Why cultural understanding is essential: Part 4
Monday, January 06, 2020
It is important for instructors and staff to understand the various cultures represented in their student populations.
View language and culture as a lens for learning for all students, in particular, English Language Learners. All teachers, regardless of their classroom demographics, should engage in culturally relevant teaching to stimulate getting students to the deepest levels of thinking and the highest levels of personal achievement (Magrath, D., Nov. 12, 2019).
Culture might be defined as the ideas, customs, skills, arts and tools that characterize a given group of people in a given period. Culture thus establishes a context of cognitive and affective behavior and a blueprint for personal and social existence for each person. Culture is an integral part of any communicative language course; culture involves the interaction of words, function and reality. The ACTFL standards include culture.
Learners access and evaluate information and diverse perspectives that are available through the language and its cultures (ACTFL).
The psychological meanings and the subjective content of the entire communicative system— lexicon, stress, intonation, body language, eye contact, distance— must all be taken into account.
Sociolinguistic competence has been added to communicative competence as a key element in successful language learning. Intercultural competence allows people to broaden their world view. Those who have never experienced another culture or learned a second language are often unaware of their own cultural milieu (Magrath, D., August 2014).
Culture and home language also influence learning styles and reaction to classroom activities. For example, students who come from language groups that contain pictographic morphemes may be encouraged by the presence of visuals in the text (Rathet, I., Spring, 1994).
Conversely, some interference may occur when learners misinterpret visuals. Shading on a picture may seem like dirt or a smile may not indicate happiness. Teachers may not be aware of these cultural differences that interfere with communication
Language and culture are tied together. You can’t have one without the other.
Abstract Language is a part of culture and plays a very important role in the development of the culture. Some sociologists consider it as the keystone of culture. They believe, without language, culture would not be available. At the same time, language is influenced and shaped by culture, it reflects culture. Therefore, culture plays a very important part in language teaching, which is widely acknowledged by English teaching circles (Canadian Center of Science and Education, June 2011).
Students from other cultures expect more error correction but not direct criticism which they regard as immoral and to which they will not respond positively. Great value is placed on doing things right the first time, whereas in the United States the method is more experimental with the students using problem solving techniques to come to the right conclusion (Scarcella, R., 1992).
Culture is an important element for any ESL/ESOL program, and instructors need to be aware of learners’ cultures as they work with international students. New students may feel isolated, especially if no one else from their country is in the program or school.
A case in point: a student from Kyrgyzstan was isolated and spoke only to his teachers. He knew how to play classical guitar, though, so the teachers encouraged him to perform at the school’s talent show.
On the stage, he played “Yesterday” and “I Love Her” by the Beatles, his favorite group. When he was done, the students erupted into applause. “That was a very happy moment for me, and I finally felt connected to the school.”(Faller, April 26, 2014)
The student went on to excel academically and became involved in sports and other school activities including becoming president of the school chapter of the National Honor Society.
In many regards, culture is taught implicitly, imbedded in the linguistic forms that students are learning. To make students aware of the cultural features reflected in the language, teachers can make those cultural features an explicit topic of discussion in relation to the linguistic forms being studied (Peterson, E. and Coltrane, B., December 2003).
When people are suddenly put into a new cultural environment, they face stress and anxiety. The ESL classroom may be the only place they feel secure and it offers a way to help them manage stress through interaction with fellow students and the instructors.
The ESL classroom is often the only place where students can share their concerns about cross-cross cultural issues such as coping with culture shock and adjusting to U.S. culture. Talking about the many ways in which this transitional process has affected their social, cultural, and individual identities help students become more conscious of the changes that occur in their lives (Maum, R., 2008).
One student’s experiences
Adjusting to live in a new country goes beyond language.Ashley Lemus, from Guatemala, came to Boston to join family. She recounts her struggles:
“Everyone thought I was stupid, and they saw me as not capable,” she recalled. In group projects and class discussions, Lemus’ opinion was dismissed because she couldn’t communicate effectively. She decided she had to learn the language well if she expected to be taken seriously (Pendharkar, E.,July 13, 2018).
Learning English and adapting to a new culture are vital, but so is preserving one’s home culture.
“For us, it’s very important to speak Spanish because that’s how we connect with each other,” she said (Bilingual, bi-cultural: Non-native speakers seek societal acceptance while preserving heritage, culture).
Erika Hoff, from Florida Atlantic University, reports that learning English is particularly difficult in monolingual classrooms:
“The school curriculum is designed based on expectations of what monolingual children do. When I’m talking to audiences of policymakers and educators, I say, ‘you have to understand this and support bilingual children’s acquisition of English,’” Hoff said(Bilingual, bi-cultural: Non-native speakers seek societal acceptance while preserving heritage, culture).
Nuances and puns
Learning a new language goes beyond vocabulary and grammar. Social skills form an important part of L2 proficiency.
When we talk about social skills and social and emotional learning (SEL), an important element is understanding the nuances of language, as well as the context, the situation, we are in with others. Communication in the English language is not simple, even for native speakers (Elias, M., Jan. 23, 2018).
One aspect of English that may be confusing is the use of puns.
Here’s an example of where the meaning of the words matters: Someone is in the grocery store and drops a bag full of fruit. You ask, “Do you want a hand?” The person says, “Yes.” You start to applaud, and the person gets angry at you (A Funny Side of Literacy).
Here is another example:
Give them this example (note that these examples should be presented in writing): A vulture boards an airplane carrying two dead mice. The flight attendant looks at him and says, “I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”(A Funny Side of Literacy)
It is important to work together with content teachers to ease the cultural transitions that the learners are going through.
If we want English learners to succeed in mainstream classrooms, we cannot work alone. More than ever, content teachers and language specialists need to have a positive working relationship in order to plan effective instruction and design meaningful learning experiences. If we have anything less, it is students who will suffer (Huynh, T., Feb. 1, 2019).
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