In Multicultural and Multilingual Classrooms, What Should I/We Do?


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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

3 thoughts on “In Multicultural and Multilingual Classrooms, What Should I/We Do?”

  1. Comment from Cheryl Yan
    Hey Colin,
    Thanks for sharing what you think with us! I do agree with you that it is indeed very hard to present Chinese culture in English with Anglophone friends. I see this as part of the “Cultural Shock“. Every country has its different culture, especially China is a country who has a history with more than 5,000 years. Sometimes I feel it is hard for me even to present these stuff in Mandarin, because there are so many historical and technological terms involved when you are explaining to a person who is not familiar with the history.
    Furthermore, I suppose your teacher in International Marketing class did not do it on purpose. People around the world have different definitions about beauty. For example, Asian girls like to be white. However, on the contrary, North American girls love sun tan! They like their skin to be darkened because it shows they have a healthy lifestyle, and they love doing sports.


  2. Hey Colin,
    I agree that there can be many pitfalls when dealing with different cultural backgrounds. In order to deal with these issues in the classroom, I would begin by going through many different cultural norms with the class. I would do this to show the students that each culture has very different norms and to try and help them understand each other, so less people would get offended by what is said.
    The example you gave, with the skin whitening is a very good learning opportunity for others. The student who said it, did not do so to hurt anyone, it was a statement of fact. I have been to India, I’ve seen the commercials they are on every 5 min and there are 3 of them in a row. If the rest of class understood this, they would see that skin whitening is highly valued in her society.
    I don’t think these topics should be avoided in class, because they come up in everyday life as well. If we avoid them in class and they come up outside of class in an unsafe space, the situation could escalate very quickly and offend many more people. I think it would be best to tackle these issues head on in class, in a safe space, even if some students feel a little uncomfortable.
    Hope this helps


  3. Cynota

    I agree with Sophia, as a teacher I often deal with cultural clashes in class. Students come from different backgrounds, some come from countries where they experienced prejudice and carry this with them.
    I think that the classroom is a place where we should discuss and confront our differences in a respectful way. It is not always easy but I feel it is the role of a teacher. I have explained to students that in a democratic society, we have the right to express our views but not to spread hate or views based on misinformation. I never avoid these opportunities to allow students to see different perspectives and learn from each other.


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