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
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
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
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
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