Bridging the Cultural Gap in Lecture Classes

Svetla E. Slaveva-Griffin (Florida State University)

For a non-native speaker of English teaching in an American university, large lecture classes are often more difficult than small seminars. The lack of immediate feedback regarding one’s accent or presentation can raise a cultural and linguistic barrier on top of the granted power imbalance between a professor and her students. In this paper, I discuss how I use my foreign ‘disadvantage’ as a tool to forge an informal and inquisitive rapport with my students in the lecture hall.

My basic aim is to disarm the students’ potential hostility on the very first day of classes, using both directness and humor. Before I introduce the syllabus, I provide the students with a brief narrative of my geographical, cultural, and educational journey as a Bulgarian in the States. I preempt their reactions to my accent by joking about it and by insisting that they feel comfortable to stop me any time it crosses over from the exotic into the incomprehensible. I openly admit to them that I often have trouble understanding their own accents, and that I will often need them to repeat their questions or comments.

Over time, my teaching career has provided me with instances of amusing misunderstandings in language. I have learned not only to admit to these but even to benefit from them: I now use them as ice-breaking anecdotes. In this I have been helped by the unexpected similarities that I have found between my current students and the high school students whom I previously taught in my home country. As I have grown into my present institution, I have successfully turned my foreignness from a potential drawback into an attractive trademark of my teaching style.

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