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Improving the way you absorb language and culture with CultureReady Basics

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Our partners at Diplomatic Language Services (DLS) recently wrote on the DLS blog about their work with Aptima and the DLNSEO Culture Team in creating CultureReady Basics. They discuss developing the course and what makes it unique from other culture and language tools.


How DLS is working to improve the way you absorb language and culture

Leila Harriss & Hannah Gibian 

For the last three years, Diplomatic Language Services has partnered with Aptima and DLNSEO to develop a project that is changing the way we teach languages through an online course series called CultureReady Basics. This project has been led by our very own Leila Harriss, a curriculum development project manager who has been working with DLS since December 2016.  Harriss and her team have been working diligently on not only improving students’ language learning experience but on developing an entirely new way of teaching language and culture. 

CultureReady Basics is an interactive web-based platform that is designed to combine 3C Cross Cultural Competencies with culture-specific knowledge, and a language assist feature designed to help students achieve an ILR proficiency level of 2+/3. This program is unique in that it combines three separate domains into a target language-focused course series centered around the DoD’s newly-revised Adaptive Readiness for Culture (ARC) model. The three domains we combine are: Culture-general knowledge, Culture-specific information, and target language proficiency. The first aspect consists of “culture-general competencies”. This means we’re teaching culture general concepts versus dos-and-don’ts or travel tips. This way you can apply this knowledge anywhere. We’re teaching skills versus general knowledge. For instance, say we taught you culture general knowledge about your own awareness and evaluating your own cultural biases before deploying to another country. We’re not sure where the students are going to be deployed to, so those skills that we’re teaching will be applicable in multiple cultural contexts and across multiple cultural interactions, versus just, “If you go to Kenya, this is how you greet somebody.” That’s very specific and it’s not generalizable nor transferrable. That’s what we’re trying to do - teach information that is generalizable and transferable. The course was first built in English a couple of years ago and it only focused on teaching culture general concepts. So, what we’re doing is taking that generalizable transferable knowledge and adding in two extra layers. The first layer is culture specific information, which we’ve now done in 5 languages and we’re working on 2 right now, so 7 in total. That means we’re teaching culture general concepts, plus culture specific information. For example, in Korea if you were to meet someone you would inquire about their age to see where they fall in the hierarchy. That’s very specific to Korean culture but not maybe to Moroccan culture. So that is the second layer that we’re adding in. The third layer is the language proficiency layer. This is to help the student achieve a level of 2+/3 on the ILR (Interagency language roundtable) scale in that specific language. The course is available in English, Russian, Mandarin, MSA Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, and now we’re working on Korean and Farsi.

The way this differs from other online courses is that some courses teach 3C by itself or they will teach cultural-specific information and language by itself. What we’re doing is teaching 3C and culture specific through the medium of language, instead of teaching language and then adding culture later. It’s innovative and it’s different. The course itself is a 2-hour self-paced course (meaning there isn’t an instructor on the other side) so approximately thirty minutes per lesson depending on your proficiency. Everything in the course is in the target language, but you have the option to use a translation feature to see a side-by-side translation. There is also a language assist feature that provides further linguistic and/or cultural information through a series of hyperlinked pop-up boxes that the student as the option to click on. If there are any phrases or references or idioms that the student doesn’t understand, they can click on it and a box will pop up containing information that provides more context and helps deepen the student’s knowledge. This information is unique in that it can’t be easily Googled, nor is it always taught in the classroom. Instead, it’s knowledge that a native speaker would intrinsically know and might not necessarily be aware of. This is the sort of information that would help a student reach ILR level 3, because a level 3 is quite hard to accomplish. We have incorporated a lot of intense research that we tie back to the content and it’s all really engaging, and it makes you stop and think and analyze culture. We have been working on this for about three years and every year we learn more and every year we improve.

This is an empirically-supported course with a lot of research behind it, and one of the approaches that we’re utilizing is called the blended learning approach. We want to challenge the learner using metacognitive and reflection prompts so that they’re retaining as much information as possible, as well as make the information they’re retaining as relevant to themselves as possible, which is one of the best ways to remember newly-acquired information. The blended learning approach utilizes three learner-centric phases. The first phase is the exploratory phase, which means we provide the student with an up-front scenario without teaching them anything about the lesson topic. This scenario is broken up into 3 pieces which are the: situation, response, and outcome. What it’s designed to do is get the learner thinking about how they would react in that situation and whether they would think that the person who is in the scenario reacted appropriately or inappropriately and why. And, these scenarios are not contrived, they are taken from people who have spent significant time in-country, in these cultural contexts. After the scenario the student is provided with feedback. This feedback doesn’t simply say, “correct” or “incorrect”, it will say exactly why it is incorrect or correct and what the person in the scenario could have done.  The second part of the blended learning approach is, direct instruction. In the previous phase we really get the student thinking about why they think someone reacted a certain way or why they decided to say or do what they did. Now that they are thinking, this is when phase two comes into play and we begin instructing them. By the end of phase 3, we provide practice in the form of a second scenario where they’re able to utilize the information they had reflected on in the first scenario (the exploratory phase) plus the deliberate practice. So, our underlying theory behind this whole course is the blended learning approach. We are seeing that it is easier for students to retain the information they are taught through this approach. This course encourages the students to reflect on their own cultural biases and mindset when interacting with other cultures.

This course is free online and open source.

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