The social impact of ‘Where are you from?’

As soon as any student starts their journey towards becoming a speaker of English, a couple of pre-made sentences, a learner’s ‘toolkit’, is handed them.

Statements such as “I am (name)” or “my name is (name)” are the tip of the iceberg. Soon after students are presented with the predictable and unskippable “he is”, “she is”, “it is”, “we are”, “you are”, “they are”.

I believe every ESL or EFL teacher has gone through the drill: affirmative, negative, interrogative and so forth. And trust me, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. These are the building blocks of English as a language, the foundations of the SVO sentence, the distinction between affirmative and interrogative sentence structures, the concept of auxiliary verbs.

But there, hidden amidst all those helpful sentences, lies “where are you from?”. The seemingly innocuous pre-set question abounds in language classrooms all over the world. 

Teachers use it as cue to introducing pupils to nationalities and languages and to some cultural awareness. Again, so far, so good. Or is it?

Have you, as an educator, ever taken the time to think about what “where are you from?” implies?

Before we take any other step, however, it is important that we acknowledge that context must always be taken into consideration.

In Canada, a country whose population grows greatly due to immigration programs, it is rare to find anyone popping the “where-are-you-from” question.

You see, asking a person where they are from automatically assumes they are not from here. Again, it is perfectly fine to ask this question to someone who is clearly a tourist. But if you ask the question to an immigrant, it may carry a different meaning.

It is not uncommon to see international students here in Toronto asking the dreaded question away every time they meet someone new. Most people will just dismiss it as lack of command of the language, however, awkward smiles might show up.

“So how do you get around it?”, you might ask.

Here in Canada, the question we ask is “what is your background?” And here is why: when you ask someone about their background, you acknowledge them as part of your community, part of the diverse fabric that represents the Canadian population. This question implies acceptance and inclusion.

Now, if you ask “where are you from?”, you set a person’s origin as somewhere else, you imply that they are only a visitor here, an outsider.

As a teacher, you might want to start preparing your students for the world outside of the classroom. And in this case, maybe you should consider adding “what is your background” to the list of useful questions alongside “what is your name”, “where are you from” and “what do you do”.

This article was first published here.

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