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Bilingualism and Cultural Awareness

By Gregory R. van Goidtsnoven

05/22/2020

Bilingualism and Cultural Awareness
Recently, I was talking with a colleague about the role of our English Immersion Program and the place of bilingual education within an American School system. In the course of the conversation, what struck me most was the intense focus on the idea that “learning English” was a task to be completed—a task that had a beginning and an end—and that this task had easily achievable benchmarks and goals. The perceived objective being to “pass” this class.

It was only after I’d had time to reflect that I realized the extent to which culture impacts English language acquisition. Learning a foreign language is not simply about understanding the vocabulary, and it requires much more than simply the ability to “pass.”

We need to step back from our traditional view of language learning to realize that the processes that take place not only require students to practice linguistic forms but also require them to become familiar with the culture that produces the language, so that they are equipped to interpret the communication.

In other words, cultural contexts in language determine the ways in which students interact and form perceptions of various situations. If they don’t understand the culture behind the language, they will not understand how the language is supposed to be used in context.

Many of us look at language acquisition as a matter of employing proper grammatical structures and building vocabulary, assessing competence with a vague “communicates effectively.”

These reductive perceptions don’t begin to take into account the complexity of systems at work in language development.

“If language learners are to communicate at a personal level with individuals from another culture background,” according to Ismail Cakir, “they will need not only to understand the cultural influences at work in the behavior of others, but also to recognize the profound influence patterns of their own culture exerted over their thoughts, their activities, and their forms of linguistic expression” (TOJDE 2006).

Learning a new language is not just about mastering grammatically correct forms but knowing when and under what circumstances to use them.

Research in the field of intercultural communication has highlighted the importance of building cultural awareness in English language programs. To this end, it is essential that students have opportunities to practice language through interactive classroom activities that allow them to communicate meaning, build vocabulary, enhance grammatical accuracy, and develop communicative competency.

Through our EIP and bilingual programs, Raffles American School understands the complexity of language development and implements educational strategies that facilitate the development of deeper understanding. We give our students time to explore, consider, analyze, research, and discuss so that they can cultivate an understanding of how English is used. We encourage students to continue to develop their cultural awareness as a means of understanding how the social context of language and culture affects interactions.

“Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” William Butler Yeats




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