ESL teachers are quite familiar with culture shock, but we need to pass our awareness on to classroom teachers.
Shock is the body’s complex physical reactions to changes in the environment. Culture shock can take many forms and seemingly opposite forms: Anxiety, sleeplessness, sleepiness, loss of appetite, over-eating, loss of self-esteem, fearfulness…
New students are more than likely going through many aspects of culture shock.
…so much has to go on while the brain is remapping expectations, manners, social position, school rules, family disruptions, economic changes, the maps of where to find things; finding a job or learning one’s schedule, climate differences, the pace of life, and the mountainous task of learning to function with new words, new system of grammar, new coins and bills and their values, new foods and ways to shop, new clothing sizes, new rules of the road when driving or walking, and a myriad new things to think about.
There may be euphoria at first from having arrived in the country of their dreams…followed by depression or anxiety that can go on for many months or years. Disappointments, family economics not improved, prejudice, discrimination.
People need more sleep during the culture shock period. Some children may resent having to learn a new language and go into language resistance. Others are eager to learn, but dread making mistakes, so go into a silent period that may last many months. Anxiety at many challenges that school brings, especially in the unsheltered classrooms, lunch time, playground time, passing through the halls. It doesn’t take much to trigger upset with some children…thoughtless laughter at their attempts at English, insults, or the day long, day-after-day lack of comprehension of what is going on around them.
I have seen children pull hair out until they had bald spots; children with daily stomach aches, throwing up or losing bowel control; children behaving in ways that seem indicative of mental illness or delinquency…
Our job as ESL teachers includes therapeutic actions as well as language teaching: A sheltered ESL classroom for beginners works wonders…lessons easy enough for success works wonders, with the gradual building in of challenges…engineering friendships works wonders…training classroom teachers in the social integration of the newcomers, and techniques for more hands-on and visual presentations of lessons help. Buddies help. Monitors to help during lunch time and outdoor play help.
In addition, some attention to the English speaking school body as well as teachers can help…explain culture shock, good manners in greeting and avoiding laughing…and especially avoid the annoying “Speak English!” that a few teachers and principals thoughtlessly call out to children speaking in their native language on the playground or in the hall…they would if they could….and they can’t if they don’t have enough English to speak. It doesn’t help to create that additional anxiety, and shuts children down…self-expression is a right, protected by the Constitution. Admonitions to “speak English” are fine when in a classroom where the teacher is sure the student has the capacity to express him or herself in English, and the listener has the capacity to understand the English.
While it may be easy to assign a bilingual buddy for a Hispanic child when there are many Spanish speakers in the building, keep some things in mind: same gender will work better than matching male and female as buddies…the buddy with just a year or two’s experience in school may still be struggling with English, and shouldn’t be required to miss any lessons or be translating during classes. Have a committee of buddies.
For new children who don’t have a language-mate in the classroom, check your school census of other-language-in-the-home students to locate a child who has the same native language and arrange for the new child to speak with that child to get questions answered for a few minutes a day.
For children for whom there is no same-language buddy, the sense of isolation is intense. In addition to English-speaking buddies, find a volunteer in the community who can come in to answer the child’s questions and explain what is going on.
Elizabeth Claire has been teaching English language learners for 44 years. Yipes! She has a BA in Spanish from the City College of NY and an MA in TESOL from New York University. She’s been a bilingual teacher, a reading teacher, and a mainstream English teacher, and has taught every grade level of ESL from pre-school to senior citizen in every venue from broom closet to summer camp to private homes, to oh, yes, real classrooms in New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey. She is the author of many texts and teacher resource books and publishes Easy English News, a monthly newspaper for adult and young adult immigrants and visitors to the United States.