While talking about current events during a lesson, a student says, “Some Islam people are doing bad things here in Brazil.”

I freeze. I feel offended by the statement’s implication that all Muslims are in the same category as the individuals she was referring to in her comment.

Deep breath. I remind myself that sometimes lacking the vocabulary or grammar skills to adequately express oneself can lead to being misunderstood or being unintentionally offensive.

How do I address this in a way that is culturally sensitive and politically correct? How do I explain my correction in a way that is easy to understand for a lower-intermediate English language learner?

First, I explain that “Islam” is a religion and a noun. “Muslim” is the adjective form that describes people who follow Islam. For example, “She is Muslim. Her religion is Islam.”

(For more advanced students you can also talk about the word “Islamic,” which is not used to describe the individual. For example: Islamic community and Islamic art.)

Next, I use a simple analogy to explain why referring to the religion is not the best word choice for this context. I give the example that to say, “Muslim people are doing bad things,” would be like saying, “Christian people are doing bad things.”

I find that hearing a different religion used in the same example often helps people understand the broader implications of their word choice. I explain to the student that referring to an entire religion includes people that are not a part of a specific group.

I suggest using the word “extremists” when referring to a group of people with extreme/radical views or using the word “terrorists” if the group of people use violence/terrorism to achieve their political goals.

By the time the lesson is over, the student feels more confident talking about current events. She also feels comfortable about making mistakes in class knowing she will receive clear and patient explanations.

 

We have a great responsibility and opportunity to create a fun, respectful, safe environment where the student feels they have a learning ally.

Whether you are an educator or a person speaking with someone who’s first language is not English, remember to give her/him the benefit of the doubt and politely ask for clarification if something is confusing or seemingly offensive.

Being an educator also means being a life-long learner in order to provide students with high quality, relevant and informative lessons. Personally, I feel I was able to address the situation the best way I could in the moment, but I know there is much more to learn about regarding effective ways to handle sensitive situations in the future.

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Please feel free to share your suggestions in the comments section below on how to approach similar situations or resources you’ve found to be helpful.

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