There is perhaps nothing that is so much a part of the individual and yet so invisible as culture.
Experts describe culture like an iceberg where only ten percent is visible and ninety percent lies below the surface. Most people are unaware of their own cultural influences and biases because it is such an intimate part of who they are. That’s why culture is such an important aspect to think about in the ESL classroom. Much of language is tied to culture, and when a class full of internationals shares their opinions and expresses their beliefs, culture is sure to come up and, perhaps, even clash. Here are some tips to keep in mind to help cut the culture clashes off before they happen.
6 Tips to Avoid Cultural Clash Every ESL Teachers Should Know
Many Idioms Come from Culture
Calling an idea a homerun doesn’t make much sense unless you understand the national pastime of baseball. When you teach idioms to your students, pay attention to any references to culture. You probably don’t even think about it, but there might just be information your students will need to understand the idiom(s) you are teaching. Take a look at the words themselves as well as the implied setting of the idioms. Not every idiom will be culturally based, but some are, so it’s worth taking a closer look at them before presenting them to your class.
Tread Carefully Among Taboo Subjects
Every culture has subjects that aren’t acceptable to talk about in mixed groups. In the U.S., religion and politics fall into this category. In Japan, South Korea, and China topics related to WWII are taboo. In the region of the Middle East, it’s religion. In Australia it’s the government and aborigines people. Whenever possible, know what the cultural hot buttons are for the students you are teaching, and know your own. Stay calm if topics come up that raise the hackles of your students. Change the topic or shift the discussion to less inflamed areas and do your best to keep your comments neutral. Best of all, avoid the topics to begin with.
Make Comparisons When Possible
Rather than going into exhaustive detail about a cultural point your students do not understand, try to compare it to something they do understand. You might compare Halloween to the Mexican Day of the Dead. Making comparisons rather than exhaustive explanation will keep your talk time to a minimum but still enable your students to understand.
Keep Your Explanations As Simple As You Can
When talking about cultural topics, use language that is at the appropriate level for your students. Don’t use complex grammar structures or unfamiliar vocabulary when simple will do just fine. You don’t have to go into every detail about a holiday or tradition to give your students ample understanding. After students have a basic understanding of the topic, teach specific vocabulary related to the topic if you like, but don’t confuse them with it to begin with. For example, many of my students have known little to nothing about football, American football as they call it. And I’ll be honest, I don’t even know all the rule and regulations that come into play on a Sunday afternoon myself. I do however, know enough about the game to explain it in simple terms to my ESL students. I do not have to teach the terminology intentional grounding, roughing the passer, and unsportsmanlike conduct to help them understand the basics of the game.
Welcome and Encourage Students to Ask Questions
Sometimes we don’t realize that something we say or do is related to our culture. Sometimes we don’t realize something our students are doing is cultural. For example, when I was teaching in Asia, my class got in the habit of calling me “Teacher” instead of addressing me by name. I’ll be honest. It drove me crazy. That is until I understood that in their culture, calling me “Teacher” was actually a way of showing respect. If I had not asked the question, I would never have known that. In the same way, encourage your students to ask questions when they don’t understand something you say or do or if they have a similar situation with a classmate. Odds are that the offense is really unintended and is simply due to a difference in culture.
Don’t Take It Personally
Culture is such a deep part of who we as people are, and we often don’t even realize that a certain belief or value is based in our culture. If you teach ESL for any length of time, you are sure to be offended or at least feel uncomfortable with something your students are doing or saying. Just let it go when that happens. You have to have a thick skin to handle comments that feel insensitive and even rude but are in actuality perfectly reasonable and acceptable in another culture. So if your students call you fat, old, ugly, or anything along those lines, take a breath. Let your insides settle back down. Think about what you will say, and then open your mouth. It’s easy to let our mouths spew out something that will only exacerbate the situation. We need to pause and think then choose to respond rather than allowing our instincts to react. Just a few seconds can be all you need to diffuse a situation rather than making it worse.
Don’t forget that as the teacher, you have culture too, and you may find a culture clash coming up between you and one of your students.
If that happens, take a deep breath and remember that culture can be an issue between just about anyone, and its your job to not be offended. You have to help your students (and yourself) understand that even though it may feel like an offence, it’s really only the iceberg of culture bobbing up above the surface.