Monday, October 21, 2013

How do cultural differences affect the English Language Learners ability to succeed in school?

I’ve been teaching in a CAEP School* for two years and primary ELL’s show cultural differences that really affects how they respond, act and react in class.

Sure. Some cultures don't talk about the future and so won't answer questions like, "What job would you like?" "What will you do this summer?" They think it is bad luck to talk about it. Some cultures think Fairy Tales are lies and they are upset when they talk about fairies or elves or flying dragons. Some cultures don't mention the name of the dead and so are upset when you ask about Grandma or Grandpa. Some cultures don't let you touch the children on the head. Some of our body language means different things to different people and can be very offensive.  While it is very important to some children to remind me about their nationalities and their background, to some others this is something they don’t want to talk about a word.
I had a student who always answered my questions with another question, and, another who didn’t do his homework because "his nationality." I had another student who thought it was appalling that people would keep dogs and cats as pets. Or another who wouldn’t have eye contact because “you could lose your soul”…

I welcome this kind of dialogue with the children because it generates great discussion and opens up everybody’s' mind to different ways of thinking.

Does this happen with your students?

We all bring differences to the table. But as a teacher, it is our job to celebrate the diversity in the classroom. Not only will it help the students to respect one another but, also, it may allow us - the teachers - to better understand why our students do what they do.

I do agree that it can sometimes be hard for the teacher and students to cope with cultural differences in the classroom. However, I do think that it is the teacher’s role to create an atmosphere that promotes cultural awareness so that everyone can be open-minded to others.

When the curricular calls for cultural subjects that relate to the English culture, the teacher should always make links between the different knowledge with those from other students’ cultures. In doing so the teacher helps students to construct meaning by establishing new relationships with themselves and with others and helps to share practices and beliefs regarding the subject that is being talked about.

People's cultures are a huge part of their life. It has a huge effect on how they see the world, and how they do activities and work in their life. Whether this comes in the way of their learning and our teaching depends on our ability to see all these differences in a positive light and encourage everyone to share these differences and point out the merits of each.

So, I think it is important to learn more about the cultural differences and similarities of your students in order to facilitate their cultural adaptation in your classroom, help them to increase their cultural awareness of the culture of the target language and help them to interact easily with you and their classmates.

Of course, there are some great books on what to do and what not to do, but they are usually written for business people. It is fun to talk about these things with the parents, especially what they expect from the school and teacher.

You never stop learning.

The iceberg model of culture

One of the most well known models of culture is the iceberg. It focusses on the elements that make up culture, and on the fact, that some of the elements are very visible, whereas others are hard to discover.

The idea behind this model is that culture can be pictured as an iceberg: only a very small portion of the iceberg, can be seen above the waterline. The top of the iceberg is supported by the much larger part of the iceberg, underneath the water line and therefore invisible. Nonetheless, this lower part of the iceberg is the powerful foundation.

Also in culture there are some visible parts: architecture, art music, cooking, and language, just to name a few. But the powerful foundations of culture are more difficult to spot: the history of the group of people that hold the culture, their norms, values, basic assumptions about space, nature, time etc.

The iceberg model of culture implies that the visible parts of culture are just expressions of its invisible parts. It also points out that, how difficult it is at times to understand people with different cultural backgrounds because we may spot the visible parts of their iceberg but we cannot immediately see what are the foundations that these parts rest upon. 

(*) A CAEP is a school where the students have especial education needs to achieve the main basic skills and objectives. It is mainly due to their poor socio-cultural and economical conditions.

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