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Strategies for Assisting Third Culture Children in the TEYL Classroom

By Tracy Dominey


The language we speak is directly related to the culture the language lives in. This is a fact that many teachers in the ESL field are already aware of. When children learn a second language, they use the cultural background of their mother tongue or native language, as their "default setting". This means that any additional languages they acquire will be viewed through this cultural perspective (Education Alliance, 2002). We all possess this trait, teachers included. What happens when our students have at least two different cultural experiences, which then affects these perspectives?

Children who have spent significant portions of their lives within other cultures are influenced by these cultures, even if they do not belong to them. Adults who travel to other countries are affected by their surroundings and will adapt themselves accordingly. Such an experience on a child, who is still developing, can alter their "blue print" completely (Britten, 2001). The term "Third Culture" was coined by Dr Ruth Useem over 40 years ago to define children who live or have lived in a special group affected by two different cultures (usually their passport country and the country they live in), and yet do not belong completely to either of them (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001). Because of this, Third Culture children have a somewhat altered cultural "lens" for viewing their second language through. This means they have special needs and requirements in the ESL classroom.

Who Are Third Culture Children?

Third Culture children are categorised as children who have lived in or have been influenced by at least two different cultures, but yet remain different to the other children of these backgrounds (Pollock & Van Reken; Britten). These children differ from immigrant or refugee children because Third Culture children's families will probably not settle in that country. They often live privileged lives compared with the local children of the countries they live in, and most of the time their families intend to move home eventually (Britten). These children are often not completely assimilated to the country on their passport and yet they are not really like the country that they reside in either. They exist in a type of "sub-group" where they are influenced by both cultures and yet not really a part of either.

Because they spend developmental years in a different cultural environment than their parents, they are socialised differently than their parents were. On the other hand, Third Culture children do not live like local children either because their family's own culture, language and perspectives still influence their home environment (Britten). Parents of Third Culture children are usually belong to the military or are business expatriates or diplomats. This is not always the case (missionaries are an exception, for instance), but the vast majority have successful careers and this is the reason the family has travelled (Pollock & Van Reken).

These children are described as having a "third culture" because of the way that they live in two cultural worlds. Consider for example, a child who might be born into a Dutch family, who reside in China. If the child lives in China long enough to be influenced by the family's surroundings, he or she will live a life that is neither typical of Dutch nor Chinese children. How does this cultural situation affect these young learners, and what does this mean for TEYL teachers?

What Sets Third Culture Children Apart From Other Young Learners?

Important Facts For Teachers

It is widely acknowledged in the ESL field that culture and language cannot be considered separate entities (Peterson & Coltrane; Education Alliance). A second language teacher is no doubt acutely aware of the impact children's culture has on the way they learn languages. Because it is impossible to learn a language without being influenced by the culture that it exists in, it is valuable for teachers to understand the cultural background of their students, in order to know the perspectives they hold. It is imperative that teachers are also aware of the cultural biases that they themselves bring to their class (Sears, 2006). Difficulties can arise when the student's cultural influences are not clearly defined, because teachers can be unsure of how the child will react or feel about situations, materials or simply studying itself.

The specific complications for teaching Third Culture children stem from the way these children are "jointly" socialised, and differ from children of the same birth country. As an example of how this can impact on Third Culture children, I once taught 14-year-old Jamie, whose Japanese parents were posted in France and China while he was growing up. He had only spent a total of four years in Japan. He spoke Japanese at home with his parents, and had learned some French, Mandarin and English through his international-based schooling. As Jamie's ESL teacher in New Zealand, I assumed my new student's cultural influences would be predominantly Japanese, and I prepared myself with what I believed would be culturally appropriate materials, in order to him relate to it.

In fact, Jamie had been influenced by all three of the cultures he had come into contact with, but by none of them completely. He understood the language being spoken by his Japanese peers, but often did not relate to the content. He knew about Chinese pop music and video games, but could not understand enough Mandarin to be included in discussions with his Chinese counterparts. He was not accepted by many of his peers, even in an international environment, and was deeply unhappy in New Zealand. Jamie needed help with English language and New Zealand culture. He also needed help relating to his Japanese and Chinese peers. They, in turn, needed help understanding and accepting Jamie.

For all of these reasons, ESL students must be given the opportunity to view their study materials, classes and learning methods through a cultural lens, which they acknowledge (Sears). This enables young learners to have their own backgrounds validated, while providing the teacher a chance to show them what he or she expects of them. It also means that Third Culture children are able to share their own perspectives based on the experiences they have had. It is helpful for peers of Third Culture children to appreciate, and begin to understand, their differing experiences and perspectives too. In an international setting, where many ESL classes are held, this would also help students find common ground and understanding within the perspective of their new language. My class with Jamie was a multi-cultured one, so most of his peers were from different backgrounds to him. I often asked students to describe their own culture or background, or to compare their home country to New Zealand. This proved difficult for Jamie who was not sure of what he should discuss. By allowing children to complete this type of task through a cultural perspective that they identified with (which could be described as 'a place they had lived in for two years'), children like Jamie would be able to choose the situation that they felt most comfortable discussing.

Ironically, ESL teachers often ask young learners to discuss these common subject areas, as we know children are most comfortable discussing subjects they know, like and relate to - this type of task would need to be broached in a broader ranging context for Third Culture children.

How Can TEYL Teachers Effectively Assist Third Culture Children in the Classroom?

One of the biggest problems faced by Third Culture children is that teachers and peers often do not understand or relate to their background (Britten). One way that TEYL teachers can assist these children is by getting their peers involved in understanding their experiences. As already noted, instead of asking students to discuss 'home' or something related to their 'home country', students could be given the choice to discuss another country that they know about. At the same time, students should be encouraged to identify different perspectives within their ESL class books or topics, for example. As this happens, the teacher should note the culture behind the English language as they learn it (Peterson & Coltrane). Teachers cannot assume their students will believe certain animals are inherently good or bad; we should not take for granted that students will know the significance of colours, numbers or intonation patterns either. When teachers ask their ESL students about their own ideas or experiences (rather than what is done in their 'home country'), Third Culture children are able to contribute to the class discussions, while still learning the culture behind their second language lesson too.

One of the reasons that ESL (and bilingual) children often suffer academically in mainstream schools is because of the way that language and culture are so interlinked. Often these children do not understand the culture or situation of examination questions or class work, because they do not relate to it (Education Alliance). This poses a potential problem for Third Culture children who cannot be culturally categorised (or "pitched at") by teachers. Language lessons need to be tailored to ensure they are relevant, or able to be drawn to a common point of reference, for the whole class.

While there is more research and understanding in the education field about Third Culture children, and certainly more schools are aware of how ESL children are being inadequately supported, there is very little documented about Third Culture children with ESL needs and how schools can support this unique group. One study based in New Zealand schools (Kennedy & Dewar) showed that teachers were aware of the importance of valuing ESL children's backgrounds. Many of them did this through a variety of means, ranging from having special items of significance in the classroom to teaching the class how to greet the ESL student in their own language.

Similarly, some international schools support their students (many of whom are Third Culture children) by having country representatives or initiating ties with parents. These key people are invited to participate in school events and might sit on committees. These actions within a school enable ESL and Third Culture children to feel accepted and valued, while at the same time providing TEYL teachers with potentially vital support and information (Sears; Kennedy & Dewar). Schools should show their acceptance of Third Culture children's backgrounds too. During cultural events, Third Culture children who relate to a particular country and culture (even if they are not from this background) could also be allowed to represent that area, if they felt comfortable doing so.


We are all affected by the culture we are socialised within. As English language teachers, we do not come to the classroom as a neutral party but as a person moulded by our own language and perspectives, which we then impart to our classes through our language lessons. Assuming that an ESL student has a specific cultural background to draw on or relate to, can be as much of an injustice to that student as assuming him or her to have Western perspectives.

For teachers of Third Culture children in a TEYL setting, the challenge of ensuring that students understand their lessons is multi-layered. We need to be aware of our own biases; we then need to be able to explain them to our students, who should be encouraged to share and reflect upon their own experiences too. If this is done in a manner that allows for diversity and is open to this possibility, Third Culture children will be able to draw upon, not feel hampered by, their different cultural experiences.

Reference List

Britten, S. (2001). TCK World. Retrieved May 20, 2006, from

Education Alliance, Brown University (2002). The Diversity Kit: An Introductory Resource for Social Change in Education [Electronic version]. Providence, USA: Brown University.

Kennedy, S. and Dewar, S. (1997). Non-English-Speaking Background Students: A Study of Programmes and Support in New Zealand Schools. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Education.

Peterson, E. and Coltrane, B. (2003). "Culture in Second Language Teaching". CAL Digest. Retrieved May 18, 2006, from

Pollock, D. and Van Reken, R. (2001). Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds. Yarmouth, USA: Nicholas Brealey Intercultural.

Sears, C. (2006). "Cultural Sensitivity" [Electronic version]. Shortcuts: Journal of the European Council of International Schools, 5(3). Retrieved May 18, 2006, from v5n3.rtf

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