NOTE: I’ve been teaching Latin almost exclusively with Roman myths lately – with very positive results. I shared this Darmok activity some time ago. Since this technique is working so well, it bears repeating. Download the updated Darmok classroom activity here. If you love science fiction, like I do, this activity will appeal to you. My students have always enjoyed it and we’ve had some great discussions.

Language is more than vocabulary and grammar. Without cultural context, messages will not be clear, even if students know the words and have memorized elements of the grammar. In natural language, cultural references are used almost constantly. When native speakers talk to one another they use a shorthand code: metaphors. These metaphors come from shared cultural stories. If students do not understand the folktales and myths that are interwoven in authentic speech they will have difficulty understanding messages.

Using authentic cultural stories is how to prepare students to operate fluently in the target language.

“Darmok” is an classic episode from the science fiction TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season 5, episode 2). ItImage result from is well known and admired by world language and social studies instructors because it makes us think about the nature of language and cultural literacy. In this episode the Starship Enterprise encounters an alien race, the Children of Tama, whose communication is incomprehensible. The crew on the Enterprise can understand most of the individual words, but not the meaning of the messages, because they do not know the culture’s stories. The Tamarian language is based on shared cultural stories and metaphors as much as on words and grammar.

The fictitious Tamarian language is similar, in some respects, to languages here on Earth. We use metaphor extensively too. Kendall Haven in StoryProof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story explains the usage and power of metaphor:

“Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that human thought processes are largely metaphorical.”  

“The average American uses almost six metaphors or metaphoric references per minute of spoken language.”

As your students watch the episode they will pick up at least 12 “Tamarian” phrases that are embedded in the story. Something similar can happens in our world language classes as we use folktales to teach language. Students will pick up the language and the vital cultural metaphors at the same time.

What are your thoughts and reactions to teaching with authentic cultural stories? How do you do it? How often do you teach this way? What stories do you teach?

I’ve been teaching Latin classes with cultural stories and myths for the last 6 months and it’s going well. Latin? Yes! I’ll fill you in soon. It’s been quite an adventure.

The original activity I wrote about Darmok appears, of all places, on a German Wikipedia page. (?) See it here. Look in the Einzelnachweise section