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A Realistic Approach to Language-Culture-Area Study

by Paul F. Griffin - 1952

The better we understand our world neighbors, the greater are our chances for living in harmony with them in the future. The author presents a tentative proposal for the design of a language-culture-area course from the geographer's point of view.

IN our proverbial "shrinking-world" attitude the interdependence of different studies and disciplines points to a dire need for more sharply defined integrations among heretofore unrelated subjects. As a result the term "language-culture-area" has arisen. The geographer must teach of man's environment and achievements just as the language teacher must teach of man's cultural patterns, relating these to predominant geographic and climatic conditions under which people live.

To think of geography solely as a study of land-names would be as sterile as to think of foreign language study as only a peculiar mode of speech, unrelated to a distinctive, important group of people on our globe. We ask ourselves, What particular kinds of socio-economic adjustments to his environment does man make which cause him to be considered unlike (as well as like) people in other areas?1

Although language-culture-area study came into prominence as a stress-induced phenomenon (to aid armies to cope better with environments unlike their own), its peacetime implications and values are enormous for college, high school, and even elementary school programs. Through as many educational media as possible the child should be helped to appreciate the customs and cultural patterns of other national groups. How can we expect our adults to have a sudden world-mindedness when it is so sadly neglected in our schools?

The better we understand our world neighbors, the greater are our chances for living in harmony with them in the future. To reach this understanding, which key elements in a given culture or area must be stressed, and how may these points be welded in a coherent, meaningful design for students?


A tentative answer to the first part of this basic question—which elements should be stressed for study of an area— is that the course can be structured in terms of ten "elements." (Let us assume, to make the discussion more specific, that the area to be studied is some part of Hispanic America.)

1. A geographic approach: the land and its products

2. Demographic aspects: the people (indigenous and immigrant)

3. Health and public welfare problems

4. Economic, political, and governmental problems: their origins, development, and possible solutions

5. International relations: with focal point the United States

6. Education: its social motivations

7. Religion: its geography

8. Literature: dominant patterns and imageries

9. Bellas artes: graphic, scripted, music, and other fine arts—their social motivations, reflections, and implications

10. Folkways, folklore

The objective of this course is to provide a merging point of student interests as they are distributed among the ten areas listed. Students should be encouraged to cut across interdivisional lines whenever such procedure is logical. For example, a student might wish to focus attention upon health problems; at the same time he is interested in folklore and in education. A logical merging of interests would be to isolate allusions to health problems, illness, medication, curanderism (witchcraft), and so forth, in the folklore (folk tales, ballads, popular sayings, superstitions), categorize these in terms of identified problems, and determine to what extent education is helping to solve the problems or modify existing erroneous attitudes, or how it might serve more constructively to do so. Another student might express special interest in determining the nature of tensions existing between the given Hispanic American country and the United States. He might select Mexico as his focal point, or item number 5 of the suggested list. Possibly he would structure these tensions around three topics: territorial grievances (for example, the Chamizal area, or Texas), interventional tensions (for example, the bungling of Henry L. Wilson, certain presidential elections), and discriminatory treatment of Mexicans in the United States (the zoot-suit riots in California, 1943). The student might search for tensions of a religious or political nature—which have existed in no uncertain terms.

After selecting one of the ten elements for his area of specialization, the student might adopt one or two subordinate areas among the ten. The course could be so designed that after five orientation sessions he would make such decision. Sometimes it is difficult to make a decision until the student has conducted preliminary explorations. Within three weeks, initial reports on tentative findings should be presented orally to the group. Early in the course the instructor in charge should give a list of at least a dozen possible topics for research, such as: "The Social Function of Mexican Art," "Infant Mortality in Peru," "Peronism and the Argentine Universities," "Miscegenation in Brazil," "Aprismo in Peru," "Journalism in Argentina: 1940-1950," or "Ethnic Prejudice in Mexico." Students should be encouraged to offer research topics, working in consultation with their major adviser (either in colleges or in high schools). Interdisciplinary approaches should be encouraged—that is, treating the same or similar problems from different approaches. A knowledge of the language of the country studied is an extremely valuable tool, almost a prerequisite.

By means of systematic, brief student reports during class sessions, the group would be apprised of advances made in specific areas. A series of student reports should be submitted toward the conclusion of the course. These reports would be oral summarizations (ten to fifteen minutes in length) of findings during the semester. A more comprehensive report should be written and submitted to the instructor of the Area course.

Key points within each of the ten areas listed should be brought to light by the instructor. In area 1 (geography) such matters as the factors of resources,2 man's adjustments to the landscape,3 rainfall, vegetation, and agricultural products are all crucial. In area 2 (demography), population distribution—its why and wherefore—, ethnic composition, occupations,4 and migratory trends and their explanations are included. In area 3 (health and public welfare problems) climatic factors are involved, as are drainage, water supply, vegetation, altitude, education, superstition, and treatment of illness.

In area 4 (economic, political, and governmental problems), key issues again are inextricably bound to area 1— the geography of the territory. Is it a machineless economy, as in many Hispanic American countries? What has been the relationship between the people and governmental bodies? What are the leading motifs in the civic groups? How about communications? (It would be more accurate to compare the communications of one Hispanic American country with those of another, since the gap is so enormous between communications in, say, Mexico and the United States. In Mexico, 1 kilometer of railroad to 80 square kilometers of land; in the United States, 1 kilometer of railroad to 20 square kilometers of land.) Point up the main revolutionary movements, key issues involved, duration, and outcome.

In area 5 (international relations), it would seem more significant to delineate major aspects of the relations between any area and the United States rather than, say, between Chile and Argentina. The latter comparison has its importance, but should be seen as subordinate to the former. Again, this section is bound closely to the nation's geography. For example, the United States naturally will have easier relations with a country of Hispanic America if the products of that country tend to complement (e. g., Brazil) rather than duplicate (e. g., Argentina) her own. These considerations must all be cast into the perspective early in the area course.

For education, it should be demonstrated to what extent the society is school-made. Tremendously important and interesting aspects for study would be the Mexican rural schools, the cultural missions, the anti-illiteracy campaigns, or the Argentine University Purge under Peron. Inevitably, the significance of geographic factors in influencing the shape of education will be seen. This does not mean that the teacher's stand should be that of the geographic determinist, but the interrelationships here must be made clear.

Little studied are the polytheistic forms of religion in Hispanic America, perhaps because source materials would be difficult to locate. The impact of the Spanish conquest needs pointing up. It is one of the most singular and incredible features of South American history that a handful of conquistadores came to this continent and imposed a religion and a language upon practically the whole southern part of the continent.

The literature as a means to area study has been neglected to a lamentable degree. This is largely the fault of course designers who have failed to recognize, or have failed to stress, the enormous fund of social knowledge, attitudes, problems, and conditions that are described vividly in the literature of every Hispanic American country—some being richer and more promising than others. Although many enduring works are available in translation, it seems more worth while to have students read key works in the original Spanish, if they have the proper language background.


The scope of this article does not permit an extended list of works revealing social information concerning a given Hispanic country. Some highly valuable key works may be mentioned, however.

FOR MEXICO: Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo (The Underdogs)5 is a gripping, somber story of the Mexican revolution which began in 1910. Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi’s El periquillo sarniento (The Itching Parrot)6 is one of Latin America's outstanding novels by the "Mexican Thinker," satirizing social conditions of the nation in the early nineteenth century. It should be included in the students' reading list because the points made are of timeless significance. M. Guzman's El aguila y la serpiente7 (The Eagle and the Serpent) is an outstanding novel treating revolutionary and social themes.

FOR VENEZUELA: A classic work is Romulo Gallegos' Dona Barbara,8 considered by some critics to be the best novel written in Latin America. It paints a vivid portrait of life on the Venezuela plains. The approach is ecological, showing how man is shaped by his adverse geographical environment. This is an excellent work for the ones who subscribe to geographical determinism.

FOR ARGENTINA: Ricardo Guiraldes' Don Segundo Sombra9 portrays gaucho life on the pampa, and offers a good regional treatment of social themes. Jose Marmol’s Amalia10 is important social material from a historical point of view, being based on the facts of Rosa's tyranny and the tragic conditions of the period. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo11 gives significant data concerning social and civic life in Argentina.

FOR COLOMBIA: Jorge Isaacs' Maria12 has been an extremely important work and is a touching, rather sentimental story with numerous social implications. In it are thematic traces of ethnic considerations. Jose E. Rivera's La vordgine13 is a regional novel of the jungle rubber workers.14

The above titles demonstrate the type of supporting insights which can be drawn from literary works. The social sciences have neglected this field as a source of vital information. A list of suggested readings at least serves as a starting point for those who would enrich their course offerings in social studies.

In the bellas artes there is a wealth of social meanings for those interested in area research. In Mexico, for example, art has taken on tremendous social meaning. Where the printed word has been de-emphasized (in spite of the fact that Mexico had a printing press by 1534 and printed books by 1536) it is logical that pictorial art, such as murals, should assume roles of increased significance. Nowhere in the world does art have more social meaning than in some of the Hispanic American countries. Music, too, is and has been employed as an expression of the social spirit of the times—witness "Valentino," "Adelita," and "La Cucaracha." The fine arts clearly index important social phenomena and merit the attention of qualified observers who are oriented within a larger area study perspective.

Many facets of a given culture may be studied through the folklore of the people. Erikson states:

A nation's totality of basic attitudes and symbols is deeply rooted in her geographical position and her history. . . . these attitudes and symbols are unavoidably recreated in every child trained and educated in the national culture area. . . 15

He adds that many of the basic folk motivations are clearly re-created in the conscious and unconscious imageries of the people—the folk tales, ballads, songs, and proverbs.16

No one should be content with having studied a given problem or topic from any one of the ten segments or disciplines cited. The interrelationships of these, so far as they apply to the problem involved, must be illuminated. Thus, information is reiterated and reinforced from different angles. This consideration should justify the student's selection of two, or perhaps three, related areas of the ten mentioned; the focal point will be in one specific area, but supported by findings under a different category.


How should the student be evaluated? It would seem practical to base a larger part of the evaluation upon the student's oral reports, in addition to his final written paper expanding upon his oral presentations. If an examination must be given, about one-fourth of it should be on all ten areas—major points stressed in lecture form or in other students' reports. One-half of the examination should be devoted to the student's special area (which involves a broad preparation on the teacher's part). In view of the flexibility of the course, one-fourth of the final written examination may be directed toward the student's own evaluation of such a course, together with his suggestions for its improvement in terms of increased unity and cohesion.


The foregoing tentative proposal for the design of a language-culture-area course is from the geographer's point of view. Every effort has been made to represent fairly the kinds of study or disciplines which can contribute to a broad and yet profound understanding of other peoples. It has been indicated that certain fields can be much more contributive than they have been in the past—literature, fine arts, and folklore, for example. Specialization in a single branch has its merits, but an appeal is made for knowledge that is coordinated among several kinds of specialization.

Although specialization and concentration have their respective merits, it would seem notably more rewarding in the case of language-culture-area studies to enrich one line of investigation with related knowledge and insights from other branches of thought. Talking about the multi-approach in social sciences is not enough. Teachers should try to do something about it. If their schools permit experimentation, they should by all means work along such lines. The final step is to report their results so that other teachers may benefit from their experiments and insights. If we are ever to reach international understanding, the broad strategy lies somewhere in this direction.


"Sociological Significance of Language and Culture." Nature, 160:205-6, August 16, 1947.

"Area Studies in the Americas." Higher Education, 6:158, March, 1950.

P. W. COONS, "Intercultural Aspects of Latin American Studies," Social Education, 10:69-72, February, 1946.

G. C. BOOTH, Mexico's School-Made Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1941.

OTTO KLINEBERG, Tensions Affecting International Understanding. Social Science Research Council, June, 1951.

R. S. REISCHAUER AND J. K. FAIRBANK, "Understanding the Far East Through Area Study." Far Eastern Survey, 17:121-3, May 19, 1948.

ROBERT B. HALL, Area Studies: with Special Reference to Their Implications for Research in the Social Sciences. Social Science Research Council, New York, May, 1947.

1 See W. J. Cahnman, "Outline of a Theory of Area Studies," Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 38:233-43, December, 1948.

2 The point is lucidly treated in J. Russell Smith and M. Ogden Phillips, Industrial and Commercial Geography. (New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1946), pp. 4-9.

3 See Preston E. James, Latin America. (New York, The Odyssey Press, Inc.), pp. 8-17, pp. 33-37; or N. A. Bengtson and W. Van Royen, Fundamentals of Economic Geography. (New York, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1950), pp. 4, 11-24; or Preston E. James, An Outline of Geography. (Boston, Ginn and Company, 1935), pp. 8-11.

4 For a succinct treatment of this aspect, see C. Langdon White and E. J. Foscue, Regional Geography of Anglo-America. (New York, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1943), pp. 18-34; or C« F. Jones and G. G. Darkenwald, Economic Geography (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1947), pp. 1-8.

5 First published in 1916. An edited textbook with Spanish-English vocabulary is published by Crofts Company, 1942.

6 First published in 1816 as a picaresque novel. A textbook edition is published by D. C. Heath and Company, 1946.

7 W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., published a textbook version of this work in 1943.

8 Published in 1929 in Venezuela.

9 Published in 1927; it is available in textbook edition at Henry Holt and Company, 1945.

10 First published in 1852; an edited textbook was published by D. C. Heath Company, 1926. The later edition, like many other literary works in textbook form, has been boiled down to its essence, which may be considered as advantageous for the purposes of language-culture-area research. Students who can read Spanish should be expected to cover a dozen novels in edited form during a semester. They would present their findings in English to the area-study group.

11 Published in 1845. A highly condensed edition, readable for even the first-year student of Spanish, is that published by D. C. Heath and Company, 1949. There are other textbook editions of the work.

12 Published in 1867. For a textbook version, see that of D. C. Heath and Company, 1926.

13 Published in 1924.

14 For a brief, rapid review of other works, see N. L. Weisinger, Guide to Studies in Spanish-American Literature. (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1937, 1940).

15 Erik Homburger Erikson, "Hitler's Imagery and German Youth," Psychiatry, vol. 5, p. 493, November, 1942.

16 This could very well be in the form of a content analysis of cultural products. An example of this technique is the Ph. D. dissertation of Joseph Raymond, "Attitudes and Cultural Patterns in Spanish Proverbs," Columbia University, New York, 1951.

17 An excellent and comprehensive bibliography for related literature is "Modern Latin America in Social Science Literature: A Selected, Annotated Bibliography of Books, Pamphlets, and Periodicals in English in the Field of Economics, Politics, and Sociology of Latin America" (ed., R. F. Behrendt). Social Science Section, Department of Cultural Affairs, Pan American Union, Washington 6, D. C.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 54 Number 2, 1952, p. 100-105
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4898, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:57:45 PM

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