Summary of #ELTchat discussion: “The effect of culture on teaching and learning”

It is that time of the week again, the day after the #ELTchat discussion. Thanks to my runaway enthusiasm, it finds me with a lengthy transcript and the task of turning it into something coherent. It was, as usual, a mind-bender of a discussion, so this task is a far from unpleasant one for me!

The transcript divides itself quite neatly, amongst the chaos, into three distinctive areas of interest: defining culture, how culture affects teachers and how culture affects learning as well as learners. I have structured this summary along these lines. I have also included a few of my own thoughts, which are demarcated by the use of [square brackets] and hope no one will be offended by this authorial intervention!!

Without any further ado, then:

Defining Culture

To start us off, then, @Sjhannam noted, a lot of people use the term “culture” without definition. This issue was duly dealt with in a flurry of tweets (a chorus of tweets? a cacophany of tweets? what *is* the collective for a group of tweets?) as we all put forward potential meanings as well as raising issues, and set about defining this multi-faceted term.

One definition that was given many supportive retweets came from @rilberni who postulated that culture is the set of ‘norms’ that are adhered to by a particular society e.g. punctuality. @JoHart’s attempt to define culture also attracted its share of retweets and went thus: “Culture is the mores and conventions by which a societal group lives and interacts, usually to avoid conflict.

@Sjhannam suggested that as we define culture, we need to be clear if we are talking about culture in the wider sense or in terms of cultural difference (as it is often used) while @barbsaka quite rightly pointed out that “Big Culture with a “C” (art etc) doesn’t usually affect a class: it is culture with a little “c” that trips up classes.

@LizziePinard opined that language is part of culture, which gained a few retweets and was built upon by @pjgallantry who gave us the examples of naval terms in British English, as well as idioms, and reminded us that the English language is also informed by the number of different cultures it has interacted with, which is apparent in “borrowed words” amongst other things. Meanwhile, @FarnhamCastle flipped it around and said culture is part of language.

This perspective was balanced by @rilberni who agreed that language is part of culture but believes that English language is not, in some ways and @JoeMcVeigh who put forward his view that we cannot say culture IS language and vice-versa, only that they are important parts of each other and closely related. @Lizziepinard hazarded an expansion of @rilberni’s comment, as follows: “so English as part of English culture but also as part of the cultures that have absorbed it and made all different englishes out of it?”, while @sjhannam volunteered the view that “English can be seen as pan-cultural”, in that it is “used by many for their own purposes and they bring to it what they will in terms of their own cultural reference.” She likes Pennycook’s idea of “transcultural flow” in this context, which assumes people use English to create meaning of their own – as well as in their various mother tongues.

The Effect of Culture on Teaching

@JoeMcVeigh starts us off nicely in this section by asking, “how do you see intercultural differences helping/hindering your teaching?”. @Barbsaka put forward a couple of practical examples of this, such as knowing that her students do not show readiness to start class by making eye contact helps her teach and that awareness of cultural norms such as students not willing to sit on the floor or next to someone of the opposite gender is necessary for the class not to be derailed.

@theteacherjames championed a culture-neutral approach by saying that while bringing culture into the classroom is not inherently an imposition, if it is not led by students’ needs or curiosity, then it might have some unfortunate overtones. This seems to link with @timjulian60’s view that it is essential to understand students’ reasons for learning English, as ESP students may not want to learn about Guy Fawkes or Christmas in the UK while others might. When @OUPELT questioned whether one can learn English successfully and not care for the English-speaking countries, @theteacherjames responded to this by sharing his belief that, English no longer being the domain of the native-speaking countries, this should be entirely possible.

@barbsaka threw us all a curve ball when she suggested that we were talking about three different facets of culture in the classroom at this point: artefacts, norms and language-influence. @sjhannam posited that this confusion was the essence of the problem: we were using “cultural” in a multitude of ways simultaneously. [Author comment: this issue is not something that makes summarising any easier, let me tell you!] @Barbsaka explained that by cultural artefacts she means, for example, when we have a holiday party, bring in L2 artefacts, or ask students to teach us about their culture (in English). Norms, as we discussed earlier, lie at the root of “cultural differences” and come out in both teacher and student behaviour and may also impact what and how we teach. Language-influence would seem to refer to how culture affects English, how this affects our teaching of English and the impact of English on other cultures as well as the emergence of International English and related issues.

Heretofore, then, we have barely scratched the surface. Time to add some more detail to our sub-categories of Artefacts, Norms and Language-Influence.


Bringing culture into the classroom. @Yitzha_sarwono put forward that, “when learning some phrases, we are engaging in the culture itself, because they have history in them. This was expanded upon by @Lizziepinard who mentioned idioms, metaphors, proverbs and fairytales as examples of where we engage with culture as we engage with language. This angle of things was found worrying by @theteacherjames who said that as a Briton, he is always concerned about committing cultural imperialism by stealth. On a lighter note, @JoeMcVeigh suggested that literature and film can be valuable tools for exploring culture in the classroom, which was built upon by @Vimpela recommending using The Simpsons as a great way to explore US culture, with humour. Meanwhile, we must consider the other slant on this, which was nicely put by @marekandrews: “If the culture of the learners is accessed and activated in a lesson, it will usually be an advantage for the ‘success’ of the lesson.” As well as bringing our own culture into the classroom, we must not be afraid to activate the wealth of culture we find already there waiting for us! This all ties in with @Lizziepinard’s comment that culture is one of many vehicles that we can use to transport language to our students.


@Marekandrew postulates that what is key is how to help students negotiate cultural misunderstandings, as you can never eliminate them. This, then, is the territory of cultural differences and their role in the classroom. JoeMcVeigh reminds us of the importance of teaching students about non-verbal communication e.g. eye contact, standing distance, firmness of handshake, gestures, with @JoHart highlighting the overlap between language and culture here. @Mkfoab described how their students often sound ‘rude’ in English, illustrating this with the classic “I want” instead of “I’d like to” and nominated this as an appropriate time to teach students about the culture of the language.

As well as what we teach, equally important, as ever, is what we learn. @Yitzha_sarwono recommends that we use awareness of host country culture norms to our advantage, giving the example of politeness being part of Indonesian culture and therefore awareness helping to nurture better terms between students and teachers. @Rilberni raises the importance of remembering cultural issues when dealing with things like how students approach writing (with @JoeMcVeigh offering contrastive rhetoric research by Kaplan and Connor as an illustratrion of this) or their use of register and forms of address. @harrisonmike reminds us that we must be careful in dealing with plagiarism too, in some cultures it is not considered a bad thing, backed up by @timjulian60 who observed that Italians often have a very relaxed attitude to what a Briton would call “cheating”. From the heights of theory, we must also be aware of the simple things, such as the effect of culture students’ attitudes towards making and correcting mistakes or more simply still, how they indicate “yes” and “no” – as pointed out by @harrisonmike, for example, Sri Lankans nod for “no” and shake their heads for “yes”! These differences, as @Lizziepinard said, might be very important in business classes, if the students intend to embark on cross-cultural business negotiations.


@Barbsaka, once again, offers us a concrete example of this and the effect in the classroom: In Japan, a different way of viewing position and location makes it a challenge to teach prepositions. As sjhannam says, “a teacher’s ‘culture’ is central to the way they teach and understand their students” and @teacherjames believes that despite the global nature of English, it still strongly reflects US and UK values. At the same time, language relates to one’s every-day realities, pointed out @cherrymp, so students can come up asking for English equivalents of the things that they see around them, which in the EFL sector are often rooted in their own language and culture. Often, as @Barbsaka, responded, there is no equivalent in English.

Meanwhile, @rliberni mentions she and colleagues having been told that they should adapt their language to international standards, which she found insulting, and that she had read in a few articles that native speakers should be taught “International English” (as distinct from other varieties). Sjhannam questioned the possibility of one international variety or one variety of British English, as language is too dynamic for this and @JoHart was of the opinion that International English is “a bit sterile, lacking in idioms etc”.

[Thus, we seem to have tensions between what students carry with them into the classroom, through their own L1, what culture English as L2 does or does not, should or should not, carry with it into the classroom and what culture the teacher of English as L2 carries with them into the classroom. Or perhaps this can be seen in a positive light: All this interplay between language and language, culture and culture, must surely make for a “never a dull moment” scenario, provided it is accompanied by awareness and sensitivity.

Is your head spinning yet? If not, dear readers, do read on! Time, now, to return to the final main section of the body of this summary!]

The Effect of Culture on Learning and Learners

Moving on, then, to the perspective of the learner and their learning. @OUPELTGlobal enquired whether appreciating the culture is necessary to successfully learn the language, to which mkofab responded with their belief that it is necessary and can be a very powerful motivator while @barbsaka put forth that knowing the culture is more important than appreciating it. @Cherrymp thinks appreciating the culture helps because “in a way, language is very much part of the culture”.

[Perhaps one of the underlying difficulties of all of this is that multiple countries and cultures claim English as their L1 and it has grown up and absorbed a number of cultures, so the “culture of English” is perhaps a more slippery thing to get our fingers (and minds) around than, for example, the “culture of Japanese”. I wonder if the “culture of Spanish” or “the culture of Portuguese” might be similarly slippery, but that is for another discussion!]

As has already been noted above, learners bring their L1 culture into the classroom and this can be activated to enhance language learning. This is exemplified by @CoffeeAdictMe, who said, “we try to use as much Turkish as we can. For instance, if we teach directions, we use a map of the city we live in.” @OUPELTGlobal liked this approach of “using local culture in the lessons, such as place names, students’ names, local traditions and holidays.” @Cherrymp describes it as “bid goodbye to Tom and Mary – usher in local names”. Meanwhile, Marekandrews postulated that the major task for language learners, when it comes to culture, is to define for themselves a ‘third place’ between cultures and to feel comfortable operating there.

One aspect of the effect of culture on learners and learning, that sparked off great debate quite late on in the session, was introduced by an innocuous question offered to us by @pjgallantry: “What do you think about some students adopting English names?” The general response involved words and phrases such as “imposition”, “terrible!”, “offensive”, “losing their identity”, and “rude”. @theteacherjames found odd and inpalatable the idea that students should have to adopt a new persona to speak the language. Apparently, however, according to @breathyvowel, “adopting English names is big in Korea”, backed up @Shaunwilden who said “a lot of Asian students do this, but they choose odd names”. @JoHart pointed out that in some cultures, adopting English names has religious significance, especially for students of Catholic faith and @rilberni added to this by saying that in others, there are “official names, family names, friend names etc”.

The general consensus on the issue of English names seemed to be that under no circumstances should teachers inflict this on their students but if their students choose or have chosen to adopt English names, we must accept that. @Sjhannam identified the importance of trying to learn students’ names as they are, not a changed version. @Cherrymp wondered about mispronunciation causing embarrassment, which @OUPELTglobal downplayed, saying that learning to pronounce students’ names correctly is a first step to another’s culture. This was widely re-tweeted! As @CoffeeAddictMe put it, “our attempts may not be perfect but it is important to make the effort” otherwise we are saying, “their real names are not ‘good enough’.” @OUPELTglobal added further to this by suggesting that learning the students’ names is a great way to interact with them and reverse roles, so that they become the teacher, making a great cultural connection in the process. Being teachers, of course, we should “celebrate students’ identities, not to try to squash them”, as was pointed out by @pysproblem81.

In conclusion then… [“at long last!!” I hear you say!], what do we take away from Wednesday’s 12.00 British time (18.00 Indonesian time!) discussion on the effect of culture? I think if I had to sum it up in a single sentence, I would use @cherrymp’s: “Culture is a tool, not a trap”. When we relate culture to language learning, we should be aware, as sjhannam points out, that we all use the term “culture” differently so we need to ‘check’ how others are using it. Once beyond the issue of slippery definitions, it is easy to see that this multifaceted monster, or angel, depending on your point of view, is very much present in the arena of language learning. If we are aware of this and handle it sensitively, culture is an important part of learning – when it helps our students to communicate better. The key is, it would seem, as @ELTBakery said, “bringing culture [into the classroom] is not an imposition if you listen, accept and respect students’ opinions.” As long as we bear this in mind, then culture is there, in all its richness, to be embraced as appropriate, in a plethora of ways, by both teacher and learner.

That is all for today, folks! See you next week, same time and same place: #ELTchat!!!


Appendix 1: Links proffered in the course of this discussion:
New York Times on the advantages of bilingualism.
@Cybraryman’s “Culture Page” of links.
“How culture matters” from Barbara’s blog Teaching Village.
“When being a Native Speaker isn’t good enough” from English Attack blog.
TESOL 2010 presentation on 10 Techniques for Teaching Culture on slideshare by @JoeMcVeigh.
Hofstede’s dimensions of culture.
More detail on Hofstede.
Series of blog posts on culture by @Barrytomalin.
Online quiz on (some funny) idioms.
Fun Youtube clip on Ethiopian /US courting.
Summary for #eltchat on International Englishes.
Katan, David ‘Translating Cultures’.
Culture: the 5th language skill.
Cultural aspects in ELT.
Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication.

…Phew, more than I remembered appearing as the chat progressed!! A wealth of top quality stuff in terms of both information and humour… Enjoy!

12 thoughts on “Summary of #ELTchat discussion: “The effect of culture on teaching and learning”

  1. Great summary as usual, Lizzie! Good to be able to catch up with a chat I was not able to participate in due to teaching committments – and so soon after the event, too!!

    Just one point – are the links supposed to be clickable? I’m not able to click on them, but don’t know if it’s just my problem!

    • Hi Andrea,

      Thanks for stopping by, glad you approve of the summary!

      Re the links, I’ve not yet learned how to make them clickable! (Tried once but ended up with gobbledygook on the page when I previewed it!) You can find them on Shaun’s #eltchat website version as clickable links though. As an example of how bumbling I am with wordpress (still a bit new to it!), I’ve written this comment once already but pressed the wrong button so deleted it instead of publishing it! Doh.


  2. Pingback: Summary – “The effect of culture on teaching and learning” | #ELTchat

  3. Hi Lizzie,
    Thanks for your summary! Really appreciated. @sjhannam here. Can I just add what I facebooked to Shaun about my own view. Digital footprints and all I would like to make sure that I clarify the issue with pan-cultural just as its a contentious one that can lead to misunderstanding. Feel free to take it out or add in as you wish. This is what I said to Shaun (plus a little extra).
    “I think I meant that English can be seen as pan-cultural (a little less certain perhaps?). I meant that it is used by many for their own purposes and they bring to it what they will in terms of their own cultural reference. Tweeting eh – hard to capture complex stuff. But I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for saying that is either inevitable or positive in all cases. I like Pennycook’s idea of “transcultural flow” which assumes people use English to create meaning of their own – as well as in their various mother tongues”
    Thanks Lizzie. All best. Sara Hannam, Thessaloniki

    • Hi Sara,

      Thanks for stopping by and having a look! I’ll try and edit this in. 🙂 It is certainly difficult to discuss complex ideas in 140 characters…yet somehow by and large we manage it! 🙂 Hurrah for twitter! Thanks for expanding on your opinion without the 140 limit!


  4. Pingback: When Sandy met Lizzie « Sandy Millin

  5. Pingback: #ELTchat » Summary – “The effect of culture on teaching and learning”

  6. Hi Lizzie! I know this is an old blog post, but I just wanted to let you know that I stumbled upon it while writing a research paper about the affect of culture on language learning. This is a super helpful post! I’m serious! Such good information here. Even my professor said so. Good job!

  7. Pingback: ELTchat summary (14/05/14) – “Intercultural awareness: what our students need to know” | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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