Posted by: carolread | June 23, 2011

X is for Xenophobia

Xenophobia is an emotive word which means ‘a strong fear and dislike of people from other countries and cultures’.

So what has xenophobia got to do with teaching English as a foreign language to children (apart from the fact that, for the sake of this ABC, it conveniently begins with ‘X’)?

The short answer, in my view, is a lot, in the sense that teaching children foreign languages at a young age can potentially lay strong foundations to prevent xenophobia from ever developing.

The jury is out on the issue of whether or not there is solid evidence to support an early start to foreign language learning per se, and there is research both for and against this. Nevertheless, classroom experience strongly suggests that learning a foreign language at a young age can develop interest, curiosity, positive attitudes and respect for different peoples, countries and cultures that are likely to extend well beyond the primary years.

Keith Sharpe has referred to this benefit of early foreign language learning as ‘early start immunisation to later negative attitudes’. Although such ‘immunisation’ is difficult to prove or measure, it is potentially a major benefit that, as teachers, we should do our best to promote as an integral part of our jobs.

In my own classes over the years, particularly in contexts with children from many different backgrounds, I’ve become increasingly aware of how our role as English teachers goes hand-in-hand with broader, and ultimately more significant educational aims, to do with promoting responsible citizenship, democracy, tolerance and peace. These are big concepts. At the same time, every little thing we can do to work towards achieving them in the microcosmic world of our classrooms counts.

For young beginners in schools with a large immigrant population, English is often the only subject in which everyone has equal chance of achieving, since children do not need to know the language of the country to make progress in English in the same way as they do in other subjects. This in itself can help to reduce feelings of difference among the children and can be built on positively in other ways too. For example, through the experience of learning a foreign language, children can be helped to develop the vital skill of empathy and understanding of others. Here is an anecdote from one of my past classes that illustrates this:

Mohammed is a Moroccan boy in my class of four-year-olds. Recently arrived in Spain, he doesn’t speak either Spanish or English and he’s finding it tough. One day when he’s absent, I talk to the children (in Spanish) about how we can help Mohammed. They’re full of ideas: play with him, sit with him, share their snacks, and then one little boy pipes up ‘We can help Mohammed speak Spanish like you help us with English’. ‘How’s that?’ I ask, intrigued to hear their views. ‘By showing us pictures and speaking slowly’ comes the response. Thus it is that, through their own experience of learning a foreign language, these children are able to understand and empathise with how it might feel not to speak their own.

There are many practical things that we can do to ensure that children learn to positively value people from other countries and cultures. These include, for example, showing where everyone in the class is from on a world map with photos and flags, including personalised activities in which children have the opportunity to talk about their country, food, families etc, celebrating different festivals, telling stories or reading picture books that focus on themes of difference and empathy such as Something Else, taking turns to teach and learn simple phrases such as ‘hello’ / ‘goodbye’, ‘please / thank you’ in each other’s languages.

Underpinning it, of course, and the most important thing of all, is to show in everything you do and say that you positively value all the children in your classes too.

Any thoughts?



Macmillan English Dictionary (2nd edition), Macmillan 2007

Sharpe K. Modern Foreign Languages in the Primary School, Kogan Page, 2001

Read C. Is younger better? ETp 28, 2003

Cave K. & Riddell C, Something Else Puffin Books, 1994

Photo by Chiot’s Run.



  1. Hi Carol,

    I couldn’t agree more with you!

    It’s a great way to help children develop positive associations with another country and culture

    It opens up their world, and by getting children of different nationalities to share a little bit of their world through their language, we are helping them become citizens of the world.

    My Cat likes to hide in boxes is a great book to use in class to introduce the idea of other nationalities and languages…Have you used it?

    I bought Something else after you recommended it at TESOL Spain, but I haven’t had the chance to use it yet!

    Thanks Carol,

    Nice to see you again!

    • Hi Leahn

      Many thanks for writing and good to see you back here too! Great to hear you agree – I think sometimes as teachers we get so caught up with the utilitarian side of our role – getting through the curriculum, the coursebook, preparing children for exams etc that it’s easy to lose sight of the wider implications of our role as educators too.

      Thanks for mentioning ‘My Cat likes to hide in boxes’ – yes, I have used it, and agree that it’s a great one to introduce the idea of other countries and cultures. The rhyming couplets in the story make it very memorable and provide for lots of teaching possibilities too. It’s also lighter in tone than ‘Something Else’ which is very moving and quite intense, although I’ve always found that children respond very maturely to the story. If you’re going to use ‘Something Else’, by the way, do have a look at the photocopiable materials based on the story which I contributed to Gail Ellis and Jean Brewster’s book ‘Tell it Again!’ (Penguin English, 2002) which may save you a bit of preparation!

      Thanks again for dropping by!

  2. Hi Carol

    I completely agree with your emphasis on our wider educator remit – as teachers of young learners we need to move beyond the ‘language as object of study’ approach towards a more ‘language for international communication and global citizenship’ approach. For me, global citizenship teaching skills need to be firmly embedded in teacher education courses for English language teachers. By teaching language to young learners in age-appropriate ways AND equipping them with global citizenship skills, we are able to raise children’s awareness of difference and in turn, promote both acceptance and tolerance.

    In April, I gave a presentation at the ‘CEFR Conference for Teachers’ in Brussels. This focussed on how we can use the CEFR to mainstream equality and diversity in ELT materials and assessment. Any colleagues who are interested can download my presentation from here:

    In the context of xenophobia, I was inspired by a session from ‘Foyer’, an organisation which isn’t working primarily with English learning, but rather focuses on teaching minority children’s home languages in mainstream schools. Foyer operates within the wider context of cultural diversity, specifically issues relating to integration of migrants at Dutch-speaking schools in the Brussels Region and the Flemish Community.
    Foyer’s key principle is “onderwijs in eigen taal en cultuur”: education in native language and culture. This began in 1981 and is present in 6 Dutch-speaking schools in Brussels. It integrates the mother tongue of 550 immigrant children into the curriculum.

    Foyer encourages a multilingual and multicultural system, teaching children’s native languages to further facilitate their second language development, and maintains that rejecting a child’s language in school is rejecting the child. It can also be a challenge for immigrant parents, as many choose a Dutch speaking school even if they do not speak the language. Foyer supports them, reducing the gap between home and schools. The parents are also encouraged to learn Dutch and attend school meetings. Foyer helps them to reflect on multilingual education.

    Foyer has created a portfolio for their students in 7 languages and with 3 CEFR proficiency levels: A1, A2 and B1. This portfolio helps students to reflect on the performance, attitude and personal learning styles, to realise that learning a language is an everyday activity, in and out of school. They are helped to become more autonomous; a difficult task, because they need to maintain their mother language. There is sometimes a tendency to lose the mother tongue through the generations. All too often, mainstream schools offer a classical curriculum designed for a presupposed ‘typical’ learner, and immigrant children are not “typical” learners, and therefore, reasonable adjustments should be made in order to be fully inclusive. To read more about Foyer’s work in this area, you can visit:

    For me, this is a brilliant example of how we as language teachers can help children develop their intercultural competence. We can learn many lessons from organisations like Foyer and start to see children’s L1s as superb resources for language learning rather than as ‘interference’ or obstacles in the development of English. Similarly, integrating aspects of children’s home / background cultures in English lessons via personalised materials and tasks shows we value them as individuals, respect differences and provides a far richer child-centred learning environment.

    It would be great to hear from others around the world who have incorporated a more multicultural dimension into their YL classrooms.

    Very best


    • Hi David

      Many thanks for this richly informative contribution and the useful website links. Great to hear about the conference you were involved in and many thanks also for sharing your presentation. Extremely interesting to learn about the work of Foyer too, and completely agree about the importance of valuing home languages in contexts where the language is different in school in order to provide for genuinely inclusive learning.

      It’s very encouraging to hear how the theme of our wider educational remit as language teachers resonates with you. Thanks also for making the links to the development of intercultural competence and learner autonomy – two vital areas which we need to integrate in a systematic and consistent way in all our work with children.

  3. Hi Carol – I just received my MATESOL this past Friday and have not yet begun to teach, but I stumbled across your blog and am really enjoying reading your posts and the following discussions. I find that many of the points you are making about the larger role of ESL teachers, the preservation of home languages, and the importance of language learning for all children resonate strongly for me and are very similar to what I wrote in my capstone paper/teaching philosophy. I’m looking forward to reading through more of your posts!

    • Hi Mary

      Many thanks for your message and congratulations on getting your MATESOL! It’s great to hear that you’re enjoying reading the posts and I’m glad that many of the points about the wider role of language teachers resonate with you. It’ll also be interesting to hear from you once you start teaching and how practical experience in the classroom may modify and/or expand your views. I’m nearly at the end of the ABC now and it’s encouraging to know that you find it enjoyable. Thanks again for writing.


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