Biculturalism is an Outdated Term: Let’s Focus on Sociocultural Competence

The three pillars of Dual Language Education are high academic achievement, bilingualism and biliteracy, and sociocultural competence. However, many people confuse the term sociocultural competence with biculturalism. Biculturalism is a problematic term that University of Texas Education Professor Seth J. Schwartz and Professor of Preventive Medicine at University of Southern California Jennifer Unger define as “proficiency” and “comfort” with “both one’s heritage culture and the culture of the country or region in which one has settled.” In Dual Language, the term biculturalism is used to mean “proficiency” and “comfort” with both cultures taught within the program.

The term biculturalism is problematic for a variety of reasons. First, the prefix “bi” refers to two; hence, “biculturalism” as used in Dual Language suggests that there are two cultures being taught within the program. This two-culture theory only works if there were to be a one-to-one relationship with each language and culture. Nevertheless, a language does not necessarily correlate with only one culture. For instance, Spanish, the language most often taught in Dual Language programs in the United States, can be associated with 21 different countries, including the U.S., and none of these countries are monolithic in the presentation of their cultures – or their dialects. As educators, we cannot “choose” a culture to teach. We must do our best to equally value each of the cultures represented within our classrooms, and we must equally value each of the cultures associated with the language of instruction.  English, as well, does not pair perfectly with a singular culture. Just within the U.S., we can see a variety of subcultures and vernaculars when comparing the south of the country to New England, or the midwest to the west coast. Hence, the term biculturalism in itself does not fit into a Dual Language framework of social justice.

Furthermore, the term biculturalism suggests the ability to “teach” culture. Culture is a set of often unspoken codes on how to live. These codes are shared amongst members of a society. Culture is imbibed through living within a society day in and day out. While we can learn about someone’s culture and even adopt elements of it, we cannot imbibe it through a book or a classroom lesson. To believe that we are as proficient in a culture that we do not practice day in and day out as those who have grown up in that culture is appropriation, and a sign of racial arrogance rather than knowledge. No matter how much we learn about or are immersed in the Mexican, Guatemalan, Chinese, or Brazilian cultures, unless we actually identify with these groups by either growing up in these countries or belonging to families that trace their heritage there, these cultures are not ours and we cannot be as or more proficient than those who actually practice these cultures. And we should not teach our students that they can be.

Finally, trying to teach our third culture kids (TCKs), or kids who are growing up in a culture other than the culture of their caregivers, that they need to be “bicultural” heightens the pressure that students are likely already feeling. Society often wants TCKs to assimilate to American culture while families often want their children to resist pressures to assimilate. As Selena Quintanilla Perez’s father said in the movie, “Selena,” “We have to be twice as perfect as everybody else… We’ve got to know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante… We’ve got to know about Oprah and Cristina… We’ve got to prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we’ve got to prove to the Americans how American we are. We’ve got to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It’s exhausting!” While Mr. Quintanilla refers to the Mexican-American experience in the movie, this is a common sentiment that TCKs experience. Rather than adding to this burden, we should encourage transcultural acculturation, a term I use to describe the process in which TCKs accept and honor that the intersection of cultural identities within them creates complex and unique individuals. We have to help students realize that while they are not likely to  be completely proficient or comfortable in either culture, the cultural fusion that they embody is also special, and this amalgamation is unique to each individual.

So, if we are not focusing on biculturalism, where does culture fit in Dual Language Education? The Guiding Principles of Dual Language Education (Howard et. al, 2013) recommends a focus on “sociocultural competence – a term encompassing identity development, cross-cultural competence, and multicultural appreciation – for all students.” Sociocultural competence involves students learning about and honoring the intersection of the variety of identity groups to which they belong. This includes transcultural acculturation for TCK, as well as awareness of cultural appropriation. It also is about recognizing that other individuals may belong to a different combination of identity groups. Sociocultural competence is the ability to work across the aisle with people who are different from us, to honor the differences present, and to fight for justice for individuals whose identity groups may be the target of discrimination. To me, sociocultural competence is a much more admirable and realistic goal than the outdated term of biculturalism. It builds the desire and ability to learn, respect, and honor all cultures. Isn’t it time for everyone to start focusing on sociocultural competence?

Aradhana Mudambi
Author: Aradhana Mudambi

Dr. Aradhana Mudambi is an accomplished, multilingual educator and social justice activist. She is the proud owner of Social Justice and Education. She is currently the Director of Multilingual Education at Framingham Public Schools, Adjunct Professor of Intercultural Communications at Eastern Connecticut State University, and President of the Multistate Association for Bilingual Education. She has extensive experience writing grants for language acquisition programs. She is also an experienced advocate for Dual Language Education and World Languages, having been invited recently to speak at institutions such as Harvard University and the National Association of Bilingual Education. You can learn more about her and her work at www.socialjusticeandeducation.org.

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