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The Role of Cultural Competence in Bilingual Education

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A dual language (DL) program is more than simply teaching content in two languages. It’s about seeing cultural, social and linguistic differences and similarities as means to develop connections and appreciation for other cultures as well as our own. The three core pillars of DL education aim for students to become not only fully bilingual and bi-literate or high academically achieving, but also socially and culturally competent in a global society. By integrating language and content instruction, the first two pillars get developed on a day to day basis. However, the development of cultural competence tends to be relegated to “a once in a while” superficial level, doing a holiday performance once a year, for example. This, unfortunately, significantly lessens one of the main benefits of DL education: the ability for a child to understand the world through a global lens and relate to other cultures.

Fulbright educator Angela Palmieri in an Education Week blog post states, “Cultural instruction is equally as important as language and academic instruction and should be treated as such by all stakeholders in dual language immersion programs.” She went on to also say that “what often sparks a love of learning a language is to connect to the culture or cultures that correspond to it. If dual language programs fail to connect students to the culture, students, even as they progress in their language learning, eventually disengage.” When culture is infused into the content and language integration, students become not only able to communicate in another language but are also able understand others from their own perspectives. In other words, “putting oneself in someone else’s shoes” is less challenging even if those metaphorical shoes belong to someone from Mexico, Pakistan or China.

So, how do we do it? How do we infuse culture in our already content heavy teaching? The answer is “methodically and intentionally.” Culture is transmitted in many ways, through arts, music, dance, food, holidays, celebrations, traditions, stories, idioms, sayings, literature, etc. Let’s tap into as many of these ways as possible. A first step, for example, starts when choosing readings for the students; look for authentic material not translations. Especially when working with fiction, integrate folktales, legends, and indigenous stories. Exposing children to as much music as possible from the target culture is also a good starting point. Celebrate traditions and holidays not just once a year, but multiple times incorporating music and dance. Have a cultural corner than gets updated throughout the year and that is connected to the themes or topics being studied. For example, if the topic is plants, include pictures of plants from other countries and include the national flower, then take some time to explain their significance and connection to the lesson. Include a “Today in History” and/or “current-events” section on the cultural corner to go to once a week in order to make students aware of what is going on or what is being celebrated in other parts of the world and why it matters. Include “Did you know?” moments throughout the day, in which you explicitly reference culture in connection to what you are teaching.

High achievement in content knowledge and proficiency in another language are wonderful skills to have in our modern world but having an understanding of who others are as a people is indispensable to truly become productive global citizens.

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