Recently I was in a conversation regarding the role of our English Immersion Program, as well as the role of Bilingual Education within an American School system. Many topics were discussed throughout the conversation. What struck me the most was the intense focus on the idea that “Learning English” was a task to be completed; a task that has a beginning and an end. It was a task to be structured in a way that had easily achievable benchmarks and goals, and that “passing” the class was the objective.
It was only after the conversation had ended and I had time to reflect on what was said, did I realize how impactful culture plays on English language acquisition. The learning of a foreign language, such as English, is not simply understanding the vocabulary. Learning another language requires much more than simply “passing.” I believe that it is important for us to step back from our traditional view of how we learn language and realize that the processes that take place not only require the students to practice linguistic forms, but also require them to become familiar with the culture of the language in order to interpret the communication. In other words, cultural contexts in language determines the way students interact and make perceptions regarding any situation. If you don’t understand the culture that is behind a particular language, you will not fully understand how the language is supposed to be used and in what context certain words are appropriately utilized.
Many of us look at language acquisition as the practice of focusing on grammatical structures and vocabulary, and then haphazardly throwing them into a conversation to communicate effectively. These perceptions and statements don’t accurately represent the complexity of the systems that take place in language development. “If language learners are to communicate at a personal level with individuals from another cultural background, they will not only need to understand the cultural influences at work in the behavior of others, but also recognize the profound influence patterns of their own culture exerted over their thoughts, their activities, and their forms of linguistic expression.” (Ismail Cakir, TOJDE 2006.) Learning a new language is not just the mastering of grammatically correct words and forms, but knowing when to use them and under what circumstances.
Research in the field of intercultural communication highlighted the importance of cultural awareness in English Language programs. They highlighted the importance of opportunities to practice language as the communicative process. Through interactive classroom activities, students can 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 and understand how the social context of language and culture affect interactions.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats