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5 ESL Culture Questions to Spark Conversation in the Classroom

Have you ever experienced culture shock?

If you’re teaching ESL abroad, it’s likely that you have. When you go to any new country, there’s a period of adjustment as you get used to your new way of life.

One great example of this is punctuality.

The British can’t stand tardiness, and in Japan, everything runs like clockwork.

However, in Thailand, it’s not uncommon for people to turn up 45 minutes after the agreed time. In Morocco, they could even be a whole day late!

As an ESL teacher, you’re in a great position to discuss cultural differences like these with your students. You can use these discussions to teach new vocabulary and grammar points, as well as practicing your students’ fluency.

5 ESL Culture Questions to Spark Conversation in the Classroom

Your lessons may be one of the only opportunities your students have to experience a different culture. While movies, TV shows and music offer a small window into other ways of life, nothing compares to first-hand experience with a foreigner. That’s why you should make the most of it by taking the time to teach some dedicated lessons about other cultures.

These will be particularly valuable to those who work in international organizations or students who are planning to study abroad. The things you teach in your classroom can help them to avoid committing social faux-pas and make them feel more comfortable and confident when speaking English with foreigners.

Language and culture are intrinsically linked, and these lessons are a great way to explore this. Read further to learn how.

If you’re not sure how to bring culture into the classroom, don’t worry. Here are five questions you can use to get your students comparing and contrasting their cultures with others around the world.

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1. Have You Ever Traveled Abroad?

Travel is a great place to start. Many of your students will have traveled to other countries. The ones who don’t will certainly have an idea of where they’d like to go in the future. You can use this to discuss different cultures and ways of life in various countries.

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To start the class, ask your students if they’ve ever experienced another culture. It could be through school, work or any kind of social interaction. In response, they are likely to raise the subject of travel. In pairs or small groups, ask them to talk about which countries they’ve been to and how they’re different from their own.

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ESL Teachers Boards has a Crossing Cultures lesson plan you can use to keep the conversation going. It’s also great for fleshing out any cultural lessons. At the end of the segment, finish with a quiz on world culture to test your students’ knowledge. Dave’s ESL Cafe has an easy, multiple choice world culture quiz. For a more advanced class, use ISL Collective’s culture quiz about English-speaking countries.

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Another way to give students a firsthand glimpse into other cultures is by teaching with FluentU. Specially designed to create a culturally immersive learning environment, FluentU lets you teach English using real-world materials like news articles, television shows, songs and more. That way, students learn more than just the language—they gain deeper insight into English-speaking cultures as well.

2. What Are Some Laws in Your Country?

Laws differ from country to country, and this is always an interesting topic of discussion. Take alcohol, for example. In the US, the legal drinking age is 21, while in the UK, it’s 18. In Thailand, you can only purchase alcohol at certain times of the day, and in Saudi Arabia, it’s illegal to buy it at all.

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While these laws are interesting, others are downright ridiculous. For example, in Vermont, a wife must get permission from her husband to wear false teeth. In Australia, it’s illegal to own more than 50 kg of potatoes at one time. You can use Thought Catalog’s list of ridiculous laws around the world for more strange, funny and unbelievable examples. Then, you can print out the list and hand it out to your students as a worksheet.

Have them read through the worksheet and highlight any words they don’t understand. When they’re finished, you can have them fill in the blanks as you give explanations. This way, the exercise doubles up as a reading comprehension and vocabulary activity.

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If you want to make it a listening exercise too, use this activity from BBC Learning English. It includes audio of someone answering questions on laws around the world and lets students play along as they listen.

If you still have time at the end of the class, consider wrapping up with a true or false quiz on other crazy laws around the world. Students will have fun guessing which ones are real and which ones aren’t.

3. What Are Weddings Like in Your Country?

Weddings are a good way to explore culture, as ceremonies and traditions vary all over the world.

Raise the subject by asking students if they have ever been to a wedding. Then, ask them to brainstorm vocabulary related to weddings, such as “bride,” “groom,” “rings,” “speech,” etc.

After that, they can discuss what traditional weddings are like in their country and compare them with ceremonies around the world. Use this to lead into a conversation about dating and relationships in different cultures.

Some example questions you could ask:

  • What age do people usually get married in your country?
  • What do you think about arranged marriages?
  • Is it OK to live with your partner before getting married?

You can also use the love, dating and marriage questions from ITESLJ.org. Print them and hand them out to students. Then, they can ask each other in pairs. All you have to do is walk around and monitor the conversation.

4. What Do You Consider Polite and Rude?

When you’re visiting another country or interacting with foreigners, manners are of the utmost importance. If your students don’t learn about local etiquette before they travel, they could end up inadvertently causing offense. Use this activity to give them some ideas of what is and isn’t good manners.

Provide a list of do’s and don’ts for your own culture. You could either do this with a worksheet or with a video, such as Communicate School of English’s video about British culture. Go through the list as a class to make sure students understand each one. Then, allow them to discuss them in pairs.

After that, students can write similar lists of do’s and don’ts for their own cultures. Tell them to imagine they’re writing advice for a foreigner who has never visited their country before. They should consider things like eye contact, touch, punctuality, personal space and table manners. If you’re teaching adults, you could also go into work etiquette, and how to conduct business with clients and bosses in different countries.

You may need to spend some time teaching modal verbs like “must” and “should” so students understand how to use them in their writing. At the end of the lesson, each group can present their list to the class.

5. What Are Some of Your Traditional Foods?

This is a quick and easy speaking activity for beginner or intermediate students. It provides some guidance and structure, so students don’t have to worry if their fluency isn’t up to par.

To kick things off, ask your students to talk about some of their traditional foods. Then, put your learners in small groups and ask them to list 10 different countries. Once they’re in their groups, have your students write foods that are eaten in each country.

Once they’ve finished, use this list to ask “have you ever..?” questions, such as:

  • Have you ever tried pizza?
  • Have you ever eaten green curry?

If they find this easy, you can use more complicated questions, like this one:

  • What’s the strangest food you have ever eaten?

If that’s still not enough, you could even go on to discuss how these foods are eaten by covering different table etiquette around the world.

Keep Things Inclusive

No matter what subject you’re teaching, it’s important to foster an inclusive learning environment. This means making sure that the activities and learning materials are suitable for everyone in the class, and no student feels left out. When you’re teaching about culture, you should be extra wary of this. Discussions about different cultures should always be kept positive. Otherwise, you could end up with some friction between students. Build an inclusive classroom, and everything else will fall into place.

And One More Thing…

If your students enjoy learning about English-speaking cultures, then they’ll love learning with FluentU! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.

It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities. You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.

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On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.

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For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:

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Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”

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It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.

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