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ESL students and culture/school shock

The article reproduced below is sent to parents of students joining the ESL programme at Frankfurt International School.


Most people moving to a different country experience feelings that can range from excitement and interest to depression, frustration and irritation or even anger and aggression. The stress that is caused by these emotions has come to be known as culture shock. For ESL students matters are more complicated because they are exposed to two unfamiliar and different cultures at the same time: the culture of Germany, their new country, and the culture of FIS, their new school. In this article I want to concentrate on culture shock in school. I will examine some of its causes and effects, and suggest ways that parents can help their child deal with it.

The causes of school shock - Educational differences

Culture shock is the shock of the new and unfamiliar, and for ESL students almost everything about FIS can be new and unfamiliar. The student may have come from a country where the goal of education is to teach an agreed body of knowledge and students are expected to acquire a large number of facts by rote. They will therefore be unused to learning by discovery and the amount of analysis or critical thinking that is required at FIS. They may treat enjoyable class activities with suspicion, in the belief that one cannot have fun and learn at the same time. They may feel threatened by the degree of participation expected of them in class, preferring to remain silent for fear of “showing off” or, more likely, of losing face by giving the wrong answer. They may also perceive a wrong answer as causing the teacher to lose face, and they may be reluctant to ask questions for the same reason. Being praised in front of others causes some students embarrassment; others feel uncomfortable when asked to share opinions and beliefs, which they regard as private. Some ESL students may be unused to being taught by teachers of the opposite sex, or they may have come from schools where the expectations and treatment of boys and girls are different.

If students have arrived from an educational system where teachers are stern and aloof, they may find it difficult to come to terms with the open and friendly relations between teachers and students at FIS, and with the often productively noisy atmosphere in the classroom. Some school systems are based on the notion that the way to promote academic success is by fostering competition among individual students. At FIS however teachers throughout the school foster co-operation among students, encouraging them to work together to achieve the learning goals. In many classes here students and teachers jointly decide on these learning goals and how they are to be assessed. Some ESL students do not feel comfortable at being involved in what they consider to be the teacher's job.

All of the FIS practices described above may cause ESL students some stress, but probably the most important cause of culture shock for new students is the language of the school. Everything they hear and read, everything they must write and say, is in English. For all ESL students, but particularly of course for beginning learners, this can make every day at school a very tiring and frustrating experience. It certainly is exhausting to try and concentrate for six and a half hours at a time learning difficult content in a new language. It is frustrating to sit in class understanding only a small part of what is going on, and it is probably even more frustrating when you have something to contribute but are unable to do so in English. Many students who did very well in their own school system temporarily lose their voice when they join FIS; their natural personality becomes submerged and they may even feel themselves to be worthless or stupid.

The causes of school shock - Social differences

As well as educational differences, ESL students coming to FIS experience many social differences that may cause stress. The largest proportion of the FIS population consists of students from the USA; and American culture pervades all parts of the globe. It is not surprising therefore that the dominant social culture of the school is American. Many important social events in the school calendar are American imports, such as the sports banquets, graduation ceremonies and the Christmas prom. American food, clothing, sports, pop music and movies have a high status among students and the "cool" kids are often American or those who espouse American culture.

ESL students respond to this situation in different ways. Some may simply feel resentful that their own culture does not seem to have such a high value. For others, particularly for those from non-western cultures, matters may be a little more complicated. On the one hand, they may feel attracted by many features of American culture. (These features also include interpersonal aspects such as the equal and uncomplicated relations between the sexes, and the greater freedom and independence granted by parents to their children, as manifested for example in later curfew times or the sleep-over party.) On the other hand, they realise that their parents (and even more so their grandparents back home) may be hurt by any overt rejection of their own culture and customs. Students who are torn between two cultures may be troubled by fears of losing their identity.

The effects of school shock

Just as there are many potential causes of culture shock, so there can be as many different kinds of reaction to it. Among the more common physical reactions are tiredness, sleeplessness or oversleeping, headaches and stomach aches and susceptibility to illness. The emotional effects can include anxiety, irritability, aggressiveness or depression. Behavioural effects can include a refusal to speak the mother tongue with the parents, especially in front of non-native friends. Some students reject native cuisine and will not wear traditional native clothes. Others may openly rebel against the traditional role expected of the child in native family life. When school shock is combined with the typical manifestations of adolescence, the time can be a very uncomfortable one for parents and child alike.

How to help students overcome school shock

Not all ESL students suffer from school shock as described above. Many feel comfortable at FIS from the first day and really enjoy their stay with us. And most of those do have initial problems quickly adjust to their new school and enjoy the educational and social opportunities available to them. Probably the best way to help in this adjustment is to make it clear to your child that you understand the pressures she is under. If you share your own experiences in coming to terms with German culture, it will help her to realise that what she is feeling is a natural reaction to the huge change that has taken place in her life. It also helps if your child has a some way of switching off from the pressures of academic work; for example you could encourage her to take part in an after-school sporting, musical or artistic activity. This will also give her the chance to make new friends, which is the key to feeling happy and settled. However, if your child seems to be taking an unusually long time to adjust to the culture of the school and is continuing to exhibit physical, emotional or behavioural problems at home, it is suggested that you contact the ESL teacher or counsellor. Together you can discuss ways in which to help her to come through this difficult period.

The chance to live and study in a new culture is a privilege which is not given to everyone. Although your child maybe suffering a little now, she is almost certain to look back on her time at FIS as one of the most important and enriching experiences of her life.


For further information on culture shock and language learning, see chapter 7 of Principles of Language Learning and Teaching by H. D. Brown (1994) New Jersey Prentice Hall

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