of course he knew the word restaurant). He did it because it was perfectly natural for him to casually mention ordering tacos for dinner at a store. He was not using his culture to understand the target culture.
Perhaps another example I can give is music. My students in AP Spanish were always trying to mention something from the target culture so they could get cultural awareness points on the exam. One way was to drop names of famous Latino/a singers. But it’s one thing to mention Jennifer López or Enrique Iglesias (understanding the target culture through my own). It’s another to mention Enrique Iglesias’s duet with Juan Luis Guerra. It’s another to mention it as the winner of the “Perfect Combo” award at the Premios Juventud. It’s another to show you know why Juan Luis Guerra’s music is considered tropical.
Are we getting it? Let’s try a few more (for Spanish).
- Novices will sometimes list the days of the week without capital letters.
Intermediates will begin to naturally list the days of the week beginning with Monday.
- Novices may mention Cinco de Mayo as a popular Mexican celebration.
Intermediates are not as likely to mention Cinco de Mayo in a discussion of Mexican celebrations.
- A novice may say she saw a Mexican speaking Spanish in the store.
An intermediate may try out her Spanish with someone on the bus to find out where the potential new friend is from.
A final note: What about advanced learners? Here’s ACTFL’s general description of them:
Shows conscious awareness of significant cultural differences and attempts to adjust accordingly.
To sum up, the novice is confused as to why Chili’s doesn’t have sweet, iced tea. The intermediate orders a pot of tea and pours it over ice. The advanced learner dunks a chocolate bourbon creme into her cuppa with milk.
To put it another way, the novice uses words like “tragedy” and “cruelty” to refer to dogs headed for a meat festival. The intermediate says “I get it, but none for me, thanks.” The advanced learner takes a big breath and says, “I’ll try anything once,” and tries not to think of Princess at home.
This isn’t easy. Is it enough cultural awareness for a First Lady to don long pants and a long jacket but no headscarf? Is it cultural awareness or “treason” when the President bows to Japan’s diminutive emperor? I don’t know. But I hope the examples I’ve given will help you and your students explore what it means to “show conscious awareness of significant cultural differences and attempt to adjust accordingly.”