Published 08/21/17

Language competency enhanced by cultural understanding

Inspired by a presentation at the annual meeting of the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in February 2016, Heather Moon and Elisabetta Misuraca, lecturers in the Department of Modern Languages, developed a new model for how Bryant’s Modern Language students studying abroad can become more immersed in the culture and language of their host countries. Supported by a 2016-2017 Faculty Innovation Grant, they created and piloted a new course, Language Learners as Ethnographers.

"Cultural understanding is key to linguistic competence in any language. That’s the idea that drives our new course.”

Ethnographers research and describe the practices and culture of a community from an insider’s perspective. They become immersed in a culture in order to observe and explain its nuances. And according to Dr. Roberto Rey Agudo, whose work  Moon learned of while attending the conference, ethnographers use practices that could benefit language learners as well.

The course created by Moon and Misuraca brings this new, applied approach to language learning at Bryant. Its goal: to help Bryant students acquire many of the skills used by ethnographers so that they can better understand local cultural practices while abroad. In so doing, students can gain greater language fluency through observing — and participating in — the culture they’re studying.

“Language learning does not occur in isolation,” explains Moon. “Rather, cultural understanding is key to linguistic competence in any language. That’s the idea that drives our new course.”

Two Bryant students used the new model for language studies in Italy and Spain in the fall 2016 semester. They researched the theory of ethnography, completed field work and interviewed native speakers on a cultural aspect while abroad, and documented their findings in written reflections – all in the target language they studied. One student explored Barcelona soccer culture and its ties to Catalan nationalism, while another considered the impact of “bella figura,” or projecting your best self, on Italian culture.

“Through ethnographic field work in this course,” says Moon, “students can deepen their cultural understanding and linguistic competency above and beyond what students may ordinarily accomplish while abroad. It’s an innovative way to further enrich study abroad experiences and improve language acquisition with applied learning.”

Students also benefit from faculty mentoring. “I help the student narrow their focus and be more precise in their observations; I help them develop how they’re thinking about their topic,” Moon explains. “The guidance I provide is very individualized.”

The students in the pilot course used digital storytelling tools to share their experiences on a website where Modern Language students can share ideas, comment, and learn from each other. And, in an effort to contribute to Bryant’s culture of innovative teaching and learning, Moon, Misuraca, and the students shared their experiences with other department faculty.

Based on the pilot experience and further research, Moon and Misuraca expect the new course will be offered to students studying in Spain, Chile, and Italy during the 2017-18 academic year. Expansion to French and Chinese languages may unfold later.