Over the past four decades, there has been a significant increase in the number of non-native, English-speaking students enrolled in our college and universities. Creating global learning environments has become an important goal for many institutions. Faculty are being encouraged to create environments conducive to learning for both native speakers and non-native speakers. They can cultivate those environments by designing course assignments and class activities that use the strengths of native and non-native speakers and that address their challenges.
To illustrate how that might work, consider these three assignment prompts:
- Watch the Super Bowl and discuss its influence on American culture.
- Compare David Letterman's and Conan O'Brien's talk shows.
- Listen to the State of the Union Address by the president and critique his economic vision.
Cultural assumptions are embedded in each of these prompts. International students can be engaged in the assignments in a more meaningful way if they are asked to examine the influence of the most popular sports game in their home countries, compare a well-known talk show in their country with one in the U.S., and critique the economic vision of the presidents of their home countries. This allows international students to help create global moments in the classroom by introducing their own cultures and customs to the rest of the students. It is important to remember that international students are valuable assets when it comes to preventing classroom activities, assignments, and projects from being ethnocentric.
When faculty design a group project, international students along with some of the other students can take an active role in the research process, while native, English-speaking students can be more active in writing the paper. Native speakers become language informants and non-native speakers become cultural informants for their group project.
If it is a speaking assignment, faculty may want to pair an ESL student with a native speaker. The ESL student becomes the discussant for a native, English-speaking presenter. The ESL student can read and provide feedback on the native speaker's presentation material and then conduct the Q&A session after the presentation. This approach allows the two students to get to know each other's material and can help each develop his or her individual ideas more deeply. It's a way to encourage them to learn from and with each other.
ESL students can also be encouraged to become more active by inviting them to bring artifacts that capture key aspects of their cultures or have symbolic meanings in their cultures. They can use these objects to create global moments in their classrooms as well as on campus. Cultural mementos can also be invaluable primary data sources for research projects in many courses that require active inquiry into cultures, literacies, and languages. Those in the office of student life and other student organizations on campus may also be able to use these artifacts in cultural events and displays on campus.
The goal of higher education is not to Americanize international students. Most of our international students return to their home countries. The goal is to help them become more competent global citizens. We should help these students develop intercultural literacy, which Juan Guerra defines as “the ability to consciously and effectively move back and forth among as well as in and out of the discourse communities they belong to or will belong to.” (p. 259)
In order to guide this back-and-forth movement between communities, faculty should provide international students with a point of reference
and a point of comparison
for class activities and assignments. They should be given opportunities to talk and write about their cultural identities, heritages, and conflicts. Their education in the U.S. should not weaken their relationships with their home cultures. They should be constantly encouraged to negotiate and articulate their differences in order to become more competent global citizens (Min, 2012). This is the key to fostering an intercultural educational environment that can benefit both native and non-native speakers in our classrooms and on campus.
Guerra, J. (1997). The place of intercultural literacy in the writing classroom. In C. Severino, J. Guerra, and J. Butler (Eds.), Writing in multicultural settings
(pp. 234-244). New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America.
Young-Kyung Min can be reached at YKMin@uwb.edu.