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The Importance of Language and Culture in ESL Education

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3460 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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This issue paper will explore the influence of language and culture as they relate to the English as a second language (ESL) classroom. My purpose in writing this paper is to discuss the value that arises from incorporating student’s culture(s) and native language(s) (L1) into their second language (L2) acquisition process; a process I will identify as being termed “bilingual education”. Furthermore, I will discuss specific ways in which language educators can incorporate language and culture into instruction in order to create a culturally responsive, highly effective, language education program.

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I see the importance in this particular topic because I believe that the majority of ESL educational programs within western schools do little to intentionally incorporate student’s culture and L1 into curriculum and instruction; rather, many ESL programs focus on a “total immersion”, meaning that students are instructed completely in their L2. The total immersion perspective ignores the researched-based benefits of including culture and bilingualism as part of the second language acquisition process. 

It is my hope that the statements comprised within this paper will encourage other language educators such as myself to adopt the philosophy of promoting student’s native culture and language in the classroom as a way to not only encourage second language acquisition, but also to promote an increased amount of culturally responsive environments in schools and classrooms nationwide.

The Importance of Language and Culture in ESL Education


There are differing opinion on the matter of bilingual education within the United States; should ESL education consists of total language and culture immersion practices or should it incorporate the learner’s native language and culture into the L2 acquisition process? Before determining the superior method of L2 language instruction, I think it is important to begin the discussion regarding the differing opinions concerning ESL education by discussing both the perspective of total language immersion and the bilingualism perspective as they both relate to an educational setting. It is important to note, that this paper primarily will discuss language learning as it relates to an elementary school setting.

Furthermore, I think it is also important to focus on not just the integration of a student’s L1 into ESL education, but also student’s native culture. Although some may argue that culture does not influence language acquisition, I believe otherwise. I believe that the integration of culture into the language learning classroom is an important aspect of the language learning method that is often overlooked in a majority of school. For this reason, I have chosen to discuss not only the importance of cultural responsiveness within a L2 language learning context while also highlighting specific strategies in which the language educator can combine language and culture into the L2 language acquisition process to create stimulating, thought-provoking academic instructional practices in a culturally rich classroom environment.


The Total Immersion Perspective

The term immersion, as it relates to language acquisition has two different definitions in in the context of language education. The first definition of the word being a bilingual program with the goal of students gaining proficiency in both their native language and target language for the first year or two, until fully transitioning to instruction solely in the second language (often termed partial immersion). The second definition of the word being a learning environment where instruction is exclusively taught in the second language (often termed total immersion).

The goal of the immersion language process is to develop proficiency in the language of instruction (Cummins, 2009, p. 161). Before further discussing the benefits and disadvantages of the two differing types of immersion, I think it is important to understand what successful immersion programs include. In my opinion, Johnson and Swain (1997) accurately summarize eight fundamental features of successful immersion programs:

• The L2 is a medium of instruction.

• The immersion curriculum parallels the local L1 curriculum.

• Overt support exists for the L1.

• The program aims for additive bilingualism where students “add” L2 proficiency while continuing to develop their L1. Bilingual and Immersion Programs 163

• Exposure to the L2 is largely confined to the classroom.

 • Students enter with similar (and limited) levels of L2 proficiency.

• The teachers are bilingual.

• The classroom culture is that of the local L1 community.

It is obvious that immersion education represents a carefully planned program that encompasses more than simply instructing students through a second language. However, the term immersion, when applied to immigrant and minority language students, is frequently used to refer to programs that fall significantly short of the expectations identified by Johnson and Swain (Cummins, 2011, p. 163).

In my opinion, the total immersion process does not correlate with Johnson and Swain’s core features of an effective language practices. Noticeably, nearly every one of Johnson and Swains eight principles include exposure, integration, and instruction in student’s L1 and native culture or community, whereas total immersion solely focuses on instructing in student’s L2 as a means to achieve mastery in the second language.

Still, some argue that the total immersion process is the most successful means of language acquisition. Research was conducted at Georgetown University Medical Center (2012) to validate the total immersion process of learning a second language. The study concluded that the immersion process of language learning allowed the language learners brain to use the same mechanisms as a native speaker, “native-language brain processing”.  Ullman, the lead researcher of the study stated,

Only the immersion training led to full native-like brain processing of grammar. So if you learn a language you can come to use native language brain processes, you may need immersion rather than classroom exposure. (These results were published online Aug. 23, 2011 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.) To our surprise, the participants actually became more native like in their brain processing of grammar and this was true for both the classroom and immersion training groups, though it was still the case that only the immersion group showed full native-like processing.”

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However, the study merely substantiated that the total immersion process of language acquisition aided in the proficiency of grammar. As we know, in order to proficiently master a language, one must also gain proficiency in vocabulary, prosody, pronunciation, to name a few aspects. There is very little research, to my knowledge, that supports the concept of total immersion language acquisition as the best means to second language proficiency in children.

One may question, if research substantiates that instruction in a student’s L1 promotes learning in the student’s L2 and produces greater academic achievement overall, then why do many schools still support the total immersion approach to language learning? Although there is not one singular answer to this question, many would concur that the total immersion perspective is a political process of promoting cultural “unity”. Cummins (2011) addresses this philosophy when stating,

Although there is no longer serious debate about the scientific legitimacy of bilingual education for linguistic minorities, the ideological debate is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, partly because it has very little directly to do with education. The issues concern the extent to which societies should adopt a pluralist approach that encourages children and communities to maintain and develop their languages and culture, in addition to acquiring the majority language, or alternatively, whether schools should promote the assimilation of immigrants and encourage minority students to abandon their home languages and cultures (p. 178).

Many others would agree that total immersion programs exist simply due to a lack of qualified, bilingual, ESL educators. As previously discussed in Johnson and Swain’s key principles of immersion, the ESL educator must be a bilingual speaker of the student’s native language in order for the gap between L1 and L2 instruction to be bridged. Many ESL teachers have not been granted the proper education in order for that goal to be achieved. Similarly, many schools do not have the means to properly ensure that ESL teachers have access to L2 learning themselves. This predicament creates a cycle across the US where the availability of bilingual teachers is not favorable enough for educational systems to employ qualified ESL educators.

The Bilingualism Perspective

The goal of bilingual education is for students to gain proficiency in both their native language and target language. The incorporation of a student’s L1, as part of the second language acquisition process, has been proven to promote greater success in not only student’s L2, but also in all subsequent areas of academia.

Immersion researchers are beginning to acknowledge that students who use their L1 in the classroom acquire legitimate and advantageous learning functions within the L2-medium classroom. Use of the student’s L1 enables them to develop strategies to carry out tasks in the target language and to work through complex problems more efficiently than they might be able to do through their L2 (Swain and Lapkin 2005).

According to Honigsfeld and Cohan (2012), in both ESL and general education classrooms, English skills are very often taught in isolated units that do not pay respect towards the student’s L1. In contrast, students need to be encouraged to access and apply the knowledge that is encoded in their first language in order to be successful learners in their new language.  Unfortunately, too often, ELL students are successfully denied access to their first language and identities when teachers do not make this element of their culture a visible and vital part of classroom work. By contrast, when teachers intentionally create instructional opportunities for their students to demonstrate their knowledge of content by completing work both in their native language and their target language, they grant their students the ability to cultivate cross language transfer and students cultural identities are given a rightful place within the classroom (p. 154-155). As Cummins implied, it is vitally important for students to tangibly view themselves, their language, and their culture in the classroom environment. Not only will this display create a sense of belongingness for students, but it will also grant them the necessary scaffolds in which they can create new funds of knowledge as applied to language development and general content alike.

Cummins (2011) speaks further about the importance of incorporating student’s prior knowledge into language learning by stating,

The centrality of prior knowledge in the learning process implies that instruction should explicitly attempt to activate students’ prior knowledge and build relevant background knowledge as necessary. This holds true regardless of whether students are being instructed through their first or second language. However, monolingual instructional approaches appear at variance with this fundamental principle of learning because they regard students’ L1 (and, by implication, the knowledge encoded therein) as potentially an impediment to the learning of L2. As a result, these approaches are unlikely to focus on activation of students’ prior knowledge. In cases where monolingual approaches do acknowledge the role of prior knowledge, they are likely to limit its expression to what students can articulate through their L2. In short, although most bilingual and immersion programs continue to rely almost exclusively on monolingual instructional strategies, there is emerging recognition that students’ L1 can function as a cognitive and linguistic resource to scaffold more accomplished performance in the L2 (p. 176-177).

In conjunction with the thinking of Cummins, cognitive theorists Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) stated that “all new learning involves transfer based on previous learning” (p. 41). “Using students’ L1 during instruction allows students the ability to draw on their existing knowledge and life experiences and posits them as cognitive and social resources” (Honigsfeld and Cohan, 2012, p. 160). By including students’ first languages, teachers also provide a counter discourse to the ways in which societal power relations are reproduced in the school setting (Toohey, Day, & Manyak, 2007). Finally, by bringing students’ L1, a key aspect of their identity into the curriculum, we encourage a higher level of engagement with school literacy for all students.

As stated by Honigsfeld and Cohan (2012 ), “When teachers orient academic work to include students’ native language and culture, students are more likely to develop strong academic investment and identity affirmation in the school context” (p. 160) In the following section, I will discuss several specific techniques in which the language educator can incorporate student’s native language and culture into instructional practices in attempt to create a culturally responsive, developmentally language appropriate classroom environment in which ELL students can more readily succeed.

By allowing students access to their native language during instruction, we are granting them the necessary framework to be the most successful versions of themselves both in school and beyond, for the entirety of their lives. Many ELL students are often left to “sink or swim” through the total immersion language acquisition process that our educational systems offer. School that have embraced a bilingual perspective of language development have seen greater success. Ultimately, the goal of ESL education should be equipping students with the necessary linguistic scaffolds in order for them to achieve the greatest success and that is exactly what the bilingual model of language acquisition accomplishes – by means of allowing students to use their L1.

Strategies for Incorporating Language and Culture into Instruction

As I have discussed throughout the entirety of this paper, I believe that student’s native language and culture are important factors for educators to integrate into second language acquisition as part of a more effective bilingual education process. In this section, I will discuss specific strategies in which language educators are able to incorporate student’s L1 and culture into L2 instruction in order to encourage second language acquisition and promote culturally responsive classroom environments. These strategies can be utilized by both general education and ESL teachers alike.

In the book, “Breaking the Mold of Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students”, Honigsfeld and Cohan (2012) give suggestions of culturally proficient teaching practices including the following:

  • Educational faculty teams working together to examine and ensure that curriculum and textbooks depict diverse perspectives and accurate portrayals of historical events and cultural groups;
  • Using varied methods of assessment to allow students differentiated learning responses; and
  • Engaging parents and community members as equal partners in conversations for the purpose of continuous learning for students (p. 146-147).

Each of the above practices ensure that student’s culture, values, learning styles, families and communities are fairly and equally represented within student’s place of learning. Bringing culture into the classroom is much more than hosting a culture fair once a year of inviting a native speaker to school periodically – not to undermine any of those practices as important, but creating a culturally responsive school/classroom environment is a continual process in which educators must repeatedly demonstrate to students the value that they as a person representing a culture has to contribute to society. As expertly stated by Honigsfeld and Cohan (2012),

“Culturally responsive education draws on the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and learning styles of diverse individuals to make learning more effective. Becoming culturally proficient means raising an awareness of, and closing the gap between, an individual’s expressed values and how one is actually perceived and experienced by others. Cultural proficiency embraces continuous improvement as a goal, thus it is experienced as an ongoing learning experience for both individuals and systems. It is the journey toward understanding, openness, and inclusion based in cultural proficiency” (p. 148).

 Furthermore, student’s native languages should also be represented in the second language classroom as research has demonstrated the importance of using students’ first language as a tool for learning a second language (Cummins, 2001). Below are examples from  Honigsfeld and Cohan (2012) that describe ways an educator can create opportunities for students to use their L1 as a scaffolding tool for skills in their new language learning. These examples will create stimulating and thought-provoking academic work that uses students’ existing knowledge of their native language and as a framework for new language learning (p. 155-156).

  • Students can collaborate and co-author stories with their parents or family members and use their home languages as a means to promote a multiliterate approach (p. 156).
  • Allow students the ability to write, speak, and read in their native language in the classroom (p.159)

When students translate their writing or reading from their first language into English, they begin to think about how to choose the correct sentence structure, the best word choice for the context, and they begin to make meaning of new or difficult words as meanings change with the languages (p. 159).


  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  • Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.
  • Cummins, J. (2009) Bilingual and Immersion Programs.InLong, M. and Doughty, C. (2009). The Handbook of Language Teaching (pp. 161-180). Somerset: Wiley.
  • Georgetown University Medical Center. (2012, March 28). In immersion foreign language learning, adults attain, retain native speaker brain pattern. ScienceDaily.
  • Honigsfeld, A., & Cohan, A. (Eds.). (2012). Breaking the mold of education for culturally and linguistically diverse students.
  • Johnson, R. K. & Swain, M. (1997). Immersion education: International perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (2000). Task-based second language learning: the uses of the first language. Language Teaching Research4(3), 253-276.
  • Toohey, K., Day, E., & Manyak, P. (2007). ESL learners in the early school years: Identity and mediated classroom practices. In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching, (Vol. 2, pp. 545-548). Norwell, MA: Springer.


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