As English as a Second Language teachers, one of our main challenges in a one-on-one classroom environment is to get the student to open up to us so we can accurately evaluate their needs and make sure their classes are beneficial. Depending on what culture the student grew up in and ascribes to can greatly affect and even hinder our assessments.
In some cultures, such as Mainland Chinese, teachers are highly regarded as experienced and “give the gift of their knowledge” to their students by reciting facts that the students must memorize. Participation is minimal and disagreements are almost non-existent. Education is considered a transfer of information from the master to the apprentice. This framework for schooling tends to work well for some subjects, but not language learning. It can be quite overwhelming when a student comes into a private, American- style class that is dominated by opinions, discussions and open-ended questions.
If a student grew up in a culture where educators were highly respected and feared equally, they are more likely to not speak up when something is said incorrectly, they have a differing opinion or even when they do not understand. This can cause great strife between the teacher and the student. Both believe they are in the right, but there seems to be a disconnect- causing miscommunication and misunderstandings.
So, how do we combat this?
- Create an environment where the student feels comfortable to make mistakes. This might take a while and differs not only between cultures, but also personalities. Memorizing and being able to recite all of the verb tenses perfectly doesn’t help a student when they need to order food at a restaurant. Make sure the students have enough practice to make mistakes and then perfect their language. Remind them that we learn from our mistakes.
- Don’t over-correct. Students have a difficult time opening up when they feel that everything coming out of their mouth is incorrect. Make sure to only correct when there is a reoccurring error or a major error that distorts the meaning.
- Only ask context questions. Asking questions such as, “Do you understand?” and “Do you like this?” will result in predictable answers and keeps the conversation at the surface level. Ask more open-ended and context-based questions that help the student think about meaning and demonstrate understanding of the subject such as, “Where did she go after work?” and “Why did she say ‘I’m good’ when she was very angry?”
- Give homework that encourages critical thinking. Students from “Sage on the Stage” cultures usually had repetitive homework, so this will be a challenge at first, but can help the student understand the expectations for this style of classes.
- Inquiry based projects. Have your student learn about a topic they are interested in. Get them to think of as many questions as possible, guide them to appropriate resources, and have them lead the way to learning. Student-centered learning lets the student take charge of their language learning and helps them feel more connected with the language and the class.
What have you found works when faced with these cultural challenges in the classroom?
-Lauren Cameron, Language Training Coordinator