The language used in different in cultures influence how people think, understand, feel, and interact with the world. The obvious role of language is that it allows us to transmits information in written and spoken forms, but it is much richer than that. It is a tool for creating relationships and collaborating with others. Language is the mechanism that provides external meaning to internal being. Understanding language is at the heart of being a teacher. It is also a crucial part of how students demonstrate their understanding. To achieve this in my classroom, I want students to know that their culture and language is respected and to use this relationship as a way to support them.

Intercultural Communication

What we talk about; how we talk about it; what we see, attend to, or ignore; how we think; and what we think about are influenced by our culture … [and] help to shape, define, and perpetuate our culture (Porter & Samovar, 1991).

How Culture Influences People

The following videos provide an over-arching view of how language and culture affect our perspectives. As you watch the video, you can quickly answer the questions without over thinking to see how your views are similar or different than those in the video. What was interesting for me was I answered many based on the East perspectives, probably due to growing up in Aisa.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. –Nelson Mandela
My personal journey to make this connection has been to learn my student’s mother tongue of Chinese. Nelson Mandela said it best, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I learned first-hand how people appreciate the attempt to connect with them through their language. No matter how bad my attempt is to communicate through another language, the receivers always appreciative of my efforts.

Learning another language, I have a better appreciation of what my students experience every day. I have become more away of their non-verbal clues and notice how they often become frustrated when they cannot convey what they want. As I learn more Chinese each year, I am able to understand more of what students are saying. I always respond in English to help support their language acquisition, but by allowing them to speak Chinese when they are unable to communicate what they want in English, it still allows us to achieve the other parts of our curriculum while also building a strong bond with my students.

Thai Culture (Creative Roots)

Thai Culture (Creative Roots)

I take Chinese courses twice a week in the evenings, but I am also learning from my students. This makes living in China a much richer and enjoyable experience, but more importantly, it allows me to connect with my students. I learn best from being immersed in the language and using context clues to find out the meaning of words I hear. When I hear a word repeated often, I focus or research the meaning. I also watch how they interact and behaviors they have. Although I want to share my culture, I do not want to create any cultural mistakes.

A great example of an unintended cultural mistake that could ruin the relationship within a classroom comes from a common problem for beginning teachers in Thailand. If a foreign teacher patted the head of a Thai student to say good job it seems like no problem. However, this would cause a huge embarrassment for the student and be very disrespectful as the head is considered the holiest part of the body. These simple mistakes can seriously damage the relationship and educational environment.

Mother Tongue

A child’s identity, culture and language need to be fostered so that the child is motivated to learn.

It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that students leave their language and culture at the schoolhouse door.
Cummins et al, 2005

Mother Tongue

Our First Language

The same troubles I face as an adult working in foreign countries, I see my students experience. If I was forced to never speak English or constantly scolded for doing so, life would not be enjoyable overseas and I would not get much done. As I learn other languages I often make connections to English. English is what my brain operates in and through English, I can learn other languages. Research into the mother tongues explains why this is so.

The “mother tongue” refers to the first language children first learns at home. The development of a child’s first language is connected to the acquisition of their second language. The skills acquired in the first language will be transferred to their second language. This is known as the Common Underlying Proficiency (Cummins, 2000). Therefore, if children fail to reach competency in their first language, they will struggle to learn a second language (Cummins, 1979).

Cummins suggested children need to attain a critical level of mother tongue proficiency in order to avoid negative cognitive consequences and to achieve increased success in second language acquisition.
Threshold Theory
The Threshold Theory explains that there may be certain levels of linguistic competence which bilingual children must attain both in order to avoid cognitive deficits and to allow the potentially beneficial aspects of becoming bilingual to take shape.
Independence Theory
The Interdependence Theory suggests the concepts and skills from the first language are transferred to the second language and affects the rate and level of development. The greater the first language abilities and the more knowledge available for development of the second language. It provides a more rapid and more complete acquisition.

Language Acquisition

In order for children to have successful language acquisition,
attention needs to be given in schools to the value of both the Threshold and Interdependence Theory.

Case Study

A contentious region in southern Thailand demonstrates the perils of preventing mother tongue learning and forcing assimilation. After the Thai government passed an act, which was aimed at the Southern providences, that forced all schools in Thailand to conduct classes in Thai regardless of a school’s demographics, they faced serious repercussions in student achievement and motivation. However, after one year of a school piloting the Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE), educators saw a significant improvement in student achievement (Janchitfah, 2010).

An article titled “Supporting Children’s Mother Tongue in Our Schools” in the InTouch magazine published by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation highlights several ways we can strengthen the mother tongue in our classrooms. I have listed a summary of their suggestions to the right.

Similar Themes

Children could be encouraged to do projects on similar themes in their own languages.

Dual Language Books

Read books and engage students in some oral work within same language circles or read dual language books on their own.

Involve Parents

Utilize parents to help setting up foreign language shared reading groups during reading time.

Paired Reading

Paired reading between different grade levels within same language groups.

Word Walls

When new vocabulary and elements of grammar are introduced in English, links between it and other languages should be explored.

Support Culture

Encourage a tolerance for allowing children to speak their own language during informal class time or in the yard.

Student Teachers

Allow children an opportunity to teach other classmates simple greetings and frequently used expressions.

Bilingual Immersion

Support of the mother tongue was an integral part of the curriculum at my previous school. However, at my current school, the mission of the school is different. The school aims to develop full bilingual students through an immersion program. This means students attend classes in English and in Chinese. While in that class they are fully immersed in the language. This requires teachers to collaborate so that content is mirrored while also supporting growth.

English teachers often have the hardest challenge. We will only see the students a short period of time before the child leaves. Since students will be using Chinese at home and during half the school day, it is important that we use our time effectively in order to help students achieve the standards. This pressure has caused English teachers to adopt a no Chinese policy while in their classroom, due to the limited time students will have to practice English authentically.

Although English is the language of instruction, we should also encourage the use of the mother tongue in our classrooms when necessary to support what was found in the research by Cummins and Bernhardt. Each child’s mother tongue should respect and valued instead of penalized and suppressed. The use of the mother tongue is extremely important for gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts we want to teach. It is important that children are able to communicate his or her understanding and learning no matter what language is used. Using English Second Language teaching strategies, teachers can achieve their English standards while also supporting and respecting a student’s first language.

Rise of Bilingual Education

Collier’s and Cummins’ research findings were strikingly similar, suggesting that it takes 5–7 years in education for bilingual pupils to become fully competent in a second language and to catch up with their native peers. However, the cognitive and enhanced skillset benefits make this journey a valuable journey that is causing an increased trend in U.S. schools. The article “Rising Popularity of Dual-Language Education” by the Hechinger Report, shared how school districts are adopting more bilingual programs to meet increasing demands by parents after legislation is allowing for this type of education to be available.


TranslanguagingThe position I am in now and a common question I hear among international teachers, is how do we achieve our English standards while also being a culturally-responsive teacher that supports the mother tongue? For many, like myself, we are limited to the number of hours we have to teach our students. In addition, our students will most likely not be immersed in English outside of the classroom or school. This makes it difficult to appease administration and the demands of the parents.

In addition to scaffolding effective lessons, planning for differentiation, and incorporating ESL teaching strategies; teachers can also use translanguaging. Translanguaging, sometimes confused with code-switching, is a pedagogical approach that uses bilingualism as a resource by allowing students to float from one language to another as needed or purposely in specifically designed activities. It also aligns with Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings culturally relevant teaching since the student’s background and culture is used to build bridges to new content and understanding. This method is the perfect blend of supporting student’s mother tongue while also providing a strategy for students to become bilingual through an immersion program.

There are a number of translanguaging strategies that support various age groups. It is worth downloading and taking the time to disseminate the wealth of information in Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB Guide For Educators by Christina Celic and Kate Seltzer. The link to their website is linked below.

However, you meet the needs of your student is important that administration is also unified with this mission and help to communicate the advantages to parents. Becoming fluent in a second language does not happen overnight – as stated previously it is around 5 to 7 years. As this progress is made it is important to continue to develop a student’s cognitive abilities in their mother tongue which they will then transfer to their second language.

Translanguaging Guides

CUNY-NYSIEB translanguaging guides offer dozens of teaching strategies for various grades
to support educators in a bilingual immersion program.

Culture provides the tools to pursue the search for meaning and to convey our understanding to others and thereby has strong shaping influences on the communication styles prominent among different ethnic groups and their children. Through this conversation with my students, we have developed a class creed. This was only for a project, and we will need more time to fine-tune our message. I would like it to be more aligned with our school’s mission and shared values by including keywords. However, this is a great start that helps communicate our message.

International schools are communities that actively seek to foster diversity. American schools naturally have this diversity inside their public schools. Erling E. Boe, Professor of Education and Co-Director of the Center for Research and Evaluation in Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania noted how neither G8 countries or nations participating international education surveys have a diverse student body as American schools. For all the complaints about American education systems, it is important to also note how diverse we are inside our schools in so many ways. How inclusive we are and how accessible we are making education for all. There is no other country or educational systems that are doing what we do – even international school in my experience. Obviously, as leaders of a unique system, we will be faced with challenges. However, other countries will sooner or later face these similar challenges. They will, fortunately, have the insight from what we are able to create and share our experience.

I would just like to end that many times this idea is not possible with the restraints of the curriculum, admin, class time, and parent expectations. However, I still push on and strive to improve my teaching so that I can find ways. Making my effort to exercise the gifts from God.

Culturally Relevant Teaching

“Culturally relevant teaching utilizes the backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences of the students to inform the teacher’s lessons and methodology” (Coffey, 2013). Teachers need to embrace all the change and difference from one school year to the next. This can be overwhelming but keeping the same goals and values is ideal while shaping the landscape of the classroom and keeping its comfort and vision is a task one must be constantly up to date on.


Coffey, A. (2013). Relationships: The Key To Successful Transition From Primary To Secondary School? Improving Schools, 16(3), 261-271. 10.1177/1365480213505181 Retrieved from

Collier, V., & Thomas, W. (2017). Validating the Power of Bilingual Schooling: Thirty-Two Years of Large-Scale, Longitudinal Research. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 37, 203-217. doi:10.1017/S0267190517000034

Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic Interdependence And The Educational Development Of Bilingual Children. Review of Educational Research, 49, 222-251.

Cummins, J. (2000) Language, Power and Pedgogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Cummins, J., Bismilla, V., Chow, P., Cohen, S., Giampapa, F., Leoni, L., … Sastri, P. (2005). Affirming Identity In Multilingual Classrooms. Educational Leadership, 63 (1), 38 – 43.

Feyisa Demie (2012) English As An Additional Language Pupils: How Long Does It Take To Acquire English Fluency?, Language and Education, 27:1, 59-69, DOI: 10.1080/09500782.2012.682580

Gay, Geneva. (2000). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice.

Goldenberg, C., & Wagner, K. (2015, September 30). Bilingual Education. Retrieved from

Janchitfah, S. (2010, October 3). Teaching In The Mother Tongue. Bangkok Post. Retrieved from

Porter, R. E., & Samovar, L. A. (1991). Basic Principles Of Intercultural Communication. In L. A. Samovar & R. E. Porter (Eds.), Intercultural communication: A reader (6th ed., pp. 5–22). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wilde, M. (2015, April 2). Global Grade: How Do U.S. Students Compare? Retrieved from

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