Language is Great – But, Where’s the Culture?

photobucketYou’re raising bilingual kids. Awesome! You’ve got the language lessons down, the kids are building the basics, and you might even be able to have more than a two sentence conversation with them in their second language. But, are letters, sounds, and words really all that a language is? Of course not! Let’s not forget that languages come from cultures. With that in mind, understanding that culture is what brings language to life is a major part of being bilingual.

Where It Begins

photobucketLanguage isn’t created in a vacuum – meaning that it doesn’t just ‘exist’ on its own. It came from somewhere. More precisely, it came from someone (or rather, a group of someones). Understanding the culture (the people, the rituals, the places, the beliefs, the values) can help your child to answer questions that he or she may have during their studies. Let’s say there are different dialects or different types of word usage (including slang) that fall under the umbrella of one ‘language’. It’s the cultural part of learning that helps your child to get the bigger picture and understand why this is the way it is and how it all may have started.

Cultural Context

Think about English – after all, it’s probably your (and your child’s) first language. If you live in Texas, you might say, “Y’all.” But, if you grew up in Connecticut it’s not likely that you would. That is, unless you spent much more time than you should have filling your day with a steady diet of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’. Is “Y’all” English? Yes! Some might consider it slang, but it is English after all. Even so, not every native English-speaker uses it. It’s part of the culture of the people who created it.

Finding Facts

photobucketChildren, especially very young children, may have trouble understanding the fairly abstract concept of ‘culture’. We need to break it down and make it accessible to them. Turning ‘culture’ into something specific and concrete can help your child to see where the language comes from – literally.

Let’s start with Chinese, both the language and the culture. So, you want your soon-to-be bilingual child to learn how to speak this language. Adding in cultural facts helps them to become more aware of where this language comes from and how it’s really used in everyday life.

photobucketThis might include talking about what children in China wear, what games they play, where they live, what their schools are like and how they celebrate holidays. You might be thinking, “Well, it’s not the children who created the language, right? So, why focus on kids?” Simply stated – using ‘what kids do’ as a theme for cultural learning is easy for your child to relate to. It brings the culture to your child’s level, playing up their interests and showing them that kids in this other country are both the same and different from how they are.
photobucketGetting back to China…an easy jumping off point is a major holiday: The Chinese New Year. Your child may have heard about it, but probably doesn’t know the specifics or the cultural aspects related to the holiday. Catch your budding bilingual kid’s attention with a fact that shows the differences and similarities between our New Year’s celebration and how the Chinese do it.

If you ask your child, “What do we do for New Year’s?” she might say something like, “Stay up until midnight” or “Watch a big ball drop in New York.” Now ask her how she thinks people in China celebrate their New Year. She might say “the same” or “I don’t know.”
photobucketNow it’s your turn to talk, helping your little learner to understand that in China their New Year is a major holiday that includes decorating buildings and homes in red, watching traditional performances (such as lion or dragon dances) and setting off fireworks (hey, that’s kind of like our New Year’s – I bet your child picked up on that one right away).

Share a Story

Sitting down to a lecture on the history of the Chinese New Year with your child? Um, probably not. While they might show interest for about three-and-a-half seconds, after that, their attention is gone. Sitting down to a story that you share together? Absolutely! It’s engaging, imaginative and will hold your child’s attention.

The ‘Nian Monster’ story is one of these awesome attention-getting tales!
photobucketAs the story goes, every year a creature named Nian would wake up and eat all of the nearby village’s grain and livestock. The villagers lived in fear of Nian, and boarded up their homes whenever the monster would come near.

One night an old man came to village and chased Nian away. But, he couldn’t stay forever – and, the villagers were again fearful that the monster would return. Before he left, the old man let the villagers in on a little secret: Nian was afraid of a few things – the color red and loud noises. Hmmm. Sound familiar? That’s right, this is why the Chinese cover everything in red and set off fireworks!

What cultural stories do you use to help your bilingual child learn?
Share your pick in the comments section!



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