Does language learning make us racist?

Language and culture are often lumped together, spoken of in the same breath, as if they were one in the same. Language teachers revel in the cultures of the languages they teach. But does learning another language really make you any less racist? Some researchers caution that if we rely on cultural stereotypes, we may be adding to our students’ myopic view of the world and that we’re not really doing them any favours.

Researchers Byram and Feng (2004) say that language teachers need to get out there and connect with those who work in the field of cross-cultural training in the business world.  They argue that language and culture are value-laden and socially and politically constructed, and that language teachers often rely heavily on stereotypes to teach culture.

Starkey (2007) agrees with that point, only he takes it a step further by saying that language teachers may unintentionally promote stereotypes or narrow views of other cultures by talking only about “food, fashion, festivals and folklore” as representations of culture. He even goes so far as to say that language teachers can become so enamoured with the positive aspects of the target culture (particularly if they have lived or studied in that culture) that they develop a kind of cultural idealism, to the extent that they dismiss their students’ latent prejudices.

That article struck a chord with me. As a Spanish teacher who has lived in Spain and worked for short periods in Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela and Cuba, I can honestly admit that I am somewhat enamored with the people and cultures of the places I have personally visited. In my classes, I have tended to focus on the “positive” aspects of these places and I have been known to avoid or gloss over questions around poverty, drug cartels, the Basque separatist group ETA, or lack of clean water and electricity in some of the areas I have been.

Rarely do I tell students about the time I was working alongside a Cuban professor and when coffee was served, I asked if he drank his coffee with milk. He replied that he loved milk, but that he saved his weekly ration for his two year old daughter because he felt she needed it more than he did.

Nor do I tell them about being in Honduras a year after Hurricane Mitch and seeing shelters made of twigs where houses had been instantly destroyed. The makeshift shelters were hardly enough to protect anyone from the elements.

Nor do I tell them about the homeless man at the bottom of the stairs in a Madrid metro station who started to smell after three days because while passers-by thought he was drunk or asleep, he had in fact died, with thousands of people (including me, I am ashamed to say) passing him by. None of us knew… and personally, it had never occurred to me as a young, naive 20-something student from abroad, that someone could actually die in a subway station. Such a thing was so far out of my personal experience at that point in my life, that the shock of the nameless Spaniard’s death is something I’ll never forget.

I don’t share those stories with my students. Not ever.

I try to present the happy side of culture in my classes. I only start to “dig deep” or share stories that could be shocking or distressing when I am working one-on-one with students or in small groups with students whom I think can “handle” the other side of the reality I have lived and seen.

As I read these articles, I can’t help but ask myself if I have done the right thing all these years? Who am I to judge what my students can and cannot “handle”? Should I have pushed “the dark side” a little more, I wonder? Have I glossed over some of the more complex realities of real world culture in order to encourage my students to become as enamored with language learning as I am?

Starkey paired up with another scholar, Audrey Osler and together they wrote an article about how representations of culture in language learning textbooks has an effect on students’ understanding of that culture. While positive representations of culture can often be found in textbooks, culture goes beyond photos depicting national dress or typical food.

Researchers who specialize in the area of intercultural education and competence are calling on us language teachers to engage our students in deep conversations about identity, cultural integration, race and social values. They are also calling on us to engage with teachers of global citizenship and cross-cultural trainers who work in the business world, to help our students develop deeper understandings of culture and the idea that a person can have multiple cultural identities.

I grew up in a bi-cultural family, with a Canadian father and a British mother. I have lived in Canada, England and Spain. I’ve studied Spanish, French, German and American Sign Language. I sometimes rely on my national Canadian identity, which is firmly grounded in multiculturalism, to explain my own sense of multiple cultural identities. I think I do this sometimes just because it is easier than trying to “drill deep” into questions of identity. I am starting to realize that having parents from different cultures may very well have influenced my own cultural identity and fascination with the world outside the small city of 65,000 where I was born.

What about you? What elements have constructed your sense of culture and identity? If you’re a language teacher, are you enamored with language(s) you teach and the cultures you have experienced? Is it important to you that your students develop the same love of language that you have?

How do we “dig deep” into culture in a beginner-level language courses and engage our students in critical and reflective dialogue to help them develop true intercultural sensitivity and competence?


Byram, M., & Feng, A. (2004). Culture and Language Learning: Teaching, Research and Scholarship. Language Teaching, 37, 149-168.

Osler, A., & Starkey, H. (2000). Intercultural Education and Foreign Language Learning: Issues of racism, identity and modernity. Race Ethnicity and Education, 3(2), 207-221.

Starkey, H. (2007). Language Education, Identities and Citizenship: Developing Cosmopolitan Perspectives. Language and Intercultural Communication, 7(1), 56-71.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

14 Responses to Does language learning make us racist?

  1. Laura says:

    I wonder if I dwell TOO much on the negative. I know controversy grabs them, so I have BEEN developing lessons on censorship, drug trafficking, racism, poverty, inner-city violence, and I never hold back about the inequality I saw teaching at a private school in Mexico, though I am not sure my students need to hear my theory on how many of my former students’ families were likely to have drug ties. I feel in some ways I reinforce the stereotypes or give new ammunition for prejudices.

    • It’s tricky to strike a balance between sugar-coating reality and focussing too obsessively on its darker side. Your comment shows a deep sense of self-awareness as a professional and an implicit understanding of the value of self-reflection in professional practice. You’ve demonstrated an important process: critically examining what we do, asking ourselves why we do it and pondering the outcome we’d like to see from our efforts. Superb food for thought.

  2. Gareth Evans says:

    That is a rhetorical question.

  3. Gareth Evans says:

    I do not think that language learning or language teaching or the use of language makes us racist but I do think that any use of language requires that we adopt a perspective and that perspective may not be adopted consciously. Today on Q, Ice T used the phrase “‘hood cred” and in context it would seem that only those in the “in group” would understand. That is not racist, only methodological.
    “Neighbourhood” is not a Basic word. The Basic Dictionary defines “neighbour” as “person living near”. But the concept of “neighbourhood” as used by Ice T has a geographical spatial component and an emotional component And it was in the separation of emotional and empirical content that The Meaning of Meaning was written 80 years ago and Basic developed by Ogden.Why are we still trying to reinvent the wheel?

  4. Dan Danforth says:

    I have heard from many people teaching and working with ESL (EAL) learners who also echo the ‘sheer volume of material’. Sometimes we are so busy doing that we don’t have time to reflect on our doing. (The draining the swamp metaphor is probably accurate) But the true issue is that we are attempting to acculturate people and rebuild them from the ground up. It is my belief that second language learners have a distinctly different personality from their first language personality (discourse theory). Imagine the task of a forensic analysis for the whole person. Then rebuilding each section piece by piece to reflect the desired behavior. I originally took acting training and my job was to be able to answer all of the questions that could be asked about my character – even if they were not related to my role in the play. So I could “become” the character to the core of my being.
    I believe that we do need to dig deeply into the complex questions and ask the tough and unpopular ones.

  5. Dan Danforth says:

    Unfortunately, I am as old as dirt and have been teaching my communications model for so long that I do it by memory. In the beginning, I had handouts and “overheads” but found them cumbersome – now I just use a whiteboard. I should note that I was on the board of a Human rights group for 10 years and found racism discussions laden with misinformation and, frequently, miscommunication. And, as Patrick noted, cultural differences. I would also add social strata differences.

    • Dan, I also started teaching with an overhead and handouts. The only reason I didn’t use the blackboard is because I am 5’1″ tall and could only ever maximize the bottom 2/3 of the board. Otherwise, I would have use the board, I’m sure! I agree with you that social strata differences play a role in culture. It is such a multi-faceted topic, complex, deep and challenging. I think sometimes in language classes we dumb things down a bit at times. I have taught with a fairly rigid curriculum before and the sheer volume of material we have to cover is mind-boggling. I’d like to see us “slow down to speed up” and dig deeper into some of the complex questions.

  6. Patrick says:

    I’m used to teaching Japanese or English to Japanese. I use the understanding of high context and low context language to deepen the understanding of cultural differences. This approach truly facilitates communication skills.

  7. Dan Danforth says:

    I recently was presenting to a group of teaching professionals from China on communications and used racism as an example of negative filters for communication in speakers of English. I then felt I had to tell them that such filters occur in any language including Chinese. You article basically spoke about the reality of racism in every culture and that we do no one a service by hiding behind rose colored glasses.

  8. k. liz says:

    Interesting post. This made me think. I am teaching my native language, and as an American, I find myself often downplaying or correcting the views of my students in class. I don’t want to come across as ethnocentric, and so often try to downplay my culture and build up the culture I am living in, to prove to my students that there are positives and negatives in both. I hadn’t ever thought through your proposition though. Thanks for the ideas!

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