How to Measure Cultural Proficiency

Photo by Sahil prajapati on This picture is of a North Indian celebration that is unfamiliar to me as a Tamilian (South Indian descent who speaks Tamil)

I have written several articles concerning the idea of biculturalism and why it’s time to retire the term.  However, there was a time when biculturalism was one of Dual Language Education’s recognized goals, and therefore, many well-meaning educators continue to use the word.  So in this post, let’s further explore what biculturalism really means and the difficulties of achieving this elusive goal.

Meaning of Biculturalism

First, when we research  what the term biculturalism really means, we quickly come to understand why biculturalism was replaced with sociocultural competence.  University of Texas Education Professor Seth J. Schwartz and Professor of Preventative Medicine at University of Southern California Jennifer Unger define biculturalism as “proficiency” and “comfort” with “both one’s heritage culture and the culture of the country or region in which one has settled.” One problem with this definition is that we cannot define “proficiency” when it comes to culture.

American Culture

Culture is the way in which a group of people do things that helps them identify as members of that group (Jandt, 2016).  For instance, American culture is supposedly that which we do in the United States to identify as “Americans*.”   However, culture does not exist as a monolithic entity in any country including within the United States.  For instance,  while we may think that there is an “American” culture, there are in actuality, many “American” cultures.  For example, the New England culture is different from West Coast culture, which is different from the Midwestern culture, which is different from the Southwestern culture, which in turn is different from the Southern culture although all of them reside under the larger umbrella of the so-called “American” culture.  (Of course, as a Texan, I must state that there is a Texas culture that is different than all of the cultures just mentioned.)  Then, there are the cultures that belong to the different ethnicities, religions, denominations, and socioeconomic classes that reside within the United States.  Even age defines culture.  The Gen Z youth culture within the American culture strongly differs from the Baby Boomer, “American” culture.  So what do we really mean when we say “American” culture?

Heritage Culture

Similarly, every country has its own nuances in culture.  As an Indian descent American, my Tamil culture is different from the North Indian culture.  The foods I eat, the language I speak, and the holidays I celebrate are not always the same as those who trace their heritage to the Northern part of the country. And even within the Tamil population in India, there are nuances in language, holidays, and food depending upon religion, level of urbanization, and socioeconomic status.  Generational, ethnic, religious, and economic differences in cultures also exist.  And of course, there is a youth culture in every country to which our students may never be exposed to if they don’t have opportunities to associate with same age peers who are growing up in their heritage culture.  For example, when talking to those of my own age group who grew up in India, they often find my cultural outlook old fashioned.  Why?  Because my heritage culture froze when my parents immigrated. My parents often told me that something was the “Indian way” of doing things, and they were correct… in the 1970s.  I, however, grew up in the 1990s. This anachronism is a common occurrence among immigrants around the world.

So when we talk about being proficient in one’s “heritage culture,” and in the “culture of the country in which one has settled,” in which of the many cultures within these lands are we demanding proficiency from our students?

Transcultural Acculturation

Let’s be honest. As educators, we are used to measuring data on tests.  We look for proficiency in language, reading, and math skills.  Our charts have students in red, yellow, and green, and we hope to prove our own teaching prowess by seeing a sea of green.  Yet, we cannot measure culture the same way.

We have to move away from the idea of “biculturalism” to transcultural acculturation, which is the process of helping our students/children understand that they belong to multiple identity groups and that they have a unique mix of characteristics from each of those identity groups that should be honored and celebrated.  This is the first step of sociocultural competence… understanding identity.

In Moving From Bicultural to Transculturation Acculturation, I provide specific activities for teachers and parents to do with their students to encourage transcultural acculturation.  I encourage you to explore these activities. However, if you were only able to fit in one activity to do with your students to support their process of transcultural acculturation, let it be having nonjudgmental conversations with your students. Encourage identity moratorium or the search for one’s true identity through these talks.  Let them know that you are there to support them as they explore their cultural identities and that it is okay not to feel completely here (in the country where they are growing up) nor there (where their parents or caregivers grew up).  And during those conversations, never commit the microaggression of choosing your students’ identities for them.  Your job is to facilitate identity moratorium, not to resolve it.   Ultimately, those conversations can make a difference whether or not your students will become socio-culturally competent or not, which is in fact a current pillar of Dual Language Education. 

Next week, we will be talking about the Seal of Biliteracy and its role in Social Justice.  If you liked this week’s post, please comment below and consider subscribing to the blog.

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