All of us were taught that Columbus discovered America, meaning the Western Hemisphere. But most of us who were educated in Latin America learned that America is one of five continents, represented by one of the five interlocking rings of the Olympic Games. The other four are Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, the last one combining Australia and Antarctica. In most English-speaking countries, however, we teach that there are seven continents, essentially dividing America into North and South, and Oceania into Antarctica and Australia.
Many older citizens living in Spanish-speaking Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, always considered themselves “americanos,” and they felt offended by their North American neighbors from the U.S. who wanted to claim the term only for themselves. However, the informal use of the term “americano (a)” to refer only to people from the U.S. is now widely spread in Spanish as well, and the use of the term to refer to Spanish-speaking Latin Americans is now only timidly applied, and instead of referring to continental America, many Latin Americans also now opt for “Las Américas” in order not to sound confusing. Why is that?
Part of it has to do with the fact that “America” is not taught as the name of a continent in our elementary schools. We choose to teach the seven-continent model, and we recognize that our country is informally and even lovingly referred to as “America.” Another part has to do with the enormous influence that the United States has had in Latin America, particularly after World War II. Movies, television shows, toys, general merchandise, translated books and magazines, even political ideas, all entered the culture and the life of Latin Americans at a much faster pace starting in the 1950s. Eventually, it became as common a practice to call people from the United States “americanos” as it was to call a shaving blade a “Gillette,” no matter what brand it was.
So what do we do about this and why is this important? As foreign language teachers, we need to recognize how crucial it is to teach culture as we teach the target language. It is equally important to remember that culture can be lost, that foreign citizens who are speakers of the target language may see the world and apply terminology that’s different from ours, that we should try to present culture in an inclusive way, not an “us” versus “them” way, and that we should always aim to maintain and take pride in our diverse cultures that really unite us more than separate us. Some of us see a great opportunity now in this era of technologically-advanced global communication to really make the difference we always wanted to make in our students. It is important now more than ever to make sure we spread the right message.
Of course, we all know Columbus did not really “discover” America, but those who teach elementary school may want to remember, for instance, next time Columbus Day comes around, to ask or elicit from students which America the discovery celebration refers to, the U.S. or both North and South America. And those who teach high school may want to introduce their students to the concept of the Organization of American States, and explain or elicit whom the term “American” refers to in that name.
As teachers, it’s mesmerizing to watch students’ reaction when they learn these types of information. Students always consider these bits of knowledge “odd” or “weird.” The very fact that they do consider them strange is actually a good sign. It means they are fascinated by what they’ve learned, and it is something they will hold on to.