What is Sociocultural Competence? How Does Identity Fit Into It?

Bilingualism as a Superpower Poster

Do you remember the three pillars of Dual Language Education? They are:

  • High Academic Achievement
  • Biliteracy and Bilingualism
  • Sociocultural Competence

Unfortunately, sociocultural competency is the most elusive of the three goals, partially because the definition is unclear to many and partially, because there are no standardized exams that can test this pillar. Yet, sociocultural competence is perhaps the most important of the three pillars of Dual Language Education because it is what defines our students as human beings.

Sociocultural Competence Definition

But what is sociocultural competence? Due to the confusion around the term, we should start with what sociocultural competence is not. Sociocultural competence is not just learning about the culture and history of those who speak the target language. Many educators confuse having a fiesta or a cultural dance exhibit to be the be all and end all of sociocultural competence. They have the celebration and call it a night. Others go a step further and have an “international night” at their schools to incorporate more cultures than those belonging to the target language and are then, convinced that they have reached the pinnacle of “multiculturalism.” However, sociocultural competence is far more than token immersion in the target culture or even a sampling of many cultures. In fact, it is more than a deep understanding of the target culture. While cultural celebrations are important in their own right, sociocultural competence is about being able to work, play, and exist amongst those of all cultures. It is about being able to fight for the rights of those who don’t speak, look, or think like you. It is about grappling with our racist and discriminatory history and being willing to change the future.


The first step for students to attain sociocultural competence is for students to build their own identities. Learning for Justice provides the following Social Justice anchor standards to guide teachers in relation to identity. The standards are as follows:

1 Students will develop positive social identities based on their membership in multiple identity groups in society.
2 Students will develop language and historical and cultural knowledge that affirm and accurately describe their membership in multiple identity groups.
3 Students will recognize that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals.
4 Students will express pride, confidence, and healthy self esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.

Hence, all Dual Language students, whether they enter speaking or not speaking the target language, must grapple with their own individual identities. We can start by helping our students build their common bilingual identities. One way to do this is by teaching students that they have a superpower of being bilingual and/or multilingual by posting signs around the school affirming this identity and having conversations with students about why this identity is in fact a “superpower.” Even the youngest students quickly absorb this message and share with others that they have a “superpower.” Furthermore, having bulletin boards, the morning pledge, and other daily rituals in the target language emphasize the importance of that bilingual identity. By building and supporting students’ bilingual identities, students develop pride in themselves, which is important in a monolingual society like the United States, where assimilation into the English culture is still unjustly valued.

Identity Groups

Furthermore, all students must consider, in which identity groups they are members. Among the groups they should consider are:

  1. Race
  2. Gender
  3. Language
  4. Nationality
  5. Ethnicity/Ancestry
  6. Career
  7. Education attainment/aspirations
  8. Financial status
  9. Religion
  10. Family size

Identity Questions

Helping students look at these particular identity groups is important, especially amongst students who may incorrectly think that they do not have cultural identities. A common mistake made by White students and adults alike, especially those who cannot trace their ancestry, is to claim that they do not have an identity other than being “American.” Along with having students consider each of these identity groups, a good challenge question to ask in response is if that means that those who can trace their heritage are not “American.” This can begin an interactive discussion amongst students about what defines the American identity and who is allowed to have the identity. Students should also consider the following questions:

  1. How does my identity affect who I am?
  2. How does my identity affect what I do?
  3. What am I proud of about my identity?
  4. What do people think about me when they look at me that is not true? How does that make me feel?
  5. What can people know about me when they look at me?
  6. What can’t people know about me when they look at me?
  7. What do I like to share about myself? Why?
  8. What don’t I like to share about myself? Why not?
  9. Which identity groups afford me privilege?

Imposed Identity and Other Pitfalls

As educators, we must remember that we are not teaching students what their identities are but how to analyze them. If we do try to teach them their own identities, we risk forcing upon students an “imposed identity.” I define imposed identity as the identity someone else places on someone based on outward appearance, behavior, history, and/or convenience. Hence, throughout any identity affirming exercise, students should be able to determine their own identities, and students should be able to change their minds about their identities as they continue to grow.

Furthermore, we do not need to introduce all ten identity groups at one time. Activities may range from having young students bring in something for show and tell about their families to reading an age-appropriate book about gender identity. The goal in identity formation is for students to grapple with their identities throughout their childhood and teenage years until they reach adulthood when they hopefully reach identity achievement or a stage where students know who they are and are committed to their identities.

Identity Stages and Third Culture Kids

In our next post, we will explore the stages of identity development, especially as they relate to our Third Culture Kids, or kids growing up in cultures other than their parents’, and how these stages can help guide us, as educators and parents, in helping our TCKs reach identity achievement.


  1. […] In our last post, we discussed why the exploration of identity is an important component of sociocultural competence, the third pillar of Dual Language Education. Today, we will discuss the Four Statuses of Identity Formation and how this framework helps us, as educators, recognize where our students, especially our First and Second generation students, are on the continuum of Identity Formation. […]


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