Culture Clash in the ESL Classroom — Hard to Say and Sometimes Harder to Handle

May 23, 2012

We all suffer culture clash to some degree in a foreign classroom. As with any language, English is tied to its own culture and customs, so an education in words and grammar cannot exclude an equally important lesson in culture.

I remember my first week as an English teacher in Costa Rica. As part of our orientation, we attended a “culture shock” workshop, meant to help our group of wide-eyed gringos adjust to life in this foreign country. Our instructor, Joaquin, warned us, “At first it will all seem charming: There are no street signs anywhere! The taxi driver delivered a pizza on my way home! The neighbors had a mariachi band in their backyard at 3 AM.” We laughed—it did sound charming! But Joaquin warned that after the initial wonder wears off, these cultural difference can begin to lose their shine, and that’s when culture shock sets in.

Teaching English is no exception. Cultural differences that seem harmless, and even amusing, outside the classroom can cause problems for teachers and students in the classroom. Here are three examples of the pitfalls of cultures clash:

1. Define “on time”

Time is an abstract concept, to be sure, but in some parts of the world, it’s downright liquid. If you come from a country where the simple statement “class starts at 3” means class starts at 3, it can be difficult to make sense of students trickling in at 3:15 without so much as guilty glance your way. As a teacher in Morocco, I found that the tradition of greeting friends with a kiss on the cheek added to the disruption of late students. This formerly charming tradition quickly lost its appeal as I stood at the front of the class, interrupted mid-lesson, waiting  for a latecomer to kiss her classmates hello. To deal with this, compromise is key. You may not be able to get them all there on time, but compromise; if they must arrive late, they’ll do so quietly, without conversation (or kisses!).

2. Is it cheating or helping?

Even the word cheating speaks volumes to the difference in how students around the world perceive certain kinds of classroom behavior. In a culture like the U.S., which values individual achievement, sharing answers on a test is viewed as outright cheating. But if a student belongs to a culture that values group cooperation, the same behavior might instead be perceived as simply helping a classmate out. I’m not suggesting that you bend your own rules of classroom decorum, but you should have a “class culture” conversation with students from the outset. Set clear guidelines of what’s acceptable in situations like test-taking, and why.

3. The “loud American” teaching style

You’ve created a great game to teach the present progressive tense to your class and you explain it to your students enthusiastically before jumping right in. But instead of excitement, your game is met with blank stares and nervous glances around the room. Have you flopped? Well, sort of. Styles of learning vary tremendously from country to country, so the boisterous, interactive lesson you’ve created may make students uncomfortable in a culture where learning is focused more on rote memorization or following the text book.  Instead, ease into games. Establish a comfortable classroom environment first and when you introduce an activity, make sure to explain the rules first, clearly and thoroughly.