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What is Cultural Fluency?

Published on 10/7/2019
A bilingual education gives a child many lifelong benefits and opportunities – the ability to see through different lenses, an increase in executive function and critical thinking skills, and of course, fluency in more than one language, just to name a few. However, parents may not have considered an additional benefit of a bilingual education that has become increasingly important in today’s globalized world – cultural fluency. Cultural fluency is the ability to live, work, and thrive in non-native cultures – a skill set that is aided by but not identical to language fluency.

Tsedal Neeley, a prominent thinker on globalization and a professor at Harvard Business School, has identified cultural fluency as a key skill for today’s global world and workforce, a skill that may, in fact, have a greater impact on your child’s future success than bilingualism alone. Neeley’s recent study of workers in multinational corporations led her to identify 5 key traits of successful international workers, a skill set she calls “global work orientation.” A rigorous, international, bilingual education like that offered by Palo Alto’s International School of the Peninsula will naturally equip a child with a “global orientation” they can carry with them to high school, college, and eventually, their work lives.


5 Skills Your Child Needs to Develop Cultural Fluency

1. Embracing “Positive Indifference” – Tsedal Neely explains her concept of “positive indifference” as “the ability to overlook many cultural differences as being not especially important or worthy of attention while remaining optimistic about the process of engaging the culture seen as foreign.” A bilingual education gives a child the opportunity to grow up in an international community, studying and playing alongside peers from a diversity of backgrounds every day. This type of environment normalizes cultural difference so that when a child encounters an unfamiliar environment, their inclination will be to calmly adapt and “go with the flow.” Instead of approaching foreign cultures with fear or anxiety, they are able to approach them with an easy-going “positive indifference.”

 2. Looking for Common Ground – A bilingual education encourages connections across disciplines and cultures. One unique aspect of a bilingual school is that teachers often plan collaboratively to foster cross-cultural insights and connections. For example, students may be studying fairy tales in their English class. At the same time, in Chinese class, they will learn about traditional Chinese stories and legends and will be encouraged to analyze the differences and similarities in the two art forms. Thoughtful planning allows students to intuitively see cultural connections and commonalities.

3. Situating Yourself in a Global Context – Tsedal Neeley’s work has shown that a successful multinational worker thinks of him/herself as part of a larger organization that spans the world, instead of just an employee at a local office. Similarly, an international bilingual education will allow your child to be taught by teachers from all over the world, in multiple languages. In this environment, students are able to understand their place in both their local and global community.

 4. Seeking International Interactions and Connections – Most bilingual schools offer students the opportunity to participate in international exchange trips to the countries where their target language is spoken, where they live with local families and attend local schools for a period of time. In turn, families will often have the chance to host exchange students in their own homes during the year, for even more connection and exchange.

5. Aspiring to a Global Career – By being surrounded by international families, and seeing the examples of alumni pursuing careers abroad, students at bilingual, international schools naturally expand their career aspirations to include global possibilities.

Tsedal Neeley says that an increasingly globalized future means that “rather than assuming we’ll work in one location, in our native culture, we will need new skills, attitudes, and behaviors that help us work across cultures.” By equipping your child with cultural fluency along with language fluency, a bilingual education will give him/her the international skill set they need for future success.


Learn more about how a dynamic international bilingual education from the International School of the Peninsula (preschool through 8th grade) can benefit your child on by visiting our website. See our two Palo Alto campuses yourself – schedule a tour today!