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Making the grade with language learning, cultural awareness

4 min read


With a new school year approaching, it might just be a time to plan on incorporating the exposure of foreign language and comparative culture in your instruction no matter what grade or subject you teach.

Perhaps you can trace the history of a word, show the location of a past or current event with a map, expose your students to comparative literature with stories, legends and fables with settings and characters of other lands, and explore some basic expressions to make your second language and English as a second language learners more comfortable in the classroom and school. Perhaps you have all school activities or district-wide events which might take a focus on world cultures or one specific country or region. There might be an international night planned where foods, arts and crafts, videos of the particular countries, lectures from foreign exchange students, and games from other lands are shared and enjoyed.

I am the first to admit that studying a second language or organizing cultural programming takes effort. It takes hard work. It takes time. But, what is gained is so much more than the ability to speak and understand foreign words, phrases and conversations.

As an experienced ESL teacher, I know first-hand the impact of language learning and an exposure to other cultures has on skills in and out of the classroom. Without looking at current research, I can predict their findings:  increased memorization and critical thinking skills, expanded reading comprehension and vocabulary abilities, and improved language mechanics, spelling and writing skills. Additionally, academic progress in other content areas, along with performance on standardized tests and IQ tests are heightened. A student’s confidence and self-esteem soars and social skills are broadened. They show more interest in language study and world events.

As a teacher of ESL students ranging from age 4 through adults in public and private programs, yearlong, summer and 1-1 tutoring settings, I have seen that studying a second language opens up opportunities for students to experience a different culture with food and traditions and to understand world geography and people. Language study helps build relationships with individuals and to see the world as one community. My students are more tolerant and empathetic with those of other cultures.

Knowing another language enhances career opportunity. Many of my students have gone on to further study or work in areas ranging from  international education, law and health care to  the airline industry, hospitality and virtual gaming, overseas media specialists and diplomats. Survey results of over 575 alumni of The American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Ariz., echoed this competitive advantage from knowing foreign languages and learning about other cultures. They attributed language study to being a critical factor in hiring decisions and impacting career paths to providing personal fulfillment, mental discipline and cultural enlightenment.

But wait. There are other distinct advantages:

  • If a child learns a language at a young age, she is more apt to be connected to another culture and to be open-minded and accepting of others who are “different.”
  • The benefits of studying a second language are long lasting. It helps with keeping the brain active and to aid in prolonged cognitive functioning.
  • Society benefits though improved global communication. It impacts economic competitiveness and political and security interests.
  • Students with dual language abilities have expanded access to communicate with more people, to read more literature and to reap the benefits while traveling to other countries.
  • They understand and appreciate customs and achievements of individuals beyond their own communities.

There are many avenues to language learning to explore: classes in public and private schools from grade school through high school or at community colleges and universities, in all sorts of learning modes (participating in semester programs, study abroad, homestay, volunteer overseas work, internships in international settings, language camps, after-school programs, online learning courses, individual/group tutoring, and packaged curriculum/programs). An evening program, all day event, or learning intermittently throughout a semester or year all will influence your students’ global awareness whether it is strictly an overview of a language or something related to cultural awareness.

There truly is a learning opportunity that will fit every purpose, time frame, comfort level, and budget to benefit anyone who is willing to learn and put forth the effort, the hard work and the time to cultivate a worldview interest.

Marc Anderson, CEO and co-founder of online English training company, teaches online and taught in South Korea before launching TalktoCanada.  He regularly contributes to his organizations blog and lives in Ontario, Canada with his wife and son. Follow him on Twitter @talktocanada.