Lessons in Language: What EFL Teachers Can Learn from Earthquake Relief Efforts

Charlotte Benham

I am an ESL/EFL teacher with four years of experience teaching in various contexts in Nepal, but these days I am also an academic observing the online organization of earthquake relief efforts. After several weeks of reading, posting, sharing, messaging, and tweeting, I believe that the relief and rebuilding process has uncovered social issues and brought about changes that EFL teachers can play a role in exploring with their students and school communities. As Phyak wrote in a recently published op-ed, “This disaster is no longer just a ‘natural’ phenomenon; it has deep socio-political, cultural, and economic meanings.” (2015) The meanings that he refers to have their source and are reflected in language in ways that can shape what we teach in the post-earthquake classroom. Here, I cite some examples of language choice to highlight what is being said and being left unsaid in order to contextualize some practical pedagogical goals that can be integrated into the EFL curriculum.

Be concerned if someone doesn’t ask your name: Whilst conducting voluntary relief work in Gorkha, a British tourism company owner took a picture of an older gentleman wearing a hardhat sorting rubble into usable and unusable material. She later posted it on Facebook, not indicating the place or the man’s name. One of her contacts asked her if she had been there to take the picture and knew where she had taken it, to which she replied “Yes.” The contact then explained that he was from that village and knew the man in the picture. The company owner could have made the choice to ask the man’s name, and thus give him credit for his work. Instead, her only comment was that “He is a strong man.”

As teachers, we should be aware that this type of carefully selected anonymity allows others to label and define our communities, schools, and students (and even ourselves when fulfilling the public role of “teacher”). What if the photographer had asked the gentleman at least for his name, if not about his own perception about his work of separating out the rubble? The richness and complexity of his life and experience during the earthquake would add value to the photo and appreciation for the individual in it. What we should take away from this is that instead of permitting the photographer telling their story, we can prepare students to tell their own.

Working through the storytelling process with students in EFL classrooms has both pedagogical and social benefits. On the broadest level, integrating storytelling into second language instruction fits in nicely with other components of communicative language teaching and reinforces the premise of this method of instruction – that it brings in authentic language and increases personal motivation. Within the sphere of authentic language, the stories that students develop can be used to engage all four language skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. (Atta-Alla, 2012)  For example, when simultaneously read out loud and contextualized by illustrations and props, storytelling can help with word recall and be followed-up with further activities to support reading skill development. (Huang, 2006, p. 53) These extra components of the story are all things that students can create in preparation for telling them. Indeed, students are already being prepared for this kind of work through the programs designed to address students’ mental health needs. What occurs during playing, drawing, singing, and dancing now can be revisited with a pedagogical purpose over the coming weeks.

Storytelling also goes beyond simple personal motivation to enabling students to develop an identity within English as their foreign language by giving them to opportunity to communicate with a social purpose. Conversely, students can be made aware of how English can be used to describe their social lives outside of textbooks, exams, and classrooms. There are initiatives already working on eliciting and publishing personal stories, such as Stories of Nepal (www.storiesofnepal.com) and the Book Bus, which is sponsored by the American Embassy. These efforts can serve as a way to publicize selected individual’s stories, yet again the content of what is selected as important is put in the hands of the outside observer. They cannot bring communities together to develop a “whole” story and offer relevant reflection. This type of work can only be done in locally-based social institutions, such as schools.

There are many forms of knowledge: Two recent posts from one of the most vocal Nepali online organizers of volunteer relief efforts have highlighted the further divisions that those providing relief make when deciding what to offer those in need. In one post, he commented that “villagers” are only concerned with food because that is “all they know,” and as such, made the recommendation that volunteer groups should limit the amount of food they provide and instead focus on household, hygiene, and rebuilding supplies. In the second post, which was in reference to the status in Gorkha, Sindhupalchok, Dolakha, and Dhading, the writer reiterated his belief that food supplies should be restricted, this time insisting that only psychological, medical, and educational relief should be provided under the threat that he would take personal action against those who did not follow his advice.

The foundation on which he built his argument was the idea that “local villagers” are those who are uneducated and are thus unreliable sources of information. “Educated people are updating me that local people are being more dependent on to the aid and not doing regular activities like making shelter, agriculture, handicrafts, etc… Note: we are going to develop our country not making rich in slum-dog areas.” The perspective from which these comments come again seeks to lump those in need into one anonymous category – this time, as those with little education. The writer equates this lack of formal education with limited knowledge of survival and planning skills. It is also underpinned by biases against low-income communities who may not have previously been living in conventional housing by labelling them as “slum-dog areas” and implying that they are undeveloped eyesores.

Teachers in any educational context cannot avoid being aware of their students’ lives outside the school gates, even if they do not live in the same locality. After all, we are social creatures interacting in a social institution. We should not, however, allow others to put us in the position of speaking for our students or community members simply because we are affiliated with the field of education, which in turn is affiliated with the notion of being “developed”. If we work in a school in a city where most of the students’ families run businesses or a school in a rural village where everyone is involved in agriculture, we see that schooling is only one form knowledge. It does not give us the experience to know who to hire for a position or how to take care of a pregnant buffalo. Just as we hope to have every student speak up in class, we should hope to create the space for every community member to also speak. Similarly, we are driven by the desire to have every student take in the material that we teach and are disappointed when we don’t reach this goal. Within the community, we should also maintain this type of persistence.

What we say reflects what we believe: The story above highlights the importance of being aware of the words we teach to our students and their meaning. Similarly, another post on Facebook from a young Nepali woman in Kathmandu reported her volunteer trip to a marginalized community. She did not give the exact location, but focused readers’ attention on the social status of the community by commenting, “I don’t know why people call […] people uncivilized. I found they behave so nicely, better than [list of different castes]. They are true Nepalese.” (paraphrased and edited) Personally, it is my sincere hope that the writer could only express her beliefs in this way because of her EFL skills, and not because this is how her worldview has been shaped.

In order to address situations like these, we can explore the suitability of the target language in different social contexts when using English as a Foreign Language in addition to teaching meaning and form (Nagy, p. 8). We can engage students in projects to map out synonyms and antonyms based not only on the target language’s definition, but also their correlating contexts. This can facilitate clearer communication in storytelling and also broaden students’ emotional expressiveness in English. They can be empowered to create language that is not only factual, but also reflects their underlying beliefs.

Two Nepali academics have published op-eds related to language choice in media and public discourse with regards to post-earthquake Nepal. Tamang warns that by describing Nepali citizens as “resilient,” the onus is put on volunteers and those in need to rebuild. This leaves the government unaccountable for its part in relief efforts (Tamang, 2015) Phyak, a NELTA member, highlights the socio-cultural and political effects that words like “victim,” “poor,” and “helpless” can have, cutting those who are in need down into “beggars.” (Phyak, 2015). Just as we can conscious about when we speak and who we speak for, we can also model for our students various choices in what to speak.

A recent post from a friend described how when he was a student, he learned about the unification of Nepal, the geography of the country, and its natural resources. What was missing from his textbook was the history of earthquakes in the country. Similarly, students have not been prepared to talk to INGO workers, volunteers, engineering assessors, or local government officials. Just as social science classes will integrate the history of Nepal’s earthquakes, science classes will discuss tectonic plates. Health classes will reaffirm the need to run or drop, hide, and hold. To do our part as ELF teachers, we must prepare our students to communicate in the post-earthquake world.

Charlotte ‘Sangita’ Benham recently received her M.S.Ed. in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to her graduate-level work, she taught Academic English and essay writing to high school and graduate students in Kathmandu, Nepal for three years. She also served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Nepal, working with local English teachers to provide EFL lessons at a rural, government-funded secondary school in Kavre District. Charlotte received her B.A. in History from Brandeis University in 2007 after writing her thesis on the historical roots of the political ideology of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. She grew up in Massachusetts and is now based in Philadelphia


Atta-Alla, M. (2012). Integrating Language Skills through Storytelling. English Language Teaching, 5(12).

Huang, H. (2006). The Effects of Storytelling on EFL Young Learners’ Reading Comprehension and Word Recall. English Teaching & Learning, 30(3), 51-74.

Nagy, W. (1995). On the Role of Context in First- and Second-Language Vocabulary Learning. Champaign, Illinois: Center for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Phyak, P. (4 June, 2015). Survivors, not victims. The Kathmandu Post. Retrieved on 7 June, 2015 from: http://www.ekantipur.com/the-kathmandu-post/2015/06/04/oped/survivors-not-victims/276991.html.

Tamang, S. (25 May, 2015) Dangers of Resilience. eKantipur.com. Retrieved on 7 June, 2015 from: http://www.ekantipur.com/2015/05/25/oped/dangers-of-resilience/405651.html.

1 thought on “Lessons in Language: What EFL Teachers Can Learn from Earthquake Relief Efforts

  1. Enjoyed reading the post. Good deliberations on the use of language and implications thereof. Thank you for highlighting the role of EFL teachers in teaching our kids to communicate in the right way.

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