Sandy Millin: Exploring cultures in the classroom

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A couple of years ago I was teaching an intermediate multilingual class with students from all over the world.

Four of them were from Saudi Arabia, four from Brazil, and the others were from Czech Republic, Spain and Turkey. We spent 20 hours a week together, two in the morning and two in the afternoon every day. Normally when you teach a class like this in the UK there are new students every Monday, either changing levels or new to the school, and students leave every Friday, again to change levels or leaving the school completely. Unusually with this class the group didn’t change at all for four weeks, which gave us all a chance to really get to know each other and to learn about each other’s cultures.

H, one of the Saudi women, wore the niqaab (covering her face but not her eyes), but apart from that she was the diametric opposite to any stereotype of a Saudi woman my other students and I may have had in our heads before the course started. She was a 38-year-old unmarried history teacher, who was very vocal and opinionated, and always joined in with any discussion in the class. She often played a motherly role with the two young Saudi men in the class, both in their early 20s, as well as with some of the Brazilians who were away from home for the first time.

One break time I was marking some writing H had done for me. I was sitting at a desk at the front of the class. H was standing behind me looking over my shoulder at what I was doing, and she started to lean forward. She was putting a lot of her body weight into it, pressing against my shoulder, and I was being pushed forwards. I’d been teaching her for a couple of months by this stage and we got on really well, but to my English sensibilities this felt like quite an intrusion into my personal space. I didn’t say anything until I’d finished, but then I took her aside and told her that although I didn’t really mind her being in my space like that, other British people might not be so comfortable.
After we finished speaking, she started a conversation in Arabic across the room with the three Saudi men in the group, clearly about what we’d just said. They were surprised at my reaction, and the conversation flipped back into English again. As the other students in the class realised what was happening, they joined in too. It developed into an hour-long discussion about cultural norms in our native lands, stereotypes and how we differed from them. It is easily one of the most eye-opening conversations I have ever had.*

In it I learnt that because Saudi men and women are not allowed to touch each other, Saudi women tend to be much more ‘touchy-feely’ than I would be comfortable with. For example, when chatting to each other a woman who is with female family or close friends might rest her hand on the other person’s arm or lean against them throughout the conversation. When H was watching me mark her work, leaning against me was a way to show that she was comfortable being around me. Brazilians also often touch their conversation partners on the arm or shoulder at various times while talking to them.

We then moved on to the concept of personal space in general, and the fact that when I worked in South America I would often find myself backing away from people I was speaking to as they needed less personal space than I did: they moved closer, I moved back, and we would gradually edge across the room. To demonstrate differences in personal space, I asked half of this intermediate group to stand in a straight line at the front of the class, evenly spread between the cultures present in the class. The other half of the students had to face them at what they considered to be a comfortable distance, resulting in a jagged line with the Brazilians much closer to their partners than anyone else. It was a good example of how the culture we grow up in influences many things we do in subtle ways.

The final big topic we covered was showing affection in general and saying “I love you” to family members and friends. The students thought that British people were cold because they don’t touch while talking and are less likely to hug and kiss each other. I was able to tell them that although this may be true in many cases, it doesn’t mean that we are any less affectionate. In my family, we rarely say “I love you”, but we show our support for each other through our actions. It took me a while to figure out how to hug people as an adult because it wasn’t something we did often as I was growing up. However, I’ve noticed that we are becoming much more ‘touchy-feely’ as a family and Brits in general are more likely to hug and kiss now than they used to be, at least as far as I can tell. The students were surprised to hear this as it ran counter to what they expected. One of the Brazilians said that her family situation was pretty similar to mine, and this ran counter to the stereotype of her culture too.

The whole discussion brought us closer together as a group, and in subsequent lessons there were a lot more questions about culture from everyone as they felt able to open up and question what they knew. As a result of this, the week after this lesson we dedicated the afternoon lessons to food, and spent our final class cooking together in one of the student flats. We made a feast of Brazilian black beans, beef and rice, Saudi kapsah and Arabic rice followed by British flapjacks and Brazilian brigadeiro, working together for four hours to prepare and eat it all, with the Saudi men cooking the kapsah from H’s recipe because she couldn’t be there that afternoon, breaking down more stereotypes in the process!

Lessons like these are exactly why I love my job so much. Sharing culture(s) in this way breaks down barriers and reduces ignorance, and I like to think that these students now understand each other and the places they come from in a way that would have been impossible if they had never shared a classroom. Long may such exchanges continue!

*Apologies if I have misremembered or misinterpreted any of this information – please feel free to correct any mistakes in the comments.

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