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.
As an ESL teacher, you’re in a great position to discuss cultural differences with your students.
You can use these discussions to teach new vocabulary and grammar points, as well as to get your students to practice speaking.
In this post, you’ll get 5 engaging culture questions you can use to start a discussion in your ESL classroom, and ideas for how to use them in your cultural lessons.
- 1. Have You Ever Traveled Abroad?
- 2. What Are Some Laws in Your Country?
- 3. What Are Weddings Like in Your Country?
- 4. What Do You Consider Polite and Rude?
- 5. What Are Some of Your Traditional Foods?
- Why Teach Lessons on Culture to ESL Students
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why Teach Lessons on Culture to ESL Students
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 teaching 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 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. With the five questions you just learned, you can get your students to compare and contrast their cultures with others around the world.
When teaching about culture, you should be extra aware of fostering an inclusive learning environment.
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!