Cultural Awareness: Teaching Kids About Other Languages

Cultural Awareness: Teaching Kids About Other Languages

It didn’t take long for Claudia Lobe to realize she was different from her peers at Brecksville-Broadview Heights City Schools. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Lobe spoke Spanish at home and began learning English in preschool and kindergarten.

“I remember in my middle school Spanish class, I knew every single word, and I could pronounce them with the perfect accent because we spoke Spanish at home,” Lobe, now 21, says. “I would get made fun of for having an accent. I got picked on a lot for my accent and for looking different than everyone in school. I remember wanting to help the kids in Spanish class when they had a question, but I would just sit there quietly at my desk and not say a word. I told myself I needed to change my accent, so I did. I became very, very aware of it. Students forced me to see myself as different.”

A 2021 graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Lobe now works for Netflix as a production assistant for locally filmed movies and says she wishes she could go back in time to give her middle school self a pep talk.

“I wish I could tell my younger self not to change my accent to make other people more comfortable,” Lobe says. “I should have helped out the kids around me in Spanish class instead of sitting there ashamed. If every parent taught their children to be more tolerant, the world would be a better place.”

Many times, whether intentional or not, children and adults shy away from languages and cultures that differ from their own. And oftentimes, they cruelly point out and shame others for their differences. To combat these tendencies, experts advise parents to expose their children to new cultures early and often – and to be aware of their own behaviors and attitudes.

Different Cultures

The United States is known as a “melting pot” of different nationalities, cultures and ethnicities. A 2015 report released by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that there were at least 350 different languages spoken in homes across the United States. More recently, the 2020 Census was available in 13 languages, providing people more response options than ever before. Yet despite this evidence of the nation’s increasingly diverse population, families can still find themselves living in a bubble. 

Katie Mehosky works as a speech-language pathologist for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and counsels several bilingual children each school year. Many times, a translator is brought in who speaks the child’s native language. Last school year, 30 percent of students on her caseload came from bilingual families where one or both parents spoke a different language at home. 

“In my one group of eight kids, two spoke Arabic and three had different dialects of Spanish,” Mehosky says. “I always look at what language they are more proficient in, and we work as a team to assess them in their native language. You always need to adapt.”

Exposure to Languages

To introduce children to different languages and cultures, Mehosky has one word of advice for parents: exposure.

“That’s what’s really neat about kids — they are sponges and are born blank slates,” Mehosky says. “We need to teach them to be open to differences, whether that’s a different culture, a different language, a different religion, a disability, or any other type of difference. They need hands-on experience. They model your behavior around others. They see how you interact with people, and they mimic it. Children want exposure to other children and to new things. It takes us parents to do that for them, and you’ve got to give them that exposure.”

There are many ways parents can introduce children to new cultures and languages, says Samantha Brown, director of speech-language pathology/audiology for the Special Education Department of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. 

One fun way, Brown says, is to attend festivals that honor and celebrate different nationalities. Many cultural events will be held throughout Greater Cleveland this month, such as the Ukrainian Festival running Aug. 6-8 at Pokrova Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church in Parma, Oktoberfest from Aug. 20-22 at Donauschwaben’s German-American Cultural Center in Olmsted Falls, the CLEVELAND WALLS! International Mural Program, running Aug. 23-28 in Cleveland’s Midtown neighborhood, and the 75th Annual One World Day hosted by the Cleveland Cultural Gardens Federation on Aug. 29. 

“Your kids will see signs in different languages, encounter people speaking in different languages, see the names of different foods, and see people of other cultures interacting,” Brown says. “It’s a really fun way to introduce your kids to different cultures.”

Families can also incorporate multicultural elements into their vacations and weekend trips, Brown adds. There are also language-learning apps such as Duolingo, Babbel and the Rosetta Stone interactive program, along with television shows like Sesame Street, that incorporate cultural elements and Spanish language shows on Netflix. 

“Our children are looking at us all the time, and they are modeling us all the time,” Brown says. “They observe how we address situations in everyday life. You are transferring your interactions with other people onto your child, and you model 

interactions when you are out with your children. It’s important to have dialogue with your children so when sensitive things come up, they aren’t afraid to come talk to you about it.”

Isabel Zupan, a school psychologist working in Cleveland, is Peruvian and her two daughters are bilingual in Spanish and English. Her husband is the grandson of Slovenian immigrants. 

“I remember when my one daughter was 3, she would speak to me in Spanish and then turn around and talk in English to my husband,” Zupan says. “My second daughter did more of a ‘Spanglish’ growing up, a jargon where she would say something like, ‘I want to wash my manos.’”

Their children regularly spent time with their Spanish-speaking grandparents and visited other family members living in Miami. It was important to Zupan that her daughters grew up knowing Spanish and honoring their mother’s Peruvian culture by celebrating Peru’s native holidays, eating authentic home-cooked meals and incorporating their heritage into school projects, like bringing traditional Peruvian clothing in for show-and-tell and later writing research papers exploring the Spanish language. Zupan cooks Peruvian meals at home, such as ceviche, a popular dish of fish marinated in citrus juice. She also shops Cleveland’s ethnic markets like La Borincana Foods and orders from Norka’s Peruvian Cooking, helping to preserve her roots and pass family traditions onto her children.

Simply being open to new experiences is helpful, too, in raising more culturally aware children.

“A person is a history book; their backgrounds, how they were raised, their culture, what they believe in; all that comes together in a person. Everybody is like a history book, and everyone can learn something from someone,” Mehosky says.

Bridging the gap

Lobe, who spent time volunteering as an elementary school language teacher, says children can easily pick up a second language. Where adults spend their time focusing on structure and grammar, Lobe says children are more energized by the prospect of being able to communicate new words. They are more excited to speak a new language and focus less on getting it right. 

She identifies English as her native language, but sometimes thinks or speaks in Spanish when her emotions run high (“When I get scared, I’ll shout out, ‘Dios, mio!’ which is Spanish for “Oh my God!” she says.).

“I can understand both languages perfectly, but it feels like home when someone speaks in Spanish,” Lobe says. “I think being bilingual has made me a better communicator and better at empathizing with people who speak different languages. If I meet someone with a very heavy accent and maybe others have a hard time understanding them, I am able to empathize. Even if kids don’t want to learn another language or don’t have the ability, just the fact that they’re able to understand there are many different languages and cultures in the world is important and will teach them empathy.”

Zupan advises parents to have conversations with their children about cultural differences. She recommends having discussions before and after encounters and events where differences may be apparent and pointed out by inquisitive young children.

“The goal, I think, for everything, is to be a good human being and to be accepting of everyone,”  Zupan says. “I want that for my kids more than anything, for them to be understanding and accepting of everyone. I want them to know the world and cross frontiers. It is important in our family to travel, and every time we visit someplace new, we research the culture, so we are prepared. When I was growing up in Peru, my father was in the Air Force and was sent to work in Russia. We spent one year living in Russia, and I learned enough Russian to be able to go to the stores and shop with my mom. We’ve always had a fascination with traveling. Instead of buying new cars or having the newest phones, we’ve spent our money traveling. I feel that is more important. Last month we visited Ellis Island, and my daughters were looking up my husband’s relatives. It was a good reminder that we are not the only ones in this world. Simply knowing that can make you a better person.” 

Learn to say “Hello” in different languages:

Spanish: Hola

French: Bonjour

Greek: Yassas

Italian: Salve

Chinese: Nǐn hǎo

Japanese: Konnichiwa

Polish: Dzień dobry

Hebrew: Shalom

Russian: Zdravstvuyte

German: Guten Tag

Arabic: Asalaam alaikum

Hindi: Namaste

Turkish: Merhaba



Five Ideas for Exposing Your Kids to Other Languages

Janet H. Cho, managing editor at Northeast Ohio Parent, also shares these tips:

1. Read a book by or about someone who grew up speaking another language. Try to learn a few words in a different language. Ask your local librarian or bookstore for suggestions. 

 2. Look up the American Sign Language alphabet and learn how to finger-spell your name.

3. Watch a family movie in a foreign language, and try to learn some new words.

As Golden Globe-winning South Korean film director Bong Joon Ho said last year (through interpreter ​​Sharon Choi): “Once you overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

4.  Borrow an ethnic recipe book or watch a cooking show, and find a new favorite family dinner.

5. Discover a locally owned ethnic restaurant or grocery store, and learn about other cultures through their cuisine. 

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