Reports from the Classroom: Translating Cultural Literacy

Cross-Cultural Learning

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that the difference between languages is just a matter of exchanging one word for another. It might seem like a dictionary -- or perhaps google translate today -- is all someone needs to “translate” one word at a time. For better and for worse, languages are too complex to translate in this matter. Words can have multiple meanings, languages often have idioms that aren’t necessarily “logical”, and there are often cultural differences that cause major gaps in people’s understanding of a language.

At Knovva Academy, we encounter challenges with cultural literacy all of the time. Even though all of our programming is in English, we work with students from all over the world. Working with this international group, we encounter cultural gaps than need more explaining than many people might realize.

For instance, during one class on a short story by Isaac Asimov, called “The Fun They Had”, students from outside of the United States had trouble with a few concepts, which American natives probably wouldn’t even realize are difficult to understand. In the end, explaining these concepts proved fruitful for both the foreigners and the native students. For the foreigners, introducing these new concepts helped them leap into uncharted depths of another culture -- beyond merely looking up the word, they were immersed in a whole cultural web of objects and actions. For the natives, introducing these concepts to foreigners might seem boring, but this introduction also gave them an opportunity to strengthen their cross-cultural communication skills. In other words, even the native speakers had the opportunity to ponder the limits of their ability to communicate in a cross-cultural environment. Sometimes an awareness of one’s audience is more important than command over a language for optimal communication.

Cross-Cultural Communication Skills

With these idea of cross-cultural communication in mind, here are two concepts from the Asimov story that needed explaining:


For many Americans, especially those from the countryside or suburbs, an attic is simply “that extra space under a house’s roof, often used for storage”. People from urban environments, or from countries that use different architectural practices, might never have seen an attic. So, the first step in our cultural exploration of “attics” is to recognize how they are not universal concepts -- like, for instance, a home is. Homes, more or less, are dwelling places for people, whereas attics only emerge within specific cultural contexts.

Delving deeper, describing an attic to someone who has never experienced one can prove an impossible task. At first, we could use a diagram showing how houses with points roofs often have extra undeveloped space above their top floors. But, there is also a set of intuitive feelings that people develop and express about attics. These intuitive feelings are much more difficult to describe. For instance, how they can sometimes give a creepy feeling, triggered by spider webs, and objects that teeter between being saved and neglected at the same time.

“Giving a Teacher an Apple

There is an old American tradition of bringing an apple to a teacher as a gift. Even though this practice is less popular today, it does happen sometimes. Plus, it is depicted in so many stories and movies that most English speakers would easily recognize it.

In the Asimov story, this practice is referred to with a kind of reversal. Set in the future, the story presents a little girl who learns from a machine-teacher. One day the machine breaks down, and a technician comes to fix is. When the technician comes, he gives the girl an apple. This play on the apple-giving practice could be a good place to have a discussion. For instance, why does it seem like Asimov reverses the roles, and gives the student an apple? Yet, this question presupposes that people already recognize this apple-giving practice to begin with.

Overall, when in cross-cultural environments, all parties need to be sensitive to these cultural gaps. Keeping everyone in the group well informed enough to continue the conversation can be a more fruitful activity than a few people devling into a discussion and leaving the others behind. One of the best ways of raising one’s awareness of these cultural gaps is through group study of stories like the Asimov story mentioned above. Sitting in a group, reading and discussing, allows for both a better understanding of a story, and to better understand other people’s perspectives on the same subject.


Literacy: the Path to Cultural Exchange

Reading a story by oneself can be great, but discussing stories with groups of people opens up even more possibilities. We, at Knovva Academy, believe that reading literature in groups allows all involved to engage not only with the stories, but also with each other. These engagements are a fun and eye-opening way to develop people’s cross-cultural communication skills.

Feel free to be in touch, and tell us about your cross-cultural classroom experiences.