TESL Canada: Cultural Considerations Part II – (Inter)Cultural Dynamics in The ESL Classroom

TESL Canada - Diversity in the ClassroomThe second part of the Cultural Considerations series will focus on (Inter)cultural dynamics in the Canadian ESL classroom. ESL teachers in Canada have to be aware that while many students look forward to the prospect of meeting and learning alongside students from other countries, different approaches to study that arise from both personality and culture need to be addressed. Stereotypically, students of East-Asian origin (Korean, Japanese, Chinese, etc.) have a strong desire to improve their communication skills but feel overwhelmed and overpowered by students from a South American or European background, for whom fluency typically comes more quickly. It is up to you to establish a strong precedent of equitable patterns of participation in your classroom, and this may initially require explicit discussion about how ‘quiet’ students can make space for themselves, and how dominant students can ensure their less fluent classmates have the opportunity to be heard.

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Classroom Management – TESL Canada

In some cases, intercultural interactions may become tense when misunderstandings arise. Not all of your students will be as open minded as you may like them to be, often because they have had little opportunity to interact with those culturally different than themselves. It is important that you model an attitude of interest and inclusivity for all things cultural; investing time in cooperative activities which also have clear language aims can yield great rewards when students from different cultures congeal and learn to value each other’s differences.

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Materials and Topics – TESL Canada

Many textbooks written by North American or British teachers contain built-in assumptions around culture that may alienate students and prevent them from succeeding at language activities. As an example, I was surprised to find that many of my Saudi Arabian students had never celebrated a birthday, and that birthday celebrations had very little significance in some parts of their country. Because of this, they had little to contribute to the discussion questions about birthdays presented by the textbook we were working with. Similarly, some students may react with sensitivity to content that deals with gender, relationships, family dynamics, religion politics and history. Instead of avoiding these interesting and fertile topics altogether, communicate a sense of flexibility to your students, and let them know that you respect their right to express concern with or refrain from a particular activity or discussion. As a theme, culture is a natural fit for language lessons, but be careful not to tokenize students. Many students do not identify with many of the popular (or stereotypical) conceptions that we tend to have of their cultures, and everyone wishes to be regarded without prejudice. Check in with students regularly to make sure they have the opportunity to express privately those concerns they may not feel comfortable sharing in front of a group.

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