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The foreign language requirement is not the only cultural requirement that students in the College must fulfill. 

Credit: Carson Kahoe

Students in the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Nursing and the Wharton School all have foreign language requirements. These courses don’t only teach language — they also teach students about the culture that is associated with the language.

But foreign language isn’t the only College requirement that emphasizes learning about foreign cultures.

College students are also required to fulfill the Cross Cultural Analysis Foundational Approach. Associate Dean of the College and Director of Academic Affairs Kent Peterman said that this decision was made in a vote by the faculty in discussions regarding the College curriculum.

“Certainly there are many aspects of our curriculum that connect students with globalization and times and places removed from our own, but there were faculty that were aware that too many students go through Penn without having that kind of exposure to something that’s outside the contemporary United States,” Peterman said.

Peterman explained that this was possible if a student chose to take no major or elective credits and fulfill no sectors with courses related to areas outside of the United States. He also added that while the faculty were discussing the possibility of a Cross Cultural Analysis requirement at the meeting, there was mention of the overlap that it may have with the foreign language requirement, given the cultural component of language courses.

“Culture is really important, but what you’re doing with the culture is using that as a vehicle to get into the language,” Peterman said. “We really need the cultural analysis — not just being exposed to a culture, [but] engaged in thinking in a disciplined way about a culture.”

Foreign language courses, though, remain deeply focused on teaching culture as well as language.

“You can’t separate language from culture — they are intrinsically connected,” said Christina Frei, academic director of the Penn Language Center. “You automatically in the language structure and usage can connect it to learning about cultural practices, products and perspectives.”

Though there are courses that focus more on basic conventions and grammar — such as courses that focus on translation of languages like Latin — most language courses focus as much on teaching about the culture of a language as they do on teaching the social or historical context of nation(s) in which it is used.

Frei said that language courses are often designed to allow students to engage in those contexts by prompting them to compare their own beliefs and practices to those that characterize a certain culture.

“By comparing one’s own beliefs about one’s culture, wherever you’re from, you [can] compare [your own beliefs] to the beliefs and practices of the target culture,” Frei said.

Frei also emphasized that the curriculum of language courses aims to make sure that students understand that culture can transcend national boundaries. The Language Center has begun to invite the students of various languages to events that highlight the cultural aspects that they share, allowing students to gain an awareness of the role of the language and culture in a global context.

“We’ve begun to have events where we invite students from [many different languages] to look at cultural products that they have in common rather than the differences that are created by national boundaries,” Frei said. “We think that in the next few years, students will see more events that have to do with what we call ‘language without borders.’”

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