Chia Suan Chong is the author of Successful International Communication, and a regular columnist and award-winning resident blogger for monthly magazine English Teaching Professional.
What do these three teachers have in common?
Anna is from Moscow, and teaches English to a group of Japanese teenagers in a university in Tokyo.
Maurice is from Waterford, and teaches English to students from all over the world in a private language school in Dublin.
Stephan is a linguist from Munich. He teaches English at an automobile company to employees from Germany, Turkey, China, Poland, France, and other European countries.
Each is teaching learners who might be operating according to norms and beliefs that are different from their own. This could be due to national cultures, regional cultures, or the cultures of different age groups, genders, or industries.
If you are teaching English or another language, you might find your assumptions are challenged. There might be different perceptions of your role, appropriate topics for small talk, or politeness. An oversight can result in misunderstandings and incorrect judgements of character.
So what should you look out for when teaching students that are from a different culture from your own?
Don't expect everyone to speak up in class
The communicative approach to language teaching is based on high levels of learner participation. That creates more opportunities for interaction and language use. So, speaking up in class usually means more language practice.
In many cultures, active participation in class represents learner engagement, interest and cognitive processing. However, in some cultures, speaking up in class is not the done thing. It might be perceived as showing off, attention-seeking or even undermining the teacher’s authority.
When you ask the class a question and are faced with no volunteers, don't assume that learners are being difficult or uncooperative. Instead, consider other approaches to overcome this.
You could place learners in small groups where they might feel more comfortable speaking up. Or, you could have an open conversation about the benefits of speaking up in class. If you are working in an individualistic culture, you could also nominate a learner to respond. However, learners from a more communitarian culture might see this as being singled out.
Be sensitive to the reactions of learners as you try out different approaches. That can help you adapt to what works for the group.
Learners perceive the teacher's role in different ways
Lauren, a teacher, wanted to tailor her lesson to her learners’ needs and interests. She started to negotiate the class syllabus by asking what they’d like to do on the course. One of the learners asked 'Shouldn’t it be your job to tell us what we need and what we should be doing?'
On the other side of the globe, Ron was facing a similar issue. He believed that learners retain information best when they teach each other. So, he had them take turns to conduct the lesson while he watched from the back of the room. A group of learners did not understand his motivations and confronted him, saying that he was being unprofessional.
The role of education is changing, and so is the role of the teacher. Some believe that the traditional role of the teacher as a knowledge transmitter is outdated, and that teachers should instead facilitate learning, by helping learners to learn autonomously and to think critically about the information they find.
Some, however, prefer to see the teacher as the authoritative expert, qualified enough to tell their learners what should be learnt and what they should do to learn it. Lessons are teacher-centered in this case; a time for learners to listen and absorb.
By talking about your approaches and discussing the reasons behind the decisions you make, you can help learners understand how they might benefit from your choices.
Understand the way your learners use eye contact and other paralinguistic features
For some, looking someone in the eye when speaking is a sign of respect. It says 'I’m paying attention and I’m interested in what you’re saying'. For others, looking someone in the eye could be a sign of defiance, especially when speaking to someone in authority.
Non-linguistic communication, like eye contact, is not universal. A smile could be a way of breaking the ice, a display of confidence, or even an attempt to trick someone.
Speaking with a monotone voice might be boring to some. To others, it can be a way of showing professionalism or even masculinity. A gesture that might symbolise ‘okay’ to one group of people might mean ‘zero’ or ‘money’ to a different group. If you find a learner standing too close to you, it might be due to different expectations of appropriate personal space.
Whether it is a look, a gesture, or physical distance, dig a bit deeper before jumping to conclusions about a learner's behaviour.
Your learners might take conversational turns in different ways
When Natalia moved from Zurich to Madrid, she found the learners in her new school very rude. They were always talking quickly and interrupting each other. Often, they would go on to another topic before reaching a conclusion on one. Over time, Natalia realised that her new learners simply had different turn-taking practices. She learned to see these interruptions as active participation.
Some communities prefer to leave gaps of silence between turns. Others might prefer overlapping turns. If learners don’t take their turn on cue, it might not be because they have nothing to say. Observe the preferred turn-taking styles of your students without judgment; you can learn a lot that way.
People in your class might have very different experience of writing in English
Akira uses a different written script in his first language, but also learned the Roman alphabet when he was young. He is a beginner in English, but he can copy chunks of English text without any issues.
Samira grew up writing in Arabic script and started learning the Roman alphabet eight months ago. Although she is very fluent when speaking English, she finds it hard to write in English.
Alejandro uses the Roman alphabet in his language, and does not have a problem writing in English. However, he finds it difficult to predict how a word is spelt in English, and tends to spell words phonetically.
Different learners have different relationships with the English writing system. Some might have more difficulty than others with writing tasks. Pay close attention to your learners' writing efforts and accommodate them accordingly. This might mean giving some learners more time to copy and make notes. It might mean more targeted spelling work, or extra practice in written fluency.
Find out how your learners prefer to learn
Rote learning and drills might seem tedious, boring and restrictive in comparison with freer discussions and group tasks. For some learners, however, drills and rote learning are safe ways of producing language without losing one’s face. After all, speaking a foreign language is risky business. It can be very embarrassing, especially when attempting to do so in front of one’s peers.
The methods we deem effective might not be the ones that our learners are used to. Have a conversation with your learners about language learning. Share insights into language acquisition research, and how you can make learning more efficient and effective.
And, avoid assuming that if something is boring for you, it would be boring for the learners too.
Not all learners are comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty
Mari loved clines. She enjoyed lessons where the teacher plots adverbs of frequency on a cline ranging from ‘never’ to ‘always’. When polite requests were placed on a cline, from ‘Lend me a pen!’ to ‘I was wondering if you could lend me a pen’, she learned them easily. She doesn't like it if the answer to her question is ‘It depends’ or ‘There is no exact synonym/translation for that.’
Mari finds uncertainty and ambiguity frustrating. However, language learning is full of ambiguity, and sometimes, just when we think we understand something fully, we realise that we don’t.
Some learners might get frustrated when they don’t get the clarity they are seeking from their teacher. You could help by showing them how to use a corpus to search for patterns in language. You can also use tables, mind maps, timelines and clines to help categorise and systematise language and its rules.
People have different relationships with time
Some cultures look towards the future and potential innovations; others tend to focus on the past and its traditions. Some see time as a precious resource not to be wasted; others have a more flexible approach to time. Some prefer to do things one at a time; others see multitasking as a way of life.
Whether it’s lack of punctuality or the use of mobile phones in the classroom, different views of how classroom time should be spent can lead to teachers or learners feeling disrespected. That can affect their enjoyment of the class.
Negotiate a class contract with your learners. Have them propose class rules with regard to lateness or personal use of phones in class. It is easier to implement rules when those rules were agreed upon by the learners themselves.