East Hill Notes: Success in Learning Language Through Culture

By Akida Aierken

Cross-cultural understanding is increasingly important in a globalized world. Studying a foreign language, especially at a young age, can not only open children’s minds, but also increase their understanding of various cultures.

Photo provided by Cornell University
Beverly J. Martin Elementary School Enrichment Program students in Hindi class with Vanisha Sharma, a Master’s student at Cornell in Public Administration.

In order to expose K-6 students to a wide array of cultures and languages, the Cornell Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) – in collaboration with five other area programs of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies – initiated the Afterschool Language and Culture Program. Through this program, SEAP finds graduate student volunteers to teach foreign languages in local afterschool programs. The six-week long classes focus on teaching students language through engaging cultural activities such as games, crafts, cooking and dancing.

To support volunteers in their lesson planning, the Einaudi Center’s digitized lending library provides educational books, DVDs and culture kits that include such items as traditional clothes, art, puppets and textiles of different cultures from around the world. These resources, prepared by experts at Cornell University, are geared for use in K-12 and community college settings, and were created to engage both educators and students in developing a deeper understanding of foreign cultures and languages.

To date, SEAP has collaborated with Beverly J. Martin Elementary school, Greater Ithaca Activities Center and Cayuga Heights Elementary School, and has recently coordinated Burmese, Hindi and Thai language and culture classes in their afterschool/enrichment programs.

Connecting diverse communities: Aye Min Thant, a Cornell Master’s student of Asian Studies, taught Burmese classes at BJM in spring 2016.
“I started the first Burmese class by using the Burmese culture kits provided by SEAP to stimulate children’s interests toward this unique culture,” said Aye.

From the second class, she started teaching the alphabet and other basic vocabulary through songs. She also encouraged students to learn to introduce themselves and practice speaking Burmese with brief self-introductions to school staff.

A unit on food vocabulary involved homemade Burmese food tastings. Aye believes that the afterschool language and culture program benefits children in many different ways.
“It exposes kids to the diversity of language and culture that exists in the world, and promotes a curious and respectful exploration of that diversity,” she said. “Many of my students mentioned that they started greeting their Burmese-speaking friends and neighbors using what they learned in the program.”

Aye feels that teaching language through culture teaches students that language and culture influence one another.
Marie Vitucci, BJM’s enrichment coordinator, has been offering the Cornell Afterschool Language and Culture program at BJM for more than two years. She feels that this type of enrichment initiative gives children the opportunity to learn another language, which is not generally possible in the elementary school curriculum.
“It encourages 2nd through 5th graders at BJM Academic Plus to learn both the culture and language from a variety of countries,” said Vitucci.

In addition to the short-term outcomes and benefits, she believes that the language and culture studying experience can have a long-term impact on participants.
“Kids will tell me everything they have learned including their names in other languages,” Vitucci said. “The excitement and knowledge they gain is a great way to encourage their interests as they develop into life-long learners.”

One of the goals of the Afterschool Language and Culture Program is to expose children to languages early in life and encourage them to continue their learning when such options are available in middle and high school.

The afterschool language and culture program is continually seeking school partners and volunteer teachers. Introducing children to different languages and cultures is vital to building tolerance across cultural differences. It can also benefit children as they grow into adults and enter the global job market.

For additional information on the Cornell Einaudi Center’s Afterschool Language and Culture Program and lending library, we encourage you to visit the SEAP website and follow SEAP on Facebook, twitter, and Instagram (@seapcornell).
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Akida Aierken is a graduate outreach assistant in Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program. East Hill Notes are published the second and fourth Mondays of each month in Tompkins Weekly.