Biculturalism in the Classroom

Today’s schools are more diverse than ever before. While this can enrich our students’ educational experiences, it also brings challenges to teachers. Constructively acknowledging biculturalism gives educators a powerful framework on which students can build their academic, social and emotional goals.

What Is Biculturalism?

While there are variations, one generally accepted definition of bicultural is the “comfort and proficiency with both one’s heritage culture and the culture of the country or region in which one has settled.” The “bi” suggests two cultures to be acknowledged and nurtured, but some students may identify with more, especially if they are born into families where the parents each represent a different culture. We often think of immigrants as more affected by biculturalism, but children who were born here and have never known the cultures of their parents may experience it as well.

How Does It Relate to the Classroom?

Experts recommend a healthy “synthesizing of the heritage and receiving cultures into a unique and personalized blend.” When this is done well, the result is a truly unique culture that is not either of the specific cultures but something altogether different. The classroom provides an opportunity to create this new culture healthily while cognitive, emotional and behavioral skills are being developed and refined.

Teachers facilitate this process through language, art and communicating with writing or song. The classroom is naturally suited for exploration and acceptance of all the nuance biculturalism offers and can lead to students’ acceptance of their many-faceted identities. Educational professionals have an opportunity to create space for this exploration and offer healthy ways to incorporate identity into greater learning goals. A teacher’s influence can make acculturation (the assimilation of an entirely new culture – most common for immigrants) a more comfortable and positive journey.

Benefits of Biculturalism for Students

While most societies have a long way to go to reach universal equality among and between cultural groups, introducing bicultural-focused classroom initiatives can push the needle in the right direction. Teachers have found that an early introduction to new languages has made the most difference, especially in students with minimal exposure to their receiving culture before the move. Language mastery provides a strong academic outcome, but it also provides a deeper insight into the culture of the language being taught. Communication is key when developing meaningful relationships, and through language learning, these relationships can be more authentic and provide shared goals between the speakers.

In addition to deepened relationships and a perceived reduction in discrimination, biculturalism offers students benefits later in life. Studies reveal that adults who were raised to accept more than one culture show more creativity, especially in fluency, flexibility and novelty. They also experienced more professional gains; those who identify as “bicultural” achieved a higher promotion rate and were more likely to start a business than those who do not.

How Can Teachers Incorporate Biculturalism?

As an educator, you may already feel that resources are stretched thin, and this new mission may not easily fit inside existing lesson plans or classroom structures. This is one of the reasons why specifically bicultural classrooms are growing in popularity, especially those with immersive language programs in which students speak only their new language. Being bicultural in your field may require you to take new opportunities while enjoying room for you to work within your current role.

Current Every Student Succeeds Act guidelines give you a framework for teaching students English while making time and allowance for children to speak their native language. Simply being open to listening and providing a safe space for children to wrestle with new cultural norms may be the biggest step toward promoting biculturalism today.

Additional training and more formal education, specifically with a Master’s of Education – English Language Learners, will also prepare you to work with students from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Learn more about Eastern Washington University’s Online Master of Education – English Language Learners.


Education Week: Embracing Bilingualism in the Classroom: What Role Will You Play?

Frontiers in Psychology: Role of Bilingualism and Biculturalism as Assets in Positive Psychology: Conceptual Dynamic GEAR Model

Human Development: Biculturalism and Context: What Is Biculturalism, and When Is It Adaptive?

Phys Org: Biculturalism Starts in the Classroom

US Department of Education: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

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