TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

Linguistic and Cultural Origins

By Shaeley Santiago

One of the highlights of #TESOL16 for me was Dr. Andy Curtis’ presidential keynote, “Reflecting Forward, Reflecting Back.”

While Dr. Curtis made many points during his speech, the one that struck me the most was the explanation he put on his British census form about his own linguistic and cultural origins, “First generation, post-colonial, Anglo-Indo-Afro-Caribbean-Pacific offspring.”

Talk about an alternative to the “Other” box under the category of “Race”!  What caught my attention about this lengthy description is that it shows the complexity of the background of Dr. Curtis and how he and his family were influenced by political, economic, and geographical factors over several generations.

As a teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs), it is not unusual for me to encounter students with varied backgrounds. Finding out more about my students in terms of their linguistic and cultural heritage is essential in building a relationship with them. However, Dr. Curtis’ keynote reminded me that students’ lives are often impacted by political, economic, and geographical circumstances that provide a larger context for why they are learning English. I must be sensitive to my students and not assign labels or make assumptions about their backgrounds based on my own limited understanding. After all, I’m not the one who gets to decide how they define where they are from! Unlike the British census worker who marked Dr. Curtis’ form “no” and sent it back, I need to welcome all of my students and encourage them to share about themselves on their own terms.


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