England, English and the English: tackling diversity in the classroom

Having grown up in an era during which the prominence of the National Front forced you to take sides in a very ugly and frequently violent national debate about who could and couldn’t be considered to ‘belong here’, and in which the first brave black players to play for the English national football team were greeted, by some sections of the crowd with bananas, monkey grunting and banners proclaiming that ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ (sic.), it’s always been a point of principle for me that anyone born and raised in England is by definition English – and that to oppose this notion is essentially a form of fascism based on ridiculous, outmoded and unscientific folksy notion of racial purity and blood and land.


Of course, there’s what I may believe and hold to be true and there’s what students believe, and clearly the two can sometimes be at wildly divergent odds . . . as I found out in class yesterday. One of my students is a lovely woman who always calls herself Russian, despite the fact she was born and bred in Latvia. Now, having been to the country a couple of times, I’m all too aware of the tensions between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, and I can understand why people might choose to adopt such taxonomy. In the coffee break, chat turned to her fiance, who she calls Russian too. It emerged that he too was born and bred in Latvia, despite having one Russian parent and one parent who was born and raised in Azerbaijan. I commented that for me this meant he was Latvia, whereupon I was told that even if they had kids which were born and brought up here in London, they’d still be Russian. I laughed and said ‘They’d be Anglo-Lativian-Russian-Azeri, but they’d be English, to me at least’ . . . and all hell broke loose.

There then followed a lengthy discussion about what it means to be English, during which it became clear (a) that for many – perhaps almost all – students the notion of Englishness is still very much connected to the idea of being white and to the idea of having deep family roots in the soil. How deep those roots need to be, how many generations they need to go back, varied from student to student, but the message seemed clear – and it seemed disturbingly similar to that propagated by the NF when I was younger, albeit in a far less aggressive or politicised manner, of course – and (b) the construct of Englishness that prevails seems rooted in a general shock at the wilder excesses of a small section of London youth. One student, a Sicilian with a sister living in the UK, married to an Indian with whom she has two kids, claimed that her nephew and niece, despite the fact they’re growing up here, would never be ‘English’ because of ‘cultural differences’ such as not going out dressed half-naked to get violently drunk and have sex in the street on a Tuesday night!

In the ensuing discussion, I tried to point out that there really isn’t – and has never been – one kind of ‘English’ person and that the English differ in their attitudes, morals, behaviour, politics, lifestyles, etc as much as anyone else. Some English people are totally behind gay marriage; others oppose it vehemently; some are Buddhist, some Muslim, some absolutely atheist; some love football, others loathe it and so on and on! At this point, a Spanish student called Mohammed chipped in saying this was exactly what he’d been fighting and arguing about all his life, as a first generation Spanish-Moroccan and as the first kid of Muslim origin to attend a Catholic school in Malaga. Despite strong family ties to Morocco and despite a recognition of the fact that he had cultural roots that were different to many other Spaniards, he sees himself defiantly as Spanish – as well he might!


So where do we go with all of this and why am I blogging about it? Well, firstly, if we are to take the Common European Framework seriously, then we have a responsibility to ensure that through our teaching of language we help students “to achieve a wider and deeper understanding of the way of life and forms of thought of other peoples and of their cultural heritage.” If this is to happen, then perhaps the first step towards recognising / accepting / discussing the diversity that exists within students’ own cultures is to have their vision of Britain complicated for them. Perhaps such discussions can act as a mirror inwards and give pause for reflection? Of course, London may a special case in many ways given that 37% of its inhabitants – my students included, of course (!) – were born outside of the UK, but what’s happening in London also happens everywhere: people travel, relationships form, kids are born, cultures change.

Secondly, it’s clearly of vital importance for many many teachers and students alike that these issues are aired. An ever-increasing number of native-speaker teachers are of mixed-race or non-white origin and thus more likely to be prejudged – often negatively – by foreign students demanding what they perceive to be ‘native’ native speakers of English! In addition, there are many students who come from complex families and whose right to self-definition and determination is a basic human one. In my time at work, I’ve met Swedes with Afghan, Eritrean and Iranian roots; Swiss students from all manner of interwoven backgrounds; a young Polish lad who’d grown up in a very rural area as the only mixed-race kid for many many miles, and so on. These students’ stories and lives deserve to be validated and recognised.

So what can we do? Well, for a start, we can at least have exactly the kinds of discussions I outlined above, should the opportunity / need arise.

In addition to this, I then sent an email round my class – as I do after every lesson – containing some follow-up links and things to read. Here’s what I included:

Next up, that series I was telling you about called 100% English.
It’s an incredible view and I’d really recommend you watch at least one episode.
Start here:

It’ll hopefully complicate your ideas of what ‘English’ or even ‘white’ means!!

Connected to this is this amazing article about a guy in Scotland whose DNA traces directly back to the first woman in East Africa. Fascinating story.

I then asked the class to record a Vocaroo each detailing what they felt they were a product of. This was an expression that had come up in a reading we did, wherein a mother lamented the fact that her slightly unruly fifteen-year-old son was the product of a very liberal age, and I’d discussed my own roots and formative influences briefly on my own recording that I mailed out to announce the homework.

Small steps and I’m realistic enough to know that such steps are unlikely to bring about any sea change in attitudes or prejudices, but also small steps that slowly lead to somewhere else, and ultimately it’s a belief in the power of dialogue and discourse that allows me to retain a rosy, optimistic slant on these matters even when things seem particularly cloudy!


25 responses

  1. Love this sort of eye-opening stuff, and have realised it’s much better not coming from me but from videos and so on. Another recommendation for students with mp3 players: Crossing Continents have recently done a great three-parter podcast about the new Britons, immigrants from all over the place settling here and what their idea of the ‘British Dream’ is:

    1. Hi Dan –
      Thanks for taking the time to read and to respond.
      I think it’s actually best coming in one of two ways, really: firstly, from something students themselves say that you as a teacher feel compelled to comment on – or critique, and secondly, from material of some kind that aims to prompt some sort of discussions around these issues. We’ve got a double-page spread in Outcomes Advanced in the unit on Culture & Identity that explores this. There’s a discussion of what is – and isn’t – part of British culture, before students hear three people talk about their own British cultural identities – and they’re a wide range, including an aging Welsh punk and an Anglo-Pakistani Muslim bloke from Yorkshire who runs a chippie. Out of this students are asked to compare and contrast, thus leaving space for a teacher so minded to chip in. Agreed that some kind of external prmopt works best – and saves us going in on high horses lecturing (and yes, I’ve been there too!).

      Oh, and thanks for the podcast link.
      I’ll be forwarding it on to my students tonight!

  2. Hi Hugh,

    I’m in Prague and I had a similar thing yesterday with a Russian woman in class who was a bit distraught that her daughter was cheering the Czech hockey team. So distraught that she overcame her Elementary level and managed to explain in some detail that her Czech-born daughter was Russian! Not Czech! Russian!

    Nice link (as always, though the most inspirational link so far was the one to Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’ which had me clicking ‘buy’ for a second hand vinyl copy off Amazon), but any idea where part 2 can be found?

    1. Hello Dave, Dan here – how you doing? Excuse us, Hugh, abusing your blog like this ;o)
      PS I want to see part 2, as well – can’t wait to see that racist f&%$er’s reaction, which, as far as I could tell, was about to happen seconds after the clip finished. Yours frustratedly.

    2. Not sure where Part Two is, but I do recall from watching it that it’s predictably awkward for the Ian Wright-baiting idiot!

      The interesting thing about the Czech / Russian story is part of what I was trying to tell my students, which is that in the end, kids chose for themselves what they think they are – or want to be, and there’s very little you can do about it. It’s nice to delude ourselves into believing that apples don’t fall far from the tree, but of course, they sometimes do!

      Still, on the plus side, it’s good to see Elementary level students moved to voice opinions about things of personal relevance to them!

  3. Good post. I have a friend from the Ukraine who calls herself Russian. Ethnic identities are very important out there because the USSR quashed pretty much everything else, I think the situation will improve over time as the newly created nation states exert a softer civc and inclusive cultural nationalism.

    The problem with English national identity is much the same; England was subsumed into Britain and Britishness and failed to hold onto much that was distinctly hers, English identity and British identity being pretty much the same for many people (Scotland and Wales by contrast managed to retain their individual national identities to a greater extent).

    It would be easier for people that don’t have English heritage to self-identify as English if England had some of the trappings of a nation state: her own Parliament, government, national holiday, anthem, etc. At the moment, outside of sport, there’s not much reason for immigrant communities to call themselves anything but British.

    This is something that’s troubled me for some time, see: http://toque.co.uk/english-first-british-second

    1. I understand the complexities of ethnic identities in post-USSR states, and know that, for instance, after independence, Latvia decided that all ethnic Russian had to learn Latvian in order to gain Latvian citizenship. When I first went there in ’97 or ’98, there was RUSSIANS OUT graffiti all over Riga, and it all ended up with many elderly Latvian Russian being left bereft of citizenship. Latvia wouldn’t grant them passport, the Russians wouldn’t recognise them and take them back – and many, of course, didn’t want to go either, so they were stuck . . . a sorry state of affairs that was only really resolved after accession to the EU and pressure applied from Brussels.

      I think there’s still a very strong Slavic sense of self, and a very rigid sense of what it means to be Russian, partly fed by the recent years of isolation and Putinism, and at its extreme very very ugly, with folk from Dagestan, Chencnya, the Stans, etc. getting beaten up, arrested, murdered, etc in the big cities.

      I hope you’re right that this will ease off with time and countries will accept the diversity that exists internally EVERYWHERE.

      I hear you loud and clear on the troubled English sense of self, a sense that has all to often been left to the poisonous neo-Nazi end of things to voice feelings over. The left has long struggled to voice a more inclusive and / or radical idea of what England mean,s though folk like Billy Bragg have done wonders with his England, Half English book . . . and Rageh Omar’s ONLY HALF OF ME: BEING MUSLIM IN BRITAIN is also fascinating. Obviously, part of it is self-definition and for me, as I said, if someone says they’re English and were born and raised here, then they’re English; it’s also though very much about the ‘indigenous’ ‘white’ (and I use these words with great trepidation and large scare quotes, as it’s all essentially just a construct of sorts) population to say ‘Yes, of course, you can be black and British . . . or Muslim and English . . . or whatever’.

      Sport may be one of the few ways England does have a sense of identity separate from Britain, but it’s also an arena in which stereotypes get challenged, new heroes forged, new versions of the tribal identity eventually accepted and so on.

      For me, as a Londoner and a Gooner, the idea that there could possibly be someone more English than Ian Wright remains a hilarious idiotic joke!

      1. Hugh, according to an Ipsos MORI poll, published by the Ministry of Justice “BME”s (Black and Minority Ethnic) strongly feel themselves to be English above being British.

        The only association with England/Englishness and racism/xenophobia are those invented by opponents to an English identity. Look at the ethnic makeup of the English football/rugby/cricket teams compared to the Welsh or Scottish. They are far more inclusive than any other nation from the UK and yet we get this kind of nonsense thrown at us. For those still unsure, the ‘buh’ in BNP stands for British, not English! The EDL are as English as the SDL or WDL are Welsh or Scottish

      2. Hi Terry –
        Indeed! I think there’s a lot of truth in that and that just because aren’t perfect, it doesn’t mean they haven’t moved on and progressed. You only have to look at how diverse crowds at England matches have become over the last twenty or thirty years to see that more and more ‘non’-white’ folk are choosing to opt in. As I said, I’m all for self-definition.

        I have plenty of mates here in London who are Anglo-something, and who see themselves as such: Londoners, for sure, but also English, albeit Anglo-Turkish or Anglo-Jamaican or whatever. And few people they encounter has an issue with that.

        My real concern, I guess, is the number of students over the years I’ve had to argue with when they come and complain to me, for instance, that they can’t understand their teacher’s accent and are worried he is not ‘native’ – when the teacher is a Leicester-born Anglo-Indian, with basically semi-standard middle-class RP-ish pron. It’s this foreign student construct of England and Englishness that really needs challenging, from an ELT perspective.

  4. Thought provoking stuff Hugh:-) Thanks

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Rob.
      Thanks for reading.

  5. Hi Hugh,
    This is an interesting post and it made me think of a few things. Personally I don’t think it’s right to tell someone what their cultural identity is – if a woman feels Russian then let her feel Russian. Having said that, I’m surprised that most of your students seem so reluctant to embrace England or Englishness. Most of my students in Glasgow are very proud if they achieve UK citizenship and they enjoy feeling as though they belong to this country. Maybe it’s different in London, where it’s harder to pinpoint a single cultural identity.
    Your point about how Britain is seen abroad is interesting too. I worked for the British Council abroad recently and discovered it faces a bit of an identity crisis, as it tries to promote the uk as culturally diverse but at the same time it still tries to hold on to the “brand uk” features like beefeaters and phone boxes. And then there is a reaction from students when they come into a classroom and discover their teacher doesn’t meet the image they were expecting. But uk identity abroad is perhaps a separate issue from diverse identities within the uk.

    1. Hi Steve –
      I agree that it’s up to the individual to define what they think they are. I guess I was just slightly taken aback as my immediate supposition when I hear someone called Russian is that they’re from Russia, and if someone’s lived all their life in Latvia, it seems at least plausible to assume that they might in some way be Latvia. But hell yeah, if she says she’s Russian, I’m more than happy for her to be Russian!

      My teaching situation is perhaps different in terms of students embracing – or not – England and Englishness as they’re EFL rather than ESOL students, and by and large don’t see themselves staying here long-term. They’re not generally looking for citizenship, though some do have it already – or maybe hope to get it – but rather to do degrees and Master’s here and then who knows? A fair few do plan to stay in London, though, and maybe it’s the nature of London that you can stay here a long time, become a kind of honorary Londoner, but not give up any of your roots or identity at the same time. Take my wife: she’s been here twenty years now, has had British citizenship for maybe fifteen, yet ask her if she feels British and she’ll laugh at you. She remains resolutely Chinese-Indonesian. And yet is also a fully-functional Londoner.

      As for the BC and the way Britain is promoted abroad, I think this is very much part of the problem, and that actually British identity abroad very much affects what students experience and feel when they come here – and feeds into why students do, as you say, react when they get native-speaker teachers that don’t conform to the narrow stereotypes they have.

      I do have some sympathy with the BC, of course, as Britain is many many different things, and those twee picture postcard places are still out there, as are beefeaters, etc. I think Heathrow has got it right of late with its WELCOME posters that you see when you enter the country: old-fashioned Beefeaters next to Sikh coppers, black female cabbies next to old white working-class market stall traders. A really nice balance of stuff. If you don’t know, you can see more about it here:


      I understand the tourism imperative behind promoting Ye Olde Englande and so on, but do feel the time has come to shift more towards promoting awareness of British diversity, if only to reflect the range of teachers students studying at British Council centres abroad will encounter.

      1. “England, England” is a nice book by Julian Barnes which gives a lot more food for thought than the surface story. Recommend it.

      2. Thanks for the tip.
        Have just ordered it.
        Navel-gazing solipsistic saddo that I am.

      3. Another recommendation, Hugh,

        This time an amazing lecture by Kenan Malik called ‘What’s wrong with Multiculturalism’.
        This felt to me like cutting edge stuff and right on the money when it comes to looking at how European’s view their own multiculturalism. Makes the distinction between multiculturalism as policy and as ‘lived experience’. Really good stuff if you’ve got an hour!

      4. Have just finished listening to this.
        Spot on, in my opinion.
        Very interesting piece.
        More for my enjoyment and edutainment than my students’, I suspect, but a great listen nonetheless.

  6. Doesn’t this paragraph work equally as well…

    In the ensuing discussion, I tried to point out that there really isn’t – and has never been – one kind of ‘Scottish’ person and that the Scottish differ in their attitudes, morals, behaviour, politics, lifestyles, etc as much as anyone else. Some Scottish people are totally behind gay marriage; others oppose it vehemently; some are Buddhist, some Muslim, some absolutely atheist; some love football, others loathe it and so on and on!

    You can also apply it to Welsh or Irish, but such statements seem to be reserved exclusively for the English.

    1. Not totally sure I get your point, but to clarify mine: my own feeling is that ALL nations are essentially constructs and all work in similar ways.
      All have a range of concepts of what it means to be that particular nationality thrown at them, and all differ slightly in their orientation to these, as well as in their beliefs, lifestyles, etc. In the end, we are all the same, and we are all different. And teaching for twenty years has simply clarified and reinforced this basic belief that I hold. I’ve taught Italians who don’t like cheese, Japanese students who don’t eat sushi, non-beer drinking Germans and really shy Brazilians. As the Chinese idiom puts it – In the forest there are many trees! Anything we as teachers – and materials writers do – to reiterate this basic point can only be for the good. Help students find common ground, but also allow expression of – and push respect for – difference and diversity.

  7. Interesting stuff…you get this with Japanese and Chinese/Taiwanese all the time. The awful denominations of ABC, BBC and CBC meaning American /British / Canadian born Chinese…for example. You’re still Chinese…even if you weren’t born there, don’t speak the language and have never been

    1. Ah yes, the old banana thing – yellow on the outside, white inside, etc.

      Similar to the ‘choc ice’ insult that Rio Ferdinand threw at Ashley Cole last year after he closed ranks and supported that upstanding Englishman, John Te**y.

      To my mind, ‘choc ice’ and ‘banana’ are pretty pernicious in themselves as they’re based on that fairly fixed notion of what it means to be black, white, Chinese, etc. and are just forms of mind control and behaviour standardisation.

  8. An often overlooked factor when considering cultural diversity is the existence of long established national minorities that pre-date the modern patterns of immigration. Take the Cornish for example. School census shows rise in children who are Cornish: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-16391310

    Europe is rich with such linguistic and cultural diversity even though it is often so poorly treated by our ‘modern’ nation states.

    1. Indeed. It’s exactly this kind of thing that I was thinking of when I mentioned the idea that if students are to become more aware and more accepting of the diversity that will inevitably exist within their own countries, then perhaps a look at the diversity of the British Isles as starting point and a springboard may be a good place to start.

  9. […] think , act or even look or speak alike! Very inspiring in that respect is Hugh Dellar’s article, England, English and theEnglish, tackling diversity in the classroom.  It breaks the myth of one type of Englishness and even one type of whiteness! If you are […]

  10. […] old post of mine about the thorny issue of how and why teachers may want – or need – to tackle issues surroundi… was recently quoted in a very interesting post on similar issues, but from a Belgian perspective. […]

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