Volume VII - 2002-03

Learning a Second Language through Culture
     by Barbara Le Blanc and Joseph Dicks

     Dr.Barbara Le Blanc is a professor at the Department of Education at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia,Canada. She is author of several articles on Acadian culture and is presently collaborating with Dance Nova Scotia on a manual for schools that will offer an historical and cultural look at Acadian dance.

          Dr.Joseph Dicks is a professor in the Second Language Education Centre at the University of New Brunswick, Canada. His academic interests include teacher education, curriculum development and program evaluation.


This article describes a series of activities that have been and are being used in English and French language classrooms. Our experience with thousands of students showed that when they were engaged in highly interactive, language-rich and enjoyable
activities, they became more motivated language learners. Students were encouraged to become singers, dancers, storytellers, merchants, genealogists, geographers, writers, actors, historians, archeologists and ethnologists. Students used techniques in drama for education to reach into their imaginations to compare the realities and possibilities of the past, present, and future. Throughout this process learners were encouraged to interpret and analyze data. They were engaged in highly creative approaches using a wide range of talents to experience new realities.As a result, students developed an understanding, appreciation and respect for the target culture and,consequently, used the target language in a wide variety of communicative situations.

     In this article, we examine ways of discovering culture and learning language in the French second-language classroom using imaginative student-centered activities focused on the Acadian culture.Acadian is a term used to refer to the settlers who established the first French colony in North America. The boundaries of this colony, called Acadie,were often contested in a power play between England and France, but generally included parts of what are today the Maritime Provinces and the Gaspé region of Québec, both in Canada, as well as part of the state of Maine in the USA. Today some three million descendants live scattered throughout three major areas: the Atlantic Provinces and Québec in Canada, the New England States and Louisiana in the USA, the island of Belle-Isle-en-Mer,and the Ligne acadienne near Chatellerault in France. Although the activities described in this article focused on the Acadian community,they can be easily adapted to any cultural or language learning setting.


     The approach we are endorsing was influenced by the disciplines of ethnology and education. Ethnologists broadly define culture as the study of everyday life made up of components based on value systems. These systems include ways of communicating, ways of thinking, ways of knowing and ways of behaving. They also involve assumptions about history, geography,and institutions. Finally they encompass the expression of a variety of art forms, the performance of religious and secular rites and rituals,and the recognition of signs and symbols. Culture in this context is dynamic, diverse and complex, retaining traditional practices and beliefs, while adapting to new situations and circumstances. Ethnological studies place importance on the people, objects and experiences that help us understand a target culture.Current educational theory and practice, influenced by such psychologists as Piaget and Bruner, promotes a process of discovery involving interaction between learners and their environment. In the present context the second-language learner comes face to face with the way of life of the target culture. In a project entitled The Magical Discovery of our Roots, Baulu-MacWillie and Le Blanc (1992,1993) found that students' understanding and appreciation of culture was an extremely important variable in first language learning. In this article we will demonstrate the value of using culture to teach a second language.

Instructional Procedures

     We will now describe activities that were included in three specific lesson plans. (For the complete lesson plans
please consult Research and Publications —>Curriculum Projects —>Lesson Plans at www.unb.ca/slec.)


     Historical Tableaux permit students to create theatrical representations from still images of historical scenes and empathize with life situations of people in other times (Le Blanc,1993). In this lesson,the class was divided into teams of three or four persons. Each team received a reproduction of a painting representing eighteenth century Acadian life. The team discussed the work of art by answering such questions as: Who is in the painting? What are they doing? Where are they? What is happening in the scene? Each member of the team chose a character in the painting,and the groups wrote imaginary dialogues for scenes that they practiced and performed. The presentations were embellished by adding costumes and objects.The culminating activity involved creating images (drawings,collages,photos,etc.) to illustrate the dialogues they had written.


     In the lesson Objects Speak to Us—Archeological Detectives, students examined objects, made hypotheses about their nature, interpreted their cultural context and explained their functions. They compared past objects with present day ones, communicated pertinent information both orally and in written form, and recognized that artifacts reveal cultural information about a group of people. This lesson began with each student bringing a significant object to school. The class was divided into smaller groups of three or four persons. Each person in the small group presented, identified and described the chosen object. Students then described the basic work of archeologists including what could be learned about a person from an object found in an archeological dig.

     The class then examined a box of objects called Treasures from the Past. The box is divided into archeological strata: 20th century (e.g.a pop can),1830-1900 (e.g.a military uniform button),1760-1830 (e.g.a fragment of a plate of Chinese pottery),1680-1755 (e.g.a clay pipe), 1680 (e.g.a fragment of a jaw 's harp), before European arrival (e.g.an arrowhead), before aboriginal arrival (no people, therefore no objects). They identified and described the artifacts, determined their function and guessed the historical period to which they belonged. Once the students were familiar with the idea of archeological strata, each group participated in the game Archeological Detectives. Each work team received four different artifacts, six bags tagged 1 to 6 representing six archeological strata, as well as some visual and written clues. Each of the artifacts came from one of the archeological strata represented in the Treasures from the Past box shown to the students earlier. The group used the clues and agreed upon the archeological stratum for the artifacts. When they made a decision,they placed the artifacts in the appropriately labeled bag (1,2,3,4,5,or 6). Each group compared its predictions about the historical periods to those made by archeologists by looking at a verification table with answers.Students discussed the difficulties and challenges of being an archeologist.

     Then, working in pairs,one student became a journalist, the other an archeologist. The journalist asked the archeologist questions such as: Can you describe an interesting object that you found? What did one do with the object? What does it tell us about every day life? To what period does it belong? Does the object exist today? If so,how is it similar? How is it different? The journalist could choose to be from any of the media —TV, radio, or newspaper. Finally, the students invented a short story about an object. They could add drawings to help tell the story.


     In the lesson, Dance, the students learned to perform traditional Acadian dances (Le Blanc,in press). They created movements inspired by traditional and contemporary dance repertoire. They described the dances orally or in written form and demonstrated physically an understanding of the importance of group cohesion as well as lack of group cohesion as represented in traditional and contemporary dances. They used movements to help express feelings and describe interpersonal relationships. The students began by discussing what the word “dance ” conjured up in their mind. The students discussed what dances are popular today, who were their favorite music groups, and what musical instruments are used in the groups they like. They looked at a jaw 's harp —an ancient musical instrument that is still used today.Students tried to guess the name of the musical instrument and to what family of instruments it belongs. They talked about contemporary musical instruments that it resembles. They tried to imagine and explain the sound that it might make. Then they listened to a recording of the sounds it makes. After the discussion, the students learned movements for traditional Acadian dances such as —Les Moutons, Le reel —Quatre, the Set Carré, La Patate Longue. The class then divided into groups of 4,6 and 8 persons (even numbers if possible). Each group was responsible for the creation of a dance,and each person in the group had to invent one movement for a dance. Each movement followed the beat of the music and was done to a count of eight.The group members decided in what order to do the movements. They then presented their new dance, which could be accompanied by music of their choice,hand clapping or silence. After each dance was performed, other members of the class became journalists specializing in dance and gave some positive comments about the performance.

A Student Centered,Interactive Approach

     The activities described in the previous section were adapted from The Magical Discovery of our Roots project referred to earlier. That project was inspired to a large degree by the writings of Piaget (1967)and Bruner (1966). Piaget explains that intelligence develops as a result of interaction with environment. Bruner believes that it is better to guide students to their own discovery rather than give them the concepts,the principles or the formulas directly. In this approach, teachers present students with a problem to solve, give a limited amount of information, guide them through the process of inference,and allow them to arrive at their own solution (Brooks &Brooks,1993).

     The Magical Discovery of our Roots project also incorporated interaction with and manipulation of objects, a pedagogical strategy inspired by innovative work being done in the museum world. Increasingly,museums have displayed objects within their socio-cultural context providing the visitor with tools to better interpret and understand the world (Hall,1987; Hennigar-Shuh, 1985). Activities have been created in museums that promote this interaction between objects and individuals in order to stimulate curiosity, questioning,wonder and discovery (Bettleheim,1984).

     In this section we will describe how we have adapted the activities of the original project to the second-language classroom using an integrated framework involving three key components. The first component, multidimensional curriculum (Leblanc,1990; Edwards, Kristmanson, and Rehorick, 2000) identifies four syllabi that are particularly relevant to the teaching and learning of language and culture in a second language context. The communicative-experiential syllabus focuses on the lived experiences of the learners as the driving force of this curriculum. Consequently,learners actively participate in authentic communication where the emphasis is on the message rather than on language form or structure. The language syllabus emphasizes accurate language use in meaningful contexts. The learners' needs and the communicative situation determine the linguistic forms taught. Teachers guide learners to reflect on the form used,correct their errors, and express themselves correctly. The general language syllabus places importance on the personal development of learners. The three principle goals of this syllabus are to increase sensitivity and objectivity towards languages,cultures,and societies; to be an active participant in learning; and to improve understanding of languages and cultures. The culture syllabus aims to heighten awareness of other cultures, to prepare students to live as bilingual citizens, and to widen cultural horizons.

Cooperative Learning

     We have also included several basic elements of a second key component,cooperative learning (Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec, 1988; Slavin, 1995; Kagan, 1994). In this approach simultaneous interaction ensures that at any one time half the class is talking, eliminating the sequential, teacher-led mode of operation. Positive interdependence means that a gain for one student is associated with a gain for other students. Within groups, students have well-defined roles and responsibilities resulting in individual accountability and are evaluated based on their personal contribution. Activities are structured so that all students have the opportunity for equal participation. These basic principles of cooperative learning allow students to engage in activities that build upon their strengths while providing them with an opportunity to improve in areas where they are weak.

Multiple Intelligences

     The activities created for this project also encourage learners to use a third critical component, Multiple Intelligences (Gardner,1983,1993). Gardner distinguishes between the classical definition of intelligence (the ability to answer questions on an IQ test) and his own definition of intelligence: “the capacity to solve problems or create products that are important in a specific cultural milieu or community ” (1983,p.15).Gardner proposes at least eight intelligences (linguistic, logicomathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic).

      Armstrong 's work (1994)on the pedagogical applications of Multiple Intelligences is particularly relevant to this project. Armstrong emphasizes four key principles related to multiple intelligences that have implications for the classroom. First, every individual possesses each type of intelligence (certain intelligences that are highly developed,others that are somewhat developed, and others that are underdeveloped). Second, most people are able to develop each intelligence to an adequate level of competence. In the school context, this involves providing the learner with the encouragement,enrichment,and instruction required. Third, the intelligences complement one another and always are used in specific cultural contexts. Fourth, there are several ways of being intelligent within each category. For example,someone who cannot read could nonetheless be able to tell wonderful stories using an incredibly rich vocabulary. While each of these intelligences is not applicable to every activity described in this project,second-language learners will have the opportunity to participate in certain activities that reflect their stronger intelligences, and others that will allow them to work on less developed intelligences.

Lesson Plan Format

     We will now propose a lesson plan format as adapted for the second language classroom.This format includes basic information, multidimensional outcomes, and teaching/learning steps and procedures. The fully developed lesson plans are available on the website referred to above in Instructional Procedures.

Basic Information:
Field of Experience (theme):
Material Required:

General Language Education:

Teaching/Learning Steps and Procedures:
Personalization and Contextualization:
Main Activities:

     The Basic Information category allows the teacher to immediately identify the theme,topic materials, and suggested timeframe for the lesson. Outcomes are stated for each of the multidimensional syllabi,with the communicative-experiential outcome being the most important. The Teaching/Learning Steps and Procedures involve several phases. The personalization phase allows learners to consider their own experiences and attitudes about the subject under consideration. The contextualization phase offers key information about the communicative situation and the nature of the text. Regarding the communicative situation, students should know who is communicating with whom,for what reason, in what relationship (e.g.,mother-daughter, boss-employee,friend-friend). The nature of the text should be made clear by indicating certain key discourse characteristics (e.g.dialogue for role play may have incomplete sentences and atypical punctuation; newspaper articles follow standard who, what,where,when and why format). Teachers will also encourage learners to use their knowledge of similar texts from their mother tongue. Employed effectively,these two components —personalization and conceptualization —permit learners to anticipate new information.

     During the main activity phase, learners participate in authentic tasks that satisfy their interests and needs.Three main characteristics of these activities are that learners 1) use their imaginations in active and varied role-play; 2) participate in theme-based contextualized activities; and 3) have the opportunity to work alone and in teams.In the final phase, reflection/reintegration, learners reflect on the activity and re-examine their knowledge,behavior and attitudes through participating in new situations and contexts, and by using different language skills.

Concluding Remarks

     In concrete terms in the second-language classroom,this integrated framework engaged students in a variety of interesting and dynamic activities focused on aspects of their own culture and that of the target culture. The enjoyment experienced while participating in these activities resulted in more motivated second-language learners, who used their second language in a much wider, more interesting and imaginative series of communicative situations.


     We wish to acknowledge the contribution of Dr. Mireille Baulu-MacWillie of Université Sainte-Anne who worked on the initial project. Baulu-MacWillie and Le Blanc (1992,1993) collaborated in the development of an educational project entitled The Magical Discovery of Our Roots,which placed importance on the daily life,history and traditions of Acadians. We also wish to thank Denise Henson, archeologist at Parks Canada in Halifax, who developed the Archeological Detectives game and Doug Crowell, who built the Treasures from the Past Box.


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Baulu-MacWillie,Mireille &Barbara Le Blanc.(1993).“Museum-School Partnership: An Example of Collaboration ” in The       Sourcebook .Washington: American Association of Museums,pp.123-136.

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Hennigar-Shuh,J.(1985).“The Nova Scotia Experience: A Unique Context for Museum Education.”The Journal of Museum      Education .7 (4),pp.34-39.

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