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That social and cultural barriers represent real teaching difficulties has been an accepted fact in TEFL education for decades. As it is, teaching English per se already entails its own set of challenges, even in classrooms where native speakers make up the majority. When these challenges are taken up with the additional complication of socio-cultural differences between native English-speaking educators and their multicultural students, the net effect is a complex learning dynamic that requires special approaches in order to achieve favorable learning outcomes.
That said, the same socio-cultural differences have nonetheless been leveraged by innovative TEFL educators not only as a means to foster cross-cultural understanding but also as an effective platform for language learning. Certainly, doing so requires a strong commitment and a proactive, unilateral effort on the part of TEFL educators. For one thing, the process of appreciating the socio-cultural contexts within which TEFL students are to learn English becomes a paramount responsibility of English teachers. At the very least, this will address "strange, rude or unwarranted" behavior from both sides of the learning interaction from being misconstrued. On the other hand, the ideal is to have language educators delve deeper into their students' backgrounds in order to understand how much their culture affects the acquisition of English as a foreign language. By doing so, educators are more able to adjust lesson plans and objectives based on a more grounded knowledge of where their students are coming from as they participate in classroom activities.
Cultural awareness as part of the learning curve
For both educators and learners, understanding from where the other approaches each lesson helps everyone to optimize their roles inside the classroom. For TEFL teachers to achieve this, they need to:
1. Acknowledge that a linguistic and cultural divide exist.
2. Probe for ways by which this divide can be bridged, while recognizing that each cross-cultural encounter requires a unique way of doing so.
3. Identify the native languages present in the classroom. Determine whether there is a dominant first language. Multi-linguistic classrooms where there are more than two relevant languages (English and more than one native languages) require a different approach compared to classrooms where only English and one native language/culture is involved.
4. Identify the culture, society and traditions associated with the native language(s)
5. Assess own awareness about the native language/culture.
6. Learn relevant aspects of the native language/culture.
7. Apply knowledge of learner culture when designing course plans in order to make lessons highly relevant and engaging to students.
Performing the foregoing procedures and checks is necessary because more and more studies agree that culture plays a very strong role in the cognitive process. In the field of TEFL education, research have already provided evidence that both the teacher's and the students' cultural backgrounds play a significant role in the level of learning success. One surprising fact is that TEFL educators consider their students' cultural contexts as the primary factor, when in fact, how the teacher culturally defines and practices teaching is also very critical.
Experiences that are inevitably linked to a cultural background or geographic milieu also affect the rate at which students appreciate and learn lessons. For example, using a story about winter in a Southeast Asian classroom comprised of students who have never seen snow in their lives will have less cognitive impact than a story that has a striking local relevance. When learning materials directly appeal to the students' personal experiences, the learning outcomes have a greater degree of becoming very favorable.
Culture as instructional launch pads
Increasingly, TEFL educators have been using cultural diversity as a means of fostering understanding among peoples of different ethno-linguistic backgrounds. Cultural diversity is also being used as effective platforms for teaching English basics to second language learners. As culture covers a wide range of elements (music, art, entertainment, traditions, festivals, etc.,), the wealth of topics from which to develop a particular English lesson is practically boundless. For example, asking students to make a list of gestures they think are unique to their culture and giving short descriptions about what these gestures mean can become a lively classroom interaction as well as a fruitful learning experience for both the TEFL educator and the students.
Cultural understanding can also be used by TEFL teachers as a way of getting close to students with the aim of making lessons more relevant. Asking questions like "What do you think is the most fun part of your culture?" or "Which part of your traditions do you keep/do away with and why?" can encourage students to express more about themselves and what they are interested in.
In many cases, people newly enrolled in second language classes that are administered by native English speakers tend to keep to themselves and adopt a stance of silence during classroom activities. Research indicate that this may arise from any number of factors, primary of which is the lack of a common ground (re: familiarity) with the English educator, one factor that can be as communicatively debilitating as the actual lack of vocabulary or syntactical knowledge. Ingenuous TEFL teachers address this gap by demonstrating personal knowledge and understanding of some aspect of the learner's culture. By exhibiting experiential knowledge or a personal commitment to knowing facts or issues that matter to students, TEFL educators effectively reduce their level of strangeness among students, thereby encouraging them to participate without fear of being unappreciated or misconstrued.
Treating language and culture as inseparable elements enables TEFL educators to better appreciate the vantage point from which their students attempt to understand the different lessons in class. Moreover, doing so opens up a robust channel from which teachers can draw experiential and relevant knowledge that speeds up and enhances the quality of learning. This is because as both common sense and numerous studies on learning suggest, people naturally gravitate towards learning interactions that matter to them in some significant way (re: culturally). On the other hand, by acknowledging and helping bridge the cultural divide, TEFL students are enabled to erase the initial "strangeness" of their English teachers, which simply results from a cultural background that is perceived as highly divergent from theirs.
The cultures of second language learners are critical in the learning process in that they can either inhibit or promote language acquisition. There may be some scenarios where taking language out of its cultural context enables students to better appreciate a specific lesson concept. Ordinarily, however, TEFL teachers should be aware of how a particular culture affects the learner's behavior towards English as well as the their rate of acquiring English as a second language. According to research, culture is a key determinant in how fast a language learner can competently acquire and use a second language. That is, the more a student is likely to have culture shock (different writing system, lack of internet access, low educational level, etc.), the longer it will likely take the student to learn and become comfortable with the second language. By knowing this, English teachers equip themselves with additional teaching resources that can make their classes more inclusive, interesting and fun.
In a larger sense, integrating student's cultural backgrounds as an important aspect of English teaching fosters mutual understanding. This way, TEFL educators not only function as language teachers but also cultural ambassadors who help people of different cultures understand each other better.