Bridging the gap – cross cultural awareness in the ELT classroom.

EFL teaching and cross cultural awareness training have co-existed, working in parallel, for a long time. Many international EFL teachers, by default, have wide intercultural experience but many may never have looked at the field in depth or applied it to their classroom practice. This post aims to look at how cross cultural knowledge can be applied both to the content of our lessons and our methodology.

We should start by having a brief look at what culture is. It’s not an easy thing to define. We can then examine some of the cross cultural theory and see what the classroom implications might be.

So what is culture? There are lots of definitions and this is my favourite. It’s from Geert Hofstede in ‘Communication Between Cultures’, 1984.

“The collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another”. Rather nice I think.

To personalise it all a bit, think about your history, religion, population mobility, geography, language, country size and climate too! They are amongst the things that make you what you are. It all matters in real life as well – below are some of the life-guiding issues that vary hugely from culture to culture. So think about your attitude towards:

Authority, conflict, consensus, money, relationships, change, status, emotions, time, trust and transparency. Time for self-searching and indeed self-awareness is the beginning of cross cultural awareness.

Now I promised you some theory, so the main thinkers are Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner http://www2.thtconsulting.com/, the rather anecdotal Richard Lewis and the godfather of cross cultural awareness, Geert Hofstede http://geert-hofstede.com/.

While reading this summary of the theory, why not ask yourself “where do I fit in?”. It makes it more relevant and will also help to keep you awake.

In ‘Riding the Waves of Culture’, 1997, Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner identify seven cultural dimensions:

  1. Universalism vs. particularism (What governs us, rules or relationships?)
  2. Individualism vs. collectivism (Do we function in a group or as individuals?)
  3. Neutral vs. emotional (To what extent do we show our emotions publically?)
  4. Specific vs. diffuse (Do we separate or mix our work and private lives?)
  5. Achievement vs. ascription (Do we have to work for status or is it given to us?)
  6. Sequential vs. synchronic (Are we linear active and do one thing at a time or multi-active and do several things at the same time?)
  7. Internal vs. external control (Do we think we control our environment or do we feel controlled by it?)

Still awake? OK, Richard Lewis in ‘When Cultures Collide’ 1996, divides cultures and their views of times into Linear Active (who see time in a straight line and view it with great importance) and Multi Active (who see time as a more fluid thing). Generally these two culture types don’t get on too well and nor do his other two categories, Data-oriented (driven by numbers and evidence) and Dialogue-oriented (more driven by people and relationships).

In ‘Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and its Importance for Survival,’ 1997, Geert Hofstede suggests five indices for analysing and comparing cultures:

PDI: Power distance index – how centralized is your culture and how does it view authority?

IDV: Individualism index – is your culture collectivist or individualistic?

MAS: Masculinity index – to what degree are traditional gender roles maintained?

UAI: Uncertainty avoidance index – how tolerant is your culture of risk and change?

LTO: Long-term orientation index – is your culture long or short-termist?

So where do you fit in?

Let’s now take these ideas to the classroom. There seem to be two ways of applying them. The first relates to content. Cultural issues always interest people – from teenagers onwards and we all need content to make our students speak. Increased globalisation and the internet have developed a greater awareness of other cultures. This, combined with the fact that students equate EFL classes with internationalism, suggests that this is useful and stimulating content.

In mono-cultural classes, you can have fun with mini cultural profiles and asking students to discuss how typical they are. In-class comparisons can be very fruitful in multi-cultural classes but of course need to be ‘policed’ carefully!

In Business English classes you can devise activities around geographical themes such as “Where are you going/Who do you work with?”. You can then also get students to develop ‘target’ culture profiles, identify the potential conflicts and prepare some action points. The internet can be useful here by the way! You can also develop business-function-specific activities such as meetings, presentations or negotiations, again identify the ‘target’ culture or cultures and list the cultural issues and strategies.

The other application of the theories is to our methodology. If you teach multi-cultural classes or are working in a culture that is not your own, then the theories may assist you in your classroom management. Let’s think about Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner and their theories in this context.

  1. Universalism vs. particularism (What governs us, rules or relationships?)

Will we find relationship-building in class challenging and how important are the key rules and policies to students?

  1. Individualism vs. collectivism (Do we function in a group or as individuals?)

Will feedback best be given on group or individual performance? Should we avoid excessive public individual praise or negative feedback?

You may also need to manage your expectations about degrees of learner autonomy.

  1. Neutral vs. emotional (To what extent do we show our emotions?)

How open as can we be with students and will personalisation be part of your teaching? Can you use some level of emotion in the classroom to communicate key messages?

  1. Specific vs. diffuse (Do we separate or mix our work and private lives)

Will informal environments for one-on-one coaching and support work with your students? Should we put lateness and poor timekeeping in a cultural context and engage with the student concerned?

  1. Achievement vs. ascription (Do we have to work for status or is it given to us?)

Be very aware of to what extent your students have a sense of ‘face’. With some students you may have ascribed authority – be aware of this.

  1. Sequential vs. synchronic (Are we linear active and do one thing at a time or multi-active and do several things at the same time?)

Do be aware of how time limits and deadlines are viewed by some students. You may need to make it clear when deadlines etc. are non-negotiable.

  1. Internal vs. external control (Do we think we control our environment or do we feel controlled by it?)

The challenge with some students here may be around developing learner autonomy and reducing the feeling of teacher dependency and the teacher as an authority figure.

My sense is that there is a lot of work that can be done on the interface between cross cultural theories and English language teaching in terms of both content and methodology. I am very keen to hear your views and hear about your experiences so please do get in touch.

A few other references if this is your bag.

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner , ‘Riding the Waves of Culture’, NB Publishing 1997.

Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov, ‘Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind’. Revised and expanded 3rd Edition.  McGraw-Hill USA, 2010.

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