Cultural differences between the ESL/EFL teacher and student often create a barrier to teaching and learning, but the teacher can erase those barriers and even turn cultural differences into something value-added by using them to help teach.
Here are 5 ways to use differences to bring you closer to your students and their learning objectives.
How to Use Your Cultural Differences to Relate to Your Students
Students need a lot of encouragement. If you are living in a foreign country and learning another language yourself, or if you have studied another language in the past, you can relate to your students when they get frustrated. Tell them that it was hard even for you to learn another language and that they just need to keep trying. For example, you might confide that it took you five years to learn Spanish and your grammar is still awful. Better yet, when you are teaching an English idea that has no rules, compare it to how their language is so much more orderly! If only it could be so easy. For irregulars in the past tense, you might say, “Oh, I wish English was as structured as your language, but we will just need to memorize.” Or, on the other hand, “If you think these past tense verbs are hard, I had to memorize eight variations for each word to speak your language! You only have two to think about.” The comparison helps them put the situation into perspective, and it also brings you, for whom it seems so easy, to their level.
To Teach Basic Vocabulary
It is very helpful to use comparisons of your culture to your EFL students and use interesting stories to explain culturally specific English vocabulary. It makes students analytically relate ideas in their heads, and they both remember and understand the definitions better. This trick can be used in most categories – foods, clothes, family, activities, parts of the house, pets, etc. For examples:
- Foods – “A croissant looks like your medialuna (translates from Spanish to “half moon” and is a sweet croissant) but is usually more salty.” Comparing directly to their cultural equivalent.
- Family – “I have three uncles and they were born at the same time. My grandmother had triplets!” Interesting story that will help them remember family terms.
- Activities – “Basketball is like soccer but you use your hands instead of your feet and everything is in the air. Plus it is on a smaller court.” Comparing directly to something they know.
To Practice Verb Tenses
Use stories to compare how things are done differently or the same in your culture to get students to practice verb tenses. For examples:
- Present tense: “When I was your age” I worked at a store. What do you do every day?
- Simple past: “When I was a child” I ate bananas every morning. What did you eat?
- Future: “When we are old” we retire from work and play golf. What will you do?
To Practice Basic Conversation
You can frame your comparison questions from #3 to focus on verbs or also to focus on particular grammatical concepts. Prepositional phrases can become clearer when students want to relate an idea to you – when they are interested in the conversation. Use similar questions as when practicing verbs, but focus on explaining first and then correcting their prepositions. For example:
- To: “I go to the supermarket to buy vegetables. Where do you go to?” You can explain the difference between the infinitive “to” and the prepositional “to” and they will compare where they shop in their home country. They will want to complain about how US vegetables are not fresh probably, or how supermarkets have so much selection.
The key is to use topics that you know will create a comparison in their minds to link the ideas and make them want to communicate. It makes the concepts stick more because they analytically try to understand to be able to communicate.
To Practice Frequency Adverbs
Comparing home countries to your culture is extremely useful in practicing “usually”, “never”, “always”, “sometimes”, etc. For examples:
- “We sometimes go to church here in America. How often do you go to church in your country?”
- “People never go to the store without shoes here. Do you always wear shoes?”
If your EFL students are getting frustrated by English and losing their patience to learn, try encouraging them through relating to their culture!
These tools also serve to disguise grammar and vocabulary teaching in a context of you, the teacher, being curious about different home countries and cultures. Learning is always more fun when it does not seem like work, but like something we want to do!
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