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Lesson Plans for Intermediate Foreign Language Students: Arts & Culture of a Country

By Eric W. Vogt

This article is the last of four in a series about preparing oral presentations about countries by doing research with material written in the target language to answer basic questions about, respectively, geography, history, economy and finally culture. See format, suggestions, here.

Culture: "Big C" and "Little c"

First, students need to understand that when we speak of culture, we can mean two things, in the broadest terms. "Culture with a big C" refers to literature, music and the arts whereas "culture with a little c" refers to the anthropological meaning of culture: the rules, written and unwritten, by which a society operates -- its myths and so forth. Both aspects of culture are fair game for the student who is assigned or who volunteers to do a 2-3 minute oral presentation about the culture. This presentation follows the one about the economy.

The student should be directed to material originally written in the target language about culture. This material may be found in some intermediate foreign-language textbooks. However, I have found it useful for other educational reasons to encourage them to go to the library or even to the web -- citing sources and even bringing me the printouts of webpages. Not only does this teach them to do some work looking things up but it discourages plagiarism. The types of questions they should answer, prior to working on the presentation itself include:

1. Does the country have an art form for which it is known internationally? Mexico, for instance, is famous for its baile folclórico and its muralist painters; Argentina is known for the tango and hierba mate; Spain for flamenco, etc.

2. Does the country have living musicians whose work is known beyond their borders? Are they pop artists or do they preserve traditional music of their country?

3. Does the country have internationally known writers? Who are they and what have they written? Is there a written form for which the country is famous? This may be a tough question for some students, but if they look in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics under a given country, they can find information or leads -- to sources in the target language.

4. Does the country have a cuisine that is famous? For French students, this may be a gift -- but they might be encouraged to focus on a region.

5. Folk customs and beliefs, founding myths -- if any can be found, they can enliven the presentation a bit. Encourage them or remind them to be respectful of the culture they are studying.

6. Finally, the student should conclude with some positive observations about the value of the country's contribution to humanity through its art, music and so forth.

After gathering answers to these questions, noting the sources of the answers, the student needs to put them in a coherent format, adding appropriate transistional phrases or sentences to link them up or otherwise sequence them, introducing and concluding them more smoothly than would be the case if they simply read off the answers as if in a workbook or textbook exercise.

This oral presentation, like the other three, must be done in front of the class, and so should be practiced considerably, at least once in front of only the teacher.

One last suggestion for the teacher: you could turn these presentations into genuine competitions. For an intermediate Spanish class, there are at least 20 countries to pick from. A class of 12 would be able to do only three at a time, allowing for a series of presentations and playoffs to determine the winner. Remember: keep technology to a minimum -- use it, but for effect. Do not let it dominate the class. The class needs to be student and language centered!

Good luck / Buena suerte...