Four things to look for in cultural resources for world language classes
Some of my favorite lessons from my teaching days centered on the Miss France pageant.
I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, “I’d lose three-quarters of my students in the first two minutes!” Honestly, I don’t think any of my students were pageant fans, and frankly, neither was I. But it worked because it was a relevant, authentic cultural resource that got my students engaged and communicating in practical, everyday French.
I often return to this lesson when thinking about how to choose the right cultural resources in the world language classroom—and how important it is for them to be immersive, timely, relevant to students’ lives, and encourage real-world communication.
From one French teacher to fellow world language teachers, here’s what I learned from my Miss France lessons about what makes authentic and immersive resources successful, along with some tips on finding your own.
Finding Immersive Cultural Resources
The Miss France pageant is, obviously, in French, meaning video clips from the event provided an immersive deep dive into both language and culture. My students felt welcomed as cultural insiders even though they weren’t native speakers. Advanced students could hear regional differences in speech, and beginners benefitted from the performative nature of the contestants’ speeches. What’s more, all students felt like they could understand real French spoken by native speakers and this boosted their confidence.
Using an immersive cultural resource like Miss France let my students engage in interculturality by comparing gender stereotypes, fashion, and advertising techniques. If I hadn’t started with an authentic cultural resource, and had instead opted for a video in English about the pageant, I would not have been able to weave language learning and cultural learning goals together so seamlessly.
Finding Cultural Resources with Everyday Language
As a world language teacher, you already know that even the best textbooks can lead to students having forced and completely unnatural conversations: “Hello. My name is Alice. My favorite color is green. I dislike mosquitos.” No one talks this way in the real world!
The Miss France pageant was perfect for demonstrating practical, everyday communication for students at all levels. The contestants introduced themselves, said where they were from, and talked about their hobbies and interests. But they did this in order to convey information to the judges, not to show that they knew how to speak French.
In fact, the Miss France introductions struck the perfect balance: the format was one students found accessible and the rehearsed nature of the speeches made them somewhat easy for beginners to follow, but the fact that the contestants wanted to come off as relaxed and friendly meant that their language was more casual and natural than the stilted conversations many students have when they are first learning a language.
The introductions proved a perfect jumping-off activity. My beginner and intermediate students could write and present introductory profiles of themselves based on what they heard (and read on the pageant website where profiles were posted). More advanced students could use these brief introductions to launch into deeper conversations about hobbies, future goals, and issues that were important to them.
Finding Timely Cultural Resources
Here’s the thing about using a resource like the Miss French pageant: it happens every year! So it will always technically be timely. And for those of you thinking, “a beauty pageant? Timely? Isn’t it perennially stuck in the 1950s?” I get what you’re saying, and to some extent, you’re right. But there are always ways to connect old-fashioned things to the present.
There is guaranteed to be breaking news, current debates, or even juicy scandals with something as polarizing as beauty pageants (or any other topic you choose). Seek these out. They’re a goldmine of linguistic and cultural learning opportunities. For instance, I was able to make reference to Flora Coquerel, the first Black Miss France, in lessons about colonialism for all my classes, with exploration activities tied to proficiency. The lessons led to many wonderful moments where students could better understand the present by learning about the past.
Similarly, if I had been teaching in 2021, I would have built lesson plans around a lawsuit against the pageant for excluding women who were married, had children, or were shorter than five-feet-five-inches tall. I know the classroom conversations about gender norms and beauty standards would have been intriguing. And more advanced students could have challenged themselves to discuss these issues in the target language!
Finding Relevant Cultural Resources
For the skeptics who thought there was no way they could engage a whole class with a beauty pageant, this section is for you! The key to getting everyone on board was fairly straightforward: I differentiated the Miss France lesson to make parts of it relevant to every student.
Once we talked through the format of the contestants’ introductory profiles, and students wrote and delivered their own introductions, I sent them off to find profiles of people who mattered to them. We ended up with profiles of professional snowboarders, rappers, fashion icons, video game champions, and even one world-renowned guinea pig breeder.
Advanced students could find fairly detailed profiles while beginning students found simpler ones and spent a lot of time looking up unfamiliar words. We ended the unit with students giving short target-language poster presentations about the people they’d profiled.
Did everyone walk away from the unit as newly-minted aficionados of beauty pageants? No. But did they walk away learning about someone in a field they loved while using French in an immersive, practical way? Absolutely.
Welcome to iCulture
My favorite thing to do as a language teacher was to use authentic, immersive cultural resources in my classroom. But finding and evaluating these resources, not to mention building lessons around them, took all the time, effort, and energy I had and then some.
Do you know what I wish I had back in my teaching days? A resource that provided carefully-vetted and constantly-updated cultural resources.
These days, I get to help teachers use exactly this in their classrooms. iCulture is a digital library of Spanish, French, and German videos, news articles, and songs that are all authentic, timely, and immersive. One thing I love about iCulture is that it sets your students up to explore topics that are most relevant and interesting to them!
Language Learning is Lifelong Learning
When students fall in love with a language, they start on a path of lifelong learning. Cultural immersion is a great way to jumpstart and strengthen this love. Motivate your Spanish, French, or German students to see that the connections between language and culture are fun, fluid, and fascinating.
Jennifer Kilmore is a veteran world language teacher with a background in in-person, hybrid, and virtual instruction. She is very involved in professional language organizations and is a member of American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL’s) Leadership in Leadership Initiative for Language Learning. She is passionate about the lasting positive influences that language learning has on students.Explore more related to this author