Mainstream Peers Try on English Language Learners' Shoes: A Shock Language Experience

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  • 12 TESOL Journal

    Ma i n s t ream Peers Try on En g l i s hLanguage Learn e r s Shoes: AShock Language Ex p e ri e n c eRyuko Kubota, Kirsten Gardner, Mary Patten, Cynthia Thatcher-Fettig, and Michiko Yoshida

    A FOURTH-GRADE STUDENT w h orecently arrived from China is playing on theplayground during recess. Two boys, who arefrom the United States, start to push himaround and take the ball he is playing with.The Chinese student, unable to communicatehis feelings and needs in English to the twoboys, pushes them back. Within a few sec-onds, a fight starts. As it turns out, theChinese student has been picked on by theseboys since his first day at this U.S. elementaryschool. From the perspective of his two class-mates, his face looks different, he behavessomewhat differently, he does not speak aword of English, and he speaks a weird lan-guage. Because of these perceived differ-ences, he becomes a target of ridicule insteadof a new friend who can open his classmateseyes to a new culture in the world.

    This episode probably sounds quite famil-iar to school teachers who work with Englishlanguage learners (ELLs).1 In fact, this inci-dent happened recently in our school district,which enrolls a fairly large number of stu-dents from culturally and linguisticallydiverse backgrounds. To serve the needs ofevery child at school and to prevent futureincidents like this, the faculty and staff mustwork together as a team. In consideration ofthe needs of the ELLs in our school, how-ever, this team perspective leaves out a prin-cipal group: the mainstream peers.2 Yetmainstream peers can have more effect onELLs than any teacher. Who influences usmore than our own peer group? Encouragingus, chiding us, pressuring us, monitoring us,our peers play a major role in sculpting whowe are and how we see ourselves. With thisin mind, we broadened our team to includethe mainstream peers and communicated the

    needs of our ELLs to them by creating a con-text for developing empathy. To effectivelyunderstand another persons perspective,however, one must try on anothers shoes.

    This article presents a shock languageactivity that wea university researcher,three elementary school ESOL teachers, anda Japanese language specialistcollabora-tively conducted in our school district. Theactivity aims to raise mainstream peersawareness of the linguistic, cultural, and aca-demic challenges that ELLs experience andto promote peer collaboration with ELLs.Although the particular activity discussedhere was conducted in an elementary school,the method can be adapted for other settings.This article presents rationales for this activ-ity as well as the procedures, participantresponses, and concluding thoughts.

    Rationale for ShockLanguage Activity

    What is shock language? Shock languageprovides participants with a firsthand simu-lated experience of being in a classroomwhere the language of instruction is not com-prehensible. It is often used for second lan-guage teacher training in which teachers learnissues of language acquisition, anxiety, andeffective teaching from the learners perspec-tive. Shock language can also target audiencesother than teachers. The activity presentedhere is geared to mainstream students who areELLs peers. In the activity, a mainstreamclass is transformed into a classroom in a for-eign country. Students returning from an out-side class are first greeted by immigrationofficers and then engaged in a short academiclesson given in a language that is not familiarto most of them, with the exception of several

    speakers of that language in the class and anywho have been recruited from other classesfor the activity. A discussion session followsthis lesson to allow students to reflect on theexperience and to understand the importanceof collaborating with ELLs.

    There are several rationales for this activ-ity. First, as mentioned above, shock lan-guage raises the awareness of themainstream students with whom ELLs havea large amount of immediate, daily schoolcontact. Whereas school teachers and staffoften have professional development oppor-tunities to learn how to best serve ELLs,rarely do mainstream peers have direct learn-ing experiences that enable them to under-stand various challenges that ELLs face andto collaborate with them. Shock language isone way to provide such an educationalexperience to mainstream peers.

    Second, cross-cultural experiences con-tribute to the creation of a socially and cul-turally positive classroom environment,facilitating the linguistic, cognitive, and aca-demic success of all students. According toThomas and Collier (1997), there are fourcomponents that influence language acquisi-tion in a school setting:

    1. sociocultural processes2. language development3. academic development4. cognitive development

    Although all four components are interrelated,at the center are the sociocultural processesthat strongly influence the other three compo-nents. Sociocultural processes include affec-tive factors, such as anxiety and self-esteem,as well as social interaction, which is often influenced by prejudice and discrimination.

  • Winter 2000 13

    A positive sociocultural environment, creatednot only by teachers but also by students inthe classroom, helps all students succeed inschool. Central to the positive socioculturalenvironment are supportive and caring inter-personal relationships. Research on collabora-tive learning suggests that interpersonalrelationships, as well as achievement and pro-ductivity, are enhanced through collaborativelearning, and that such interpersonal relation-ships influence students achievement efforts,self-esteem, and efficacy in a reciprocal man-ner (see Johnson & Johnson, 1994). In light ofthe view that human relationships are at theheart of schooling (Cummins, 1996, p. 1), itis necessary for all students to develop posi-tive relationships with each other.

    Students should certainly learn toappreciate ethnic artifacts that are dif-ferent from their own, but they shouldalso learn to interact and collaboratewith culturally and linguistically dif-ferent peers and to affirm cultural andlinguistic differences.

    The effect of positive sociocultural envi-ronments on the academic development ofall students has been demonstrated in two-way bilingual education. Shock language cancreate an environment quite similar to thistype of education. Two-way bilingual or duallanguage programs, in which both languageminority and majority students learn schoolsubjects together in the minority and major-ity languages, aims not only to develop bilin-gualism and biliteracy but also to fosterpositive cross-cultural attitudes, behaviors,and competence (cf. Baker, 1996; Dolson &Meyer, 1992). In a Spanish-English dual lan-guage program, for instance, Spanish-speak-ing students can help English-speakingstudents when the language of instruction isSpanish and vice versa, stimulating coopera-tion and friendship. Research has indeedconfirmed the development of students cross-cultural communication skills, ability to workin diverse groupings, and sensitivity to dis-crimination (Freeman, 1995). Also, Lambertand Cazabon (1994) reported students prefer-ence for having friends and classroom experi-ences across ethnic/racial boundaries.3 S h o c klanguage provides mainstream peers andELLs with a simulated experience of thiseffective dual language education.

    Third, a shock language activity addressesan important aspect of multicultural educa-tion for social justice. Among variousapproaches to multicultural education, theliberal, and yet superficial, one that is com-monly practiced in schools has received criti-cism. Critics argue that schools often focusonly on celebrating foods, fairs, festivals,

    and the like as neutral, apolitical culturalartifacts, failing to address more fundamentalissues such as attitudes and feelings relatedto race, gender, class, language, and culture(cf. Nieto, 1995). This implies that appreciat-ing cultural artifacts per se does not neces-sarily reduce negative attitudes andprejudices toward people with differentracial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic back-grounds. Also, this superficial approachemphasizes the appreciation or mastery of acultural product, represented by static andgeneralized features, rather than focusing onthe process of becoming multicultural (Ford,1999; Nieto, 2000). Contrary to such anapproach, critical multicultural educationenvisions democracy, equality, and socialjustice, transforming not only individualawareness but also collective and institu-tional practices (Nieto, 1999). Studentsshould certainly learn to appreciate ethnicartifacts that are different from their own, butthey should also learn to interact and collab-orate with culturally and linguistically differ-ent peers and to affirm cultural and linguisticdifferences. Shock language is a vehicle todevelop such skills and attitudes that gobeyond appreciation of cultural artifacts.

    Fourth, related to critical multicultural-ism, shock language promotes mutual ratherthan one-way accommodation, which isessential in our increasingly diverse commu-nity (Nieto, 1995, 1999, 2000). In school andsociety, it is often the marginalized who areforced to adapt to the dominant norm.However, in a truly democratic society,accommodation is a two-way process. Shocklanguage creates an opportunity for the dom-inant group to learn mutual accommodationby experiencing minority perspectives cre-ated in a vicarious experience of cultural andlinguistic marginalization (cf. Sleeter, 1995).The ability to accommodate and collaborateacross racial, ethnic, and linguistic bound-aries is indeed essential for the increasinglydiverse society and workplace in the newmillennium, in which cross-cultural andcross-linguistic contact will be the norm(Cummins & Cameron, 1994). Schools areresponsible for preparing global citizens forthe new century. Sh