In many parts of the world, Americans are often seen as ethnocentric with a lack of cultural understanding. Maybe they don’t feel the need to become more culturally-aware because they belong to a globally-dominant culture. While the U.S. claims to embrace different cultures, I’m not sure most Americans live up to that, but I want to.
I believe Americans’ lack of cultural understanding is due in part to privilege. Historically, colonisation and imperialisation by Western countries (which were controlled by white males) created a predominantly one-way flow of culture. A byproduct of this was the global usage of the English language.
You might’ve been told that the U.S. doesn’t strongly encourage foreign language learning because of its geography and because English is the lingua franca in business and politics. Those seem like convenient excuses that perpetuate cultural dominance. They’re also hypocritical; if the U.S. actually valued cultural diversity, foreign language learning would be a much higher priority.
Language is a fundamental element of culture, so learning local languages while abroad is hugely important to me. Using the local language allows me to take a more active role in experiencing the culture. ‘By fully experiencing other cultures, which language is a huge part of, we expand our minds and widen our perspectives,’ writes Maria Elharaoui in a Medium article.
Many people say they ‘don’t have the brain for learning languages’, but I haven’t met a Dutch person who doesn’t speak fluent English (although I’m sure there are some). That’s because the Netherlands has an effective system for teaching English as proven by their top rank on the 2019 EF English Proficiency Index. The U.S. could set national standards for foreign language learning but chooses not to.
Language learning isn’t the only means of cultural education. I now live in an English-speaking country with its own distinct culture. I’m having to navigate a very different education system. It’s a welcome (although sometimes stressful) challenge on my quest to become a more culturally-aware American.
Still, being able to travel and live abroad has largely been a result of my privilege as a middle-class, white, American woman. I bear this in mind everywhere I go and with everything I do because while I can’t detach myself from my privilege, I can use it in the service of others. Being privileged isn’t a choice but acting entitled is. The solution starts with education. Just remember that the world is a lot more than what most American textbooks tell us.
This week’s thank you goes to Meleah Lee Campbell (aka Ms Campbell), an early childhood education teacher and literary specialist. She supports other educators by sharing tips and materials online as well as hosting workshops. Oh, and she shares fun and uplifting messages about learning. She’s an absolute delight to follow. Thank you, Ms Campbell!
The featured photo was taken at Pompeii by my dear friend Christiana when we studied abroad in Italy. 🙂