The textbooks used in English class are starting to look more and more like they should be used in social studies class, focusing increasingly on the cultures of countries where English isn’t the first language. These lessons in diversity come in the form of stories about famous people such as Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai.

However, while Western countries are often portrayed with beautiful explanations of local holidays and cuisines, discussions around countries like Pakistan tend to be limited to its experiences with poverty and war.

It’s definitely necessary to understand the historical, political and social issues of any country in the world — which inevitably include poverty and war — but I like to think the reason we learn a new language is to forge connections with people in other countries, an aim that would likely be better served through positive representation.

Lessons on Malala illustrate this point well. Hers is a remarkable story, I’m not denying that: shot by the Taliban at 15 only to recover, fight for girls’ rights to an education and win the Nobel Peace Prize. But the takeaway from class discussions that I’ve observed tend to be along the lines of: Pakistani girls have little access to education and few civil rights, so those of us in Japan should study hard because we are fortunate to be here instead of any other country.

During the Malala lesson, I’ve seen teachers asking students questions about what they know about her, but nothing about her country or other aspects of its culture — there’s the love for cricket, curry and Ramadan traditions. The same approach happens any time we focus on one single country in class, and just as Canada isn’t only about the northern lights, Pakistan isn’t only about peril.

Before teaching a class about a new country, I will ask my students questions for a group discussion: “What do you know about this country?” and “When you hear or read its name, what do you see, smell, hear, touch and taste?”

By doing this, students can demonstrate what they already know without worrying about finding a “correct” answer. After going through their responses, I ask them where they got their information from, and show them images of the country that I hope will counter potentially negative stereotypes. If they were not aware of the images or facts I provide, I ask them to think about why they were not aware of them. This way, students can learn to become more inquisitive of how different countries are being presented to them in Japan, and media representations of non-Japanese people and places in general.

Textbooks for the English curriculum have plenty of room for improvement, especially ahead of the 2020 Olympics. As teachers, we can catalyze change and teach students that people like Malala aren’t merely exceptions in a country, they’re the result of the many great things that country has to offer.

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