Diversity and multiculturalism are on the rise in Canada. Because of the economic and academic opportunities offered by communities across Canada, the foreign-born population in Canada has increased dramatically during the past few decades. Economic and academic factors are not the only reasons that encourage people to leave their homeland and move to Canada. Thousands of people come to Canada as refugees, seeking asylum against oppressive states.
After overcoming the immigration barrier, the next stop for most newcomers with children is the local school. This is the challenge that newcomers cannot get past by simply signing a few documents. Immigrant and/or refugee students, most of whom have a first language that is not English, must spend years mastering academic English and learning to navigate the Canadian education system. Newcomers to Canada are not the only group of people to face the problem of learning a foreign language in an unfamiliar school setting. Indigenous students, whose numbers in Canadian school are also rising, are faced with a similar problem.
Though diversity ultimately benefits Canadian society in the form of cultural richness, increased genetic pool, and a multitude of skills and abilities, EAL students must overcome many initial challenges to produce those benefits. Some of the major challenges faced by EAL students stem from cultural differences. Their teachers are also challenged by this cultural diversity. Teachers must develop the skills and abilities to teach students from different cultures.
This paper discusses the impact of cultural rules, norms, and philosophies on EAL students’ learning. The paper also provides suggestions for ways that administrators and teachers can help EAL learners to succeed with their academic pursuits, by using cultural diversity as a source of learning.
Culture is often linked to the image of an iceberg. The small visible portion of the iceberg represent the easily noticeable characteristics of a culture, including language, food, art, and clothing. The much bigger and hidden portion of the iceberg represents characteristics that are not visible. These include, but are not limited to, different values and beliefs that govern everything from human interactions to standards of beauty to notions of class and gender equality (Helmer and Eddy, 2012). These virtually hidden characteristics of a culture are difficult to perceive and are the cause of many misunderstandings that might take root in a classroom.
When newcomers first arrive, they are in a honeymoon stage, but this does not last long. According to Helmer and Eddy (2012), once the enjoyment phase of being in a new country is over, the new students are hit with culture shock. “Culture shock encompasses a constellation of feelings and events that occur when we are plunged into an unfamiliar environment” (pg. 16). Culture shock results once the students realize the challenges of adjusting to the new school environment. The unfamiliarity with the cultural values and belief systems of their school prohibits the EAL students from fully expressing their academic skills and abilities.
Language and culture share an intimate and inseparable bond. According to Kuo and Lai (2006), “language stands for the whole culture because language represents culture in the mind of its speakers. Conversely, culture also symbolizes language and is summed in the economic, religions, and philosophical systems of a country” (pg. 5). Language is used to share thoughts, ideas, and perceptions. These concepts are rooted in the culture of the group and may change as the culture evolves. Thus, as Kuo and Lai (2006) argue, for EAL learners to be experts in the new language they, must first familiarize themselves with the culture that surrounds the language.
Perceptions about the background cultures of EAL learners and their families can be the cause of some discomfort in the classroom. A teacher’s preconceived notions about students from a particular culture may have a negative impact on student learning. Cong (2012) comments that many American teachers associate Chinese students with high academic achievement. Though Chinese students score higher on standardized tests, when compared to other minorities, these “immigrant students have limited English proficiency, no parental support at home for school work, and need to make tremendous adjustments emotionally, socially, culturally, and academically in their new lives in America” (Cong, 2012, pg. 172). The Middle Eastern students, on the other hand, are judged harshly because of the negative stereotypes associated with some Middle Eastern cultures. This results in racism and discrimination (Cong, 2012, pg. 172).
Based on common misconceptions, teachers’ responses to a student who needs extra academic support may vary, particularly if the teacher mistakenly perceives a student to be gifted because of the teacher’s stereotypical thinking. Just as not offering academic support to students perceived as gifted, a system may lose a student because the teachers believe that academic learning is not a part of the student’s culture. Thus, the misconceptions that arise because of cultural stereotypes are dangerous as they prohibit the EAL learners from fully reaching their academic potential.
Another common but faulty assumption is that students of the same culture or from the same country should be grouped together. Students’ behaviours, their likes and dislikes, may be influenced by elements of different cultures. Helmer and Eddy (2012) give the example of Matthew, a student of Germen descent, who is a member of several different cultural groups. Limiting students to a single culture, based on geographical, linguistic, or physical characteristics, is risky as it can limit a student’s possibilities for academic achievement. In the case of Matthew, the first impression a teacher might have is that Matthew is from a well-to-do family. As a result of this perception, the teacher may not focus on providing Matthew with access to necessary educational resources, e.g., printing services. In reality, Matthew belongs to the working class, and has limited financial resources (Helmer and Eddy, 2012). Therefore, a teacher’s first impression of a student, based mostly on appearance, is not always the complete picture. As evidenced through Matthew’s example, a student may belong to several cultural and societal groups.
Moreover, a major aspect of culture is its role in dictating classroom interactions. A student’s behaviour is guided by the rules and norms defined by his/her culture. If a student is made to step outside his/her comfort zone, foregoing the cultural rules and norms, he/she may not be able to perform academically. One of the areas where cultural rules play a big part is defining gender roles. Most school divisions across North America promote a gender-free environment where gender equality is the norm. Teachers in these schools do not think of gender as a contributing factor when it comes to classroom interactions (Helmer and Eddy, 2012). Though gender equality is of the utmost importance in Canada and every student, be it boy or girl, must have access to quality education, Helmer and Eddy argue that “in treating all students equally and encouraging them to do likewise with each other, we may be denying a reality that all the students already know as a result of their cultural leaning outside the classroom and in the home” (Helmer and Eddy, 2012, pg. 37).
Teachers in schools are not the only people responsible for a student’s learning. When is comes to cultural teachings, a student’s family and community play a big role. Even before a student starts school, he/she begins learning cultural rules and norms by observing his/her parents, elder siblings, and other members of the extended family. The North American culture promotes interactions between students of the opposite gender, but many EAL learners belong to cultures where interactions with the opposite gender are not the standard. When teachers, in pursuit of gender equality, create mixed-gender groups, the EAL students are not able to learn or fully express their academic capabilities because of cultural restrictions.
Establishing classroom gender roles is not the only way through which culture impacts EAL students’ learning. Gender roles also limit the parental support available to students. Because of cultural restrictions, mothers of Middle Eastern students may not be able to accompany them to the library (Cong, 2012). Culture defines the roles and responsibilities for parents. Though established for the overall wellbeing of the family, these rules can sometimes be limiting and therefore hinder an EAL student’s learning experience.
Culture also dictates the relationship between students and the teacher. In the North American culture, students and teachers have a ‘shared responsibility’ for learning in schools. While teachers are given the appropriate respect, students are encouraged to speak up and question their teachers. In most other cultures around the world, “it is considered the height of insolence and disrespect to question anything the teacher says or does” (Helmer and Eddy, 2012, pg. 40). These conflicting cultural values result in misunderstandings. Teachers might think of a student’s quiet nature as being a behavioural or intellectual disorder. The students on the other hand, face an internal conflict. They are not sure whether to hold on to their cultural rules and keep quiet or take part in classroom discussions. These misunderstandings and confusions impact the EAL learners’ educational experience.
Furthermore, culture impacts EAL students’ learning experience by defining educational concepts such as knowledge and literacy. Cong (2012) mentions that in the Chinese culture, the meaning of literacy is “rooted in traditional Chinese philosophy that emphasizes the ability to read classic literature” (pg. 73). In the North American society, literacy, apart from reading and writing, encompasses the skills needed to gain and present information using a multitude of mediums, including written, oral, and technology based (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz, 2017). These varying definitions of literacy construct barriers for the EAL students. Compared to the modern definition of education, if parents of the EAL students have a different philosophy regarding education and learning, they will not be able to help their children with their studies. These parents may even oppose the teachings of modern school systems. As a result, a culture’s philosophy of education may hinder an EAL student’s academic achievement.
The challenges that result from cultural differences are overwhelming and may force the school administrators and teachers to resist promoting diversity. The diversity is not the problem. The systems and resources used to deal with diversity are flawed. Many educational institutions view diversity as a bandwagon that should be supported, but with a minimal commitment. They understand the advantages of creating diverse learning environments, but do not allocate enough resources to the teachers and the support staff to help the EAL learners. Teachers themselves are not qualified and trained to teach a group of students with diverse educational backgrounds and needs. Yet overwhelming as they may be, the challenges of diversity can be overcome.
Getting through the cultural barriers is a cooperative process that requires the administrators, the teachers and the parents to work together in an effort to enhance the EAL learners’ educational experience. The administrators are responsible for setting up and administering a successful intake process. Apart from assessing the academic abilities, the intake process should include a discussion of the student’s cultural background (Coelho, 2012). The administrators, the teacher, and the parents should all get together to discuss how the cultural differences might affect the EAL learner’s education. The parents and the teachers should voice their educational philosophies so that there is no confusion about the purpose of schooling. Cong (2012) advises parents to volunteer in school activities and meet frequently with the teachers. These interaction between the school staff and the parents may help resolve most of the misunderstanding caused by cultural differences. To help the EAL students familiarize themselves with the new school environment, an orientation session should be arranged. It is suggested to use student guides, preferably with the same cultural background, for the orientation (Coelho, 2012).
To combat the classroom interaction issues, teachers must work towards creating an inclusive environment. There are numerous “intercultural projects”, as suggested by Coelho (2012), that may be used to raise awareness about different cultures present in the classroom. Students may interview each other about their cultural backgrounds, create heritage boxes with symbols of their cultures, or tell stories about their home countries (Coelho, 2012). These activities will help the students, and the teacher, learn about each others’ cultures and traditions.
In conclusion, culture plays a big role in impacting EAL learners’ education. Culture and language are intertwined. In order for the newcomers to learn a new language, they must first understand the cultural context surrounding the language. Moreover, cultural stereotypes and misconceptions give rise to unfair expectations. The teachers and the administrators must be aware of the EAL students’ cultural norms and traditions to avoid these misunderstandings. The parents must also work towards the academic excellence of their children by regularly meeting with the teaching staff. Being an immigrant, who was once an EAL student, I believe I am well-situated to understand the challenges faced by EAL students. Though not all EAL students are from Pakistan, and face the same problems, I believe I have a certain advantage when it comes to the cultural issues faced by EAL students. My experience as an EAL student has allowed me to realize the misunderstandings and frustrations, from a student’s point of view, that arise because of cultural differences. My learning in ECUR 415 has equipped me with the teaching tools necessary to overcome those barriers.
Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms: A practical approach. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Cong, W. C. (2012). How culture affects on English language learners’ (ELL’s) Outcomes, with Chinese and Middle Eastern immigrant students. In International Journal of Business and Social Science, 3(5), 172-180. Retrieved from: http://ijbssnet.com/journals/Vol_3_No_5_March_2012/20.pdf
Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012). Look at me when I talk to you: EAL learners in non-EAL classrooms. Toronto, ON: Pippin Publishing.
Kuo, M.M., & Lai, C.C. (2006). Linguistics across cultures: The impact of culture on second language learning. Journal of Foreign Language Instruction, 1(1), 1-10. Retrieved from: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED496079
Vacca, R. T., Vacca, J. A. L., & Mraz, M. (2017). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (12th ed.). Toronto: Pearson.