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Curriculum Opinion

How Language Immersion Programs Prepare Students to Be Global Citizens

By Angela Palmieri — January 17, 2018 8 min read
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Editor’s Intro: Angela Palmieri traveled to New Zealand in 2016 on the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching to document and study the cultural pedagogical practices of Māori-medium schools. She currently teaches sixth grade Spanish dual language immersion in Glendale, California. Here, she discusses how cultural pedagogical practices in dual language immersion programs help prepare students to be global citizens.

Language is my identity, Language is my uniqueness, Language is my life. —Māori Proverb

Teaching Culture in Dual Language Immersion Programs

Districts across the United States are starting dual language immersion programs at a rapid rate, with hopes of providing students with a multilingual education, as well as to close the achievement gap between English Language Learners and their native-English-speaking counterparts. Parents are requesting these programs from public school districts, who then have the complex task of implementing them. The benefits of dual language immersion programs are undeniable. Learning multiple languages increases a child’s intelligence, the ability to understand and relate to other cultures, as well as the ability for a child to understand the world through a global perspective.

The children in these programs are exposed to the diverse cultures of their peers, their teachers, as well as the cultures of the countries that correspond with the language they are learning. To learn the language of a culture is to have a key to that culture and its people.

Defining Culture

Culture can be separated into two categories: the tangible and the intangible. The tangible cultural practices are those than can be seen and experienced, such as religion, language, food, music, dance, dress, customs, the arts, celebrations, holidays, and traditions, among others. When one travels to another country, for example, some of the tangible parts of the culture can be learned even in a short amount of time. For example, when traveling to Mexico, experiencing the food, the art, and the music would give the traveler a “good sense” of the Mexican culture.

The intangible is what cannot be seen, the spiritual aspects of a culture; it is the backbone of a culture, the driving force. These practices can take an entire lifetime to capture and comprehend, requiring immersion in the culture and interactions with its people. Intangible practices are passed down from generation to generation and are deep rooted in history. They are a wealth of knowledge shared by a group of people.

The intangible can often be understood through the tangible. For example, one of the most important tangible aspects of the Māori culture is kapa haka, which is the Māori term for the performing arts including chants, song, and dance. Kapa haka is an important part of the Māori culture, with each chant having historical, cultural, tribal (iwi), and family connections that cannot be explained fully in words. Although someone outside of the Māori culture may view kapa haka as song and dance (tangible), the spiritual and non-physical meaning (intangible) behind kapa haka is what drives this special cultural practice. Anyone who has ever been in a room where kapa haka is being performed, is able to understand the palpable sense of spirituality and connectedness that Māori feel toward their people, their land, and their culture.

The tangible aspects of a culture are humanity’s way of expressing the physical representations of our connections to ourselves, each other, and our planet. In dual language immersion programs, it is the tangible practices of the culture that should be taught explicitly. 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.

The Benefits: Connection to Global Learning

When language and culture are taught concurrently, students in dual language immersion programs are able to connect more deeply with their own bilingualism as well as with the language that they are learning. Famous Canadian singer Buffy Saint-Marie, who has traveled the world extensively, explains the language and culture connection beautifully:

Language and culture cannot be separated. Language is vital to understanding our unique cultural perspectives. Language is a tool that is used to explore and experience our cultures and the perspectives that are embedded in our cultures.

In school, dual immersion students are taught academic content in two languages, which leaves little time to teach cultural practices. However, 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. Therefore, parents, teachers, and school districts must integrate cultural practices in every aspect of a dual language program.

When I traveled to New Zealand in 2016, I documented and researched the cultural pedagogical practices in Māori Medium schools, which are schools where students are taught in te reo Māori at least 51 percent of the time. The teachers and principals of the schools that I visited would explain to me that when culture is omitted from the learning of a language, the language will eventually be lost.

Language is and should be learned and taught through a cultural lens. It is the teaching and learning of culture that allows students to view the world openly, to gain a global understanding of other cultures, and to understand people from cultures other than their own at a deeper level.

Dual language immersion programs offer students a way to become global citizens starting at a young age and to be able to view their education from a cultural, global, multilingual lens. These programs create global citizens that are able to communicate in multiple languages and who are able to understand others from multiple perspectives, which will allow them to address gross injustices, racial inequalities, poverty, and environmental concerns at a global level.

Strategies to Include Cultural Pedagogy in Language Immersion Programs

Cultural practices must be methodically and intentionally taught in language immersion programs. Culture is transmitted and taught through the arts, music, dance, food, holidays, language (idioms, sayings, quotes), traditions, oral stories, cultural celebrations, literature, and many other ways; each culture having their own unique methods of passing on these practices.

Individual teacher teams in language programs should develop a cultural practices matrix, where school-wide cultural practices and holidays are planned out for the entire year. For example, teachers in Spanish dual language programs may place Día de los Muertos (November), las posadas (December), el carnaval (March or April), El Día del Niño (differs by country), and independence days (differs by country), amongst many other cultural holidays that are specific to each of the twenty-one Spanish-speaking countries in the world, on a yearly cultural matrix.

Many language immersion schools will have an end of the year cultural celebration, where students perform dances and songs from the culture/s of the target language they are learning. For example, students in Korean-immersion programs can perform dances and songs from the diverse regions of Korea, which allows the teachers to teach the history, cultural significance, and language of each dance. Students in Spanish-immersion programs can perform dances and songs from the different Spanish-speaking countries, so that by the end of their language immersion experience, they will have had exposure to the dances of Latin America and Spain.

Additionally, language immersion teachers should expose their students to as much music from the culture of the target language as possible. One of the strategies that I use in my classroom is to teach one or two songs per week from different Spanish-speaking countries. Each student in my class has a song folder, where they keep the songs that we learn, so that we can practice them often throughout the year. By the end of the year, we will have learned between 30-50 songs from all of the Spanish-speaking countries.

Language immersion schools should have bilingual signage and bilingual personnel in order to send the message that the target language is valued equally. Schools should have mural art work on the walls as much as possible, which is a powerful method of transmitting culture and of telling historical stories that are important to the culture. Many schools in Los Angeles have murals on their campuses, which reflects the rich history of the Chicano and Mexican-American cultures. It is through the murals that history is taught and represented.

The first step to adding these practices to the curricula is for each stakeholder in the school (teachers, principals, parents, and students) to understand the importance of simultaneously teaching culture and language, and that academics and cultural pedagogy are equally important in language programs. The notion that there is not enough time to integrate cultural practices must not be taken into consideration. If language immersion programs have the goal of ensuring that children become bilingual by a certain age or grade, the explicit teaching of cultural practices must occur, or the children in these programs will fail to connect to the target language they are learning.

Connect with Angela and Heather on Twitter.

Quote image created on Pablo.

Photo image of author with students was taken by and used with permission of Elizabeth Soleimany.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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