Language Problems. Cultural Opportunities.

Posted on July 12, 2010


Classroom diversity, language learning and cultural integration in the 21st century classroom.

By Tristan Verboven

It takes time to learn a language. Even longer to learn a culture. Immigrant students have a lot on their plate. To create life-long learners, teachers need to know what and who they are dealing with. Effectively integrating immigrant students into a learning environment involves re-examining the three main factors in the education process. Here are three approaches to making the transition smoother and more genuine:

-creating an inclusive learning environment

-focusing on what motivates students

-cultivating a dual identity

Adapting an Inclusive Learning Environment

Studies have shown that integrating students are often erroneously diagnosed as having learning disabilities: poor performance, inattention, lack of social skills, and emotional imbalance. As long as educators rely blindly on standardized norm-referenced tests, they do a disservice to students whose true potential is being overlooked. If they do not properly account for language issues, students’ abilities in their native language and the compatibility of the teacher’s methods, then it is the assessments that fail.

All too often, the obstacles to progress are cultural. Students are hampered by differences in cultural beliefs, social status and even health issues. Many of which could be overcome by native-language counseling and cultural sensitivity.

Integrating students also deal with issues of identity. School-aged immigrants carry a heavier cultural burden than their parents. They are expected to learn and participate in two cultures simultaneously, often with conflicting values and attitudes.

Many find their place between two worlds. Students who are encouraged to act as a liaison between cultures and languages find more opportunities to participate in their communities. Immigrant students have more to gain from cultivating a dual culture than from living a double life.

Monitoring a student’s integration is not done by simply testing their ability to assimilate. Schools need to meet students half way. A healthy learning environment is more than just a place to learn. Students need to know that it is theirs to learn in. Nobody wants to learn in someone else’s school. To cultivate the enormous potential of integrating students, teachers need to do as much listening as they do talking.

As long as students are talking, they are participating in a culture that is their own. Integration comes from participation. Assimilation comes from submission. They need to know that they are a welcome and valuble part of the learning community and not a burden

Focusing on What Motivates Them

Schools are typically indifferent to whether students are self-motivated or not. They will provide the motivation, thank you very much, and students need not be genuinely interested in what they are learning.

Traditional teaching methods thrive mainly on extrinsic motivation. They demand compliance with expectations, or coax it through praise and rewards. If done well and for long enough, students eventually identify with these expectations and adopt them as self-evident values.

When it comes to learning a language, new immigrants already have good reasons to learn beyond the need to satisfy curriculum requirements. They perform differently too. Studies show that on average, students integrating into a new culture have better long-term language retention than non-immigrants learning a second language.  Students learning as an elective, however, tend to show better standardized test results. These tests are not doing their job.

A newly-landed immigrant learning the local language cannot be assessed in the same manner as (for example) an American student learning French as a second language. Yet, as long as current funding policies reward and punish schools based on standardized test results, administrators have no choice but to favor measurable achievement over successful integration. That’s bad news for schools with high immigrant populations. Schools with low test scores often unfairly begrudge students who bringing down averages.

Say what you want about assessments, they reveal more about the system that designs them than the students that take them. Teachers on the front lines are much better placed to determine the needs of their students. Unless assessments take into account teachers’ instructional style in relation to students’ educational history, they are meaningless. They do little more than assess a student’s ability to conform to a system, which is not their explicit intent. It is a teacher’s responsibility to identify this misuse of motivation to insure the cultivation of a student full potential.

Students learning a foreign language  need opportunities to use the target language with feedback and assessment to show their progress. Integrating students learning the local language don’t. As soon as they leave the classroom their opportunities are ongoing and their feedback immediate. What they need is help with cultural transition and support. It is for the teacher to provide them with the right learning environment.

Genuine motivation is hard to come by, and should never be wasted. To create a positive learning environment, teachers need to know what kind of motivation their students already have, and whether or not they are benefiting from the ones being provided

Cultivating a Dual Identity Through Assimilation

The cultural/linguistic duality can be as much an advantage as an obstacle. Teachers need to find a way of turning cultural baggage into a valuable resource.

Existing initiatives  help immigrant students integrate by providing a linguistic life-raft setting students adrift to fend for themselves. Veterans of full language immersion know that jumping in at the deep end is the most expedient way to learn a language. ESL teachers working abroad with limited resources swear by target-language-only instruction. No need for teachers to know a bunch of foreign languages, just put a diverse range of students together, and it works. Not to mention it’s fast and cheap. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.

The unilingual approach is ideal when students need as much exposure and immersion as possible in a short time. But immigrant students have far more immersion than they can handle. They are looking for a familiar voice in the crowd and for a helping hand in their transition. They live in two language communities at once. If they are to live a dual life, they need to be bilingual.

It is not enough for integrating students to simply speak both languages. To participate effectively in their ethnic communities as well as in their adoptive communities, they need to be able to communicate in either language. That means cultivating knowledge and skills in a way that is linguistically transferable. Whatever they can do in one language, they need to be able to do in the other.

For teachers it takes little more than to acknowledge a student’s duality. Students need to know that their unique point of view is an asset, and that their cultural knowledge is a form of expertise. Developing a relationship between the two cultures is up to the student. It is the teacher’s job to show them the way.

To do this well, they need more than just language acquisition. Exercises requiring transferring information from one form to another, shifting between the concrete and the theoretical, making informal conversation, and other high-level constructivist activities are vital to cultural acquisition. Learning a language is easy, the skills needed to learn a culture are far more complex. Frequent references to their home life and ethnic background will help them build their own connections. It serves as affirmation of their identity and places value to their unique cultural expertise.

Education is a group effort. A lonely, alienated student cannot learn. Teachers need not accommodate nor indulge integrating students. It suffices to understand their needs and allow them a means to participate in the culture. Whether teachers host a melting pot or a cultural mosaic, an inclusive classroom is a richer learning environment for everyone.

Students with dual culture are an asset, not a burden. Their goal is more than just catching up and keeping up, it is to thrive. If the education offered is to be consistent with the values held, then all students deserve to cultivate their full potential. Immigrant students come to us with valuable prospects; teachers need to learn how to make the most of them.

“The greater a man`s desire to persuade his audience, the more he will train himself in true culture, aestetic and moral, and in gaining the estime of his fellow citizens.” Isocrates from the Antidosis (4 th century BC)

Further viewing:

Thomas Jesús Garza  A great collection of mini-lectures on cultural literacy:

For more on classroom diversity and  adapting classrooms to the process of assimilation click the above link.

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