Cultural Differences back Back to Tips for Teaching ESL Students

It's important to keep in mind the obvious: ESL students are diverse. A typical classroom might have a mix of Japanese, Malaysian, Norwegian, Venezuelan, Israeli, Botswanan, Korean, or Indian students. In my class of seventeen students this semester, there are over thirteen nationalities and one hearing impaired student (he uses American Sign Language--ASL--which is very different from spoken English). There are students with a variety of religious and cultural beliefs, so it's important to respect some of those differences. For example, assigning an essay about phallic language in military culture will only cause panic in your Korean female student who sits next to the giant Botswanan man. The subject matter isn't acceptable to discuss in mixed company for many students. In addition, it may cause conflict with some students' religious beliefs to discuss sexuality or drugs or reproductive rights. On the other hand, it's unreasonable for students to expect not to encounter American culture and values in the classroom. I would simply encourage you to use good judgment.

Some students will stand very close to you when speaking. You might find yourself in a conference moving further and further away from someone who seems intent on sitting in your lap. Rules about personal space vary widely between cultures, and a little flexibility with your preferences is helpful.

In addition, many students come from cultures where the distinction of teacher as "authority" is much more pronounced. Creating a comfortable, decentered classroom might take a little more time. Keeping classroom procedures a little more formal at first may help your students feel more at ease in the long run. Keeping your appearance professional and saving the jeans for later in the semester may help your students relax and accept your authority more readily as well. This is particularly important for female instructors, who may be somewhat suspicious to students from extremely patriarchal cultures.