ESL: English as a second language
EFL: English as a foreign language
Having been studying at McGill for more than one year, I really enjoy my learning and daily life in Montreal. However, considering my classmates and friends are from different cultural backgrounds, I find that communicating with them is not easy. In particular, I notice that interactions related to cultural issues and sensitive topics can be even more difficult.
- Is That My Own Culture? I Fail to Introduce it to My Friends!
I believe that my English proficiency supports my academic learning and some simple daily communications in Montreal. However, introducing Chinese culture to my non-Chinese speakers in English can be very challenging. For example, last semester, we decided to visit Chinatown, preparing our posting assignment. When I tried to illustrate Xian (鲜), one of the Chinese special flavors to my Canadian classmates, I failed to explain it because there is no equivalent word in English. I felt even more stupid when I attempted to elaborate on it by telling them how this flavor could be tasted in some soups. Considering my poor explanation, even I would never try these soups. Furthermore, when I turned to my Chinese students for help, they also found this term really difficult to be clarified. That is why it is really embarrassing when my foreign friends want to learn some Chinese culture but I am not capable of explaining it clearly in a language (i.e., English) that they are able to understand.
I have also encountered many similar situations as the aforementioned one at McGill. Given the fact that students at McGill are linguistically diversified, they may face some problems like I did because of their English proficiency. While Van Herk (2012) argued that “communicative competence requires knowing not just the words and the grammatical rules, but also the interactional rules of that language” (p. 147), I believe that cultural knowledge also plays an important role in multicultural/multilingual communications. Therefore, how could we ESL/EFL teachers or potential educators be able to equip our students with sufficient language and cultural knowledge so as to facilitate their interactions? Should schools offer some extracurricular non-academic language and cultural courses to students?
- Sensitive Issues in Class.
I love my linguistically and culturally diversified classes at McGill because I am able to have a better understanding of the various culture of my classmates. At the same time, in order not to offend them, I also pay attention to what I speak and behave because of the multicultural issues. In such an environment, it seems that everyone knows the rule of speaking appropriately. However, we may still disappoint others when we use some words unconsciously, or discuss some controversial or sensitive issues even though we do not intend to do so. For instance, I took an International Marketing course when I was an undergraduate student. The instructional language was English, and nearly half of my classmates were international students. I still remember that one of my Chinese classmates illustrated that cosmetic companies (e.g., Shiseido, Estee Lauder, etc.) have applied various consumer targeting strategies in different market segmentations (e.g., North America, Asia-Pacific, etc.). She pointed out that the strategy of whitening your skin is usually applied by many cosmetic brands in China because Chinese people do not want to look black. This statement, however, made my African classmates very angry. Even though she noticed her inappropriate words and apologized to them, they were still unhappy.
Therefore, considering there are many other sensitive topics such as racial, political, and historical issues we may face in multicultural and multilingual classrooms, what should we ESL/EFL teachers do? Should we simply circumvent or forbid these controversial or sensitive issues in class? Or should we use some strategies to better guide our students so that everyone can actively communicate with each other without hurting others? I think we should be able to tackle these issues. But how?
Van Herk, G. (2012). Interaction. In Gerard. V. H. (Ed.), What is sociolinguistics (pp. 139-150). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.