17 Aug English Language Learners (ELL) & Intercultural Communication
By Anna Murphy, Rubicon International
Let’s begin with an activity. Partner with someone and place a piece of paper and a pen between you. Allot you and your partner 30 seconds to draw a house, holding the same pen. There is no talking whatsoever.
What does your house look like? Chances are it is a triangular roof with a square/rectangular base. Now, take another 30 seconds and redo the activity, but this time, the house must take a different form. What did you draw?
A TESOL class of mine ran through this activity as an ice breaker. Like most of you, our first drawing turned out something like this:
But, each of our second drawings greatly differed. Some groups drew igloos, apartments, teepees, mobile homes, and, even, a castle. In the end, we all concurred that constructing an alternative version of a house was far more difficult.
The question was then posed: ‘Why is that so?’
What if we were living in another country outside of the West? Would this still stand? Probably not. Better yet, how would we feel in that situation, when our understanding of a house is no longer standard or common?
In those situations, differences extend beyond the structure of a house. In distinct cultures, much of our worldview can be contradicted. In fact, certain truths become precarious, opinions ground in our upbringing and interactions. It’s a scary experience that can often feel threatening.
Living Abroad: Learning to See New Houses
During university, I lived in Morocco for a year studying Arabic. Yes, the food was delicious, the camel rides epic, and the Strait of Gibraltar beautiful, but what ultimately remains with me is my shift in worldview—the relinquishing of certain truths I held closely. This process wasn’t a smooth experience, it was waves of culture shock, coupled with confusion and, sometimes, anger.
Living abroad, I slowly ceded the monopoly I assumed I had on truth, recognizing that much of my worldview was constructed on assumptions and learned habits. I realized my version of a house was often different but no less real than others. Houses were not the houses I imagined.
Translating Intercultural Communication Skills into Education
Now, I work with ELL students from the Middle East North Africa region, trying to harness the lessons I learned abroad and channel them into positive and beneficial instructional strategies.
Because culture makes up such a huge aspect of our identity, culture is often a bigger barrier to integration than simply language. Therefore, when our culture changes, our identity, in turn, evolves. In integrating into a new culture, we must relearn norms and traditions, behavior and conduct, outlook and perspective. And, as ELL educators, we must be sympathetic of this process our students are experiencing.
Considerations for Supporting English Language Learners
There is no perfect formula for being an edgewalker between cultures and I certainly don’t have a solution for easing ELL transition into a new country, but I have developed some approaches and mindsets to mitigate potential conflict situations. Here are three:
1. Consider the parents
When children arrive in new countries, they—hopefully—have the chance to attend school and attain an immersive experience. On the other hand, parents are not always so fortunate. Instead of having the opportunity to integrate, they are thrown into work settings, often rely on their children for language learning support, and are also enduring much stronger culture shock—as their mother culture is far more entrenched even from just an age perspective.
A huge barrier for ELL student success can be balancing school verses home expectations, lessons, and challenges. To support ELL students is thus to support their family and its integration as whole. To foster this, I aim to introduce assignments into curriculum that involve the entire family, for example: interviews or discussions, long-term projects, presentations, and more—anything that will allow for communication in English and introduce aspects of the new culture into a family unit.
2. Consider behavior and etiquette norms
Each culture has different expectations for behavior and etiquette in the classroom. Appropriate voice volume, debate and discussion etiquette, note taking habits, and expectations for quality on assignments vary greatly. Therefore, when a student might do something considered ‘rude’ or ‘bad etiquette,’ it is often a learned habit.
Instead of scolding the student, I attempt to explain the differences in expectations, acknowledging that my expectations might be different from past or familial expectations. I don’t criticize the behavior, rather I explicitly outline behavior for my class.
3. Consider your own biases
At the end of the day, we are all imperfect. When I am frustrated by a student or the inability for a lesson to progress, I must self-analyze as well. What role am I playing in the stagnation? How could my approach be more malleable to all students? Where are my biases preventing me from making connections with students?
More and more, our classes are gaining diversity with students from many different backgrounds filling the seats. While this offers many positives, it can also lead to conflict, miscommunication and stress—both on the parts of teacher and student.
Often, when we work with students from diverse backgrounds, we can sometimes forget the most basic barriers to positive intercultural communication. Our idea of a house is not necessarily their idea of a house. The most powerful intercultural classrooms recognize the not-so-obvious cultural differences and integrate these into lessons and curriculum.