Summer camps are in full swing and last month my daughter spent three weeks in a Spanish camp learning about Spain’s diverse regions, history and culture. She loved everything she studied; yet what truly captivated her most of all was the Flamenco music and dance. She and her fellow classmates learned a few components of Flamenco dance in camp and even made castanets out of cardboard and bottle caps. Seizing upon this multicultural bilingual opportunity, a few of us took our children to see a live professional Flamenco performance by Flamencura at a local Spanish venue, Malaga Tapas Wine Bar. Both children and adults were entranced by the impassioned music and beautiful performance. However, for the children, the experience personally connected and intertwined with their bilingual experience of learning Spanish culture. The children danced around their table and my daughter even had a chance to get up on stage with the performers. With their spirits lifted and their souls enriched, I knew that this experience would stay with them for a lifetime. In essence, it was one more step in becoming multicultural in addition to bilingual.
As language learners of a second language, it can be easy to simply focus on learning the language and to neglect learning about the culture or cultures of the language. After all, being bilingual does not in itself mean bicultural or multicultural. Being multicultural means that you have a more intricate understanding of more than one culture and have the ability to operate easily within each. When you incorporate cultural learning in language learning you then gain a myriad of benefits in addition to those that come from learning a second language.
Learning about other cultures…
- 1. Can help you become a better observer of culture in general.
Becoming an observer and learner of cultures, you gain insight into similarities and differences and can better understand the historical contributions thereof. I found this especially true for myself. I grew up in Appalachia Kentucky but spent most of my young adult life in Mexico. I later married into an Indian family. At first glance, these three cultures could not appear more distinct in terms of language, traditions, clothes, music, religious practices, etc. However, I very quickly recognized many similarities and traditions in each which enabled me to move through each culture with ease. Not only that, the more I learned about the cultural traditions and practices in Mexico and India, the better I also understood those of my own heritage culture in Appalachia. In effect, learning a second or third culture enables you to become a better observer of culture in general by creating context which allows you to distinguish similarities and differences and to better understand the origin of those cultural traditions.
Whether the culture you study is your heritage culture or you learn more about your heritage culture from being a better observer of culture, the gain is the same. By better understanding your heritage culture, you can better connect the historical practices and traditions of the past with that of the present and in turn develop a stronger sense of self awareness. This sense of self is connected with a sense of pride in who you are and where you come from and the special attributes that bind you and your family with traditions.
This need for a sense of self is innate in everyone and it is made evident at a very early age. I am a “Texas girl” may daughter has proudly declared since she was about 3 years of age. We had never used this term before; it is one she came up with on her own and she has used it to also describe other people with whom she relates to. I soon came to realize that already at a young age she somehow recognized the English/Spanish and Mexican American infusion of language, food and traditions that are central to our own personal lives in Austin and that may not always be present when we travel elsewhere in the United States. This statement of who she is clearly had the intended purpose to help define her sense of self.
- 3. Can lead to greater empathy and tolerance for others.
Learning about other cultures allow us to focus on what we have in common and to better appreciate our differences. I was reminded of this recently when we attended a family celebration for my husband’s niece’s high school graduation. The celebration was held in the graduate’s home in a suburb in northern Dallas. It incorporated cultural traditions from India with beautiful clothes, food and a large gathering of family and members in the community. When the Euro-American grandparents and the mother of my niece’s soon-to-be college roommate arrived at the party, my husband’s cousins quickly sought me out as the non-Indian representative of the family to talk to them, thinking that meeting someone else from a similar culture may help them feel more comfortable. Soon thereafter, they sat down next to their daughter to watch the celebrations unfold. Friends and cousins of the recent graduate stood up and spoke kind words about her. Afterwards, a dear uncle stood up to say a few words and closed with a prayer of blessing in their native language for his niece’s future success. While taking part of this wonderful celebration, I could not help but think about the soon-to-be roommate’s mother and grandparents. For them, this was probably their first time being part of an Indian celebration, maybe even their first time ever to witness practices in a different culture. And yet, as I sat there, I hoped that they too recognized that beyond the differences in clothes, food, and language, how much both cultures actually share in common – love and fellowship among family and friends, faith and hope for a successful future for the younger generation. Such recognition is the first step of developing greater empathy and tolerance for each other.
The infusion of other ideas and experiences enrich our lives and create opportunities for redefining previous notions. Every time you eat at one of the hundreds of TexMex restaurants in town or listen to popular music on the radio, you partake in the past creative infusion of cultures and traditions. Yet it is not just creative infusions in food and music that blend cultures and traditions to form new and innovative products. New philosophies and ideologies also are born and then redefined. Just look at how modern yoga and meditation, which originated from eastern philosophy, have now become common practice in our western culture. Even the very notion of democracy came from intercultural exchange and dialogue from the past intertwined with our present day ideologies. As our understanding of community becomes even more global, we will continue to witness a blend of cultural ideas and traditions that will continue to redefine concepts and notions and produce new and interesting ideas and products. So far some of my new favorites have been Indian Flamenco music and Korean tacos!
What better way to have fun than to explore new and interesting things, places and ideas. Learning about cultures and traditions fuels curiosity and creates new and memorable adventures. Try new foods, music, and clothes, travel and partake in new traditions. You may be surprised by what you like and what you dislike. In the process, you learn alot about others and yourself and create meaningful experiences that will stay with you a lifetime. You never know, you may rediscover your own inner 6 year old and just want to dance!