The journey from beginner to proficiency is a long one, but I’ve always felt that, once students begin to make friends from countries other than their own, they’re making a giant stride in the right direction.
This isn’t just good for the classroom’s social environment, and it isn’t just a huge boost to the students’ own confidence and the quality of their experience when studying abroad. It’s actually a very positive sign for their language acquisition as well, showing us that they’ve gained sufficient English to break through the inevitable barriers of language and background, and meaningfully engage with students from any other part of the world.
However, arranging for this monumental moment to occur isn’t at all simple. Students often arrive with pre-installed views on their own nation and its relationship with the world, and on the ethnic groups and religions they’re set to encounter along the way. These range from the tolerant and accepting, through to the downright xenophobic and exclusive. As teachers, we need to be sensitive to these viewpoints and help encourage the new friendships and new understandings to which the ESL environment is so very conducive.
One of the biggest threats to a cohesive, contended group of students is enclavism, i.e. the tendency for L1 groups to form up, and then harden and become exclusive, thereby blocking potentially valuable cross-cultural relationships. Here are some ways to deal with this common and divisive issue:
Struggle for Efficient Cross-cultural Relationships inside the Classroom
You’re Not in Kansas Anymore
I’ve written on how to ensure that our students use as little as possible of their own language (referred to as L1). One of the first steps in doing this is to remind the students that they are not, in fact, in their home environment, even if they’re surrounded by other L1 speakers. Ways of doing this tend to be funny; “Look out of the window… Where are we, again?” This worked particularly well at my school in Boston which had a giant US flag on its front lawn! Alternatively, have the students figure out exactly how many miles they are from their home towns; the results might surprise them, though we hope not to make them any more homesick!
We’re All the Same
Early on in the semester, perhaps in the first week, run a couple of ‘Getting to Know You’ exercises which are simple interviews. Brainstorm good questions with the students, e.g. Which sports team do you support? Do you have a favorite place to go out in your home town? Are your parents nervous that you’re traveling so far from home?
What keeps coming out of exercises like these is that we all have the same worries, and desires, and that we’re fundamentally alike. Our superficial differences simply don’t matter. This realization is a huge step toward building friendships and leaving behind the comforts of the L1 enclave.
School administrators who genuinely care about this issue will go out of their way to ensure that your classes are ethnically mixed. Sometimes this isn’t possible, or the school isn’t committed to this particular cause. As much as possible, request that none of your classes are monolingual, and that as few of your students as possible are in home stay accommodation with others from their language group. Even Portuguese and Spanish students can find themselves ‘cheating’, rather than using English.
While trying not to single out any particular group, it’s often the case that Chinese students suffer the most from ‘enclavism’ and its attendant problems. With little experience of foreigners from back home, a traditionally rather closed-off mentality to the outside world, and often a low level of language (and therefore social) skills, young Chinese learners need guidance and sometimes a firm hand to ensure they don’t lapse into pervasive use of L1. More than most other nationalities, there is the danger that they will settle into a comfortable enclave of Chinese speakers, fail to practice their English, and achieve few of their learning aims.
Be aware, though, of a seemingly common sight in mixed-ethnicity ESL classrooms: a group of students arguing volubly and fluently, all except the two Chinese kids who sit in total silence. Monitor and help out as much as possible; get the others to back peddle until the whole group knows what’s going on. Remember, in their situation, we’d all be terrified, too.
Make a point of mixing nationalities in group activities, and consider designing a seating chart to avoid L1 pairs (i.e. students from Chile and Spain shouldn’t sit together). This won’t always be possible, but even imposing such an arrangement reminds the students that they’re here to speak L2 and to engage cross-culturally. Bear in mind L1 groupings when assigning research or group presentation tasks, in just the same way that we consider relative skills levels.
I taught a class of ten students a few years ago, and on our first day, we tried to find every one of our classmates’ countries on a map. There was general confusion and a lack of success. I try to begin semesters with plenty of introductory, bridge-building activities such as interviews, games of ‘Find Someone Who’, quick presentations on the students’ home towns, research tasks to discover more on classmates’ countries, etc. But step one should be ‘Where in the world do you come from?” and a good session of map-reading. You’ll receive some startled reactions. My favorite was, “Impossible! Iceland has no people!”
I try to see L1 issues coming. On day one of a semester, I’ll compare three (semi-fictional) learners; Student A has no foreign friends and hangs out in his L1 group; Student B has a handful of foreign friends and goes out once a week for noodles with the Japanese kids; Student C makes friends with anyone he can, uses social networking to keep in touch, and is unafraid of his mistakes. “Go ahead, guys, guess which one got the best results on his tests!”
Alongside this trick, I tell personal stories about what happened when I visited a country with friends (we stuck together and didn’t learn any L2 beyond ‘train station’ and ‘beer’) and when I traveled alone (I learned plenty of local language, because I had to, and had a much richer experience). I find that students generally take these anecdotes seriously, and have been known to embellish them for effect. Try doing the same; the advice feels so much more genuine and considered if it comes from personal experience.
You might also do the following things.
- Set essays or research tasks on the importance of integration, multi-culturalism, and the civil rights movement
- Teach basic social phrases in almost every class, reiterating them often, so that students are better armed with the language needed to make friends
- Organize mixers or other multi-ethnic events outside of class
- Award those who have lots of non-L1 Facebook friends, or who bring in photos of themselves in a restaurant with students from other countries, etc.
- Set up a system of embarrassing forfeits for those who speak L1 in the classroom; I paint the tip of the student’s nose with the whiteboard marker, but I’m sure you’ll find your own way to do this!
L1-Enclaves divide classes as well as nationalities and language groups, and there’s no real need for them to dominate your class dynamic.
Firm, continuous pressure results in better habits without requiring a Draconian form of discipline; gentle reminders work better than a slapped wrist. For some students, the greatest lesson of their studies overseas might be that we are united by far more than we’re divided, and that the rest of the world isn’t quite so scary after all.