As with many social interactions, it is important to consider context when working with an English Language Learner (ELL) from another culture. This means looking at the broader picture of the student’s background to better understand the unique needs of the student. By analyzing differences between cultures, educators can obtain perspective to help the student acclimate to their new social surroundings.
In collectivist cultures, there are social rules that establish in-groups and out-groups. In a culture such as this, people are more dependent on their family members or organized groups. This is reinforced by an emphasis on consideration of the needs, views, and goals of the collective. For this reason, a student from this background may not be as outspoken as American students that value independence and uniqueness. The pressure to stand out and achieve personal goals is a foreign concept to those from a collectivist culture. The student comes from a society that has taught them to defer to the collective thoughts and opinions of others, so they may find it challenging to find their voice in decision-making within group settings such as a classroom. The student has also learned to highly value relationships and trust within an established group. This means friendships may be formed much more slowly and gradually for these students than for others in the class.
Societies that operate with a large power distance are not encouraged to challenge authority or social hierarchy. Members of these societies accept the notion that everyone has a place and it should not be disputed. Someone from this culture will likely follow rules and directions as implicitly as they understand them. It should be mentioned that in high-context cultures, emphasis is less on what is said verbally and more on nonverbal cues. They may take more time to answer questions and have short and direct answers without much elaborations. Communication is reserved for serious and impersonal requests, so in many instances the student could be uncomfortable by the informal nature of communication between teacher and student. The shift from formal to informal may also be seen in the way the student avoids uncertainty. He or she will be unlikely to take the initiative to try something new, take risks, or appreciate flexibility in the way the classroom is managed.
Recognizing the values, beliefs, and behaviors of a child from a culture much different from our own is important for an educator. One aspect of a high-context culture that requires understanding is the temporality of the culture the student is used to. To those in a high-context culture, change is slow yet stable. The fast-paced nature of the classroom, with reminders of due dates, test dates, and penalties for late work, etc., is going to take time to adjust to. This could be overwhelming and could affect academic performance.
A person’s background is always a factor when considering how they categorize and process information. The ELL student is accustomed to a level of formality where deliberate and definite answers to questions is expected. An American teacher may often encourage thinking “outside the box” and relying on “common sense”. This may be confusing or even frustrating for the student. In a culture accustomed to learning absolute truths and low levels of uncertainty, critical thinking and abstract thinking could be difficult.
An American educator instructing a student from a collectivist culture will find challenges adapting the material to accommodate the student for many reasons. Most educators aim to recognize the individuality of their students and praise unique abilities. Teachers should recognize that standing out from the group is not encouraged in the ELL’s native culture. The educator must remain conscious of the importance of acknowledging the efforts and achievements of the class as a group rather than focusing primarily on individual accomplishments and encouraging competition.
Our cultures may be different, but in education we are working toward the same goals – to learn, to grow, and to form relationships along the way. The unique opportunity presented by having an English Language learner in the classroom will require both the teacher and student to transcend their cultural perspective and result in a mutually beneficial experience.
Humans have the unique ability and desire to communicate in a meaningful way. The learning/acquisition hypothesis distinguishes between two ways that describe how we develop language. To understand the hypothesis, it is beneficial to compare and contrast learning and acquisition views of language.
The major characteristics of the learning view are the direct instruction provided in classes with focus on teaching the language first before including content. The students do drills and exercises and are conscious of the expectation of learning. They are taught rules, then are tested on what they have retained. In reading and writing, they are taught phonics, letter formation, and sentence structure. The teacher uses passages and books to assess the progression of the level of the students.
The acquisition view hypothesizes that using language in a comprehensible way allows students to learn subconsciously. Application of language is the basis of instruction. This purposeful use of language includes social factors and context clues. Teachers use techniques such as guided reading followed by independent reading to facilitate a “release of responsibility”.
The significant differences between the views can be seen in the approaches the teacher uses in instruction. Teachers helps students through direct instruction and correcting errors when referencing a learning view. The acquisition view directs teachers to focus on meaning and communication but not necessarily pronunciation or grammatical structure.
My own view is that facilitating acquisition promotes a more purposeful way of learning. The idea that students can learn subconsciously simply because they want to be understood makes sense to me, even though I understand the need for direct instruction. I have seen evidence that independent reading improves reading and writing skills, so it makes sense relating to learning language. Another reason acquisition view makes sense to me is the history we know of human language. Spoken language has been used to communicate, entertain, and share emotion. In the classroom, including strategies to accommodate learning in conversational ways can make processing language occur more naturally.