Diversity in English Language Classroom
Diversity implies the state of being diverse in forms. It is the state in which multiformity exists because of co-existence of multiple, yet interconnected forms of the phenomenon. Diversity is a reality in the English language classroom, particularly in the contexts like ours, where the classroom houses teachers and learners both from diverse linguistic, cultural, geographical, economic, and social backgrounds. Second language learning and teaching theories regard diversity as the reality of the classroom. Without delving into theories and research works that abound the field of teaching English as a foreign or second language, I would like to present different dimensions of diversity, most of which I have noticed in my own classroom. I interpret diversity along the dimensions of language and culture, and cognition and creation of students.
I teach a large class. The classroom where I teach the master’s level course English Grammar for Teachers is cramped with the students. The number of students often exceeds ninety. These are the prospective English teachers specializing in English education. The size of the class has a lot to do with diversity. The larger the class it is more likely to be diverse in terms of learner differences, their educational backgrounds, geographical, cultural, linguistic experiences, and their expectations from teaching.
Geography forms one of the major components of our referential knowledge. My students hail from different parts of the country, from Mechi Zone in the east to Mahakali Zone in the west, and from the Mountains through Hills in the north to the Terai in the south. These students from a diverse geography bring with them a myriad of ecological experiences. Such experiences are reflected in how they express themselves in English in the classroom. I have noticed that example sentences they give are often rooted in the regions they come from. For instance, the students from the Terai belt are often found of using the sentences related to agriculture such as sugarcane farming, fish farming, and entertainment, especially Hindi movies and songs, while those from the hilly regions such as Illam, Panchthar, Bhojpur often make reference to natural beauty, hills, tea farming, etc. Similarly, the community of practice in the classroom is found to havebearing on the region i.e. students from the same region often prefer to sit and work together in the classroom. Geographical diversity is also evident in the languages they use to communicate with each other in the informal setting.
My English class is rich in linguistic, dialectal and accentual diversity. The students are from diverse linguistic backgrounds such as Nepali, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Bajjika, Sunuwar, Tamang, Magar, and Newari, to name but a few. It is hard to overlook the conspicuous presence of Hindi in and out of the classroom. Students’ spoken English bears phonological and grammatical features from these languages. For example, English spoken by the students from Maithili, Bhojpuri and Bajjika communities sounds strikingly different from the English spoken by those from other language communities. We can also easily sense a variation in the pronunciations of students speaking different dialects of the Nepali language. The spoken English of the students who speak the Far-Western Nepali dialect is easy to notice. These linguistic, dialectal and accentual variations make the English classroom ‘a multilingual English speech community’ in miniature. This English learning community possesses and demonstrates a unique hybrid culture.
Cultural diversity cross-cuts geographical, linguistic and cognitive dimensions. Our cultural experiences emanate from and embedded in the ecology we are familiar with, and our material and social life. It is language through which our cultural experiences are represented and transacted. Our cultural experiences condition teaching and learning processes both. Broadly, I can see two major types of cultural experiences coming closer and mutually influencing each other. The first is the culture embedded in the English language itself. Here, the English language itself is the bearer of English culture (s). For example, time-bound greetings such as good morning, good afternoon, good evening, etc. used by our students are intrinsically interwoven into the culture of the English language itself. The second type is the diverse cultural experiences that our students bring with them in the English classroom. Students often impose, though subconsciously, their cultural experiences on learning and using English in their own context. Such an imposition can take place from pronunciation at the lowest level to discourse processing and production at the highest level. This process of injecting local cultural experiences makes our search for ‘purity of English’ unrealistic and impractical.
Cognition has multiple interpretations. Without getting entangled in threads of theories, I’d like to approach cognition from two different, yet interconnected routes. They are the routes of sensitivity and sensibility. The first one stands for ‘sense activity’ or ‘the activation of senses’, and the second one for ‘sense ability’ or ‘ability to make a sense’. Cognition is the totality of activation of senses and our ability to make a sense (meaning) from what has been perceived through our sense organs. In normal physiological and mental conditions all senses are active in learners with a different degree of intensity. Activation of six sense organs (eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, and mind) in relation to their corresponding objects (forms, sounds, smells, tactile objects, tastes, and objects of mind) leads to six consciousnesses (sight-consciousness, sound-consciousness, tactile-consciousness, taste-consciousness, and mind-consciousness ). It is through the interconnection and interaction of these consciousnesses that we make a sense of what we have perceived. Different individuals activate their different sense organs to respond to the same linguistic and non-linguistic stimuli with varying intensity. I can see such a variation in the activation of senses in my students. Some of the students prefer to maintain eye contact with their teacher, while some, especially girls, prefer to avoid the visual form of communication. They keep themselves absorbed in what they are hearing, their eyes often staring in the blank or fixing on the wall in the front. Some girls even hang heads low as if they are not paying attention to what is being presented to the class. However, when their understanding is checked, I often find that the case is just opposite. Likewise, few students could be seen sitting on the benches with their eyes closed, as if meditating. There is one student who is near-sighted. He obviously relies more on his sound-consciousness than sight-consciousness. I need to read out whatever I write on the board so that he can jot them down.
The conventional notion of creativity is inclined to the product. We acknowledge creativity in the artistic manipulation of linguistic resources in the texts such as poetry, story, composition, play, joke, riddle, problem solving, translation, and so on. Also, we appreciate the product based on the aesthetic feelings it invokes in us as readers, viewers, and listeners. I have never come across any two students who are identical in the production of texts. However, such a diversity in creativity that we expect from our students and experience in their products begins from the diversity in their perception– perception of themselves and perception of the world around them. That is, first and foremost creativity is a matter of perception. I’d like to call it ‘creative perception’. It is the ability to perceive the world– real or imagined– not only differently but also in a novel way, for example, the ability to feel music in rain, and the ability to see life full of vibrancy in a tree that stands in solitude across the grassy ground. However, not all students perceive such musicality and vibrancy with the same intensity. Some may not be inspired by such phenomena at all. Inspiration is not in the thing itself but in our alert perception. Even a moth circling around the burning candle can be a great source of inspiration for creativity. Here I am implicitly referring to Anne Dillard and her essay The Death of a Moth. So we should not wait for some inspiration to come to us, but to remain alert of ourselves and our surroundings. Regarding perception, inspiration and creativity, James Cameron, a pioneer movie director, suggests that “Inspiration can come from anywhere, so be ready”. He further reveals to us his experience as, “Inspiration can hit you in the head at any time in any context. It could happen in a conversation. Talking to someone at a party, you can get an idea”. Creative perception leads to creative processing. What is perceived is to be processed in the contemplative mood. Creative processing is the process of creating images and finding the linguistic expressions that we suppose best fit these images. No two individuals associate the same or similar images with the identical linguistic expressions. It is diversity in perception and in processing that leads to diversity in creative outputs. Sometimes, I feel my classroom as an energy field of creativity where each individual learner is different, yet inseparable element of the field, each being the source of inspiration for the other.
Now I would like to touch on the issue of teaching and learning from the perspective of diversity. In the classroom, the teacher is one while students are many. That is, teaching is singular and convergent while learning is always plural and divergent. The notion of teaching implies uniformity while learning is intrinsically multiformity. Some English teachers take diversity as trouble while others take it as treasure. Those who perceive diversity as trouble might feel a tension between their teaching and their students’ learning. On the other hand, those who perceive diversity as treasure might enjoy the riches of their class, and might enrich themselves from the riches that their students bring in. Here, the teacher has two options. The first is the option of convergence. The teacher acts as a convergent force, pulling all the threads of diversity towards his/her teaching and winding these threads together as a tightened rope. This is the conventional role of the teacher. The second option is of divergence. The teacher acts as a divergent force, making himself/herself available to students, working as the resource for them rather than their authority.
In passing, I’d like to make some gentle recommendations to capitalize on the diversity in English language classroom:
- Teaching English to students from diverse linguistic backgrounds does not necessary mean that teachers should be multilingual. However, they should be aware of and sensitive to the multilingual environs of the classroom.
- Teachers should take the English learning classroom as a locus for hybridity. The locus where diverse cultural experiences come together, compete, co-exist, and enrich each other. It is not possible, nor is it desirable to maintain or search for ‘purity of English’.
- Teachers should expect all forms of diversity. The more diverse the class, the more dynamic they can feel. They should recognize and respect, and celebrate any form of diversity in their classroom.
- Differences should not be discouraged. No discrimination is justifiable practiced on the grounds of differences in the classroom.
- The classroom where differences are respected turns out to be a safe, conducive and nurturing environment for learning.
- Diversity should be addressed in ELT from policy to classroom procedures and from texts to tasks.
I resort to Maya Angelou’s views on diversity to mark the end of this article:
We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry,
and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry
are equal in value no matter what their color.
Editor, ELT CHOUTARI
Faculty, Mahendra Ratna Campus, Kathmandu, Nepal