“Is it OK to make generalizations with regard to nationalities?”

The simple answer to the first question is, ‘yes’.  We have to make generalizations in order to make sense of the world.  For example, if you were to ask, “What is Antarctica like?” the response would be “Covered in ice and snow”, not “Well, it depends on the day and location, etc.”  The danger in generalizing about nationalities is that this can bleed over into stereotyping, which differs from generalizing in two ways. Firstly, stereotyping can be based on incorrect or out-of-date information.  Secondly, it can lead you to assume that each and every person from that culture is the same as the said over-generalization.

Therefore, the best answer to the question is that informed generalization is necessary in forming general ideas relating to national groups, viz. Japanese students are not very loquacious in-class, whereas Arab students are.  This does not mean that you will not meet loquacious Japanese or silent Arabs, but it does mean that most will be as the generalization states.

So, do students from different cultures make different levels of progress? 

This depends on what skills are being measured, within what parameters and over what length of time.  It also depends on the individual, the instructor, and a whole host of other variables.  Naturally, the student who comes from a culture that values verbal skills is more likely to participate in a class in which English verbal skills are taught.  A student from a culture that values writing over speaking is, conversely, more likely to focus on that aspect of a language.  This correlates to other skills that may or may not be cultural, such as admiration of reading.  As participation is a key element of academic success, those who participate are more likely to succeed than those who don’t.  However, a caveat might be that what constitutes participation varies depending on the mode of instruction and the subject being learned.

Does a student from Japan learn in a different way from an Arab student?

In general I find Chinese students have a hard time with inferencing and critical thinking. They tend to be very good with concrete skills like comprehension of a reading or listening, or formatting or structuring a piece of writing or presentation according to a prescribed set of guidelines. If I ask these students to look a little deeper, perhaps at the subtext, or to be more creative in what they are producing, this creates a lot of anxiety in the student – they don’t want to make a mistake/do something wrong, so they want to be told exactly what to do and how to do it.

My Arab students generally tend to be more relaxed. I’ve been told by them that in academic studies in Arabic, they are required to infer the subtext in whatever they are reading/listening, so they are very comfortable also doing this in English. They also seem to be more successful at analyzing texts and evaluating the information to use in whatever they are producing. Where they tend to lack in skills is how to organize those ideas. The structure becomes cyclical with the general ideas never really narrowing to anything specific.

This post was written by two teachers from the Richmond Campus Learning Centre at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Vancouver.