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Facilitating Learning Through a Multicultural Approach to the Teaching of English

Ingrid Bonanni - M L Sultan Technikon, Durban, South Africa


Institutionalised separation of racial and cultural groups during Apartheid left a legacy of intercultural ignorance in South Africa. Integrated post-apartheid educational institutions still face the traumatic consequences. Teachers, pupils, school governing bodies, school inspectors, teacher training institutions etc. are equally unprepared for integration. The paper will briefly review the racial, cultural and linguistic dynamics informing the problem. It will indicate how inadequately performing students at tertiary institutions led to a project in the Department of Communication at M L Sultan Technikon entitled the Teaching of English as a Multicultural Language. The paper defines "English as a multicultural language" and posits that the globality of English as a first, second and foreign language distinguishes it from the majority of other languages. The paper shares insights and strategies gleaned from a range of countries visited including Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, England and Scotland. The paper/workshop shows how the local need has been, and can continue to be addressed. It also shows that although specifies may differ in various parts of the world where English is taught, the multicultural approach to the teaching of English, or, for that matter, any other subject, is highly empowering for the learner and the educator and could be successfully utilized wherever a heterogeneous mix of students encounters problems of exclusion and under performance.

In post-apartheid South African classrooms, access to urban schools by teachers and scholars of all cultures and language groups was permitted virtually overnight, thereby transforming the previously racially/culturally segregated classrooms into multicultural classrooms. At the same time, however, attitudes, classroom strategies, curricula and syllabus content remained largely untransformed.

In colleges and universities the student population similarly became increasingly diverse and institutions experienced pressure to broaden both their curriculum and the cultural and ethnic representations of their faculties. Seasoned teachers/lecturers were asked to acknowledge and accept students with perspectives other than their own and to include in the syllabi material that was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

During the Apartheid era South Africa's 4 main race groupings, viz. White, Indian, Coloured (mixed race) and Black, attended separate schools in which pupils and teachers belonged to the particular homogeneous group. Each group wrote separate matriculation examinations through education departments which represented them in parliament under separate ministries. In the aftermath of this divisive apartheid educational practice, teachers and pupils from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, found themselves thrown together. Teachers had inadequate training or re-training in skills and strategies to deal with classroom diversity. They were also insufficiently sensitised to be attitudinally prepared for a transformed classroom environment.

The research study which underpins this paper was undertaken in a sample of previously segregated, now multicultural, categories of urban schools viz. ex-Indian, -Coloured, -White schools in the Greater Durban Metropolitan Area.

The study investigated the teaching of English as a subject in a diverse context and elicited findings on the following(1A):

· Attitudes of teachers to mother tongue (L1) use in the classroom, bearing in mind that apartheid policy and practice was to eliminate the use of all indigenous languages for official purposes.
· English language difficulties of L2 students
· Training needs identified by teachers
· Means of filling training gaps
· The type of institutional and state support (or lack of it) enjoyed by teachers
· Qualities which teachers felt they lacked but considered to be essential to ensure successful teaching in a multicultural classroom.
· Problem behaviour and attitudes to be avoided by teachers
· Reasons for learner non-participation
· Strategies for encouraging participation by L2 speakers
· Strategies for ensuring all cultures represented were fully included during English lessons.
· Reasons for teachers' inability to implement strategies to deal with problems associated with diversity in the classroom.

The extreme tensions created as a result of this sudden multicultural mix are addressed in an approach to English teaching which we describe as The Teaching of English as a Multicultural Language.

I defend the use of the term 'multicultural language' in reference to English as, over the generations in South Africa, many minority groups have appropriated English as their first language, whilst retaining their cultural identity in tact. The Indian population in Durban, for example, is the largest Indian population outside of India. They are now fourth generation South African citizens who all speak English as their L1. Most children of Indian cultural origin can now barely understand any Hindi or other Indian language, yet all aspects of their Indian culture, other than language, are strongly retained, including food, religion, dress and celebration of festivals.

It is not only such minority groupings, which bring their diverse cultural realities to the English classroom, however. The vast majority of secondary and tertiary student populations speak as a first language one of the 9 official black indigenous languages of South Africa. Yet currently most urban multicultural schools and universities/technikons operate solely through the medium of English. Whether in the English classroom or in any other subject class, other cultural realities are constantly brought into the classroom where they are challenged to find meaning and expression in the English language.

I am sure the same situation would be true of urban schools here in England as well as in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere where the English language is the medium of instruction. The impact of Non-English cultures on English vocabulary world-wide can be seen in the range of 'Englishes' feeding into the Collins Concise Dictionary and the new Collins Millennium Dictionary and acknowledged in the foreword. (1)

This paper argues a two-pronged approach for 'including those who are excluded', particularly those who are doomed to produce poor results simply by virtue of their culture and language.

· Firstly by training and re-training teachers in areas such as cultural literacy and cultural consciousness-raising.
· Secondly by the strategic use of the resources available to the English teacher from the heterogeneous mix of cultures.

In South Africa forty years of apartheid segregation policies have left indigenous and other settler groups uncommonly ignorant of their respective cultures. Right now teacher training which highlights the elements of culture and intercultural studies, has become essential.

The often negative effects of the dominant and co-cultures on one another need special attention. The dangers of misinterpreting verbal and non/verbal messages should be highlighted in the training, as these are the areas where tensions build and erupt, thereby disrupting classroom harmony and learning.

Further, teachers should know their pupils' constitutional rights to exercise cultural behaviour, including religious and linguistic behaviour, and learn to exercise respect for those rights. The teacher's role as an agent of empowerment; one who can encourage development of self-image, self-esteem, self-affirmation and resurgence of pride in roots, is crucial - not only for pupils' academic success - but also to create a positive and co-operative environment in the multicultural classroom.

Other aspects to be covered in such training would be the notion of 'surviving integration', with the implications that accompany it, viz. the importance of harnessing positive energy from negative emotions and of finding ways of overcoming negative attitudes spawned by stereotyping, ethnocentrism, prejudice and xenophobia. This approach has wider relevance if carried across the curriculum and can be readily adapted to any multi-culturally mixed classroom environment where learning occurs through the medium of English.


My main objective in this paper is to highlight in a practical way, the empowering role which cultural consciousness-raising plays in helping the teacher to deal with diversity in the English classroom.

Since culture is everywhere, (2,3) unless the educator has sufficient awareness, knowledge and skills to assimilate students' various cultures successfully into the fabric of the learning context, he/she is going to face trouble in the classroom.

The influence of culture in the classroom can be negative or positive.(4) If negative, it can be divisive, a source of conflict, or a stumbling block to learning as these extracts from South African newspaper articles show.(5,6,7) They are anecdotal, but they represent just some of the perspectives on the problems experienced in multicultural classrooms, in this case by Indian teachers, white pupils and black pupils.

On the other hand the influence of culture in the classroom can be positive. That is, it can act as a resource to promote learning. It can act as a source of rich examples and anecdotes and it can act as a source of interest and curiosity.

Whether the classroom climate is negative or positive depends on how the teacher manages diversity.

A teacher who fails to manage diversity, either through lack of awareness, lack of training or active intolerance would probably be guilty of permitting and tolerating some or all of the following behaviours and attitudes in the classroom (8)

· Laughing at others' cultural differences e.g. their dress, accent, beliefs etc.
· Mocking behaviour
· Making L2 speakers of English and cultural minorities feel insignificant, marginalized, isolated.
· Negative criticism of cultural differences
· Hate talk (outlawed by law in South Africa)
· Calling others by derogatory names
· Insulting in other ways, verbal or non-verbal
· Acting dismissively/rudely
· Showing negative body language responses e.g. pulling faces, point, staring
· Acting insensitively
· Treating all students the same, as if there were no differences between them. This is the 'ignoring-the-differences' approach.(9)

A teacher whose classroom reflects a positive learning environment for all pupils, probably manages diversity by promoting some or all of the following behaviours/attitudes (10)

· Actively promotes an accepting classroom climate, which could be categorised by the motto: 'live and let live'. In this classroom pupils would understand that there is no right or wrong culture, no superior or inferior culture - just different cultures.
· The teacher plays an affirming role to all students.
· The teacher listens attentively and with interest to pupils and encourages the value of active listening in pupils.
· The teacher encourages interest in other cultures.
· Treats all cultures with respect.
· Discusses what is polite behaviour and rude behaviour in various cultures - to avoid rudeness and offence committed unintentionally through ignorance.
· Displays neutral body language.
· Encourages pride in one's own culture as affirming one's individuality.
· Encourages the idea that 'different is interesting'.
· Accepts that everyone has a right to his/her cultural expression and does not try to acculturate students.
· Permits, encourages and promotes the use of the L1 whenever feasible in the classroom without taking a threatening or punitive stance (especially in subject classes other than English).

Clearly the teacher is critical as a role model in raising awareness of cultural issues. Before pupils can be expected to demonstrate positive attitudes to diverse cultures in the classroom it is essential that teachers should:

· Challenge their own attitudes for blatant or even latent racist/cultural prejudices.
· Cultivate a heightened and on-going cultural awareness particularly of thorny cultural issues, which have arisen in one's regional schools, universities, workplaces and social/residential environments. Teachers should read the local daily newspapers, cut out articles that deal with any of the above issues and analyse and debate them whenever practicable in class. Tolerance is learned, just as intolerance is learned. It is not easy to change entrenched attitudes - sometimes it takes drastic measures and can be a painful experiences, especially when it happens later, in the work situation, rather than sooner, whilst at school.
· Teachers should be fully au fait with the meanings and significance of all racial/cultural terms such as the following: (11) stereotype, genocide, ethnocentrism, acculturation, xenophobia, prejudice, racism, ethnic cleansing, racial profiling. (10) As an interesting aside this local newspaper article (12) picks up on some typical South African stereotypes. Note that they are all negative - which is the case with most stereotypes. They are also mostly untrue which is why applying them to individuals is unfair and harmful. Such stereotypical attitudes and beliefs must be avoided if you are going to successfully manage diversity in your classroom. As an educator be aware of the stereotypes prevalent in your own town/city/country.
· Teachers should be aware that politeness and rudeness, both verbal and non-verbal differ from culture to culture. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture is anathema in another culture. The following is an example of culturally specific non-verbal behaviour in South Africa.

According to Zulu culture it is rude for a black youth to look his elder/teacher/lecturer in the eye. He should keep his eyes lowered to show respect. In the white South African culture, however, such down-cast eyes are interpreted negatively. If the person across the room cannot meet my gaze his behaviour is regarded as shifty, guilty, lacking in confidence - all of which can sway a job interview against an interviewee. Of course such a conclusion is totally unfair given that the interviewee is showing politeness and respect according to his/her culture. Judging behaviour of another culture by the rules of etiquette of one's own culture results in misunderstanding on both sides. Much of what is perceived as slight and insult is never intended that way but originates from differing codes of acceptable behaviour.

It is up to the teacher to be aggressive in pursuing an awareness of cultural issues. Only then can he/she operate effectively and positively in a multicultural classroom. Only then can he/she hope to play a significant role in transforming the classroom environment in such a way that the previously excluded feel meaningfully included.

My colleague will briefly tackle the second in this two-pronged approach to 'including those who are excluded'. She will outline some of the strategies used very effectively by English teachers in various parts of the world and in South Africa.



Students must be made aware of cultural differences so that an appreciation of an a respect for cultural differences can be developed. By sharing a knowledge of their culture, students also develop a respect for their own cultures.

Students must be allowed to select their own methods of communicating their learning outcomes. This can be done by:


· Oral discussions of cultural group functions. Students must be encouraged to include costumes, food, books, poems, etc. to explain and allow visualization of the cultural differences.
· Discussion on diverse experiences, holidays, celebrations etc.
· Debates can be arranged on topics which are very controversial


· Cultural events/customs/traditions to be included under the topics for essay writing.
· Comprehension passages can be extracted from these topics. Questions posed should aim at influencing students' understanding of cultural differences.
· Students must be encouraged to write about their lives and their future.
· Comprehension questions should be open-ended in order to encourage critical thinking and creativity as children use contextual cues from texts to assign meaning to the different passages they are confronted with.

It is important for students to realise that it is the outcomes which are being 'fairly' measured, rather than conformity to the lecturers' construction of the world.


Most ESL teachers make use of the cooperative learning strategy, namely group work. The benefits of cooperative learning include the improving of social interaction, enhancing language development, improving positive relationships and students getting to know each other.

Cooperative learning could be used, for example, in the following way to teach PARAGRAPH WRITING:

· Students decide on a topic
· Students are divided into small groups
· The first student is asked to write a sentence about the topic
· The next student is asked to write another sentence that would build on the first sentence.
· This continues until each students has had a turn.
· The chosen spokesperson is then given a chance to read the paragraph to the class.

Another cooperative approach is the JIGSAW approach in which the students use the division of labour to simplify a difficult task, to get to know one another's work better, explore common interests, and to look for ways to talk about and share ideas. It works as follows:

· Divide the class into small groups
· Each group is given the same overall task
· Each group member within the group has a different task.
· Those with the same learning task in the different groups come together and finalise a joint response to the task which they present to the class.

The advantage of this technique, as opposed to isolated presentations supports an immediate engagement in, and in-depth discussion of ideas relevant to the lesson.


Folk media may refer to folk theatre, puppet shows, folk dances, ballads and mime. Amongst the Black peoples in South Africa oral tradition is the dominant mode of transmission. Stories, legends etc. reflect in various ways, African philosophical thought.

The advantages of the use of folk media are many. It is part and parcel of the rural environment and is a credible source of information.

We educationists therefore have to face a very stimulating challenge to increase our awareness of classroom dynamics and examine our own assumptions about our course content and ourselves. Our collective ability to respond to and be enriched by these challenges will determine the success of our institutions in the next century.


Bonanni, I & Chetty, K et al. (1999): The Teaching of English as a Multicultural Language. Department of Communication, M L Sultan Technikon, Durban.

Lightfoot, S.L. (1983): The Lives of Teachers. In Shulman, L. and Sykes, G.(Eds.), Handbook of Teaching and Policy (pp241-260). New York: Longman.

Semesh, A. & Urassa. April 1991. Educating Female Scientists in Tanzania. In Brock-Utne B & Katunzi N (Eds.), Women and Education in Tanzania. Twelve papers from a seminar. Wed - Report 3 (124 - 135).

Richards, J. & Lockhart, C. (1992): Teacher Development through Peer Observation. TESOL Journal, 1, (7-11).




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