The Importance of Culture in Learning a New Language

The Importance of Culture in Amplifying Student Language Learning Online

How online teachers can utilize cultural experiences to engage students in the virtual classroom

September 12, 2014

In China, people have long held great respect for teachers. The philosopher Confucius was a distinguished scholar and teacher who believed that “education should be for all, irrespective of their social status.” If he were living in today’s world, which is dubbed the “global village,” he would probably add, “irrespective of their cultural backgrounds.”

Growing up in an intellectual family with both my parents as teachers, I believe that being a teacher is my calling. However, teaching Chinese as a foreign language online initially posed a challenge for me, because it totally reverses the secondary educational experiences I had back in China.

After teaching online for Aventa and now Middlebury Interactive Languages for more than four years, I have gained invaluable knowledge about the role of the teacher and the relationship between the teacher and the students in virtual classroom, especially the importance of using culture to invigorate my students. In this regard, I think my teaching works as a bridge between the Chinese and the Western worlds.

An ancient Chinese writer once stated, “It takes a teacher to transmit wisdom, impart knowledge and resolve doubts.” When I was teaching college-level English in China from 2000 to 2002, I believed in this motto wholeheartedly. I thought I had the key to transforming my students’ lives–knowledge–and vocabulary and grammar were what I focused on in teaching. 

But as soon as I started observing classes in middle and high schools in the U.S., I started to question the traditional role of the teacher as the authority figure in the classroom. I began to think of the role of a teacher as an inspirer and a guide. Moreover, I began to realize that whether in either English language arts or world language classes, just teaching the language never works. Every language is a complicated and interwoven with cultural elements. To make students interested in their learning and to give them access to the broader aspects of the language, the teacher needs to step out of the old concept of being an “imparter of knowledge.” This famous quote from Socrates replaced my previous motto, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

My online teaching experience has strengthened my belief that students can take ownership of their learning, and teachers can play an important role by giving freedom to their students. If someone asked me now, “Which goal of teaching is more important, to impart knowledge to students or to spark students’ interest in learning?”, I would choose the second goal without hesitation. 

My virtual Chinese students are usually quite motivated since it is an elective course. But there are still some students who are tougher to engage. As a virtual teacher, I have the disadvantage of not being physically present in the classroom with my students. I cannot take them to Chinatown, prepare dim sum for lunch, nor can I hold a Chinese New Year party. But there are many other ways to motivate students online. The most important thing is to make the culture accessible and keep them interested in the culture. Middlebury Interactive’s courses and their culturally authentic content and activities allow me to engage my students.

At the beginning level when students are exposed to the Chinese language for the first time, I immediately stress that the Chinese and Western languages, just like the cultures behind them, share a lot of similarities but also differ greatly. I encourage them to find these similarities and differences throughout their studies. The beginning of the weekly announcements in the online course is the best place to expose students regularly to the Chinese culture. The Chinese instructional team creates these cultural alerts, and we’ve covered topics such as:

  • Important holidays and festivals unique to the Chinese people, such as the Tomb Sweeping festival and the Moon Festival.
  • Interesting historical and geographical knowledge about the Chinese culture. I posted pictures to let the students see how the Hallelujah Mountain in Avatar got the inspiration from a famous national park called Zhangjiajie in China.
  • News about China, especially when it is fun and related to the U.S. For example, First Lady Michelle Obama enjoying the delicious hotpot in Sichuan Province during her China trip.
  • Music, food, attire and customs that differ significantly from the Western culture. My students were so intrigued by the dim sum or Peking roast duck that they asked their parents to take them to China or at least to the nearest Chinatown.
  • Idioms and proverbs that can be easily translated into English, e.g. strike while the iron is hot, or those seem totally out of sense, e.g. add the feet while drawing a snake.

Communication should never be one-way in an online course. I often invite students to talk about culture using their assignments, which incorporate authentic Chinese culture, whether it’s a project on a Chinese-speaking region or planning a trip to China. In the feedback of these projects, I try to help the students obtain as much cultural information as possible. I also use the feedback on the lifelong learner activities in the courses to recommend great books, movies, TV shows and songs to my students.

One of my students watched Zhang Yimou’s “To Live” upon my recommendation, and he was so excited that he wrote me a message during the middle of the night to share his thoughts on this movie. I noticed that he totally disregarded the political background of the movie, but I didn’t correct him. Instead, I suggested he talk about the movie with someone over 50 years of age and who emigrated from China to the U.S. In a real-life conversation, he would understand the cultural and historical background, including the Cultural Revolution, more fully.

Lastly, the live sessions in the courses are a great way to incorporate cultural discussions in our virtual classroom. I use these sessions in two ways to incorporate holiday celebrations:

  • For the Chinese New Year, I use the last several minutes of the live session to teach a song about the Chinese New Year.
  • In the class when the topic of holidays is taught, I choose the closest Chinese holiday on the calendar and celebrate with my students by writing characters in the form of easy poetry (moon cakes for the Moon Festival and a couplet for the Chinese New Year).

The greatest reward for teaching students the Chinese language and culture, of course, is to see my students realize their dreams in China. One of my students was fascinated by martial arts instructor and filmmaker Bruce Lee. After he finished taking Chinese II, he went to China for the summer and enrolled in a martial arts school near Shaolin Temple. He emailed me a picture of himself in a crane position with a line, “Thank you for being a great Sifu (master).” At such moments, I feel that my mission as a cultural emissary is achieved, and my students will carry on the task of facilitating the cultural exchange between these two great countries.

Chen Zhu
Chen Zhu, Middlebury Interactive Languages’ lead Chinese teacher, graduated from the University of Seattle with a master’s degree in teaching. She is certified to teach both English Language Arts and Chinese. Before that she worked as a journalist and taught college-level English in China and later came to the U.S. to attend the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley on a fellowship program. Chen joined Middlebury Interactive full-time in 2013 after her three years’ teaching online at K-12, Inc. She has also published several theses on Chinese teaching in Chinese academic journals. 
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