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The Right Book
David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill, German Department, Calvin College

Choosing course materials for foreign language classes involves much more than looking at the price, the pictures, and the publisher. In a Christian school it's also essential to ask whether the content and presentation sustain the school's goals. What do the materials include and exclude? Are the values and beliefs that the materials reflect in tune with the Christian faith?

     Christians believe that all humans are made in the image of God. Strangers, too, have lives shot through with spiritual and moral significance. Strangers, too, are creative, reflective, and sinful; they wrestle with the challenge of making responsible choices; they, too, experience the blessings and sufferings of a fallen world.
     Do our educational materials reflect this basic reality? What vision of life is conveyed by the images of the stranger found in our language lessons?
     Inquiring into the general view of the world implied in a textbook is particularly pertinent in the foreign language classroom. As learners begin to explore a foreign language and culture, they encounter familiar areas of learning in a new context. They learn to tell time anew. They learn again about numbers, houses, transportation, and food. They learn new forms of personal interaction, new norms for carrying on conversations. They encounter others they have not met before and observe various aspects of their way of life. Having already learned an immense amount about their own social world, they now begin to explore various aspects of the new culture of the stranger. However, course materials often focus more on the needs of the visiting tourist than on the world of the stranger.
     It's important to ask certain questions about curricular materials before we begin using them in our classes: Do the content and the way the content is patterned sustain our basic educational goals or not? Are the values and beliefs that the materials reflect in tune with Christian faith?

Questioning Course Content
     The first and most obvious features of the content of foreign language texts that may trouble Christian teachers are individual items of content. Horoscopes, for instance, are frequently used in association with learning the future tense, and at least one textbook includes a page of instructions for palmistry. Christian teachers are likely to object to such use of superstition with occult overtones, wondering why this material is included when more orthodox and wholesome expressions of spirituality are generally notable by their absence.
     However, the problem of absences in the text, of dimensions of human experience that are not addressed, is a more fundamental concern.
     A basic question Christian foreign language teachers will want to ask about most course materials is why religion and the vocabulary of faith are so often conspicuous by their absence. Why is the presence of religious belief and practice in the foreign culture rarely acknowledged beyond the level of learning the names of a few religious holidays? Why are women and men of faith often invisible in portrayals of the target culture, even when that culture has been shaped in significant ways by religious belief and practice? Depictions in textbooks, audiocassettes, and videos may include church buildings and the names of certain festivals, but in course materials how many people do students encounter who regard faith as a significant dimension of life? For how many of the characters who inhabit the pages of a textbook does religious belief make a real difference when choices must be made?
     Cultures cannot be adequately understood without reference to the influence of faith on their development. Nevertheless, foreign language courses often underplay this aspect of the target culture.
One might object that such matters are too difficult for learners to tackle in a foreign language, at least until they attain a high level of proficiency. If they struggle to ask directions to the hotel, how will they cope with discussing the meaning of life? However, arguments based on the complexity of the language needed to deal with issues of belief have little weight. After all, attending to the presence of faith does not necessarily imply engaging in high-level theological discussion. And when it comes, for instance, to describing a person's morning routine, in many languages "I pray" is actually less complex than "I get up."
     Neither will it do to point to the widespread secularization of modern Western cultures as a reason for ignoring the presence of faith. Consider, for instance, the important role religion plays in cultural contexts within Francophone and Hispanic countries. What more often seems to be at work in building course materials is the secular perspective of their authors or a desire to avoid controversial materials. In other words, the reality of the stranger's context does not prove decisive in the selection of cultural elements to be included in textbooks, but rather the author's and the publisher's point of view-or perhaps their fear of controversy. Whatever the reason, the stranger's faith is effectively held at bay.

Frameworks of Meaning
     But the mere absence of references to the spiritual dimension of life is only one way that authors neglect its significance. They may also structure their texts in a way that offers little space for faith-informed reflection.
     Take, for instance, common attitudes about the public and the private sectors of society or about work and leisure in Western liberal democracies. The organization of many foreign language course materials seems to reflect a basic Western tendency to divide life into a public world of work and economic transactions on the one hand and a private world of leisure on the other. If this Western dualistic framework implicitly determines the arrangement of materials in a foreign language course, it will be extremely difficult to do justice to the complex interconnections between what people in the target culture believe, hope for, or worship and other key aspects of the lives they live. As a result, a significant part of the stranger's being will be closed off from view.
     Thoughtful teachers should ask similar questions about the kinds of interaction and experience included in the functional syllabus underlying the text. Why do teaching materials so commonly offer the vocabulary and phrases to show dissatisfaction in the foreign setting-to complain that the towels were damp in the hotel room or that the meal was too slow to arrive in the restaurant-and so rarely pay attention to how one can encourage or sensitively praise someone in the target language?
     Or consider the relationship between repentance and forgiveness. Learners are quite commonly taught to express regret in the foreign language, so they can apologize for being late or for forgetting their homework. It is far less common for the language of forgiveness to be practiced in the classroom. Why are students taught how to apologize but so rarely how to forgive?
     And what about the role money plays in the textbooks? Do people treat it exclusively as something to purchase goods and services with, or do they include the possibility of giving it away?
     Clearly, there are broader issues at stake when examining instructional materials for the foreign language classroom than whether the Bible is mentioned. We might well ask if materials focus primarily on the linguistic resources the learner needs in order to interact to his or her own benefit- whether to secure services, obtain goods, or navigate successfully-at the expense of giving attention to ways of being curious, open, and a kind and helpful presence in the target culture. We should also consider the frameworks of meaning that implicitly organize and make sense of the information presented about another culture and the lives of its inhabitants. If there are problems here, the text in question may not serve the educational goals of helping a student become a good stranger or a good host.

From Text to Hypertext
     In recent years the rapid development of computer technology has opened up new possibilities for language teaching materials, allowing students instant access to audio and video extracts, the ability to alter their speed and sequence and the level of help provided, and enhanced possibilities for recording their own utterances and comparing them with a native model. Computer software offers simulations of visits and adventures in the target culture, allowing learners to choose where to go and what to do next, and presenting them with situations that draw upon their growing knowledge of the target language and culture.
     There is no doubt that multimedia technology offers significant new possibilities to teachers and learners of foreign languages. It does not, however, lessen the need for discernment when one considers the content of learning materials for at least two reasons.
     First, multimedia resources-while impressive in their scope-are still finite, and they still have authors. These new resources still represent a selection from a wide range of possible content, and they continue to be marked by inclusions and exclusions. Moreover, as the sheer quantity of information and choices placed before the learner rapidly increases, the role of the teacher in helping the student select from and make sense of the flood of data becomes more critical.
     Second, the new way of presenting material can, when combined with certain content, communicate a worldview of its own.
     This is not to question the usefulness of electronic multimedia resources or to suggest that students should never encounter strangers in those materials whose values might diverge from their own. We are convinced, however, that responsible educational use of such resources will pay attention to the framework of meaning and ethical significance in which the stranger appears and into which the learner is drawn. Students must be helped to become critically aware of the worldviews that have shaped the materials with which they interact and of the ways they themselves are shaped by those materials.

Restoring the Balance
     We have been suggesting that a secularized perspective can lead to particular silences and distortions in the content of a foreign language course. This should not be taken to mean that we are for a moment advocating a textbook world where every character is a Christian, attends church, and embodies the height of moral virtue. To point out that faith and spirituality are often excluded from instructional materials is not the same as arguing that they should become the sole concern of our pedagogy. Nor does it mean that a text written from a Christian perspective should not be subjected to the same kind of scrutiny we urge on secular texts. Our central concern is that the materials used in the classroom allow the humanity of the stranger to appear as fully as possible. This objective is not achieved by excluding faith, but neither is it achieved by excluding the brokenness of another culture or the challenges that believers in that culture face.
     If Christians seek to design course materials that look at another culture through Christian eyes, how are they to distinguish between the eyes of faith and the eyes of their own cultural context?
     We have no neat solution that would remove the complex difficulties and temptations inherent in understanding or teaching another culture. Two observations are, however, in order.
     First, the position of the Christian is not inherently more difficult than that of anyone else. Christians do not see the world from a biased perspective while everyone else just sees it as it is. The difficulties in understanding another culture from within our own are shared by non-Christians and Christians alike.
     Second, loving attention to the other in a context of mutual giving and receiving should be at the heart of a Christian approach to foreign language education. Taking the implications of our faith seriously should predispose us to listen carefully to members of other cultures, rather than projecting our own values and ideas onto them. As Christian educators seeking to do justice to other cultures, we should supplement our own outsiders' efforts at description and understanding with careful attention to voices from within the foreign culture-especially voices of lament and celebration.

Evaluating Course Materials
     The content of a foreign language course, textbook, or syllabus is not innocent or neutral. The mindful Christian educator must be critically aware of inclusions, absences, and underlying patterns found in her instructional materials, and must find creative ways of correcting these absences and distortions or using them to sharpen students' insight into the nature of textbooks as value-laden human constructs.
     Nor is the content of textbooks neutral in relation to our more specific proposal: that hospitality to the stranger and being a blessing as a stranger are important motifs for foreign language education.
     With these concerns in mind, we suggest that a number of questions need to be asked of any curricular materials in addition to the familiar ones (Is the text appropriate for the learner's level of proficiency? Is the grammar presented clearly? Do activities and tasks do justice to different learning styles? Is the syllabus well sequenced by level of difficulty? etc.). A thoughtful teacher should ask several additional questions when assessing course materials (see box).
     Obviously, no course materials are perfect, but identifying their weaknesses is necessary if we are to point those weaknesses out to our students and discuss them. It can also show us in what ways we may need to modify or supplement our instructional materials if we, as Christian educators, want them to serve our purposes

10 Questions about Textbooks

1. Judging by the content and approach of the textbook as well as its stated aims, which of the characters (the entrepreneur, the persuader, the connoisseur, the tourist, the escapologist, or the revolutionary) does it seem to promote? How much can it contribute toward encouraging learners to become good strangers and hosts?

2. How is the material arranged, and what significance does that arrangement have? For example, does the text show a divide between public/economic- and private/leisure-oriented worlds, or a sharp separation of the sacred from the secular?

3. How does the text present the humanity of members of the target culture? Do they fear, doubt, suffer, sin, hope, pray, or celebrate as well as work, shop, play, eat, and drink?

4. What is the range of human tasks and callings portrayed in the course materials? Which are missing?

5. What is the range and quality of human relationships among the people portrayed? Is an ethical dimension of communication or of human interaction in general in evidence? In what ways? How do people of different generations relate to one another?

6. Do the people portrayed ever face significant decisions involving more than issues of personal preference? How do they approach those decisions, and by what criteria do they make them?

7. Do the teaching materials include any spiritual or religious dimension of the target culture or individuals? How does the text treat this dimension? Which aspects of it are portrayed or suppressed?

8. Do the instructional materials pay attention to marginalized members of the target culture? Do they incorporate any voice of lament for the broken aspects of that culture?

9. What does the text invite us to learn from the strangers it presents to us? Which of their stories are we asked to listen to? What do they celebrate?

10. How does the text treat the learner? Does it give opportunity for open-ended and personally invested responses to issues raised? Which of the learner's interests and motives does it appeal to?


   David I. Smith is an assistant professor of German language and literature at Calvin College. His publications include Making Sense of Spiritual Development. Barbara Carvill is a professor of German language and literature at Calvin College and former president of the North American Christian Foreign Language Association.
   This article is excerpted from
The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning, © 2000 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved. To order this title, contact the publisher at 800.253.7521 or at www.eerdmans.com .
   The article in its present format appeared in
The Christian School Teacher (fall 2000): 12-16. Used with permission; all rights reserved. The Christian School Teacher is a publication of Christian Schools International (CSI).


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