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The features of a culture overlap and influence each other, and this module covers how a student's cultural background and language capabilities influence the classroom environment.

A culture is the system of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that constitute the distinctive way of life of a people. Although sometimes the term is also used to refer specifically to the artistic, intellectual and other “high-brow” aspects of life, I use it here more broadly to refer to everything that characterizes a way of life—baseball games as well as symphony concerts, and McDonald’s as well as expensive restaurants. In this broad sense culture is nearly synonymous with ethnicity, which refers to the common language, history, and future experienced by a group within society. Culture has elements that are obvious, like unique holidays or customs, but also features that are subtle or easy for outsiders to overlook, like beliefs about the nature of intelligence or about the proper way to tell a story. When a classroom draws students from many cultures or ethnic groups, therefore, the students bring to it considerable diversity. Teachers need to understand that diversity—understand how students’ habitual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors differ from each other, and especially how they differ from the teacher’s.

But this kind of understanding can get complicated. To organize the topic, therefore, I will discuss aspects of cultural diversity according to how directly they relate to language differences compared to differences in other social and psychological features of culture. The distinction is convenient, but it is also a bit arbitrary because, as you will see, the features of a culture overlap and influence each other.

Bilingualism: language differences in the classroom

Although monolingual speakers often do not realize it, the majority of children around the world are bilingual, meaning that they understand and use two languages (Meyers-Scotton, 2005). Even in the United States, which is a relatively monolingual society, more than 47 million people speak a language other than English at home, and about 10 million of these people were children or youths in public schools (United States Department of Commerce, 2003). The large majority of bilingual students (75 per cent) are Hispanic, but the rest represent more than a hundred different language groups from around the world. In larger communities throughout the United States, it is therefore common for a single classroom to contain students from several language backgrounds at once.

In classrooms as in other social settings, bilingualism exists in different forms and degrees. At one extreme are students who speak both English and another language fluently; at the other extreme are those who speak only limited versions of both languages. In between are students who speak their home (or heritage) language much better than English, as well as others who have partially lost their heritage language in the process of learning English (Tse, 2001). Commonly, too, a student may speak a language satisfactorily, but be challenged by reading or writing it—though even this pattern has individual exceptions. Whatever the case, each bilingual student poses unique challenges to teachers.

Questions & Answers

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The Reply
taste and preference
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Source:  OpenStax, Educational psychology. OpenStax CNX. May 11, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11302/1.2
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