“Language is the roadmap of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” – Rita Mae Brown
Teaching Culture and English
Language and culture are inseparable, and teachers with English as an Additional language (EAL) students need to be aware of the cultural similarities and differences among the students themselves. When students learn English, or any other language for that matter, they also learn the target culture.
Why we need to value student’s languages and cultures
Language is a verbal expression of culture. It conveys our experience as people. Learning a language opens a window into the culture and customs of people.
Students’ native languages provide a link to their families, their history and ultimately, their identities. They use their own cultural lens to view and interpret the world.
The language and culture of students shape their identities and experiences. They can also help to build engagement and relevance in student learning. 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
Students really appreciate when their teacher exhibits interest in their customs and cultural practices. For students, it means that not only is the teacher concerned with teaching English, but he is also considerate of and interested in learning about their way of life. Here are some ways to engage students’ cultures for more meaningful and interesting learning:
1. Enable students to use their mother-tongue languages in the school and classroom. Students can benefit from brainstorming and reading important background information about class topics in their mother-tongue. This can help them keep up and understand what is going on in the classroom. Similarly, teachers can also allow EAL students and their classmates who speak the same languages to discuss class concepts in their mother-tongue. This can make the learning much more meaningful for them.
2. When planning lessons, build in opportunities to engage students’ prior knowledge through their own cultural perspectives. Incorporating literature into cultural literacy instruction can model language structures, connect lessons to students’ prior knowledge, develop cultural awareness by comparing their own culture with the second culture, and motivate students in their learning and using of the second language. Thus, whenever there is an opportunity to try to connect lesson content with the students’ lives, I do my best to incorporate things that I know are important to them as well as things that they are very familiar with.
For example, we are studying “The Joy Luck Club” in our class and one of the main themes is cultural differences between the mothers and daughters. The mothers grew up in China while the daughters were born and raised in America. Their mixed cultural heritage confuses their ideologies taught in the society they reside in. Our EAL students consider their own culture by individually thinking about the defining features of their culture. They are asked to share their thoughts by identifying what they think is happening and how they would handle that situation. We also demonstrate how culture can interfere with communication. They are asked to work on strategies for recognizing and handling cultural misunderstandings. 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.
Linking lesson content to students’ lives and culture goes a long way in building rapport as they grow to appreciate you taking an interest in learning about their culture, it breaks down cultural barriers, and it helps students stay motivated to learn.