Stereotypes in Educational Materials

By Peter Martin

The entirety of my ESL teaching experience has come in Colombia, where I currently live and teach. If you’re not Colombian, stop right now and think about Colombia. What comes to mind? I think I have a guess.

I use lots of materials in my classes that have nothing to do with the country in which I teach, but whenever I see an interesting article or video about Colombia, my instinct is to figure out whether I can use it in class, because I think it would be more interesting to my students than many other materials I could bring in.

Your free-association thoughts about Colombia are important because what you probably thought of is what most non-Colombians, especially most non-Latinos, think of when they think about Colombia—and so that’s what most of the English material on Colombia is about.

It doesn’t matter that many journalists writing about the country know it well and know it’s a complex place with lots of stories. All too often, what they write has to be packaged for foreigners, and in few words. And so even articles about Colombia’s recent renaissance (it’s true—read up on it!) usually get couched in terms of Colombia’s past. Rarely do stories about Colombia, even stories about its present-day peace and prosperity, fail to mention drugs, guerrillas, and other stereotypes developed over decades.

To get a sense of what this is like for many Colombians, imagine that every news article on your country made reference to something that made your country famous twenty or thirty years ago—and something that’s still really painful, because of what it was like to live through and because of the fact that it’s still what most foreigners know about your home.

That’s why I’m always a little nervous to share Colombia-related materials with my students. Even articles that are positive, optimistic, interesting, and (to my eyes) fair often contain small references built on stereotypes that many Colombians know all too well and don’t want to see again. Though it hasn’t happened often, these unfortunate parts sometimes turn off my students and harm my effort to engage them.

In case you thought this was irrelevant to you, know that this post is not just about Colombia. It’s about any non-English-speaking country where there are ESL teachers. And it’s especially about those countries that are very different culturally, economically, or politically from the English-speaking countries that produce the majority of English-language content—which is to say most of the countries in the world.

If you’re an ESL teacher in Colombia or Cambodia or Croatia, most of the English material about your country is produced by Americans or Britons or Australians—and principally for audiences in those countries. So English material on most countries of the world is going to contain stereotypes that English speakers recognize, and which English learners may not appreciate. While I don’t always love the English material on Colombia, I know the material on countries in some other parts of the world can be a lot worse.

This problem, of course, is not identical around the world, so I’m curious to know whether and how ESL teachers in other countries have experienced this issue. For those of you who have thought about and dealt with this before, how do you handle it?

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Nov 01, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    This is a big problem. As a day to day issue, it basically omits a lot of articles you can use. I have tried to handle it face on as a learning activity about racism. Finding other stereotypes about other countries in the news can be a way to open eyes to the fact that every culture does it in their own media and opens discussion about the need for a fair society without presuppositions about race.

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