Language is always changing. It responds to social, economic, and political events and is therefore an important barometer and descriptor of a society at any given time. Language also becomes obsolete; it could not be otherwise because it is a reflection of societal changes. (Nieto, 2004, p. 23)

Nieto's (2004) quote is important to keep in mind as we attempt to offer definitions of terms related to multicultural education and diverse learners. The reader can find many variations and alternatives to the concepts defined here, especially between the various disciplines. We have chosen the broadest representations of terms most commonly discussed in education.


Culture is an umbrella term that" denotes a complex integrated system of values, beliefs, and behaviors common to a large group of people. A culture may include shared history and folklore, ideas about right and wrong, and specific communication styles" (Tiedt & Tiedt, 2005, p. 11), and it also includes the ways in which we use and react to our physical environment, symbols, economy, education, information and technology, and sociological and psychological climates. Okun, Fried, and Okun (1999) offer a useful and more complete description of the concept, including common ideas about culture, worldviews, and high- and low-context cultures.


Ethnicity is "a group classification in which members believe that they share a common origin and a unique social and cultural heritage such as language or religious belief" (Gladding, 2001, p. 45). This term originates from the Greek ethnos, which means "nation."


Race, often misused as synonymous with ethnicity or nationality, is "an anthropological concept that classifies people according to their physiological characteristics" (Gladding, 2001, p. 100), such as skin color and facial characteristics. There is much debate in the education literature about how effective knowing one's race is for cultural understanding and about whether race is merely a political classification. Hodgkinson (2000/2001) reports that racial categories in the U.S. Census have no scientific validity and that there is significant disagreement over which racial terms are appropriate terms to use (e.g., African American vs. Black, and American Indian vs. Native American). It is important to remember that both race and ethnicity are social constructs, created by a society, affected by a society, and judged by a society. Behavior is learned within the framework of a particular ethnic group or culture and usually taught within a family structure.

The following terms describe additional multicultural principles of behavior:

  • Accommodations: This term refers to adaptations to learning, instruction, or assessment made by teachers for students with disabilities or English language learners (ELLs) to enhance learning and opportunities for academic success. Many accommodations used for students with disabilities or ELLs positively affect learning for all students (Vaughn, Bos, & Schumm, 2003).
  • Acculturation: This term describes "the ways people learn the customs, beliefs, behaviors, and traditions of a culture; or the degree to which individuals from minority cultures identify with or conform to the attitudes, lifestyles, and values of the majority culture" (Gladding, 2001, p. 2).
  • Assimilation: This is "an approach to acculturation that seeks to merge small ethnically and linguistically diverse communities into a single dominant national institutional structure and culture" (Garcia, 2002, p. 415).
  • Assistive technology: As defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, or the IDEA 2004 (PL 108-446), the term assistive technology means any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially or off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. The term does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted or the replacement of such device (IDEA 2004, §602[1]).
  • Bias: "This is a personal preference which prevents one from making fair judgments or assessments" (Schwartz, Conley, & Eaton, 1997, p. 36).
  • Bigotry: "This is a stubborn intolerance of any race, nationality, or creed that differs from one's own" (Schwartz et al., 1997, p. 36).
  • Bilingual special education: This term refers to educational programming and assessment designed to address the specific and complex needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students with exceptionalities (CLDE). Currently, there are no consistent models from state to state regarding either certification or education of CLDE students (Baca & Cervantes, 2004).
  • Cultural conflict: This term refers to differences between a child's culture and the culture of the child's immediate community (e.g., neighborhood and school setting).
  • Cultural pluralism: This term describes "the existence within a society of a number of varied groups with distinct values and lifestyles. Also known as cultural diversity" (Gladding, 2001, p. 34).
  • Cultural relativity: This is "the idea that any behavior must be judged first in relation to the context of the culture in which it occurs" (Randall-David, 1989, p. 2).
  • Enculturation: This is "the process by which a person acquires the native culture" (Collier, 2004, p. 14).
  • English language learner (ELL): ELL is the term used to describe an individual who speaks one or more languages other than English as the first language, and who either lacks or is in the early stages of developing proficiency in English (Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence, n.d.).
  • Ethnocentrism: "This is the belief that one's cultural ways are not only valid and superior to other people's, but also universally applicable in evaluating and judging human behavior" (Schwartz et al., 1997, p. 22).
  • Exceptional learners: In terms of education, exceptional learners are individuals who require and benefit from special education and related services in order to enhance their potential for academic success (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2006).
  • Multicultural: "This refers to a number of diverse traditions, customs, arts, languages, values, and beliefs existing side-by-side" (Schwartz et al., 1997, p.22).
  • Multicultural education: This type of education entails !fa curriculum whose content educates students on the contribution of more than one culture" (Garcia, 2002, p. 417).
  • Racism: Racism is "prejudice displayed in blatant or subtle ways due to recognized or perceived differences in the physical and psychological backgrounds of people. It is a form of projection usually displayed out of fear or ignorance" (Gladding, 2001, p. 100).
  • Stereotype: This is "a concept or representation of a category of persons that can be inaccurate in terms of how it exaggerates real differences and the perception of those differences" (Okun et al., 1996, p. 2).