Teaching of a second language in the contexts where it is dominant has traditionally been done through immersion in the target language and culture. But the monolingual pedagogy has been increasingly seen as ideologically disempowering (Ryan, 1998; Kubota, 2003), unreflective of the learner’s sociocultural identity (Pavlenko and Blackledge, 2004), economically limiting in a globalized world (Cummins, 2003; Banks, 2004), and, whose success, from a pedagogical standpoint, is questionable (Cummins, 2009; TESOL Quarterly, 2009a).
Bicultural and multilingual instructional strategies are certainly not new in the primary education systems in the United States. Since the 1960s, American schools in both urban and suburban settings have had to adapt to the multiracial, multi-ethnic, and multilingual student bodies. In this process, cultural pluralist ideologies have emerged that value the diversity of cultural and ethnic identities of the students. Compared to primary education, multicultural instructional methodologies in higher education and, in particular, in their language teaching programs have been scarce, as has been the scholarship evaluating their effectiveness. “The prevalent models and modes for university-level language teaching,” as Anne Pauwels and Genevieve Zarate state in their preface to a volume on plurilingual and pluricultural pedagogies (Alao et al., 2012), “have not yet come to grips with [the] fundamental change in the learner profile” (2).
Cultural representation in L2 teaching
What is the place of the students’ native culture in a second language classroom? Available research and the author’s own experience as a U.S. college instructor indicate that students’ native cultures, much like their first languages, are often ignored, consciously or not, by language instructors. Traditionally, L2 culture is taught along with L2, positioning learners as either culture-free or L2-culture-oriented, and correcting them when they fall back on their traditional ways (TESOL Quarterly, 2009b: 563; Kramsch (1993: 12).
Directing language learning and socialisation of L2 learners towards a full acculturation and assimilation into the L2 community (Judd, 1992; Kramsch, 2002) poses multiple questions to language education ideology in multilingual and multicultural settings, which become particularly problematic in the contexts where an L1 community represents the largest segment of population, such as Spanish speakers in the Los Angeles County (U.S. Census 2009). Relating this tension to language pedagogy, what would be the implications of reversing the traditional socialisation paradigm and actually incorporating elements of the adult learners’ L1 cultural heritage into teaching L2? Is it a viable educational philosophy?
Evaluating pedagogical effectiveness of a plurilingual curriculum
I recently conducted a study which centered on the Spanish-speaking students taking an advanced ESL writing course I taught at a community college in the greater Los Angeles area. These public colleges, common in the U.S. and Canada, provide an education equivalent to the lower division of undergraduate studies at a 4-year university. I developed an original 8-lesson curriculum built around the guided tour of the Museum of Latin American Art, located in the college’s vicinity. The pedagogical objective of this curricular unit, learning how to write a contrast/comparison essay, was complemented by the study of modern art from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America as its thematic content. Student L2 (English) writing output consisted of three one-page summaries and a practice artwork analysis completed prior to the museum tour, and one 2-3-page essay written after it. Essay writing followed a 5-step process and took place entirely during class time, in a lab, in the instructor’s presence. Student surveys, written evaluations, individual interviews, and the analysis of the writing output were the modalities used to study the impact of the unit on the study subjects.
The collected data collected shows that the pluricultural exposure to contemporary Latin American painting and sculpture engaged Hispanic ESL students’ with their heritage in dual ways: some students reconnected with their L1 culture, while in those less familiar with it, it aroused interest to learn more about it. Through the medium of L2, adult language learners explored connections between the themes and subjects of the artwork they examined and their personal backgrounds. In this process, the link to their L1 cultures helped to raise their affective filter towards the pedagogical task at hand.
Hispanic students who participated in this study projected a strong, though at times contradictory, sense of identity, which shows advanced language learners’ identities as both multi-cultural and dynamic. Seeing and learning about contemporary Latin American painting and sculpture, both during the museum tour and through the subsequent research, touched off in these minority students a sense of pride in their L1 backgrounds. In some instances, this experience led to the contemplation of their own relationship to their native cultures and the artists’ life histories. Artists’ political ideologies (for example, speaking against oppression or socioeconomic divisions) were also noted by students.
From the instructional standpoint, the instructor was pleased with the learning outcomes of this writing project (contrast/comparison essays), specifically with the well-organized and developed compositional structures, extensive research conducted by the students, and their advanced vocabulary usage. The apparent strength and richness of the student writing produced as a result of an L1 culture-inclusive language curriculum points its instructional relevance in an advanced writing course and stresses the importance of including real-life, interactive learning activities into L2 pedagogy.
Moving from a culture-subtractive to a culture-inclusive language pedagogy
The study suggests the following benefits of pluricultural or culture-inclusive second language education:
• Incorporating elements of students’ L1 cultural heritage into L2 curriculum signals respect for their backgrounds and validates their identities.
• Bringing L2 learners into a deeper engagement with their native language cultures, this educational philosophy empowers students to re-evaluate their social roots, selves, and identities in an L2 society and arouses a sense of pride in their L1 communities.
• Critical examination of diverse L1 cultures present in L2 learning contexts facilitates student development into multilingual world citizens who are multiculturally aware.
• Topics related to students’ cultural experience, such as those modeled in this study, may elicit more interest among students and produce a richer L2 output than those that don’t.
• Interaction with the L1 culture can engage advanced language learners in the development of higher-level critical thinking skills.
• Multicultural pedagogical activities can teach interculturality, be instructionally meaningful, but also remain enjoyable to students.