Learning Culture in Real Life

Whew, it has been a long time since I last posted. I had busy end to last school year and a very busy summer as well. One of the highlights of my summer was getting to take students abroad to Germany to visit Berlin and Munich. I, along with two other teachers, accompanied 19 students and one parent through all the sites, sounds, smells and tastes of Germany. For me as a foreign language teacher, it was the epitome of my job: seeing students use their language skills and engage with a new culture in real life.

First of all, I have to thank Education First for organizing the trip for me and my students. They’re a fantastic organization that works hard to ensure students get the most out of their experience abroad. They also want to make sure teachers get the most out of it too, which is why I had the opportunity to earn graduate credit through this trip. I had to pick a research topic to observe, collect data on, and report about when I returned to the United States. My topic was to find out whether those students who had taken a German class before could navigate the German culture better than those students who had never learned any German language or cultural information.

The results I got from my research were compelling for me as a teacher: students benefited from having taken a language class and could appreciate the subtleties of the culture more because they could speak the language. It came in simple forms such as being able to read a sign or recognize a local food; students who understood these things could take more advantage of traveling in the country. The students with no prior German education had to ask for help to talk with locals and asked questions to find out about the cultural differences they were encountering. The biggest thing I noticed is that students had more confidence because they had some knowledge of their new surroundings, which in turn meant they were engaged more in them.

Interestingly, a lack of German education didn’t deter students from trying to engage in the culture. I expected to see more reticence from some students who were on the trip from more of a tourist standpoint, but surprisingly many of those students who couldn’t speak German tried to learn as the trip progressed. They wanted to at least exchange pleasantries such as “please” and “thank” so they asked me repeatedly how to say these words so they could use them. They also didn’t seem to get any culture shock from the differences in everyday aspects of life. I was surprised to see how willing they were to try new things and to understand the German point of view.

After surveying the students before and after the trip, I think the biggest thing I gained from the trip was that the urge to travel and appreciate a new culture comes not from prior knowledge but rather stems more from an inherent personality trait. Although I observed that my students could navigate the culture better than those who hadn’t taken a German class before, all of the students on the trip possessed an openness to new things and a curiosity to explore. These characteristics is what ultimately helped all of them to enjoy their trip. All of the students said they enjoyed their trip and would go back to Germany in a heartbeat. Not one student was homesick during the trip, which is something I expected from the group of students who had never learned about Germany before traveling there.

Needless to say it was an amazing experience for me as a teacher and I enjoyed every minute of it! Next summer I already have another trip planned, this time with a French teacher so our trip will take us from Paris through Switzerland and back to Munich. I am excited to see how the new group of students reacts to different cultures throughout that trip. These are definitely the experiences I imagined when I became a teacher!


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