Nurture your Students’ Language & Cultures

Nurture your Students’ Language & Cultures

This article is reposted from: the Blog of the Association of American Schools in South America 

An international teacher easily interacts with 10-20 different nationalities a day. These schools and classrooms are an anthropolgist’s dream. Just imagine all the fascinating cultural elements that could be explored through your students: attitudes, cultural practices, traditions, taboos and social behaviour. The list coud go on and on.

But just how often do we stop to look at our students as an enthnographers do, taking time to learn about their languages and cultures? Just how valuable are culture and language anyway?

Let me tell you that they play an extremely important role in shaping our students’ identities and experiences. They can also help to build engagement and relevance in student learning.

A Canadian educator, Rebecca, shared a very powerful story with me about her experiences teaching kindergarten in Korea. When she first started, she noticed her students were extremely quiet and avoided eye contact when she spoke to them. As the year went on, and as they became more proficient in English, she watched them become more open, feel comfortable speaking aloud and maintain eye contact when they spoke. One day, she invited the parents to visit the classroom. As they spent time in the class, they observed their children interacting with their teacher and other children. They were extremely surprised at how their children behaved. They noticed the children didn’t bow to their teacher and they spoke out openly to her. They also observed students making direct eye contact with their teacher, which is often considered a  sign of disrespect in the Korean culture. They communicated their surprise and concern to Rebecca.

This story illustrates the push-and-pull between cultures that can exist when students attend an international school. They often live between 2 cultures, with their family’s cultures and values played out at home and their international school offering a different (sometimes similar, sometimes very different) set of values and expectations.

Educators can play a very important role in helping to mediate this tension for students. The policies and practices they implement in the school and classroom can help nurture both cultures so that they become interconnected, not disconnected.

This process starts with first understanding the value of our students’ languages and cultures.

Why we need to value student’s languages and cultures:

  • Our students’ home languages provide a link to their families, their history and ultimately, their identities
  • The stronger a students’ home language, the easier it is for them to learn a new language, like English
  • Students use their own cultural lens to view and interpret the world

When we activate students’ languages and cultures in the classroom, information becomes more relevant and meaningful, making learning more comprehensible

How teachers can support students’ cultures and languages in the school and classroom

Enable students to use their mother-tongue languages in the school and classroom.

  • This is especially powerful for students who are not yet proficient enough in English to understand academic language or to think fluently in English. Getting students to brainstorm in their own languages before writing, or for tasks that involve higher-order thinking can bridge the language barrier and keep them learning content.
  • These students can also benefit from reading important background information about class topics in their mother-tongue on the internet. This can help them keep up and understand what is going on in the classroom. You can also encourage your students who speak the same languages to discuss class concepts in their mother-tongue; this can make the learning much more meaningful for them. You will also be promoting the ongoing development of their home languages.
  • Get rid of signs and policies that promote “English only,” in the school and classroom. This sends the message that English deserves a higher-status than students’ home language(s), even if not intentionally. Current research shows that supporting home languages or using bilingual approaches in the classroom does not harm students’ English language development; in fact it supports it.

Engage students’ cultures for more meaningful and interesting learning.

  • When planning lessons, build in opportunities to engage students’ prior knowledge through their own cultural perspectives. For example, if the topic is “World War II,” you could encourage students to find out what role their countries played in the war instead of reflecting on one dominant perspective. Similarly, you could extend a class unit on “communities” to allow your students to think about or research communities from their own cultures or countries.
  • Broaden your classroom discussions by asking students’ to share their cultural perspectives on key topics or issues in a safe and respectful way. For example, if the class is studying “Romeo and Juliet” and the theme is “love,” students could share their own cultural belifes around love. Some students might come from cultures where love is not the main reason for marriage, for example, and this viewpoint could be shared within the classroom. These kinds of rich discussions need to be delivered in a nurturing environment where all students’ opinions and perspectives are valued by teachers who set the tone for an open and accepting classroom community.  This is especially important when students’ viewpoints are likely to be different to the dominant perspective.
  • Celebrate your students’ cultures and traditions. Have students share elements of their cultural practices or holidays with their class. Let them see that you are open to learning more about their culture and that you value it. This will help educate all of your students about the richness and diversity that different cultures have to offer.

Teachers can play a very pivotal role in helping students mediate their home cultures and their “school cultures.” Both are important and contribute to a strong personal identity. As our world becomes more globalized, individuals with bicultural or multicultural knowledge will be a valuable asset and resource to their societies.

Alison Schofield is a former international teacher who now works as an educational consultant and bilingual expert. She is based in Dubai, U.A.E. and is co-author of the book and global professional development program for teachers called, Bilingual and Multilingual Learners from the Inside-Out.  Twitter: @educatorBmls