Teaching Language Means Teaching Culture; Or, Teaching Away from a Pudding-Normative Society

Brief note: Back in 2012, during my final year of university, I took a class on literacy in the US that really broadened my mind. For my final project I researched the ways that language and culture interact in the ELL classroom, and since I feel like I actually made some good points, here it is, slightly edited for your reading pleasure.

Brief note: Back in 2012, during my final year of university, I took a class on literacy in the US that really broadened my mind. For my final project I researched the ways that language and culture interact in the ELL classroom, and since I feel like I actually made some good points, here it is, slightly edited for your reading pleasure.

While helping a student with his science homework in the afterschool ELL program at a high school near Seattle, we came across the type of atomic model that is usually called the “plum pudding” model, because it resembles a pudding with plums scattered throughout. 

Is this helping?

Compared to the other atomic models, this one was difficult for me to explain to him, not because it was intrinsically more complicated that any of the others, but because he had no idea what pudding was; the writers of the textbook assumed that the metaphor would be useful for students, that by imagining a pudding they would remember the structure of the atom more easily, but that assumption is based on a very one-sided and Eurocentric expectation of pudding-knowledge. “Teachers do not seem to understand how schools divest ESL students of their human and social capital through curricula and pedagogical practices designed to assimilate them into the mainstream American culture rather than promote learning in terms valued by the learners’ communities” (Ajayi).

Teaching English as a second language, really, teaching any language as a second language, is not just about grammar and vocab and communication: it’s about culture. Language is the medium through which we know and understand culture, and so it should come as no surprise that cultural differences are one of the biggest challenges in learning or teaching a language. Words don’t always translate perfectly, making the more complicated concepts all the more difficult to explain. In her article “How ESL Teachers’ Sociocultural Identities Mediate Their Teacher Role Identities in a Diverse Urban School Setting,” Lasisi Ajayi quotes a teacher who says that her “lessons always start from what my students bring from their community and I then build the new knowledge on this structure… I don’t want them to feel like they are being asked to abandon their heritage in order to fit into the mono-cultural majority (Ajayi). In the rush to bring ELL students up to par in their new language, cultural differences can easily fall by the wayside, but culture will not disappear just because you aren’t looking at it directly. “Americans have always held tightly to the idea that ethnic cultures would melt or vanish” (Banks), but clearly that is not the case.
Culture, like identity, is an enormously complicated and tangled thing to define, based on more factors than there are stars in the sky. However, just because it’s difficult to figure out doesn’t mean we should just discount it. “Cultures are built on deeply-embedded sets of values, norms, assumptions and beliefs. It can be surprising and sometimes distressing to find that people do not share some of your most deeply held ideas, as most of us take our core values and beliefs for granted and assume they are universally held” (Culture Shock). As many of the teachers from my sources have noted, having a shared culture with their minority or ELL students was helpful, but does that necessarily mean that without a shared background there will be an insurmountable barrier? Mrs. Laban, an ELL teacher in a Seattle high school, mentioned to me that for her to “tell them [her] story is inspiring to them [the students],” since her parents came to America from the Phillipines and she had to learn how to fit in to a new culture just as they did.

             There is no question that there is a big gap between the average teacher and the average student, not even taking ELL classrooms into account. “Nine out of 10 teachers in the United States are white” and “four out of every 10 students are not white” (Aguilar). Those statistics are not reassuring. However, the same article goes on to assert that:

“…it is the teacher’s responsibility to bridge this cultural chasm. We cannot eliminate the differences but we can learn to communicate effectively with each other.”

While I am not sure what the statistics are concerning how many teachers there are who learned English as a second language, I can only assume that they are equally concerning, making the need to bridge this gap between teachers and their ELL students even more of an important priority.
Something that a girl in the afterschool ELL program said to me has been stuck in my head ever since I heard it. I was helping her with geometry; she had trouble with the instructions, though her grasp of geometry was much better than mine, even though I could read the instructions easily—between the two of us we were able to work it out somehow. However, even though she was great at math, every time she had an issue with reading the instructions written in English, she would complain that she was stupid. “Gah, I’m so dumb” was a refrain I kept trying to discourage.

By valuing not only what students can do in the classroom but what they each bring to the classroom from their own lives, this attitude could be cured.

“In the past, in their singular quest for modernity and a technocratic society, the Western nation-states tried to eradicate traditional cultures and thus alienated individuals and groups from their first cultures and languages” (Banks). 

As Mark, a teacher and fellow after school tutor told me in an interview, “we need to let them [the students] know the importance of their native language.” Mrs. Laban also noted that she regretted not keeping her own native language, the language of her immigrant parents, alive.
Creating a classroom setting in which everyone’s unique perspective is valuable also creates a setting where students might be less resistant to learning English, as “listening and speaking in a new language is tiring” and students may “feel embarrassed” when they struggle with something or need to ask someone to repeat something (Culture Shock). While English is my first language, I have also been studying both Japanese and Korean for a number of years, so I know that feeling, when you’re just so tired of trying to force your mouth around unfamiliar syllables and your brain around strange grammar formations that instead of asking a question, you just nod and smile and pretend to understand, especially if you feel like you are the only one struggling. By respecting the differing social and cultural backgrounds and knowledge of each student, it is possible to keep them from feeling such a level of self-doubt.
I saw this in action while tutoring three girls from Pakistan at Shorecrest High School; I noticed that their resistance to my help seemed to grow the more they struggled with remembering the names of the colors (what we were working on at the time). However, after spending a few minutes asking them to tell me the names of the colors in Urdu, they cheered up, laughing as I mangled the pronunciation of their language. I still remember one of the words they taught me; turquoise in Urdu is pronounced just like ‘zinc’, but I have zero clue as to the proper spelling

When a teacher comes from a similar background as the students in class, it seems like it would be easier to build a connection to said students, and “findings indicate that while multilingual teachers use their own experiences as former ESL students as a resource in classrooms, monolingual teachers lack experiential knowledge that could complement and enrich what they learn from their language education courses.” (Ajayi) Because a multilingual teacher whose native language is not English had to struggle through a lot of the same things his or her students are struggling with, they better know how to make those struggles into less of an issue in the classroom. During his interview Mark agreed with this sentiment; he spent a number of years living in Japan, and said that “living in another culture…helps me relate to what they’re going through. All the things they are struggling with, if you have struggled too, then you can relate to them and share experiences.”

While there certainly are some teachers who have had life experiences that give them an easier path toward understanding the struggles that their students go through on a daily basis, it seems likely that there are some teachers who approach their ELL classrooms with the attitude that Banks mentions, that ethnic differences would vanish, or as Tatum puts it, they worry that acknowledging racial, cultural, or ethnic differences is “wrong…a sign perhaps of bigotry or prejudicial thinking” (Tatum). There are even teachers with a wholly different issue, that approach their classrooms without even consideringthe differences; their cultural assumptions are so deeply rooted that they do not realize what they are or are not doing. I believe that every teacher, not just teachers of ELL students, should have these issues brought to their attention, and I have come up with at least a very small activity that could help in that effort.

First I would find a story, a folktale or the like, that is incredibly well-known in a foreign country, such as the story of Momotaro from Japan, a cute little folktale about a boy who is born out of a peach and makes various animal friends during a quest to defeat a band of roguish demons. While it is likely that pretty much any student in a Japanese school would know this story, it seems unlikely that a room full of teachers in the US would include someone who did. After choosing the story, I would write it out, and then translate various words in the story, some important words and some basic words, into a foreign language. I would do this with several different languages, causing the story to be rather difficult to understand. Once in class, I would split the teachers up into groups of three or four, and give each group a version of the story with words translated, some into Japanese, some into Spanish, French, Tagalog, whatever languages I or the people around me knew.

Each group would have a set of questions to try to answer after they had puzzled through the story, and after they had all had a decent amount of time to work, I would bring the class together and discuss their feelings about how difficult the assignment was. I hope that after doing such a project, everyone would realize the kind of challenges that face students of English as a second language, especially when we expect them to get cultural cues. Just as a teacher might give students a book of illustrated fairy tales in order to help them work on their reading, assuming that the familiar storylines and helpful pictures would make it easier for them to tease out the meaning when in actuality they may not know Snow White from Marilyn Monroe, using a folktale from a different culture creates the same confusion for the teachers in this hypothetical classroom. While it is not a huge contribution to the solution to many of the issues brought up in this paper, I feel that this small activity could be very effective.

As a younger tutor coming in who is not quite a teacher but not quite an adult either, I feel that I have a leg up as far as connecting with the students goes. Maybe they do not see me as a peer exactly, but even though English is my first language and I am not from any ethnic minority at all, I know what it’s like to be confused and to struggle, and sometimes I think a connection on even that kind of level can make all the difference. On my first day of tutoring, there was a substitute, so I was thrown to the proverbial wolves and sent to the library to help the three new Pakistani girls. As I wrote later that day in my tutoring log, “they were very patient with me, my long pauses as I tried to think of what to do, my nervous laughter–and after a while we all sort of bonded over how unfamiliar we allwere with what was going on. I knew English, but had no idea how to teach them, and they didn’t know English, but somehow we found a place in the middle to meet”. Cultural differences will never go away—at least that is what I believe—but if we can all work to find middle grounds on which to meet, it will make for a more positive outcome for everyone.

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