Diversity in English Language Classroom

1924893_829718523720484_26654504_n

BALRAM ADHIKARI

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.  

Geographical diversity

 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.

Linguistic diversity

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

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. 

Cognitive diversity

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.  

Creative diversity

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

18 comments

  • Well carved,persuasive and balanced editorial!
    Hats off!!

    • bal ram

      Thank you Jeeva. This editorial is the outcome of our team effort. Special thanks go to Parvenn, the coordinator.

  • Sakun Kumar Joshi

    wow! it is the reflection of information.

    • bal ram

      Thank you Sakun. Nothing qualifies to be knowledge unless it individualized through the inner process of reflection.

  • Deepak Dulal

    I am happy to see the article well presented, prepared and well analyzed, based on M. Ed. students. Such diversity at each and every school or college is one of the most challenging issues for ESL/EFL teachers while teaching second language specially in a multilingual country like Nepal. While talking about the diversity in the class, it is high time teachers should be able to feel the students’ difficulties in learning language.

    Thank you

    • bal ram

      Dear Deepak thank you for your comment. The classroom where I meet you as a teacher is in fact a space of diversity where I learn more than I teach. This writing is the product of this process. Now it is you people who ought to work in the direction of observation, reflection, writing and evaluation. Best of luck ahead .

  • kamlesh kumar Raut

    Waw! What a nice editorial filled with useful informations.Pleased to read dear sir.

    • bal ram

      Thank you Kamlesh for your words. This editorial is the team effort. I am fortunate to be in the team with full of insights and information.

  • Binod Duwadi

    Well written. Thought provoking. Beside this I should go through it three times at least!

    • bal ram

      Thank you Binod. You found it thought-provoking because you yourself are rich in thought-provoking ideas. You are right one reading is never enough, because each reading is a provisional (Kam Chhalau) reading for another reading.

  • Jyoti Tiwari

    I don’t know Bal Ram sir whether you believe or not but while reading this article I don’t find even a single word that was not interesting and before saying anything I would like to congrats you for such a nice article

    I am thinking till now how you came to know all these things about students and class room that is cent percent true. But I can understand that it’s your teaching experience of ninety students that you are teaching since many years as you have mentioned above

    Here I am very eager to share or relate experience of my own class-room where I am studying my masters I think it is related to class-room diversity. One day my friends wanted me to sing a Nepali song But I sang a Hindi one “tera ishq sufeeyana” and some of them were seemed confused because they didn’t understand the song.

    Another thing that you have mentioned about the girls like less speaking, no eye contact, if I say I have a friend just having same characteristics that you have mentioned then?. Previously when I was new in the university she was suggesting me to not to speak or not to answer the teachers questions. Another shocking suggestion for me that was to sit in the last bench instead of first, saying that intelligent students don’t speak and sit at last bench. These both suggestions were very shocking to me because I am habituated for sitting in front in the class-room and to interact with my teachers. Although sometimes I want to salute some of my teachers how they encourage me bearing my all the stupid and nonsense questions, and here I want to thank them from the core of my heart.

    At last I want to say that it is very little what I have said here there are many more interesting things that I cannot include here but I can say that studying in diverse class-room is one of the best experience for me and I am enjoying it. Although it’s quite hard to handle diverse class-room, where students from Mechi Zone in the east to Mahakali Zone in the west, and from the Mountains through Terai, are present.

    • bal ram

      Jyoti, thank you for your thoughtful words. I really appreciate your insights. To me, my class is my Sangh (Commune) where I can practice my dharma of teaching and learning so that we (mentor and mentees) can move together hand in hand to the goal of Buddha ( the understanding and realization). Each classroom is a holy shrine for me and we are the pilgrims. I understand what you mean to say about your singing of hindi song in the English classroom. My creative and literary background is much influenced by Hindi literature, movies, and music. I too often resort to Hidi movies in the classroom. But some students find it rather odd. I know the reason for it. Sure plz, you have a lot to communicate to the community. Keep writing. Keep sharing. Thank you

  • Embrace change, embrace collaboration and embrace diversity. Thank you Balram sir for the article. I’m also enjoying reading the comments posted by our wonderful friends of Choutari.

    • bal ram

      Thank you Umes ji, for your short yet condensed comment. Absolutely! Change is not a desire but a necessity. It is a reality not a myth. I have seen you have so many things that ought to be shared with budding writers and thinkers. Thank you.

  • Shiva Sharma

    I am really grateful to you sir because I have got a chance to see the such a magnificent article which reflects the reality. It gives me clear idea about diversity on the basis of different term and what EFL/ ESL teachers face problems due to such diversity and the way of remedy. It’s brilliant creation’perfect combination and balanced presentation in a wonderful way, research based and based on your long experience about one of the common issue which every teacher is facing…Yes obviously Nepal is one of multilingual countries but it is rich in diversity. You have argued in the article that students from every nook and corner or from Mechi in the east and Mahakali in the west, or from Mountains and Terai or from diverse backgrounds teachers should be take as a boon, and both teachers and students can enjoy the learning in the diverse classroom like a garden with different flowers.

    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”. I am learning more thing where you can see , feel more diversity in our class…Thank you sir

    • bal ram

      First of all, I should thank you for your comment. Creativity is not the product only, Shiva. It’s in how you listen to yourself and others, how you see yourself and others, how you feel the surroundings, how you perceive yourself in relation to your surroundings. So it would be naive of us to say that one day I will be creative. If aware, the creative force surrounds us all the time. Thank you again. Plz keep sharing your ideas and insights.

  • Bharat Kumar Ojhaiya

    Thank you sir for presenting a replica of present day scenario of not only our country but the whole world. In fact it’s very difficult to find a class without diversity and even if we desire for one then we go against the nature, probably ,which is not desirable.. As you have mentioned diversity brings beauty which is conducive to learning without effort . The quote from Maya Angelou is justifiable. We can’t go ahead without promoting and respecting diversity. Thank you sir.

    • bal ram

      Thank you Bharat, diversity is the defining characteristic of the teaching and learning ecology. You are right to assert this reality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *