Bridging the Great Divide

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I have been teaching in an EAP program for the last six years. The goal of our program is to prepare international students for the experience of studying in a post-secondary program alongside their domestic peers. Understandably, competence in their use of English is paramount. However, I am constantly struck by the fact that domestic students and international students, regardless of their ability to speak English well, remain largely separate on campus, both in and out of classes.

My students often comment that they don’t know how to make friends with Canadian students, and they are worried about the quality of their English and how they will be received. In an effort to bridge this ‘great divide’, I recently had the opportunity for my students to participate in a communicative activity that, for a change, did not involve their own classmates. Working alongside a wonderful colleague and professor in another discipline*, I was able to offer my class of twenty students a chance to meet and converse with the very Canadians they had been worried about meeting (and intimidated by) for a long time.

First fear, then anticipation

When I first introduced the idea to my class, reactions ranged from fear to excitement. I assured them that the Canadian students were not only interested in meeting with them, but that they too had fears and concerns about how to communicate, and what kind of topics would be appropriate. Both my colleague and I prepared our respective groups by providing some background information about the students they would be talking with. We attempted to create a supportive and low pressure informal conversational setting. My class brainstormed a list of questions they could ask their Canadian peers, in case they felt lost or anxious.

The moment of truth

Finally, the big day arrived. The EAP students and Social Work students were split into small groups and given a ninety minute period to develop a conversation. I must admit I was worried, and at first hovered close to the shy ones like a mother hen. After a short settling in period, I noticed that my students loosened up – most of them abandoning their question sheets and launching into genuine communication, compete with hesitations, gaffs and misunderstandings. It was a raging success!

We all have some things in common

Feedback after the conversation class was universally positive. Many students commented that making this brief connection with the domestic students alleviated their anxiety about going into a post secondary program alongside them. They were surprised to learn that the Canadian students were just as nervous about meeting them as they were, and that many were worried about asking insensitive questions or saying the wrong thing. For their part, the domestic students were kind and welcoming, and showed a genuine interest in learning about the experiences of their international peers in our college. It was a real eye opener for all concerned.

Building communication bridges

Helping international students make in-roads toward forming friendships with domestic students is an initiative that can reap great rewards for all those involved. Too often we tolerate a separation of cultures with a kind of benign indifference, which leads to a continuation of the status quo. I believe it is important to remember that everyone needs help breaking the ice sometimes. We all have our insecurities. Enabling international students to form friendships or even acquaintances with domestic students enriches language learning for international students and cultural learning for everyone.

How do you encourage or enable your students to make connections beyond the classroom? Please share your ideas!

*Many thanks to Professor Theresa Anzovino of Niagara College for enabling my EAP students to participate in this memorable activity.










11 thoughts on “Bridging the Great Divide”

  1. It’s not only an academic divide, it’s as much a social and cultural one. My wife is a good example. She never attended school in Canada (she already had an advanced degree), but she has noticed the same separation in her workplace and social interactions. Even though she has been in Canada for 22 years and has outstanding English skills (assessed at CLB Benchmark 11), she still doesn’t feel entirely on the same footing with native Canadians.

    The reasons are largely not language-based, and are as much in the minds of non-natives as they are in “ordinary” Canadians. My wife believes Canadians do not entirely understand her values, and she is self-conscious about not having the same cultural context, for example, a shared love of the same sports or pop culture references from her youth.

    I do agree that people of all ages and cultures need to remember that differences don’t have to be a qualitative distinction, and in fact can be an opportunity that opens and facilitates conversations rather than prevents or inhibits them.

    However, I believe we can’t ignore the separation that occurs between immigrants and native Canadians, and we need to be sensitive to and take steps to transcend it.

    1. Thanks for your comments and insights Bill. I absolutely agree that we can’t ignore the separation between immigrants and native Canadians. The self consciousness you describe is common, and I noticed it during the class activity that I wrote about. Encouraging students to take small risks like this in a supportive environment is just one small step.

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly Bill Pierce.

    Nadeen, thank you for writing about this topic. In my experience, it is rarely discussed, and as teachers and Canadians, we could try to be more proactive.

    “Be the change”, as they say.

    1. Thanks for your comment and positive outlook Maria! I hope other teachers will share their strategies and ideas for encouraging cross-cultural communication and learning.

  3. Nadeen, I enjoyed reading your article and I think you have raised an important concern. My international students tend to stick with each other and even worse, only associate with those with the same language. Not only does this tendency impede their progress in the language, but it prevents them from having a full rich cultural experience. I always ask them why they socialize exclusively with those in the same cultural group when they could do this at home (with much less expense). However, I am probably too harsh–it is likely shyness and insecurity that prevent them from interacting with Canadian-born students. That being said, it is crucial that we do what we can to help them expand their circle. One of the things I do is try to introduce them to Canadian cultural aspects through our readings. It is amazing what we take for granted as common knowledge that they would know nothing about. Thank you for sharing your experience and giving us ideas on how to do this.

    1. Thanks for your comments Ruth. I agree that we take a lot of everyday habits and understandings for granted. It was very interesting to be a ‘fly on the wall’ during this activity. I love your suggestion of drawing awareness to Canadian culture through readings. That can be a great starting point for interesting cross-cultural discussions. Often our textbooks are published in the U.S. and do not necessarily address Canadian contexts.

  4. This is a great article. I experienced this as well when I taught in an EAP program. Efforts were made to provide opportunities for all students to interact but I believe that more could be done. I do think that the onus is on Canadians to reach out, make connections and welcome newcomers. When I lived in Hong Kong, I worked with wonderful local teachers. They included me in everything despite the fact that they would rather be speaking in Cantonese (I was always the only Native English speaker). My 7 years there were greatly enriched because of these connections and the relationships that I had with local teachers. We need to break out of our comfort zones and meet people who do not look or sound like us.

    1. Thanks for your comment Patrice, and for sharing your interesting experience as a newcomer. There is definitely a barrier of fear when it comes to meeting new people, but I believe that this is also a skill that can be learned. Given opportunities and support, I think our students (both domestic and international) can develop this skill. Cheers!

  5. As a language instructor, I have noticed the same situation among teachers and administrators in ESL schools. While we can only expect our students to become more open towards others from different cultural backgrounds if we teachers make a concerted effort to interact regularly with school staff from diverse backgrounds, it seems that this “great divide” is indicative of limited cross-cultural social interactions in Canadian society as a whole.

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