Sometimes knowing what NOT to say is more difficult than knowing what to say.
That is never truer than in an ESL class. When you teach a class of mixed internationals, people from all corners of the globe, it’s easy to slip and do or say something you shouldn’t. That’s not about English; that’s about culture. If you are an American, imagine a stranger walking up to you on the street asking you how much you weigh, how much money you make, and what your political affiliations are. Needless to say, it would be awkward. It just so happens that every culture has topics that are best left unmentioned in class, taboos if you will. And that’s exactly why ESL teachers have to be careful what they choose to say and do in class. The following are some tips on cultural taboos you might run into in your ESL class.
20 Tips on What You Should Not Say in Class
Age is probably something you will naturally shy away from if you are an American teaching ESL. There are other countries in which talking about age is also inappropriate (Indonesia and Sierra Leone). But in other cultures knowing someone’s age is very important. It affects how you address them and what type of relationship you can have with them. If you have students from Korea or Vietnam in your class, be sure to allow some discussion of age since knowing a person’s age will impact a person’s relationship and interactions with them.2
In China, it’s not considered rude to talk about a person’s weight. So being called fat by someone from China isn’t something to be offended at. You may need to point out to your students that Americans find it offensive to talk about weight though talking about height is generally okay. Other places in the world don’t have a problem with weight talk, either. These include Ecuador and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Historical events can be big taboos in certain cultures. For example, in Spain, teachers would do best to avoid talking about the Spanish civil war, the Catalan independence movement, and the Spanish Empire. Likewise, the best ESL teachers will avoid these topics in their classrooms as well.
For the most part, you will probably avoid topics of politics in your classroom. You probably don’t want to talk about them, and neither do most of your students. However, if you have students hailing from Nigeria, they will be perfectly comfortable talking about politics, religion, and social issues with people they don’t even know. Be aware and sensitive to this cultural expression and intervene between students when necessary, explaining the different cultural norms.
In Thailand, it’s against the law to criticize the royal family, so don’t expect your Thai students to chime in on ways to improve their government. In fact, it’s probably best to avoid the topic completely.
Mixing Asian Countries
Do not assume the history of Asian countries is similar, and don’t mix different countries up. It will especially offend students from Thailand, Korea, China, and Japan.
Family! We all have them, and they are often a great go to discussion topic for ESL classes. But if you have students from rural Thailand, talking about family will make them uncomfortable unless they feel as though they are well acquainted with the person or people they are talking to.
For most countries, it’s not a problem to ask about someone’s marital status, but if you have female students from Afghanistan, avoid it. It is considered rude to ask a woman if she is married there.
U.S. teachers won’t normally feel comfortable talking about how much money they make, and students from Germany and Croatia will be on the same page. However, that’s not the case in China and Ecuador where it’s perfectly natural to discuss a person’s income.
Be Aware of Eye Contact
Chinese students may not hold eye contact with you for any length of time. You can respect that part of their culture by not keeping eye contact with any one student for very long, either. You might also have to explain English speaking cultures’ expectations for making eye-contact.
For French students, you may need to take a different strategy when it comes to eye contact. Refusing to make eye contact with a French person communicates that you think you are of a higher status than them. While this may not be an issue if you teach young children, adult English learners may be offended by lack of eye contact.
Watch Your Body Language
Are you trying to choose between thumbs up and the okay symbol? If your student is from France, stick with thumbs up. The okay symbol means “zero” in France and may send the wrong message to your student.
German students will probably be even more taken aback by the okay symbol. It refers to female genitalia in their culture.
In Thailand, it is considered rude to point at anyone. This includes fingers as well as the rest of the body, so don’t cross your legs and let your foot point at someone, either. Students from India will likely be offended if you point to them as well.
If you are hungry, you might not want to put your hand on your stomach if you have students from Italy. Though it is a symbol of hunger in many countries, in Italy it means that you dislike someone.
Are you in the habit of shaking hands when you meet new students? If you are a western male, do not try and shake the hand of a Taiwanese female. It’s inappropriate in their culture.
Watch the Time
If you are late, your German students won’t like it. Even being a few minutes late in Germany is rude.
In South America
For many South American students, however, time is a more fluid thing, and they may saunter in long after the start of class bell rings.
Be Aware of Other Points
Are you afraid you might get a dry mouth while lecturing? Don’t use gum to solve your problem. It’s rude to chew gum in public in Germany and Italy. And if you have students from these countries, they might be offended by your actions.
Personal space, that imaginary line you have drawn around you that people just shouldn’t pass, is different in different cultures. While in the U.S. our personal space bubble is about two feet, it’s less than that in other countries. And sometimes stepping away from an international to secure your personal space will be offensive. Keep this in mind when you feel like a student is standing a bit too close for comfort.
These are just some of the cultural taboos you might run into while teaching English as a second language. The most important thing to remember is communication is key. If you sense someone in your class is offended by your actions or words, open up the discussion on culture and take the time to listen.
What cultural taboos have you encountered in your ESL classes?
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