Final project report:What Effect do Cultural Influences and Native Language Have on the Ability of an Individual to Acquire a Second Language?

Inquiry Project Proposal

Jenifer Giroux, Rhode Island College Outreach Program

This Adult Intermediate English as a Second Language class consists of 12-15 students ranging generally in age from 25 to 55 years old. The length of time the students have been in the United States varies significantly (1 month to 25 years or more). The class is held at Rhode Island College. It is 20 hours a week and runs for 20 weeks and is open/entry, open/exit. Due to this open/entry, open/exit policy, the class dynamic changes often and has made it quite challenging to keep the student portion of the inquiry project on track.

The students in the class are multi-level (varying levels of English language proficiency even within the Intermediate level), multi-cultural, multi-lingual (languages spoken are Spanish, Portuguese, Khmer, Russian, Polish, Italian, and, French), and have varying levels of literacy in their native language. The previous educational background of the students ranges from no formal schooling to highly-educated (post-secondary) in their first language, although, the majority fall on the low- literate in first language and limited amount of formal schooling side.

The majority of the students are attending classes because they see education as a stepping-stone to a better standard of living for themselves and their children. All of the students place a very high value on education despite the fact that the majority of them are lacking a significant amount of formal education. Most students admit to speaking their first language at home with their children and to listening to the radio and watching television in their first language. The necessity for some of these adults to learn to communicate in English had not been there before because they were insulated in communities where they could function sufficiently in their native language.

I was interested in researching this topic because of the diversity of the students in the class that I currently teach. The native language of the majority of my students is usually Spanish. As a result, I am very aware of obstacles in pronunciation and grammatical constructions that native Spanish speakers may have. The students in the current class come from a wide variety of countries such as Egypt, Korea, Russia, China, Cambodia, Poland, Bosnia, and Latvia. In addition, native Spanish speakers are in the class but for the first time they are in the minority. As a result of the population change in the class, I am interested in creating and implementing new teaching strategies and methods to meet the needs of my culturally and linguistically diverse students.

I observed students "clinging" to other students who are from similar ethnic backgrounds and an unwillingness to interact with others from different cultural backgrounds. There was also an air of hostility in the classroom between students of different cultures. This was due mostly to prejudices and preconceived notions the students had about other cultures. My first priority was to diffuse the hostile atmosphere and educate the students in a meaningful way about other cultures, while still maintaining my major goal of teaching English as a Second Language.

I needed to incorporate more activities that provide the opportunity for students to interact more and get to learn more about their classmatesı cultures. I spoke with other instructors in our program that also work with this group of students and was able to get a lot of helpful feedback from the other inquiry participants at the meetings we had. It was very beneficial to verbalize my concerns and ideas to impartial people, who were interested in giving me constructive ideas and suggestions. Prior to developing the lessons, I researched the topic of cultural diversity in an ESOL classroom. H. Douglas Brown offers the following suggestions for creating a culturally sensitive and open classroom:

  • Discuss cross-cultural differences with your students
  • Incorporate activities that illustrate the connection between language and culture
  • Teach your students the cultural connotations especially of sociolinguistic aspects of language
  • Screen your techniques for material that may be culturally offensive
  • Make explicit to your students what you may take for granted in your own culture
  • Some of the activities that I incorporated into the classroom based on H. Douglas Brownıs suggestions were:

    An International Luncheon Each student made a dish from their native country and gave a copy of the recipe to all the other students

    Pen pal e-mail exchange Each student chose a pen pal to correspond with from a country other than his or her native country

    Class Presentations Students collected information (pictures, historical facts, currency, language, food, etc.) about their pen-pals country. They used the Internet, Rhode Island College Library, and other classmates to obtain information. Each student then gave a presentation to the class.

    Similarities/Differences Baha came to visit the class and did a lesson on similarities and differences between people and how each person has a different perspective on a situation which effects their thought patterns and ideas.

    Group Resume Students were divided into a group and told to write one resume for the group using all of their experiences and talents they have collectively.

    Advice to a new student Each student was asked to complete a writing assignment giving advice to a new student in class, describing the characteristics of a good teacher and a good student, and describing both the teacherıs and the studentıs responsibility in the classroom.

    Interview Questions I interviewed each student individually (see attachment) asking questions regarding learning a new language in a foreign country.

    These activities really brought the class together and made them more aware of their similarities rather than focusing on their differences. It also encouraged the students who share the same native language to speak to each other in English so that the other classmates could understand what they were talking about. Interviewing each student individually really helped me to understand the needs of each student and gain an awareness of the struggles they are facing and their attitudes regarding learning a new language.

    The following list of teaching strategies taken from Teaching Language Minority Students in the Multicultural Classroom, (Robin Scarcella) were also very helpful to me in conducting my Inquiry Project.

  • Know your students Educators need to understand who their students are and the types of schooling which appeal to them.
  • Understand language development Educators need to understand the factors affecting language development
  • Make your lessons comprehensible Educators need to provide students with lessons that they will understand
  • Encourage interaction Educators need to offer students opportunities to use language purposefully
  • Appeal to varying learning styles Teachers need to respond to their learners in culturally sensitive ways and to encourage learning style flexibility
  • Provide effective Feedback Teachers need to give students culturally responsive feedback
  • Test Fairly The pedagogical assessment procedures need to be culturally sensitive
  • Appreciate cultural diversity Educators need to understand their studentsı language and cultures
  • Incorporate your studentsı language and cultures Educators need to incorporate their minority studentsı languages and cultures into the school curriculum
  • Reduce prejudice
  • Educators need to implement policies, procedures, and activities, which are explicitly designed to reduce prejudice

    As a result of conducting this Inquiry Project, I realize that it is impossible to teach a second language without teaching culture and without drawing on the native culture of the learner. Once you can make comparisons and discover similarities between cultures, a learner will be much more motivated and interested in learning the second language, the culture in which they are living, and the cultures of the students in the class. It is then possible for the individual to focus on the similarities between their cultures and not make them feel so isolated in the new culture or in the ESOL classroom.

    I believe it is important for every ESL teacher to know some cultural aspects of their students. While it is impossible for a teacher to speak all of the languages of his/her students it is imperative to the learners that their culture be acknowledged in some way. A simple greeting in a second language learnerıs native language can decrease their stress and create a positive, comfortable atmosphere for their learning. My hope is that there is much more research done on this topic in the future. Cultural diversity in the classroom should be seen as an enhancement to learning; not a detriment.

    I plan on continuing this project in the future. I will continue to develop culturally sensitive lessons for my students and to interview each student individually to gain a better understanding of their needs and attitudes toward learning English.

    Interview Questions

    1. How long have you been in this country?
    2. What is your native country?
    3. What is your native language?
    4. Do you speak English fluently?
    5. How long have you been studying English?
    6. How long do you think it takes to learn a second language?
    7. How did your native culture affect your ability to learn English?
    8. Are your children fluent in English?
    9. Do you feel that your children learned English faster than you?
    10. Did you maintain fluency in your native language?
    11. Did your children?
    12. Did you incorporate any "American" traditions or customs into your lifestyle?
    13. Did you or your children stop celebrating or performing any of your native cultureıs customs?
    14. Did all of your family members who came to this country learn English?
    15. Did you learn English formally, in an academic situation, or informally at work or with friends?
    16. Describe what it was like coming to this country and not speaking the language?
    17. Do you consider yourself to still be learning English?
    18. What was the most shocking aspect of this culture to you?
    19. Was this country what you expected?
    20. Have you had an easier or more difficult time adjusting to this country than your family members?
    21. Did your first language skills diminish as a result of learning the second language?
    22. What language do you speak at home?
    23. Has being a bilingual family caused any problems between you and your children?
    24. Do your children maintain the native language?
    25. When speaking English do you ever "switch" to your native language?
    26. How has learning a second language positively impacted your life?
    27. How has it negatively impacted your life?
    28. Is there anything you think I should know about your experiences learning a second language?

    Computer Assisted English Language Learning

    Name ___________________________________________________


    1) Imagine that you are giving advice to a new student in class. Tell them about the class. What are you learning? What should does the new student need to know in order to be successful in the class?

    2) What makes a good teacher? What does a teacher need to do to help you improve your English language proficiency?

    3) What shouldn't a teacher do? What makes a bad teacher?

    4) What makes a good student?

    5) What do you need to do to help yourself improve your English language proficiency?

    to inquiry projects 2001/2

    back to inquiry main page

    lr/ri home