Cultural sensitivity in the Classroom ESSAY ORGAN?ZAT?ON: In this essay I


In this essay I want to discuss cultural sensitiivty in the classroom. In order to speak intelligently about the topic we first need to to know what we are talking about. Let us begin by defining our terms, beginning with culture. After doing that we can then apply these terms to classroom experience.


Anthropologists most commonly use the term 'culture' to refer tot he universal human capacity to classify, codify and communicate their experiences symbolically. This capacity is long been taken as a defining feature of the genus Homo. However, primatologists such as Jane Goodall have identified aspects of culture among our closest relatives 'n the animal k'ngdom.

In order to resolve this we can say that symbolic experiences while not exclusive to humankind, has been most systemically developed by our species. An amended definition of culture is that culture is systemic development of symbolic primate tendencies. Areas of development are given by another definition,

Culture has been called 'the way of life for an entire society.' As such it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behaviour and systems of belief.

Having defined culture in general ' elaboration of primate symbolic tendencies ' and in particular ' area of cultual expression, let us now consider the question of cultural sensitivity


We have some ida of culture. What, however, is sensitivity' This term refers to 'having some sense' of something, usually in reference to something outside or other to oneself. Cultural sensitivity refers to having some sense or awareness of a culture other to one's own. This point has ramifications (implications) for English language teaching (or any teaching of langauge to those not native to it). Firstly, an ESL instructor/instructress needs to bear in mind that his/her students are bringing not only their bodies into the classroom but their culture. A culture, as suggested by the above, is a symbolic construction. We may also add that it is a way of interpreting the 'data' of experience. So that students will interpret the language they are learning in terms of their own cultural categories. That can have negative and positive consequences, depending upon the level of the teacher's cultural sensitivity and the ability to play with those differences..

NEGATIVE ASPECTS OF CULTURAL SENSITIVITY For a teacher with low cultural sensitivity and awareness, cultural differences will not matter much if at all. As result the teacher will unconsciously expect that the students think as he or she does. He or she would not be aware of how his or her students are interpreting the categories of experience in a different way. Not having this awareness, he or she would not even recognize that problems might arise, much less that he or she could solve those problems by referring to the school's own culture.


A friend of mine who has taught in South Korea told me this story. He was teaching middle school students (13 yr. olds) the difference between regular (e.g. cats) and irregular plural nouns (e.g. men). How was he to explain the idea of irregularity' He looked at the class and noticed, every class having one, the class 'clown,' a non- too bright noisy boy. What was he called by his classmates on account of his obstreperous behaviour' Crazy. My friend pointed to this student and said 'Crazy boy ' Irregular.' The other students (and possibly even the 'irregular student') all understood the English grammatical point by my friend's skilful use of non-English local culture.


A resourceful and imaginative teacher can always find ways to take advantage of a local culture in order to make the desired linguistic point. In that way the imaginative teacher shows how culture is a two-way street pointing back to self and other as members of an evolving human race, since all cultures manifest how human beings have systemically developed primate symbolic tendencies.

1. See Wilipedia 2. Ibid.