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GLOBAL ISSUES IN LANGUAGE
EDUCATION NEWSLETTER
June 1995 - Issue No. #19
Reprinted in part from TESOL Matters Vol 4, No 6, Dec 1994 / Jan 1995.

Promoting Cultural Sensitivity Among Students

by Johnnie Johnson Hafernik

University of San Francisco

I would like to briefly explore a difficult issue that Intensive English Programs (IEPs) encounter: How to increase the cultural awareness and sensitivity of our students. Students often ask "How many people from my country study in your program? I do not want a class full of students from my country." Most students want to be with individuals from other countries, thinking that then they will practice their English more and, perhaps, form friendships with individuals from other countries. Once classes are underway, however, students may complain that other cultural groups can't speak English well or talk too much and ask foolish questions in class.

The fact is that students often have stereotypes of other ethnic groups, and their comments and complaints seem insensitive and at times racist. How do we deal with this insensitivity and stereotyping of other groups and at the same time deal with students' and teachers' pedagogical concerns? How do we assist students in becoming more culturally sensitive and open? How do we help them see the strengths other individuals and cultural groups have? I propose that the best way is to deal with the issues directly. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Include the idea of learning about other countries and cultures in the IEP's statement of purpose.

  2. Stress this purpose to the students during orientation as well as in classes. Tell students that along with improving their English skills, a goal of the program is to help them learn about other countries and to educate others about their countries.

  3. Point out the opportunity that individuals have to "travel around the world" by getting to know their fellow students.

  4. Present orientation workshops and course lessons on cultural and linguistic stereotyping. A simple exercise is to give students a short English sentence to translate into their language (e.g. "It's a beautiful day.") Have students write the sentence in their native language on the board and teach the class how to say this. Students can also explain what foreigners find most difficult about learning their native language. Exercises like these give students a better awareness of the linguistic diversity of students in their class and an appreciation for others' English abilities.

  5. Do a lesson on classroom behavior in the US and have students explain how appropriate classroom behavior differs in their countries.

  6. Whenever possible, do information gap exercises where students learn about others' cultures and countries. For example, after reading an article about drinking laws in the US, have students find out about drinking laws in their classmate's countries. Perhaps give a short quiz the next day about this information.

  7. Incorporate lessons that point out the practical aspects of knowing about other cultures. This knowledge is helpful in business and economics as well as in ordering in restaurants.

  8. Find ways to publicly acknowledge the strength of students. Read a good passage from an essay written by a student who rarely speaks or ask students with particular knowledge to explain a concept or information to the class. Give these students time to prepare if they typically don't speak spontaneously in class.

  9. Acknowledge that racism is an issue that US society continues to grapple with. Individual students may have been the target of racism in the US or in their countries.

  10. Consider doing a lesson on racism: its causes and solutions.

These are suggestions for giving students information about other peoples and assisting them in becoming culturally aware and sensitive. Despite our efforts, we may encounter students making racist and culturally insensitive statements in our classes or offices. What do we do then? I suggest that we listen carefully. We, however, need to make it clear that racist statements are inappropriate. We can say "Such statements are considered racist."

Most important in building cultural sensitivity is the tone the program sets and the role models the students see. We must set a tone of acceptance and appreciation for all groups in the IEP's statement of purpose, its orientation, its classes, and all its interactions with students and the public.

We can't solve the problem of racism in the US or in the world through these actions, but we can play a part in making each of us understand other people better. This better understanding will then be with us the rest of our lives and inform our interactions and decisions.


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