Blurred Lines: Cross-cultural Communication Tips for the ESL Classroom

Could you teach the phrase “ballpark estimate” without mentioning America’s baseball culture?

Or what about the reverse: culture without language? Could you introduce American dessert culture—take delicious pie for example—without also teaching phrases like “easy as pie” or “American pie”?

Probably not.

Language and culture are tightly intertwined, and for many of us, teaching and representing foreign culture is almost as important a job responsibility as actually teaching English.

Especially in countries that are less multicultural than the USA or Great Britain, school administrators will often have cultural awareness listed in the job duties.

While this can lead to some very exciting and intriguing lessons for both you and the students, it could also cause potential problems if you’re not careful.

Potential Troubles When Teaching Culture

Teaching culture without careful consideration could create a minefield of hurt feelings, miscommunication and possibly even cause you to lose your job.

Let me give an example:

In January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner shot 18 people in Tuscon, Arizona, killing six. The shooting made news reports world wide not only for the number of people killed, but also because of those shot, including a United States Congresswoman and a nine-year-old girl.

At the time, my wife and I had just opened up our school in Japan, and conducted informal “tea times” with the parents to allow them the chance to practice their English.

After the shooting, one of the tea times became very emotional and confrontational. A few of the parents, having grown up in Japan where firearms are strictly regulated, proceeded to first ask about guns, and then the culture of guns in the USA.

Not long after, a few became very aggressive and hostile, condemning not just the shooting, but many of what they felt were cultural failings of the United States. As an American and a former U.S. Army officer, it was a struggle to stay professional and keep the lesson proceeding.

So, what ideas can you take into the classroom to let your lessons progress and keep them informative not just culturally, but also language-wise? Here are a few tips you can use:

Cross-cultural Communication Tips for the ESL Classroom

1. Handle Pressure Points Very, Very Carefully

Varying from country to country, most cultures have sensitive areas that are not very open to discussion or criticism. In Japan, South Korea or China, issues surrounding World War II are tricky subjects, especially as to how it currently affects international relations in East Asia.

For Americans, politics and religion are two areas that are endlessly debated, discussed and argued about with other Americans, but can be a very sensitive issue when discussed with those outside the USA.

In Australia, issues involving the government and Aboriginal peoples can be tense. And for any teachers in the Middle East, discussing anything involving religion could be a large no-no.

For you as a teacher, cultural research is very important. Learn what the culturally sensitive areas are in your current area, and attempt to avoid them in class. If you must approach those areas (or those areas are thrust upon you by your school or students), try to shift the focus to either a safe area (for example, the economic impact of Christmas as opposed to the spiritual), or at least keep your comments as neutral as possible.

Regardless of how you feel about Barack Obama, nuclear power plants, global warming, terrorism or other areas, pretend that you are Walter Cronkite and keep your commentary informative but neutral. If students wish to debate amongst themselves that is fine, as long as you are willing to be a referee and step in if feelings and commentary get too heated.

2. Attempt to Draw Parallels

Unless you are teaching a university level class that focuses on the lecture method, going into extensive details about the inner workings of a cultural issue is going to be a waste of time. First of all, most of your students are there to learn your language, and therefore want the opportunity to practice it. Passively sitting there while the teacher blabbers on is nothing more than rehashing Ben Stein’s famous scenes from “Ferris Beuler’s Day Off.”

Instead, try to find a common point within the culture of your current location. I found, for example, many Japanese understand the Mexican festival of Día de los Muertos quickly and easily if it’s compared and contrasted to the Japanese festival of Obon. Students could then quickly get past the confusion about visiting the graves of the dead or the meaning of the holiday, and enjoy the interesting cultural differences in the festivals.

3. Use Clear, Simple Language

This can sometimes be the most difficult part for the teacher, because some of the concepts and ideas you are trying to convey are not normally expressed in words that even intermediate level students use or understand.

While I am not saying talk down to your students, make sure that you use language that is targeted to their level. I would even say to go a bit simpler than normal, just because there is already a cognitive challenge in trying to get the cultural idea across, even without the language barrier.

4. Encourage Questions

What might be the most interesting part of a culture to you may not prove interesting to your students. I’ve yet to have any Japanese student of mine ask questions about jazz, cowboys, Katy Perry or why Batman is the greatest super hero of all time.

Instead, I have been asked about food, how schools are different in the United States, cultural issues brought up by the news or whatever is the most popular American movie or television show currently on (I hope “Fifty Shades of Gray” doesn’t become popular in Japan for this very reason). 

In addition, encouraging students to ask you questions will also help determine what future cultural lessons might prove most interesting to your students.

5. Grow a Thick Skin While Remaining Sensitive

This is perhaps the hardest skill of all to master. Even with the most careful planning, research and forethought, you will be tossed the occasional curveball by your students. Either in innocence, or just in desire for greater understanding, students will ask questions or make cultural comments that will offend you. Don’t take it personally.

I had a student accuse U.S. soldiers of being terrible, inhuman monsters, even though this same student knew that I am a graduate of West Point and a former U.S. Army officer, as well as having multiple family members serve. If I can keep my cool under that sort of accusation, you can keep yours.

Losing your cool and taking offense is not going to help you or your students. You can be very clear when comments or actions are rude or not acceptable (such as racist or other language), but losing your professionalism will only hurt your lesson, and possibly hurt your standing at your job.

If a student makes a comment that you feel is very insensitive and you cannot control your own personal feelings about it, bring in another staff member—preferably a native speaker—to assist you as you explain why, and how what was said was either hurtful or unacceptable. Even then, be willing to swallow hurtful comments or insults, as most of them are not meant that way.

Conversely, you must be willing to be super sensitive to your students’ feelings and pride. While it may hurt your pride, you must be willing to offer up an apology at the slightest unintended cultural insult given. Sometimes, even when I know that I might be treading on dangerous ground, I admit that I am asking from ignorance and apologize for any misunderstanding. It won’t work all the time, but it helps a lot.

Teaching about culture and not just language can be one of the most rewarding, but also some of the most challenging parts of your job as a foreign language teacher.

For the most enjoyable and trouble-free cross-cultural lessons, start using these tips today!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe