English as a Second Life: Juggling Cultures in the Age of Globalization

By Patrick Parr

I stand in front of sixteen students, all of whom have traveled a great distance to be in this room—in downtown Seattle. They’re armed with student visas and have plunked down 4,200 dollars in order to complete a 10-week certificate with the title, Business English for International Professionals.

Of course, this is not what I tell other people when they ask me what my job is. My short answer is to tell them I teach English as a Second Language, or ESL. Reactions have ranged from ‘That sounds intense’, to ‘That’s a job?’

Oh, it’s a job all right. In my class today are seven Japanese students, three Saudi students, two South Korean students, four French students, and one lone Taiwanese student. Ages range from twenty to thirty-six.

Teachers are trained never to generalize a student’s nature before getting to know them. For example, in a typical American high school classroom, you could imagine a few things when setting your eyes on the student in the back of the room with a hat worn sideways, chewing gum and slouching in his seat. However, when teaching ESL, these generalizations reach great distances, because they include having to know a little bit about how each culture has learned, or wishes to be treated.

For example, even before coming to class, I assumed from past experience that the French students will be used to discussion, debate, and flexing their intellectual muscles concerning a borderline controversial topic. When I attempt to deliver a teaching point, they will often shrug, believing it to be common sense, even if they are hearing it for the first time.

Japanese students will be concerned about my intensity. How serious will I be? Will I ask them to give me their opinion in a manner that favors the western style of thinking? Will I be offended if they never volunteer in class and listen passively, often only delivering a minimum amount of discussion to a group? Or do I have Asian sensibilities?

Korean students will wonder if I will mistakenly lump them together with the Japanese, even though they have made it a point to be more outgoing and participatory than their ‘friend next door’.  In addition, they will probably have Western-style nicknames, like Alicia or Kevin, prepared for when I botch the pronunciation of their real name.

Saudi students typically hate writing assignments, but when given a chance to speak, they have no problem chumming it up with the teacher. Affable in class, they will be even kinder when they miss class three times in a row and tell you they are sorry in the hallway. As they explain, their charm comes out, and at least in that moment, you are the best teacher they have ever had.

The Taiwanese student will be quick to tell you that he is ‘not Chinese’. This is because he wants me not to associate any negative perceptions I might carry with me regarding their large neighbor. The Japanese students will find that refreshing. His accent will also carry tones that may come off as aggressive to other students unfamiliar with their culture.

First I tell them about myself, and I draw a horrible map (intentionally to make them laugh, unintentionally because I’m simply bad at drawing). While I name drop the cities and countries I’ve lived (New York City, Cleveland…Japan, Switzerland, etc…) they are not only listening to what I’m telling them, but they are also listening to my voice itself. Do I have an accent? Is it clear? Is the speed intimidating? Are they in the right class? Is my tone sensitive or insensitive? Will I talk too long or will I include them?

Next, I give them the syllabus and have them read most of it to me. I call on them randomly, without asking for volunteers. Many teachers ask if anyone would like to read…this, at least to me, takes too long, and it causes angst among students. We’ll know soon enough who the extroverts and introverts are, but all I care about is their reading skill. To even the power dynamic, I apologize for how boring the syllabus will sound.

After that cavity is removed, I place them in pre-planned groups of four. In case you’re wondering, yes, I divide by nationality, because that’s what they hope for, at least for the first few weeks, when they are getting to know each other. In five weeks, everyone will have snuffed each other out, and I’ll have to navigate a different kind of drama.

For the Japanese students, I try to not have a group with three of them, since they are already self-conscious about being the majority of class. If three students are in a group, there’s a risk of Japanese being spoken, and the odd person in the group sitting there, hoping English comes back around.

The first activity is simply a generic questionnaire that will help them discuss their background and their business experience. My job is to walk around and allow students to interact. This is where I get jealous. The 4,200 dollars is pretty steep for a 10-week certificate, but this moment, this chance to make friends with people from all over the world, is worth more than half of it. Yeah, sure, they’ll learn a few things about business, but for many it’s all about the friendships that will no doubt last longer nowadays thanks to social networking.

With the classroom full of English chatter, I now act as a human dictionary, a completer of sentences, and a discussion igniter. Only nine and a half weeks left. As long as I remember the general rules of every single culture, I should be just fine. And after I remember cultural norms, as long as I ignore everything I just told you and treat the students equally and without judgment, the class will be a success.

Maybe it is a little intense.

*This essay appeared online in the WAESOL World Quarterly in the summer of 2013.