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Recently, I taught a class of five students. I asked for their native place and all told that their hometown is X, but I didn't tell my reason for asking.

I asked them because of the reason that I can communicate easily with them if they are from Y, since I can speak the language of my hometown Y well.

Although I can communicate in our common language, I cannot communicate as well as I can in Y's language.

My doubt here is whether this would constitute discrimination based on place or is it perfectly fine to ask them? Is it similar to asking about race, religion, caste, etc., which is generally not recommended?

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    Why can't you ask about their country or language? Why do you need to know their town? – Polygnome Apr 5 at 15:46
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    You should probably state what part of the world you are in; cultural norms vary widely. There is also a huge difference between a global institution, where the answer would probably be a country, and a more regional institution, where the answer would probably be a neighborhood. – cag51 Apr 5 at 18:23
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    @Polygnome I know that all of them are from my country only. But, each state has its own language. Yeah, I think it may be okay to ask language, but unfortunately, discrimination is prevalent based on language only. – hanugm Apr 6 at 0:02
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    @Polygnome in some countries like India or the Philippines, different regions have different languages. – Mehdi Apr 6 at 14:45
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    A problem you might not foresee (I don't know enough about India, specifically, to be able to make an answer out of this) is that let's say there are 4 students who say they are all from Tamilnadu (? I saw it on a map)... only one of them was actually raised by her American father in a home that speaks American English. Her father also ensures she speak Hindi (?). She doesn't tell you that, so you start speaking in whatever language or dialect is used in that particular area... and completely lose her, and maybe she's too shy to speak up? (Yes, this is a real world example) – CGCampbell Apr 6 at 15:17

12 Answers 12

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I thought it would be good to edit my answer to start with a link to an article written from the perspectives of people who have had the question "where are you from?" asked repeatedly and who can explain some of the issues with it much better than I can: https://hbr.org/2020/10/whats-wrong-with-asking-where-are-you-from


No, don't do this the way you describe.

I suspect you're talking about local languages in a nation state where there are many many languages, and yet there is a common national language like Hindi or Mandarin. I don't have any personal experience with this situation, being an English speaker in a primarily English country, but I think there are some more general ideas that I'd recommend you think about.

Three recommendations: first, if you must do so, why not merely relay where you are from? If a student recognizes this location and can infer you can speak an additional language with them, they can make this connection on their own. Avoid asking questions of others that they might be uncomfortable with or that might lead to stereotyping.

Second, avoid playing favorites (or even appearing to) as an instructor. I think it is natural to associate with someone who shares something with you (fans of the same music? same hobby? same language/hometown?) and to treat them differently, as well as to view someone from someplace less common as "different" or "other". I'd avoid asking questions that categorize people. A safer alternative sometimes used as a mnemonic by instructors is to ask about a more generic "something special", where students can choose exactly what piece of information to share (that said, not all students really like these get-to-know-you games, myself included).

Third, although I think there are a lot of good reasons to promote and cultivate languages and prevent their loss, I'm not sure the university classroom is the best place. Students who learn concepts from you in a common local language to both of you may have difficulties when they advance and are in other courses (or the "real world") needing to use the same concepts in a more typical language. Practicing using the language of the course may be better for both of you.

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    Yes, exactly. Resist "having special connections" with some of your students. It can all too easily generate alienation or suspicion-of-favoritism among the others... – paul garrett Apr 5 at 19:34
  • This dos not directly answer the question. Not all bad practices are discrimination. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 5 at 23:59
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I'm not going to opine if it's legally discrimination according to any local laws or discrimination according to their university policies or anything. If it's enough to make people feel uncomfortable due to their place of birth or to make it appear like an instructor has favorite and not-favorite students, that's reason enough to not do it; that's my answer, and I think it covers what OP asked just fine: should I ask? No. – Bryan Krause Apr 6 at 0:30
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    I agree with you. I don't see the relevance of laws or policies. But I think it's good to directly answer yes/no questions with a yes or no. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 6 at 2:21
  • @AnonymousPhysicist I see. I feel the explanation is a lot more important than the yes/no, but I've added it anyways. – Bryan Krause Apr 6 at 2:40
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I see two issues here:

The first issue is that you don't even need to know about the students' hometowns - your query is actually about their language proficiency. In an attempt to make your question more palatable you are using hometown as a proxy for language proficiency.

But answers about hometowns give more information than merely about language proficiency. The answers combined with other pieces of public data like surnames might contain hidden socioeconomic information - financial status, caste or class, family literacy level, family migration and parents' inter-caste marriage patterns, etc. Things which certain students might feel uncomfortable in revealing or discussing.

Asking about hometowns might also be code to know which students will be favored over others. Teachers should not appear to favour linguistic or cultural groups. Just to avoid this appearance of potential discrimination is in itself a sufficient reason to not ask such questions.

The second issue is that every course already has a certain language. This language is predetermined, and is connected both with courses taken prior to this course, as well as to coursework or industry work the student might take up after this course. There is a continuity of thought, jargon and even culture across the students' education, which is part of the learning.

Because of this continuity, is not appropriate for a teacher to unilaterally change the language for a course even if it results in a temporary improvement in understanding or retention.

Twenty years after your course, when the student needs to keep abreast of the latest developments in the industry, they will need to self-read journals or publications in the dominant language of the industry. If their education is already in that language, then having a few intermediary concepts delivered in their native tongue might be counterproductive. If the student is forced to work through their language difficulties now, it will result in a better long-term outcome.

This goes doubly for instructors. Teaching is not merely about knowing the subject - it is also about transferring information effectively. An instructor who is not comfortable with the language the course is to be delivered in, cannot be considered fit to deliver the course, regardless of the instructor's expertise with the subject matter.

Instructors need to use the course language instead of switching to their native language even if the class solely comprises of students proficient in the native tongue.

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    I wish that I could upvote this more than once. Especially the bit "If the student is forced to work through their language difficulties now, it will result in a better long-term outcome." The best time for students and teachers to confront challenges is now, instead of deferring it to when the students are unleashed on the job market. – Wetenschaap Apr 6 at 16:24
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    "The second issue is that every course already has a certain language. This language is predetermined" - I cannot quite agree with that claim. At least the way teaching is handled in Germany, it is commonplace for instructors to pick either German or English as a language used throughout the course in accordance with the students present during the first lecture, for instance. (It is well possible this is done differently in India, and it is also possible there are arguments why it is better like that; I'm merely disputing the claim that the course language is generally predetermined.) – O. R. Mapper Apr 7 at 9:48
  • @O.R.Mapper Fascinating. Can't help but wonder how this can be done practically apart from the verbal lecture component. Does the instructor also swap the textbook from a German author to another textbook of an English author, after the first lecture? 1:1 translations would surely not be available... What about say HBR-like case studies, printed course notes, past years' question papers etc - or is it safe to say it effectively becomes a bilingual course with the verbal component and written components in different languages? – Pranab Apr 8 at 5:51
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    @Pranab: There is no such thing as a "textbook" for lectures here. In a few (very few!) lectures I witnessed that one or two books were recommended as further materials for those interested, but those were absolutely optional to read, by far not on the level of importance that I see here on Academia.SE "textbooks" are granted in some countries. With that said, any materials, such as slides and worksheets, are usually written in English. The ad-hoc agreement concerns the "talking language" during the lecture, as understanding complex spoken explanations/engaging in a dialogue is ... – O. R. Mapper Apr 8 at 7:22
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    ... quite a different skill compared to reading materials in English (which all students are expected to be able to). So, yes, in a way, it effectively becomes a bilingual course. – O. R. Mapper Apr 8 at 7:23
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In the US, and I suspect a fair number of other countries, it would be frowned upon for a professor to ask students in their class where they are from, unless perhaps that had direct relevance to the topic of the class. This is considered a personal question, and while generally appropriate in a social setting where you are having conversation with someone you do not hold authority over, for a professor asking that of their students (especially in a class setting in front of other students) would be perceived as nosy, intrusive, and at least mildly inappropriate.

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    Lots of towns have reputations, good and bad. In the US, some people might not want to admit they're from a tiny town (for fear of being treated like a redneck), a town with a reputation for violence and poverty (e.g. Gary, IN), or perhaps even from a wealthy suburb after all your classmates say they're from less wealthy places. – Azor Ahai -him- Apr 5 at 17:15
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    @Buffy Your story sounds like an uncomfortable experience for that student to me ... – Azor Ahai -him- Apr 5 at 19:14
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    @Buffy I think what Dan is saying is that while your experience, and the experience provided to you by the student, was quite positive, for the student it may not have been. They may have felt pressure to conform to the idea that it's an interesting fact that their family has been in the US for generations, whereas for them it's not an interesting fact but a daily annoyance that so many people still treat them as an outsider and express surprise at their life history. – Bryan Krause Apr 5 at 20:58
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    One recurring trope is the constant surprise that a US-born student has "such good English"; your example is another: "oh but where are your parents from" can come across as a "oh I don't mean where were you born, I mean where are you from, 'for real', that is, you can't be from here so where do you really come from?", even if you mean it with complete sincerity and even if you'd be just as curious about the life history of someone born in Kansas who looks white. – Bryan Krause Apr 5 at 20:59
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    @Buffy Positive for you, alienating for the student. I suggest you delete your comment. Experiments on stereotype threat show that minority students who are asked about their identity learn less. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 6 at 0:02
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Asking someone about their identity, including their place of origin, is not discrimination. It is not necessarily a bad thing to do. Not talking about identity perpetuates the idea that some identities are bad and should be hidden.

However, in an educational context, drawing attention to students' identities can cause harm. If you ask students where they are from, students who are from disadvantaged areas may experience stress, which reduces how much they learn. This phenomenon, which is known as stereotype threat, has been found in many experiments.

If you ask students about their identities after they have finished learning and taking exams, then stereotype threat is no longer relevant.

You can asks students about themselves in a more general way, such as "What should I know about you?" at any time.

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Let's say half of the student were coming from Y: you would be able to build a special relationship with them ... what about the students coming from X?

You have to be fair.

You could provide an excellent "service" to students from Y and a very good "service" to students from X. Do not proceed that way: you have to provide a common "service" service to students from X and from Y. Will it be only "very good"? probably.

Let's say you are employing two persons, a man and a woman. They do exactly the same job, performing the same tasks, carring the same responsibilities ... and the man is paid an excellent salary of 90 carrots per hour, while the woman is paid a very good salary of 80 carrots per hour. Someone[1] may argue that people from all genders have a very good "status" since they get a very good or an excellent salary, but they all got a salary.

What do you think?

In these relative terms, students can say you discriminated them, and they would be completely right. If the solution is to strive to give both groups the excellent service, or set just the minimum common, giving both groups a very good service, it depends on external conditions/forcings.

[1] someone not particularly brilliant, I admit.

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My doubt here is whether this would constitute discrimination based on place.

Asking a clear and direct question with no offense meant (whatever it is) would certainly not constitute "discrimination" of any sort, especially if the students are not obliged to answer. Discrimination means preferential treatment or mistreatment and you haven't done anything to that extent. The current attempts to extend the notion to everything that some people may possibly find somewhat "sensitive" under certain circumstances are just mere abuse of common sense and communication norms.

As to languages, I'd better stick to the official language of the university whatever it is: that is what is normally expected and what the students signed up for regardless of their native dialects. It is OK to switch to a particular student dialect in a one on one conversation during the office hours if you both find out that it facilitates the communication but I wouldn't do it in the classroom even if everybody there were speaking my native tongue (and I had such small graduate classes a couple of times). The reasons vary from the fact that all terminology and other similar things the students need to learn and use in parallel courses (as well as the textbooks) would be in English, so I'd better make my presentations coherent with other lectures and texts, to just my desire to practice the language of the country I am currently living in as much as possible.

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Since the question "What is your home town" has many possibilities for misinterpretation, and in addition it is not even the question you want to ask, don't do it.

Most of the courses I teach are taught in English, and not the local language, due to the presence of many non-native speakers, exchange students etc. The official course language in those cases is English. In smaller classes I will usually ask all students to just briefly present themselves, using open ended questions such that they can choose what information to relay themselves. In most cases it is clear already from that presentation if I happen to be in a class with only native speakers. In those cases I will simply ask if everyone is a native speaker to comfirm, and then I switch. If not, I of course stay English.

I think you can use a similar approach.

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It is possible to ask such a question as a way of making a connection, as long as you say something about yourself.

But it is also possible to ask it in such a way that you imply that the person is somehow an "outsider" or "other". Avoid that, of course, though it may take some finesse.

In other words, the question can be an inclusive or an exclusive one as well as being neutral. The first situation is fine. The last might be misinterpreted, so use caution.


However, I worry about your motives for doing this. In a class, even a small class, you should speak a language known to all students. A language in which they are proficient. If your use of language would exclude some students you should rethink it.

My understanding of language in India is that, an educated person probably speaks at least three languages; English, Hindi or Tamil (maybe both) and a local/regional language, possibly several. I don't know how much the local languages differ from each other or from the more widely used languages, but using one in class (rather than in private conferences) could be problematic if they aren't shared. Again, it is the inclusion v. exclusion issue.

An additional principle, is that if a student in a class asks a question, then all students should hear and understand both the question and the answer. Questions asked by one student are also of concern to others, some of whom are less willing to ask.

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    Not sure why this is being downvoted. It seems entirely accurate to me, at least from an education perspective. I dunno how accurate the statements about languages in India are. – nick012000 Apr 6 at 1:59
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    Try to replace India with Switzerland, where the languages are English, German, French and a local/regional language (either variations of German, or Italian, or the other latin language they have in the mountains). Will the downvotes disappear? who knows. – EarlGrey Apr 6 at 8:56
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I'd think you should not do this, probably in any of the main cultures (that I'm dimly aware of) in the world. It invites trouble. Those who can feel they're part of the same smaller cultural group as you may feel happier, but those not in that smaller group will have reason to wonder what impact that will have...

I've said before, and do truly believe, that a good teacher should have a substantial "professional persona", but it should be somehow personal yet impersonal, specific yet non-specific...

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    In some countries it is quite common to have an idea of the home town or region of most students. First because certain surnames are localised; second because the pronunciation is strongly affected by the local dialect (anyone in Italy can understand that I’m from Piedmont just from the way I pronunce the letter ‘e’); and third because frequently you can read it off the ID the students present at the exams. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 5 at 21:12
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Do the opposite: tell them about your background.

Your motivation, if I understood the question correctly, was to offer an additional means of communication, i.e. in addition to the common language you can also communicate in the local language Y.

So, instead of asking them if they're from Y, just tell them that you have a Y-related background. The students can come to their own conclusions: thus, if there are any students who also speak Y, they can choose to communicate in Y instead of the common language, if they feel the need for it.

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First of all, asking about one thing to find out another is sneaky and somewhat manipulative. If/when people find out, they may feel hurt by this. Secondly, I like the idea of expanding a class to include another language, but it has to be done right, and if it's done without prior warning, I strongly disagree with it.

A lot of answers focus on the harm that can come to students who learn concepts and jargon in a language that isn't the predominate industry language. And that's a valid concern. On the flip side, sort of next to the 'favoritism' thing, but beyond perceptions and hurt feelings... It's unfair to the students who don't speak your native language to have parts of the class that they can't access.

I'm an American English speaker, and I'm now imagining being in a class with 30% hispanic students (which is accurate to how my elementary school was), and having the bilingual teacher teach certain math mnemonics only to those students who understand Spanish.

Granted, the reverse exists here, and is just as (or more) problematic, especially for children. But I agree with the other answers here: There's an understanding that the course is taught in a specific language, and the students signing up for the class are not expecting to need to know a different language.

If I were in your class and was one of the few students who did not know your native language, and you were to explain important concepts to only those who did, and I missed valuable information because of this, especially if my grade suffered or I felt like I couldn't apply the rest of the information because of the missing content, I would likely go to the dean or try to ask for a refund for the course. And although there may be no intentionally missing concepts, it's easy to forget that you haven't explained a concept, because you explained it on the side.

On the other hand, if it was in the course description, "Professor speaks X and Y", or "Office hours help available in language Y", then there's no problem with that. The students know what they're paying for before they sign up for your class. And the students don't have to tell you personal information to get to the point. To my previous example, if my parents had enrolled me in a bilingual English/Spanish school, no one could be upset if half of math class was inaccessible to me because I don't speak Spanish.

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  • I don't really understand this answer. OP seems to have been hoping that all 5 students were from Y, at which point it would be natural to ask "would you like to do part of this course in [the other language]"? I see no hint that OP was considering switching languages without the consent of all involved. – cag51 Apr 6 at 18:48
  • It's really easy to fall into if 4 out of the 5 students speak the other language. – RoboticRenaissance Apr 6 at 18:56
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No question is discriminative; the reaction to the answer may be.

For example: "Are you pregnant or are you planning to be within X months?" is a question that will start up fanatic spree and the highest-qualified job for the asker will be a dustman. In my work this is a must-answer-truly question because we are working with radioactive materials; any answer but "no" means the candidate is immediately rejected or offered different position.


Lectures, meetings, conferences, exams,... It does not matter what type of "venue" it is, the rules are the same.

Hometown, county, continent,... It does not matter either - it is about communication proficiency, language mostly.

Asking about the members' origin does not cover their abbility to communicate. Even though 90% of attendants are native in language A it does not mean they are all proficient in language B.

Your question should be "What are the languages you are proficient with?" and pick the one with 100% coverage. Otherwise stick to the oficial one. For the lectures do cover all mandatory parts in the official language and use the preferred one only for clarification and finetuning the nuances. The test will be in the official language so the students must be given informations mandatory for the test.


I have attended few international conferences where English was the official language, or one of them and all of them were in non-english speaking country. English is my second language as well, after Czech. There some of them with language issues.

#1: The conference was held at the 100 years anniversary of the organising body. For the first day the speeches were demanded to be one in english and one in the native language. I and my colleagues were pissed off by that choice and looking in the audience we were able to find all the attendants who were not fluent in the native language as well. They didn't even ask whether the audience is okay with this. Even the presenters were surprised and one was kindly but strictly asked to return to the native language (her #3) when she slipped to english (#2) because her slides were english.

#2: The conference was organized by a department of a university and most of the presenters were from the university and many were PhD students there. Many struggled with english and sometimes they switched desperately to their native language and kept there for few presentations even though the official language was english. It was annoying for few of us who were not able to speak the native language.

#3: At the conference there were few attendants that were known not to be profficient in the native language. When the chairman saw they left the audience and saw the presenter was struggling talking english he asked the audience whether all are okay with switching the language. After the nod from almost everybody and no complaint then they asked the presenter to switch to the other language. Next presenter was asked to give their talk in english again.

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  • The radioactivity example is confusing because that is discrimination - just because it's ethically necessary doesn't mean it's not discrimination. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 9 at 7:28
  • Why confusing? The question is not discriminating at all. If the candidate would be rejected from office position, it is disrimination. If the candidate is rejected from position of neutron imagining specialist it protection of the fetus. – Crowley Apr 9 at 11:30
  • Both of those are discrimination. One is unethical discrimination. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 9 at 11:45

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