Teaching language, teaching culture

For Laura Kline-Taylor, the key to unlocking a language is through learning the values behind its verbiage. 

With a background in teaching English as a second language in Spain and a degree in Spanish Language and Literature, the Princeton, New Jersey native has made a career out of connecting language and culture, and in turn, bridging gaps between humans and foreign cultures.

“So many of our phrases are rooted in our values,” she said. “’He who hesitates is lost,’ for example. This is a phrase that talks about how time is money, and one of the American values we hold is to be very efficient and effective with time.”

Now the Director of Education and Intercultural Learning at AFS, an international non-profit NGO that facilitates intercultural learning opportunities, Kline-Taylor, 32, focuses on training AFS staff and volunteers to be “cultural informants,” a phrase she uses to refer to someone who can explain the values and behaviors of their culture, and will serve as a link to a foreigner who wants to get to know a new country’s social landscape.

Laura Kline-Taylor credits an early exposure to the international nature of the Princeton University community as a child to what she calls a “flavor” that she continued to crave through her adolescence. She cites growing up around children of academics, in addition to an immersive experience in Guatemala at the age of seven, as what pushed her to pursue Spanish as a major in college and even brought her to study in Mexico, where she thought she might end up settling.

But after graduating from Temple University in 2005, Kline-Taylor moved to Madrid, where she spent four years teaching English as a second language. It was then, she said, “I realized very quickly that one cannot just teach a language without accessing parts of the culture because language is so rooted in the culture and so informed by culture.”

“When I was speaking to native Spanish speakers and we would explore more advanced native expressions or phrases that they came across, I wouldn’t just explain what the phrase meant. I would explain why the phrase also reflected this society’s values,” she said. I started to explore what it means to be a member of a culture and how rooted and connected our words are to our values.”

Kline-Taylor recalled that it was particularly during her one-on-one English sessions with her Spanish students that she became able to pinpoint what it was humans “crave” when they learn a new language.

“People want to be personally involved, and feel personally connected and have a sense of belonging,” she said. “They want to internalize the experience, or participate in the experience actively so they’re not just receiving language instructions thrown at them, or information about certain cultures through a list of do’s and don’ts.”

After four years, however, Kline-Taylor found herself wanting more structure around the ideas she had already been developing with regards to teaching culture in conjunction with language. She brought her background as a language instructor and experience living in Spain to SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, where she focused on international education and specifically on curriculum design and program evaluation.

It was there that her years of pulling phrases apart and explaining the myriad implications of single words and expressions to her English students began to inform not only an education philosophy, but also a framework for large-scale curriculum design at AFS. SIT Graduate Institute offers internationally focused programs with an emphasis on experiential learning. Kline-Taylor first became exposed to AFS through SIT’s capstone six-month practicum period, in which students apply what they learn in the classroom to organizations specializing in their field of study.

An ideal outcome for someone who participates in an AFS program, whether it be on an international exchange or volunteering as a host, she believes, is an increased awareness about how rooted in culture one can be, and how it permeates everything from language to one’s value system. “I want students to have an increased vocabulary about how new skills or new concepts can help us develop that awareness and better communicate with people who are fundamentally and foundationally different than we are,” she said.

Drawing from her own experiences living abroad has allowed her to design better programs and train staff to navigate the nuances that exist within the exchange experience, from start to finish. Kline-Taylor noted that dramatic shifts in perspective happen just as much when a student is in a foreign country as upon his or her return home.

“The experience in the foreign culture often is mirrored in the experience upon a return,” she said. “After a significant period of time in a new context, one adapts. Sometimes they’re adapting only their behavior, but other times they are adapting their attitudes or sensibilities and sensitivities to difference, and to these deeper-rooted values.”

In a certain regard, Kline-Taylor notices, her own trajectory is parallel to that of the past and current students under her tutelage: when asked what she was most proud of in her career, she said, “I’m most proud of being involved in transformation, and transformative opportunities.”

“That word is huge for me because in my work I have transformed. I have grown into a more sensitive, more knowledgeable and more impactful human being,” she mused.

“At the same time, I have helped other people do the same thing. Knowing the individual lives that I touch are transforming also means they are transforming the lives of other people and having a positive impact on other individuals and other societies at large.”