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English, Please?: Thoughts on Pedagogy and Cultural Assimilation in Adult ESL Education

ESL instructors are caught in the middle of a cultural shift, and can help shape the outcome of that shift. This essay examines how ESL instructors can become agents of change in the United States.

Tamara Watkins

I have been working with English as a Second Language (ESL) students for several years, in adult education and college programs. Each class presents new challenges, whether it is teaching a new group of students verb conjugation, engaging students of varying levels of English proficiency in a group discussion, or answering questions about immigration law and the citizenship test. Time and again, I see the ways students look to instructors as a source of linguistic, cultural, and legal information. ESL instructors are caught in the middle of a cultural shift, and can help shape the outcome of that shift.

English, Please?

Every instructor needs a way to reel in wayward students. When students lose interest in the lecture and begin to chat with peers in their first languages, I use the phrase “English, please!” to remind them of the task at hand. It is shorthand for one of the fundamental rules of the ESL classroom--no language but English may be spoken. “English, please!” is not only a reminder that they must speak only in English in the classroom, but also a reminder that they must leave behind their linguistic comfort zone and enter new, uncertain linguistic and cultural territory. The “English, please!” approach to reprimanding students works, but it makes me wonder--why English? Why should they adopt English and its accompanying United States culture? What prompts these students to attend English classes when, in most major cities, it is easy to find individuals who speak one’s language and live in neighborhoods that reflect their first country’s culture? Why subordinate one’s comfort zone to a new system? What do they gain and lose?

The answers students give are variations on a theme: The United States offers opportunities unavailable in their first countries, learning English helps them explore those opportunities, or their families are relying on them to provide guidance and help during this rough linguistic and cultural transition. Students speak about how they need to learn English in order to help their children succeed at school; students also express the need to become good role models for their bilingual and bicultural children. These students are driven by intense self-discipline and a sense of duty to themselves and their families; they want to do well in the class and improve their English skills and knowledge of U. S. culture to improve their chances of attaining the fabled “American” dream. These reasons for adopting a new language and culture are laudable, and many United States citizens’ forbearers did the same thing, for the same reasons--a reality that draws many to ESL pedagogy.

Despite modern U.S. rhetoric about respecting individuals and their work, pervasive cultural forces still disparage blue collar work, the work many immigrants do--housekeeping, food service, janitorial work, construction. A marketing point of many ESL programs is that improved English skills will lead to better economic, educational, and social opportunities. The way non-fluent speakers can gain cultural respect is by breaking out of these jobs, and into work that is more culturally “important,” i.e., that requires English skills. Immigrants realize this, and they sign up for ESL programs in droves.

After discussing the benefits of living in the United States, the conversation often takes a dark turn. Students have myriad stories about how hard it is to adjust to new ways of speaking and thinking. They speak about the racism they encounter in the city. They also speak at length about how their language skills are disparaged as “not good” by individuals they encounter outside the classroom. They also come to class with tales of legal woes--horror stories about trying to find their way through the U.S. legal labyrinth. As the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants becomes less and border security is beefed up, more students come to class with legal questions. Students with “illegal” status often ask why they cannot have amenities such as driver’s licenses. It’s a good question, and there is no easy answer that does not make U.S. politics look muddled and unfair.

If the ESL instructor’s primary job is to teach, her secondary job is to ease the bruised egos that negative encounters cause. The ESL instructor must be both a tough task master and the students’ biggest cheerleader, offering advice on the U.S. legal system as well as language and culture. “Illegal” students are reluctant to visit legal offices, or non-profit organizations that offer legal advice, choosing instead to seek information from the individuals they believe are least likely to bust them to the feds. This is problematic; many ESL instructors hold linguistics or English degrees, and did not go to law school--so they have limited knowledge of immigration law.

Masks & Middle Ground

ESL curricula developers are mindful of the difficulties involved in adopting a new language and culture. Accordingly, a major component of ESL course work is finding common cultural ground that helps ease the linguistic and cultural change. If there is a way to bring in a cross-cultural comparison—contrasting political systems, food recipes, greetings--curricula and teaching guides call for it. Despite these efforts to find common cultural ground, working with ESL speakers is fraught with philosophical problems and implications. ESL classes exist because of the assumption that immigrants must learn the dominant (white) U.S. English, and that minority languages and cultures must take a backseat to dominant culture if the student wants to succeed in U.S. society. I find this mindset unsettling. I see no reason why “my” culture should be the privileged one, other than the centuries of oppression Europeans were inclined to inflict.

There is an assumption in the larger culture that, if the English spoken isn’t white/standard English, it’s not “Good English.” ESL students are not taught any dialects other than “standard” English; the African American Vernacular English dialect (AAVE, a.k.a. “Black English” or “Ebonics”), which developed from the interaction of white and African American languages and cultures, is widely excluded from curricula across the country--even if those are the prevalent dialects of the students’ current environment. Historically, the United States has not taken too kindly to non-white Englishes. During the past three decades, efforts have been made to incorporate AAVE into school curricula, yet always prove unpopular. AAVE, often deemed an “illegitimate” and “lazy” form of English, has not been fully accepted by the general public as a fully developed and rich branch of English--even though it has been present in America for centuries. As more individuals from Spanish speaking countries become members of American culture, Spanglish, code-switching between Spanish and English, will become prevalent like AAVE. Given the general public’s current ambivalence on Spanish speaking immigrants, it is likely widespread Spanglish usage will be met with the same disdain as AAVE.

The connection between language and culture is unbreakable; they feed each other. In his book Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon theorized that speaking the dominant language of one’s culture means that one tacitly accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the consciousness of the new culture. The implication is that the speaker accepts the cultural mores and policies of the dominant culture. Although Fanon’s writing on focused on the marginalization of individuals of African descent living in francophone culture, his theory can be extended to minorities of any culture--they must wear the “masks” of the dominant culture, hiding their true skin under layers of assumed language and cultural mores.

Therefore, according to Fanon’s model, ESL students who opt to learn English are willingly subordinating their (usually non-white) native cultures to the (white) dominant U.S. culture. Even if the students remain in neighborhoods whose residents have the same cultural and linguistic heritage, the subordination to English is still present when in interacting in the larger culture. Their children, who generally attend schools in the United States, will continue the new family tradition of choosing U.S. culture over their families’ customs. They trade their identities for opportunities. With that in mind, it seems more and more that ESL classes are a way to promote the dominant culture at the cost of minority cultures, subordinating them to the white “standard.” It is unspoken but understood that adopting English and U.S. culture mores will be rewarded with better opportunities--something students often list as their primary reason for enrolling in English class. It’s a cultural deal with the devil.

Even if an ESL instructor is not familiar with Fanon’s work, she or he innately understands the subordination of culture that occurs when individuals join a new society. As a result, she might feel inclined to help the student lessen the burden of adopting the culture, to make the transition easier, and help the student find ways to retain, and take pride in, their native cultures. This is where drawing cross-cultural comparisons is most important, and why curricula require it; by showing students the similarities between their native and adopted cultures, the students feel less like they are forced to choose between old and new ways, that there can be a middle ground.

ESL Instructors as Agents of Change

Dr. Shelley Wong, professor at George Mason University’s Center for Language and Culture in the College of Education and Human Development, addressed the Adult English Literacy Providers of Northern Virginia Adult ESOL and Literacy Conference in August 2005. She posited that ESL instructors “must be concerned with memory for the home language and the new language” and that instructors are powerful forces of community change. ESL instructors must be mindful that we do not try to replace students’ first cultures as we teach them new ways of participating in society. While understanding cultural values will help individuals understand larger cultural expectations with respect to gender, nonverbal communication, even clothing, the students must also retain a sense of identity based on their backgrounds. Promoting understanding of U.S. culture does not necessarily mean that the student’s native culture must be ignored or erased; it just means that the student must learn how to function in both cultures, as she or he is now a bi-cultural individual. Likewise, native-born United States citizens have a responsibility to learn about, and respect, other cultures.

As an ESL instructor, I am often plagued by guilt if I consider the inherent unfairness of needing to bury one’s culture and language in order to function in a new society. I, like many instructors, have no experience with this. I feel I have no authority to promote one language as “better,” one culture as “superior,” even if the superlative is implied and it is in spirit of giving students the means of attaining economic goals. Perhaps this is how ESL instructors will be agents of cultural change; our discomfort will force us to find new ways of approaching the white masks that plagued Fanon. By showing students that their first cultures are not incompatible with their adopted culture, a new paradigm that welcomes hybrid cultures can be formed. As the immigration debate heats up and President Bush tries in vain to find “a rational middle ground” on citizenship and the border situation, a new approach to our dominant culture can create a sense of unity while retaining diversity--a true U.S. cultural value.

Tamara Watkins lives in the metro-DC area.

Copyright © 2006 by Tamara Watkins. Graphic from Berlitz School, 1960s. All rights reserved.