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Rethinking How We Teach Culture in the ESL Classroom

Teaching culture in the ESL classroom.

This post was written by Matthew Clark
Teaching the target culture is a large part of teaching the target language. However, we should be careful that in teaching culture in the ESL classroom, we are breaking stereotypes instead of strengthening them.

A very common mistake when teaching culture is to provide students with a list of cultural traits. What’s wrong with this? Although it may be humorous, you will have a hard time finding anyone who fits the description perfectly. Instead, students will begin to generalize all members of the target culture based on the list.

Instead, try turning the tables. Have ESL students consider their own culture. Begin by asking the class members to individually think about the defining features of their culture. Bring the class together and share their thoughts. You will no doubt have a variety of answers.

Point out to the students that these differences are likely due to the fact that we all belong to subcultures that exist within the larger cultural group. Each of these subcultures possesses its own customs and values. These change depending on gender, age, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, level of education, religion, etc.

Depending on your situation, you may also want to bring members of the target culture into the classroom to point out their similarities and differences.

It is also important to demonstrate how culture can interfere with communication. Again, the point is not to say that the British will all use irony or that Germans will all be very direct. Instead, work on strategies for recognizing and handling cultural misunderstandings.

It may be helpful to use examples of breakdowns in communication from movies or stories. Have the students identify what they think is happening in each case, and how they would handle that situation. Here is your opportunity to teach them expressions for asking for clarification or avoiding difficult questions. This might also be a good time to teach them how to apologize.

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