ELTchat summary (14/05/14) – “Intercultural awareness: what our students need to know”

#ELTchat discussions take place once a week, on Wednesdays, at 12.00 or 21.00 each week, on a rotating basis. (To find out more about #ELTchat and these weekly discussions, please visit the #ELTchat site.) On the 14th May the chat took place at 21.00 BST (22.00 CET – yawwwn!) and the topic was ‘Intercultural Awareness: what do our students need to know?

What a can of worm! :-)

What a can of worm! 🙂

It quickly became apparent that the answer to this question was a) definition-dependent b) context-dependent and c) the usual can of worms job!

To summarise this discussion, I have decided to go with the following structure:

  • Definition(s) – defining the topic
  • Context – need to knows/teaching ideas and issues
  • Context – need to knows/teaching ideas and issues
  • Context – need to knows/teaching ideas and issues
  • Activities/approaches we could use across contexts
  • Resources/Links
  • Conclusion

Here we go then…


Well, looking back over the talk, we picked at the issue of definition a bit but didn’t really come to any firm conclusions. To me, this mirrors how complex culture is – something that is further complicated by the fact that English is used as an international language and as a lingua franca. There is tension between ‘English as associated with western culture’ and ‘English as not belonging to any particular culture’, the relationship between language and culture in general, and the role of the English language teacher within this. Of course context and needs are very important – like so many other ELT issues, there is no one size fits all answer to be found with regards to this topic.

Topic is  huge methinks – we could only tackle aspects of it – e,g, topics, culturally loaded materials, even approach to teaching (@marisa_constantinides)

So does it mean teaching the culture of the language or teaching culture in a wider sense? Or both? (@theteacherjames)

…or adapting teaching to cultural contexts or awareness of differences in class (@hartle)

A culture includes behaviours, traditions, food, socialising, etc – these are all topics included in materials – could extend topics. (@marisa_constantinides)

Shouldn’t the question be whether we serve as language teachers or as ambassadors of the broader English culture as well?  (@angelos_bollas)

Depends on context – if students will mostly be speaking to native speakers or using ELF in which case need broader cultural issues. (@GemL1)

Well… in a UK context, using polite language is important in some situations (saying please, thank you, etc) (@esolcourses)

Because English is global maybe more useful to raise awareness that difference between its many users exist despite same language used. (@LizziePinard)

Depends on the student’s origin. For some, English equals western. (@angelos_bollas)

Wary of just English culture, Ss learning English will use it in China or South America too, English as way to view different world cultures. (@eilymurphy)

Isn’t it a question of context? What do the students need the language for? (@SueAnnan)

Culture is much more than grouping countries and labelling them. Many other factors involved. (@MajorieRosenbe)

From my wife’s cultural awareness studies: culture absorbs and changes language and vice versa (@ELTexperiences)

Culture isn’t static so you can’t teach it as a body of content? (@LizziePinard)

Culture even changes through generations within the same country. (@HadaLitim)

We also need to remember that within “a culture” are many subcultures. Very complex. (@LizziePinard)

So, having opened the can of worms, we discussed ways of dealing with all the worms, when it comes to our learners in our different contexts.

Context – monolingual classes 

Monolingual classes are generally associated with L2+ instruction happening in non-English-speaking countries. However, monolingual does not mean monocultural (see last tweet in the definition(s) section!) and even within these classes, intercultural awareness is important. For example, learners in these classes

Need to know behaviours, mannerisms especially in business settings, but also for classroom. (ChristineMulla)

Once we recognise that monoculture is non-existent, we can see that

Monolingual doesn’t necessarily mean mono-cultural (@HadaLitim)

Each group has a cultural mix in every individual even in monolingual classes, so by comparison of what is “normal” for each of us.. (@hartle)

Agreed – personal, family, building, neighbourhood – many different kinds. (@ChristineMulla)

That’s true. There are sub-cultures as well as national cultures. (@ELTexperiences)

Learners learning in their L1 context, who have to deal internationally with other people, for example at work, may still struggle with culturally related issues:

My sts have great difficulties on conference calls etc (@theteacherjames)

Context – multilingual classes

Multilingual classes could take place in English-speaking countries but may also take place in non-English-speaking countries. If we associate language and culture, then it is immediately obvious that in such classes there is a lot of potential for raising intercultural awareness:

How about students teaching each other about culture? Less teacher, more student interaction. In my experience they love it. (@ChristineMulla)

Of course this approach is not precluded in any other contexts, as we have already seen. It is also not without issues:

Discussed culture yesterday and an Austrian student said she felt left out because foreign students form closed groups. Different perspective. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Context – ESOL

By ESOL contexts, we mean learners who have entered an English-speaking country with the goal of settling there. This would in due course involve citizenship tests:

With ESOL learners in the UK they need to be aware of cultural aspects to pass the Citizenship test! (@languageeteach)

Yeah they also need to know loads of silly facts for no apparent reason 🙂 (@Shaunwilden)

The need to integrate distinguishes ESOL contexts from other multilingual contexts: multilingual classes are not only found in English-speaking environments (E.S.E) and, even if such a class does take place in an E.S.E., the learners in them do not necessarily have any integrative goals: they could be young learners attending a summer camp, for example. However, there is still some overlap between the two contexts in terms of cultural resources within the class.

In ESOL classes, we can assume that learners will need to speak to native speakers, though not exclusively. Therefore certain elements of language and culture may need to be taught.

The ‘unwritten rules’ of correct behaviour in one culture don’t necessarily transfer to another one…(@ESOLcourses)

Yes, and the importance of hedging language esp when asking for a favour. (@Languageeteach)

Some aspects of language, too – tag questions in particular can be confusing for learners! (@ESOLcourses)

I always cover them in small talk lessons (@SueAnnan)

Seeing students arrive in the UK and the progress they make to become more culturally aware is amazing. Good to monitor. (@ELTExperiences)

This doesn’t come without its issues:

With ESOL ls, especially mature learners, they can be reluctant or scared to assimilate into the target culture.(@Languageeteach)

A problem that I see with ESOL students is they incorporate their own culture in their home. …female ESOL students then have problems coming to class as their husband dictates when they can and can’t go.(@ELTexperiences) 

Of course, if we are thinking about immigrants spending a prolonged period of time in an English-speaking country, and potential issues they could face, we should also think of issues faced by students who study in such an environment:

An increasingly important issue is training L1 lecturers to teach an international class (@ShaunWilden)

Activities/approaches we could use across contexts

There were plenty of ideas for bringing culture into the classrooms and thoughts about how it could emerge naturally too, as well as potential issues…

I do games, activities, discussions and personal stories from me and from students (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Greetings across cultures – shake, nod, nose touch etc. (@ChristineMulla)

We use a great GTKY activity with our students to encourage cultural awareness. It prompts discussion on proxemics, etc. (@ELTexperiences)

I think these issues / topics tend to come up naturally in class either through the language forms (politeness etc) or discussions (Gem1)

Business E books often have units on intercultural awareness. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

“I tried to do it in an enjoyable way – quizzes, games, etc. So in the end yes. I teach at a public grammar school in CZE” (@HanaTicha)

I had to teach British culture to my Spanish students and it occurred to me that we could learn imperatives while making brownies (@anasainzc)

A fun activity which dealt with culture was to ask students to bring superstitions from their countries.  Fascinating. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Authentic videos are great for those who’re not sure about cultural aspects of different countries (@HadaLitim)

In my experience, I thought I learnt things from films etc but then I was very surprised when I got into trouble (@HanaTicha)

 A story of a faux pas might be a good lead-in to the topic  can elicit suggestions on how to get out of trouble! (@Philip_Saxon)

In business classes, case studies involving faux pas (or worse) can be instructive. (@Philip_Saxon)

Culture is a natural part of life – society and language based. Automatic learning if open to it  (@ChristineMulla)

I also get students to discuss the importance of colour in their culture. (@ELTexperiences)

Gestures is always a great one (@HadaLitim)

Or personal stories. They work well as well. (@MarjorieRosenbe)

Creative Drama would be great for culture awareness, too. (@angelos_bollas)

You could look at idiomatic expressions from other cultures and get students to tell each other idioms or expressions. (@ELTexperiences)

Creating realistic situations in the classroom, would be a great option. (@perikleis)

If learners are in an E.S.E, you could get them to do research then go and interview people on the street to learn more – I made materials to maximise the learning in these activities… (@LizziePinard)

Challenging stereotypes can be really interesting: thrifty Scots, direct Germans etc. (@Languageeteach)

But dealing with them and trying to see beyond the stereotypes can make a good lesson too. (@dimodeca)

Role-play situations in a TBL sequence might work – ask students to act out in own lang THEN watch in L2 (@Marisa_C)

Not hard in multilingual classes. Had a Saudi student trying to convince a Mexican about the advantages of having several wives (@ditaphillips)

Did PARSNIPs this week too and Spanish students didn’t get what the big deal was till we discussed different cultures learning from same books! (@Noreen_Lam)

Can also try to get students from different backgrounds to work together in groups – they have a shared goal, after all. (@Philip_Saxon)

Should we try intercultural lessons? One class in one country connects w/ a class from another country and share experiences?

I did an exchange between teens in Brazil and S.Korea, they loved it and learnt so much, very effective (GemL1)

There are some great intercultural wiki collaborations going on as we speak (@Marisa_C)

Get sts to think about what they think is British Culture. I’ve heard a range of answers: men with top hats and walking sticks,etc. (@ELTexperiences)

Pitfall with teaching british culture, is: what is it? Danger of stereotypes.. (@hartle) [Applies perhaps as a potential pitfall for teaching about any culture.]

My school organise an international food day every 3 month. Ss and Ts make food from their country share! Yum! (@ditaphilips)

Topic of culture also allows students to be ‘experts’ on an area. Great for motivation.(@ChristineMulla)

Identifying cultural elements in films/video clips could be a class activity (@Marisa_C)

Can ask monocultural classes what advice they’d like to give to foreign students coming to their country to study. (@Philip_Saxon)

Can get students to turn local news into a BBC or CNN treatment and vice versa (@Marisa_C)

Organize an international day at school.Ss in charge of research, organization and reaching out. (@Laila_Khairat)

We can ask Ss to interview family members who have lived abroad (@Laila_Khairat)


Delta Publishing: Culture in our classrooms

ELTExperiences blog: British Culture quiz 

Why not try post-crossing: Post-crossing website

…or a virtual exchange project? – see Rose Bard’s project for inspiration!

Routledge: Language, culture and teaching: critical perspectives

Cambridge: Cambridge Intercultural Resource Pack

Kwintissential: International Business Etiquette website/app ; International Etiquette guides

Wiley: Multicultural Education: issues and perspectives

Adrian Holliday: Authenticity, communities and hidden potential – video presentation

and I would add:

Sandra MacKay: Teaching English as an International Language: rethinking goals and approaches  

Adrian Holliday: The Struggle to teach English as an International Language

Ed. Farzad Sharifian: English as an International Language: Perspectives and pedagogical issues 

Corbett (2003) An Intercultural Approach to English Language Teaching. 

Nault, D. (2006) Going Global: Rethinking Culture Teaching in ELT Contexts  in Language, Culture and Curriculum vol. 19/3  (If you have access – I no longer do but did when I was at Leeds Met!) 

 – all of which I have read and highly recommend! 


It’s all very well but..

Speaking of cross cultural communication, I wish someone would teach English L1 speakers how to talk to an international audience! (@theteacherjames)

Seriously (although in all seriousness you can’t disagree with the quote above!), it was a very interesting discussion to have with a cross-section of teachers from a multiplicity of contexts – and surely a conversation we need to keep having, issues we need to keep interrogating…

In fact, we had a different version of this discussion a few years ago, which I also summarised, called The effect of culture on teaching and learning. Might also be worth a look if you were interested by what we had to say this time around! 🙂

Looking forward to the next #ELTchat – now that I’ve cleared my summary backlog!  If you participated, let me know if I have missed anything you consider crucial or feel I have represented anything incorrectly.

2 thoughts on “ELTchat summary (14/05/14) – “Intercultural awareness: what our students need to know”

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