Shaping Multilingual Global Citizens

Guest post by Joan Clifford and Deb Reisinger | Romance Studies

When we think about culture shock, many of us imagine a disorienting experience that occurs while traveling to another country. For students, who both study and work abroad in increasing numbers, culture shock may occur when they don’t fully understand a country’s cultural practices, or when they don’t speak the language well enough to decode interactions with their new friends, or their host family. These feelings can be unsettling and anxiety-producing, but they are also a necessary part of transitioning to life in another culture. But what happens when students interact with speakers of languages other than English in the United States? A student learning Spanish who works with a local Latinx organization can experience similar feelings of dissonance, even though he or she remains in Durham, NC. How does a local language experience differ from one abroad? And why do these distinctions matter?

Most research lumps community-based language learning with global immersive experiences. International Service Learning and Global Service Learning, for instance, largely ignore the role of world language in their frameworks, couching language and language learning within the study of culture; likewise, language has received limited attention by scholars of domestic Service Learning. Our research shows that community-based language learning (CBLL) offers a unique linguistic landscape that merits our attention as educators and scholars, particularly as we turn our focus to domestic or local engagement (immigrant community empowerment in Miami, refugee resettlement in North Carolina, tutoring in Durham Public Schools, and so on). In our experience, students who work in local language communities experience a distinct kind of culture shock, one that can be equally unsettling, and just as transformative as when abroad.

Community engagement is more and more commonplace in educational settings, giving students the opportunity to engage with newcomers that are not yet fluent in US customs and language; immigrants, refugees, and the various organizations that support them are common community partners here at Duke. Students who engage in this work have an opportunity to use their language skills, to share their knowledge of US cultural practices, and to gain greater insight into how others navigate life in the US. While students might be anxious about their language abilities, they rarely anticipate encountering culture shock in their own country. Students working with resettlement offices are surprised by the public policy restrictions that shape the organization’s mission, while those in school settings are upset to discover the lack of resources available to some schools; these experiences may be the students’ first encounter with structural racism. The shock or dissonance that they experience is often exacerbated by their life experience: many students have not utilized certain social services, while others are simply too young to have interfaced with school systems or medical providers as independent adults. Assumptions of “I know best” disintegrate as students face their own privilege. Through critical reflection and conversations with community members in the second language, students see firsthand that cultural norms determine how parents raise their children, set educational expectations, and value independence. As students grapple with contrasting worldviews and question their own assumptions of what is “right”, educators need strategies that support student reflection and critical thinking.

One of the underlying goals of our work is to clearly articulate the unique issues that arise when students engage with speakers of other languages in their own communities. In Community-based Language Learning: A Framework for Educators, we share specific strategies for helping students and faculty navigate the challenges inherent in CBLL (designing scaffolded activities to address gaps in language proficiency, identifying best practices to build authentic relationships, using critical reflection to unpack ethical dilemmas). However, this is not an isolated discussion for language educators. We hope that all educators will impart to students the responsibility of learning languages and cultures, and that they will apply their growing linguistic and cultural proficiency to critically assess their own assumptions. This awareness will enable students to recognize the dynamics created by differences in power and privilege. Opening this window to a broader view of our world is critical for higher education’s mission of educating global citizens — multilingual global citizens.


Joan Clifford and Deb Reisinger are co-authors of Community-based Language Learning: A Framework for Educators (Georgetown Press 2019). Joan teaches Duke Service-Learning courses and directs DukeEngage in Miami, Duke in Chile, and the Community-based Language initiative in Duke Service-Learning. Deb teaches Service-Learning courses at Duke and directs Duke in Montréal, the Bienvenue à Durham program for Francophone refugees, and the Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum initiative at Duke.