MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Bilingual and bicultural: do they go together? May 22, 2013

Bicultural means that two cultures are functioning in one person, or that one person can be active in two cultures.

As we move between two, sometimes three languages in our family, I often wonder if we do enough to encourage our kids to be bicultural as well. We visit South Africa every couple of years, but we don’t specifically talk about the differences and similarities between the two cultures. Do you have to work at being bicultural, or is being bicultural something that you absorb just by being part of two different cultures?

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Exploring a different kind of playground in South Africa.

Does speaking two languages mean that you are bicultural too? I don’t think so. It is possible to speak two (or more) languages without ever leaving your country / hometown / culture. And I guess the opposite is true too: you can be bicultural and monolingual (think Australian and South African, or British and Canadian).

In a recent article in Psychology Today, Francois Grosjean writes that there are many advantages to being bicultural: for instance having a greater number of social networks, being aware of cultural differences, and being an intermediary between cultures. He states that recent research has shown that biculturals have greater creativity and professional success: hooray!

I’ve never deliberately thought about fostering biculturalism in our kids. They have two passports each, and have traveled back and forth between South Africa and the USA more times than they can remember, even before turning 10. I’m grateful that they feel at home in either country, can navigate the social rules, can make a new friend at the playground lickety-split, and know what their favorite candies and food are in each country. I’m thankful that even without us really trying, they have become bicultural.

What do you do to nurture biculturalism in your kids? Do you watch cultural movies, visit the second culture often, send them to spend time with grandparents or cousins in the second culture, or do you talk about the culture often? Comment with some ideas for us all to try!

Helping our kids become bilingual is a great gift we are giving them. But helping them become bicultural is also an amazing gift, one we don’t think about often.

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