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Teaching Cultural Newcomers

Main rule: Do not take anything for granted.

Language proficiency is not the only barrier to understanding for newcomers to native-English-speaking culture. You may need to explain fundamentals, such as the purpose of speaking and the rationale behind common markers of a good speech, as these are not universal principles.

Ideally, a classroom’s learning outcomes should not suggest that one culture’s ways of speaking are superior to another, but that, for success in a host culture, it is beneficial for students to know how to adapt to their environment. Part of this adaptation means knowing and accepting that people, from nation to nation and even family to family, are different.

How the following questions are answered represents some of the important ways people differ in their communication and understanding:

What is a day in class normally like?

  • For most learners in the United States, classroom culture can be unpredictable. Teachers vary in their methods, but most prefer to engage students in discussion and assign dynamic, collaborative, and/or interactive tasks. It is acceptable in many Western classrooms for teachers to behave informally with their students. However, this is not normal for every culture: Some students are more familiar with highly formalized classroom situations where learning happens mostly through lecture and note taking, and where the teacher-student relationship is politely distant.
  • Solution: For international students, especially those are that more introverted, encourage them to have regular informal, conversational contact with at least one of their classmates. Consider giving ungraded assignments early on that allow students to acclimate themselves to the classroom culture without pressure. Help all students to focus on learning more than grades, and facilitate that by putting them into study groups or partnerships early on. Do not attempt to abruptly force behavioral change.

Who is allowed to speak publicly?

  • With few exceptions (mostly related to public safety), most people in the United States, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, political alignment, etc., are allowed (under the law) to get up and speak in public about whatever topic they choose. U.S. students sometimes feel that their opinions are too unpopular to voice, but some international students have come from situations where they might be jailed for disagreeing with people in power, or where they risk being made social outcasts and losing their support system.
  • Solution: Make it clear in your syllabus or course outline that the classroom has rules of propriety, but that it also functions as a self-contained support system, and every student has an equal right to speak, regardless of traits or background. If students must disagree, then that disagreement goes through the teacher as mediator, and it does not leave the classroom.

What makes information understandable and interesting?

  • Successful informative and argumentative speeches in the United States tend to be researched and organized according to this perspective: The universe is knowable and governed by laws. For many U.S. students, it is taught that conclusions need to be drawn and sides need to be taken; in other words, too much ambiguity is unacceptable. For some international students, however, ambiguity is preferred, and to draw conclusions or attempt to make universal predictions is considered arrogant.
  • Additionally, in classroom discussion in the United States, it is common to describe topics in abstract language, assuming that all students have had a background in understanding, for example, science for the sake of science, or math for the sake of math. Some students, however, need concepts to be applied to everyday decisions, or other experiential knowledge, before they can understand it.
  • Solution: Via assignments or discussion, provide students ways in which they can negotiate meaning conversationally, feeling safe and heard. Additionally, all teachers should address different learning styles by providing more than one way to understand material, therefore be ready to give concrete examples.

What makes a well told story?

  • In most literature from the United States and Northern Europe, stories follow a similar pattern of beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, and end. In presenting information or argument, it is usually preferred to make direct, concise thesis statements, preferably clarified at the beginning, supported, and then clarified again at the conclusion. However, other cultures’ storytelling or information delivery traditions may expect much more context explained at the beginning of the story, much more attention paid to human actors than plot, much more digression from the main point, and/or much fewer open, blatant claims or theses.
  • In most Western speech-making, it is considered more effective to be conversational and animated, making direct eye contact, projecting vocals, and moving deliberately. Some cultures, however, have strict norms concerning the target of eye contact (e.g. gender or level of authority) and the use of particular body movements (especially hand gestures, some of which can cause inadvertent offense). Also, a common concern some international students have is with what they may consider excessive smiling and shouting in U.S. speech behavior.
  • Solution: Be consistent in your guidelines for speech structure and delivery, but be willing to hear international students explain their uncertainty about differences and provide them opportunities — if not formally, then informally — to tell stories in their way.

All in all, the function of a Western public speaking classroom is not to erase non-Western ways of speaking, nor communicate Western conventions as superior or “normal.” ESL students in class, in the same way as native English speakers, should be encouraged to know their audience and accommodate them, expecting accommodation in return. Part of this means establishing a culture of open communication and accommodation for the whole class from the very beginning.