Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Teaching English as a foreign language: A Way to Help Eliminate Stereotypes

The Stereotyped American in English Language Learning

What do your EFL learners think off when they hear the term “American”.
Unless you’re an American, in all probability many images that will come to mind will not be positive ones. Other images, like the recent election of Barack Obama as America’s first Black President will be the opposite.
During an introductory class in American History, an American instructor wanted to illustrate what stereotypes are and the prejudices that Swedes and other nationalities have about the United States. So first, her Swedish students were asked to, during one minute, write down what they though about when they heard “The U.S”. A lot of people thought of fast food, Bush, Starbucks, CSI, FBI, NRA, fat people, and according to their teacher, Swedes also think Americans have ugly hairstyles. This according to a blog post “The Stereotyped American” by The Norrlander on her blog.

What is a Stereotype?

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines stereotype as, “a fixed or conventional notion or conception, as of a person, group, idea, etc. Held by a number of people and allowing for no individuality; critical judgement of people”. In other words, it’s when you pre-judge people based solely on their nationality, race, religion, language, sex or other extraneous factors.

Concerning American stereotypes, it cuts both ways. Americans have stereotypes of many different language and ethnic or religious groups. Can you imagine the American stereotypes of Muslims, Arabs, Africans, Mexicans and Latin Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, East Indians, Eastern Europeans and the Chinese? Trust me, you don't want to know.

Not all Americans are bound by stereotypes, of course. But far too many are and it's distasteful either way. The phrase "Ugly American" is based in part on real behavior and real actions of real Americans. These “stereotypes” simply do not represent all of us. Do your learners watch “The Simpsons”, “Weed” or even “CSI”? Not just television, but Hollywood and its movies play a dramatic role in fostering some highly unwelcomed stereotypes among English as a foreign language learners. What stereotypes are fostered by these and numerous other television programs broadcast worldwide?

“We see all kinds of “crazy” things from America on TV here (in Sweden), so that is obviously an important factor of how we see Americans. Also, we don’t really like Bush here, and I think his politics also have made us distrust America”, comments The Norrlander.

In an added comment on stereotyped Americans Joyce said, “Do you think the Swedes have a bad impression of Americans? I guess I would blame the media for that. I bet some countries think that we all ride horses, have gun battles in the streets and fight Indians.” While Americans, of course, no longer all ride horses, there are, unfortunately, still “gun battles in the streets” if you believe American television.

Ask Your English as a Foreign Language Learners

Try this out on your English as a foreign language learners. Ask them what thoughts and images come to mind when they hear the term “Americans” or “The USA”. Perhaps you’ll be more than a bit surprised at their responses. Then, if YOU are an American or at least have an intimately detailed knowledge of the United States, it’s history and culture, your work will be cut out for you. You are then charged with the responsibility of altering perceived stereotypes with factual input and information. As the Norrlander comments again, “It’s quite intersting actually to think about how you view other people.”

After all I say, a great part of foreign language learning is the culture, isn’t it? So get to it then, and be sure to have some fun with it too.

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an EFL Teacher Trainer, Intellectual Development Specialist, author and speaker. He has written ESP, foreign language learning, English language teaching texts and hundreds of articles used in more than 125 countries worldwide. Get your FREE, pdf format report on CD or via e-mail, "Creative, Dynamic Ways to Motivate and Teach English as a Foreign Language to Diverse Groups of Reluctant Learners" by requesting the title at: lynchlarrym@gmail.com

No comments: