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How Can I Build Rapport With My Multicultural Students?

by Kisha Bryan |

Stepping into a room full of multilingual learners of English (MLEs) can be exciting…and daunting. Language barriers and cultural unfamiliarity can create feelings of uncertainty for both teachers and students who are learning English. But fear not! Our training has taught us that the first principle for exemplary teaching of MLEs is “getting to know your learners.” Here are some tips for creating meaningful connections with your students.

    1. Embrace the power of nonverbal communication. Smiles, frowns, nods, and other types of language are universal languages. Use them to convey warmth, encouragement, and genuine interest. Make eye contact, offer a thumbs-up, or raise an eyebrow in shared amusement—these gestures speak volumes across cultural lines. Pay close attention to your MLEs’ tone, body language, and facial expressions. Even if you don’t understand their words, you can pick up on their emotions and respond with empathy and support. Show them that you’re actively engaged and trying to understand, even if it means relying on gestures.
    2. Learn a few key phrases in their home language(s). “Yes,” “No,” “Hello,” “Thank you,” and “How are you?” go a long way. Even a simple attempt at their home language demonstrates respect and effort, paving the way for future conversations. Encourage them to teach you more phrases, turning the learning process into a shared experience where students know that you are willing to learn from them as much as they will learn from you.
    3. Be a student of curiosity, not just a language teacher. If your students are adults, ask questions about their cultures and traditions. If they are children, show their parents that you are vested in learning about them by inquiring about their child’s favorite pasttime, holidays, traditional dishes, or family customs. This shows respect and genuine interest, encouraging and creating opportunities for cultural exchange.
    4. Use visuals, music, and humor to bridge the gap. Pictures, diagrams, music, and even emojis can be powerful tools in communication. Use them to set the tone, illustrate concepts, tell stories, and break down language barriers. Humor and music, when used sensitively, can also create a sense of ease and connection. Allow students to do the same as they attempt to express themselves.
    5. Celebrate small victories, not just big achievements. Learning a new language is a marathon, not a sprint. Acknowledge and celebrate even the smallest progress your MLEs make. A correctly pronounced word, a completed task, or a confident answer deserves a mini-celebration in the form of a pat on the back and a genuine smile. Celebrating these small victories instills a sense of accomplishment and helps to create a positive learning environment.

Remember— building rapport with MLEs takes time and effort. By embracing these tips and approaching your interactions with an open mind and a warm heart, you can bridge the gap and create meaningful relationships with your students and their families. The path to building rapport may not be paved with perfect grammar and cultural knowledge, but it’s paved with something much more valuable—genuine human connection.

Happy English language teaching!

About the author

Kisha Bryan

Kisha Bryan is an associate professor at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Her research focuses on adolescents’ intersectional identities and the role of language, literacy, and racial ideologies in identity construction. She is a public scholar and advocate for marginalized peoples. Her research has been published in Teachers College Record, TESOL Journal, English Journal, and Language Magazine.

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