Devil’s Advocate vs Hugh Dellar on Intercultural Communication

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

So the eighth victim on the hot seat is Hugh Dellar.

Hugh Dellar is a teacher and teacher trainer at University of Westminster, London. He has been teaching for almost twenty years, mostly in the UK, but also in Indonesia. He is the co-author of two five-level General English series, INNOVATIONS and OUTCOMES, both of which are published by National Geographic Learning. He has given talks and teacher development sessions all over the world and blogs at He also runs a busy language-focussed site here. In addition, he is a life-long Arsenal supporter, obsessive hoarder of obscure 1960s vinyl and general bon viveur, as the photo bears witness to!


Chia:  Hi Hugh, thank you for taking time out to be here today!

Hugh:  Thank you for inviting me, Chia

Chia:  I have heard that you are not the biggest advocate for dealing with intercultural communication in the English language classroom. Would that be right?

Hugh:  Kind of, yes. Part of the issue for me is that I’m never really sure what is actually meant by things like ‘dealing with intercultural communication in the classroom’ . . . and I fear many people who bandy such terms around aren’t either!

I believe that the MAIN role of a language teacher is to teach language and that most other things are a distraction.

Chia:  Surely the role of a English language teacher these days is to help our learners become better communicators. And well, Hugh, as soon as you communicate with someone who is not from where you are from, you are communicating interculturally.

Communicating Effectively
ELTpics: Picture by @ij64

Hugh:  The way we help our students become better communicators is by teaching them better English.

Your definition of communicating interculturally just seems to me to mean talking to people!!

I think that the real issue is that students communicate better with each other when they share more language in common, and the more English students speak, the more they are able to communicate with each other and find both common ground and differences . . . and in a sense that’s the same whether you’re talking to someone from the other side of the world or from a neighbouring country. I just don’t see what the ‘cross-cultural’ part is supposed to be apart from providing language and opportunities for students to talk to each other . . .

Chia: First of all, Hugh, as a coursebook writer, you must agree with me that communicating is not limited to just speaking. What about writing, listening and body language?

Hugh: Well, of course, communicating includes writing, listening and reading yes. But those essentially involve linguistic knowledge and competence.

As for body language, well, that’s very personal and something that for me – unless it crops up in class, as admittedly it sometimes does – is certainly not something I’d go out of my way to ‘teach’.

Chia:  What you are saying is that when people can find common ground and differences and be aware of these, then they will become more successful communicators, right?

So therefore, if we can help them to become more aware of cultural characteristics of those with whom they will be communicating, can we not make the learning process more efficient by allowing them to become more aware of these common grounds and differences (and I include body language in that).

We’re training our learners to become better communicators, not just better English language users. Or do you see that differently, Hugh?

Intercultural Communication
ELTpics: Picture by @senicko

Hugh: I’m not even necessarily saying that you need to find common ground or difference, really. I’m saying people who have more language and can use that language more skillfully will be better communicators. It may be that you use that talent and that language to find common ground, if that’s what you’re interested in, or differences. It may also be, of course, that you use it to manipulate, abuse, sell to, etc. It depends on what you want from situations, doesn’t it? And what people want depends on them and the situations they’re in and who they’re interacting with. In life in general, I mean, not just in classrooms.

I’m very very wary of talk of ‘cultural characteristics of those with whom they will be communicating’, though, partly because it inevitably leads to over-generalisations and stereotyping of the ‘Germans are direct and blunt, Japanese value politeness and ritual’ variety; partly because who actually knows who our students will be dealing with outside of class in the rest of their lives and partly because people vary so widely. I’ve met super informal, sweary, drinking Japanese folk and far more formal ones, just as I have Germans, English and so on, and any smart person treats each person on a person to person basis – and the core of the way you negotiate that is through language.

Does intercultural training mean teaching dos and don’ts?

Chia: In no way do I mean we should teach dos and don’ts. And I agree that over-generalisations lead to stereotyping and essentialism. What I mean is – Should we not make our learners aware of how their communication styles can be interpreted by others, and how other people’s communication styles can be misinterpreted by them?

It’s about raising awareness of potential areas of difficulty and not about trying to overgeneralise certain cultures or nationalities. e.g. Many coursebooks have topics like ‘Work’ or ‘Jobs’ and have writing tasks involving the writing of a CV. In the USA, putting your date of birth on your CV could result in it being thrown in the bin as they don’t want to risk being accused of discrimination, but in Germany, not putting your DOB or photo on your CV could mean your application might not be considered. Shouldn’t learners be made aware of such things?

Hugh: I just don’t see how you think this works in class Chia. Some people might think you’re direct, others might think you’re not; some people might feel you’re talkative, others may be more talkative than you. How does knowing this benefit students? And is it really our job to tell them this? People learn what others think about them through interaction throughout their lives, and most people – if they’re adults – already have a fairly strong sense of their own self anyway . . .

If all you mean is learning conventions of how things like CVs are done in UK or US cultures, then that’s fine. I see that as genre awareness rather than cross-cultural differences. Though of course even this knowledge only really helps students if they’re applying for a job in the UK or US.

If a German is applying to an international company in Germany but sending a German-style CV in English, is it such an issue? I suspect not and I suspect it certainly won’t be what gets them the job or doesn’t get them the job.

All I do as a writer or teacher is present things like CVs in the standard way I’d expect them to be, but don’t make an issue of this being ‘cultural in any way . . .

And besides, at University of Westminster, we get 5-10 CVs a week coming though the door, almost all from native speakers, and are they somehow culturally consistent? Are they heck! They’re wildly diverse . . . so where then are cultural norms?

The way to write your CV

Chia: Let me first respond to your point on the adult learners’ sense of self.

Coming from someone who believes that we shouldn’t overgeneralise, you obviously know that our sense of self and the identity we portray changes from context to context, depending on the communities of practice we are in, the interlocutors involved, our past experience of that particular discourse community, etc. e.g. A career woman who has to adjust to the discourse styles and rules of the playground when associating with other mothers might choose to portray herself quite differently. If she doesn’t, she could risk being misunderstood. That is why it is always difficult when first adapting to the culture of a new company or social group we find ourselves in.

You also can’t deny that the culture in which we grew up in has a strong effect on the opinions we form. e.g. Would you agree that ‘the best form of decision-making is group consensus’ or ‘a person’s value is measured by their achievements’. Surely you must acknowledge that these are culturally loaded opinions. Would it not benefit our learners to reflect on how the way they see the world is socially constructed? And would it not be possible to do such reflection and awareness-raising in an English language class? Should we not be teaching our learners to become better communicators or not just better users of the linguistic features of a language?

The different roles we play and the different identities we take on

Hugh: in terms of the career woman, I’m not sure what your point is IN TERMS OF LANGUAGE TEACHING.

Yes, it might be a nice study to do for someone on a Sociolinguistics module on an MA TESOL or something to see how one person varies their own language use across contexts, but all that’d tell you is . . . how one person varies their language across particular contexts. It won’t tell you anything of value in an EFL class.

As for awareness raising of how culturally constructed our own sense of what’s right and wrong, what’s normal is, etc . . .I just don’t see that as our job as language teachers . . . and I’m not sure that it’s actually achieved through discussing things like whether or not you agree the best way to make decisions is through group discussion or through one leader telling everyone what to do etc .

I’m also not sure folk from one country will agree anyway . . . I don’t buy into the idea that these supposed ‘norms’ actually really exist that much. Maybe . . . MAYBE . . . if I was preparing a Business English student to go and do business in China, say, I might want to do ONE small exercise on things people say about China and the business culture there, with the proviso that these may or may not be true, and that really they’d be best going and finding out for themselves, but that’s about it.

I honestly don’t believe that if you put 100 Brits or Japanese or Russians or whatever in a room and did a test on them to ask, for example, if the best form of decision-making is group consensus or if a person’s value is measured by their achievements, you’d get agreement. People differ. Some Japanese people will agree with some Brits and Russians more than with some other Japanese.

Intercultural Training should not be about promoting stereotypes

Chia: In terms of the career woman, it is an example of how we need to adapt to new environments and to accommodate the new discourse communities and the new people we encounter, or else we risk being misunderstood and not portraying the image we want to portray. Some people are just better at accommodation than others…

I’m afraid you’re missing the point, Hugh. No one is expecting every Japanese or German to have the exact same values. As I’ve said above, it’s definitely not about giving learners dos and don’ts lists (which may only reinforce cultural stereotypes). It’s about making learners more aware of the values, beliefs and opinions THEY hold, which are culturally bound, and how to adapt and cope when dealing with situations of uncertainty where their interlocutor is clearly communicating upon a different set of beliefs, rules, opinions, etc.

Even if the 100 Brits or Japanese all have different answers, that is fine. Learners need to be aware of the fact that people are different from themselves and might not perceive them as they want to be perceived. If they want to become more successful communicators, they can’t just be dealing with lexico-grammar. We are not teaching a language like Latin that was used only in academic writing. We are teaching a language used for communication. How can you say that you don’t want to teach learners to become better communicators?

Is the gladiator a super-communicator?
ELTpics – Picture by @ij64

Hugh: Indeed, some PEOPLE are just better at accommodation that others – not some CULTURES! It’s all down to the individual. Our job is not to ‘improve’ students and turn them into what we imagine a better person might be. Our job is to teach them language. It’s up to them what they then do with it. Apart from telling students “we need to adapt to different discourse communities and the new people we encounter” – which they will have been doing all their lives in L1 anyway, where they all learn and grow and adapt through their encounters with others, as they grow up and become adults, I’m STILL not sure what you think we should be doing IN THE CLASSROOM to enable students to become these super-communicators?

As for missing the point . . . perhaps you’re making it very clearly! Are we having a cross-cultural breakdown here, Chia?

I’m not saying that anyone expects anyone to have the same values; just that you can’t predict or generalise about what values people may or may not have because of where they’re from.

I DO want my learners to be better communicators, by the way. I just think the way that this is achieved is by teaching more language. Not by telling them blindingly obvious truisms like “By the way, you do know, don’t you, that your own opinions are shaped by your own experiences and that others might not have had these experiences and therefore may have different opinions and thus it’s a good idea to tread carefully when dealing with people that are not you!’

Also, thinking about it, many of the most successful intercultural communicators actually do so by being totally themselves and of their own backgrounds and by making no concession to others on any level. I’m remembering a very hard-nosed Chinese Seamen’s union negotiator I taught last year.

Is Hugh building up a wall to keep inter-cultural awareness out of his classroom?
Is Hugh ignoring the cultural differences beyond the walls of his classroom?
ELTpics – Picture by @sandymillin

Chia: I think we might be having a cross-cultural miscommunication here, indeed. Let us define ‘culture’ for starts. You seem to be hung up on ‘culture’ as in ‘national culture’, when ‘culture’ does also refer to ‘corporate culture’, ‘family culture’, ‘social group culture’ etc, (notwithstanding the cultural filter through which individuals perceived the world)

I think you are still missing the point.

Hugh: Make it better then!

Chia: I’m not advocating we predict or generalise what values people may or may not have because of where they’re from.

I’m advocating that we help learners realise the issues that arise when they are communicating in situations with interlocutors out of their usual discourse community, and adapt accordingly.

e.g. I had some Latin American and Mediterranean students who were in the same class with several Koreans and Japanese students for the few months they were at International House. One day, we started talking about the way we take turns and how we hold the floor, and the Latin Americans and Mediterranean students at first were adamant that Oriental are just shy. Through discussion, they were surprised to realise that the Koreans found it rude to interrupt others, and in turn thought that the Mediterraneans were rude. The discussion seemed like a revelation to both groups, and is a clear example of how cultural differences could be glaring at you in the face, and you might still attribute it to interlocutor’s personality if you were not made aware.

So, what about discussing such issues in English instead of just talking about hobbies, holidays and the usual banal stuff you often find in course books.


Not banal – Fridge magnets showing us cultural differences!
ELTpics – Picture by @amfromz

Hugh: Obviously, only an idiot would say they don’t want their students to deal better with situations where communication breaks down, but in classroom terms, I still don’t see what you think we should be doing. It just sounds like you want us to give trite little mini-lectures to students and tell them to ensure they adapt when communicating with folk from different backgrounds! Isn’t this what people all do anyway? In L2 as in L1? I don’t buy the basic premise that these breakdowns even occur that often, to be honest. What I see happening in communications between folk of different cultures, whether they be national, local, company cultures or whatever, is people talking to each other, negotiating meanings (which the better they use English, the easier they find) and getting stuff done or having conversations . . . in terms of the Koreans and Latin Americans, where does that then get them? Did the Koreans all start butting in and interrupting and the Latin Americans waiting and hesitating? Almost certainly not! All that happened is they realised the mirror has two-way glass in it, but their view is still their view . . .

Anyway, . . . I’ve never advocated just discussing banal stuff, as anyone who knows my books will hopefully testify to, but I honestly think too much is made of these ‘breakdowns’ and that if students are given interesting things to talk about, anyone will talk to anyone, provided they have common language to allow that. My advanced class this term has 8 Chinese, eight non-Chinese, including two other Asians . . . German . . . Spanish . . . Colombian . . . today they chatted about religion in their countries, divorce and divorce laws, and much else besides. It was super interesting, brought about by materials that realised these issues . . . I pre-taught language to help these discussions and then taught more in response to things they wanted to say, but couldn’t. THIS is what I think we should be doing in class.

If you want ONE of these kinds of classes to be about how you start / end / enter conversations, fine  . . . but divorce and religion is at least as interesting!

Which would you choose as a topic for your classroom? Intercultural communication or divorce?

Chia: Fine, I’ll give you that. In a multi-lingual class, that might be very interesting. But how would you propose dealing with the same issues in a monolingual group?

Hugh: In a mono-lingual class students will still disagree about things like the divorce laws . . . maybe religion in their country won’t be such an issue, but monolingual NEVER means mono-cultural. Students will all orient themselves to topics in different ways, have different takes and different opinions. As a writer – and a teacher – those are the spaces I’m interested in exploring – and that I try to teach the language to facilitate discussion about.

Chia: Hugh, it looks like you’ve just agreed that teaching issues like this in class is important. Cogito ergo sum, we should integrate cultural issues into language training! Thank you very much Hugh. I’ve really enjoyed doing this DA with you!


Hugh: Ha ha. I thought it was me who just heard what they want to hear! 🙂

Anyway, thank YOU, Chia, for your time, your questions and your (misplaced) enthusiasms!

What I did to Lindsay Clandfield during the Teach-Off I wanted to do to Hugh Dellar

Epilogue: Hugh’s views are his own and do not represent any organization he is associated with. Chia, this time, was not only playing DA, but was genuinely taking a stand about the topic in question. Hugh and Chia may have been engaging in many online fights lately, but rest assured they are still friends who are not adverse to the occasional rowdy debate in the pub.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

32 thoughts on “Devil’s Advocate vs Hugh Dellar on Intercultural Communication”

  1. Please do one of those photo with every DA from now on. It’s interesting that ‘cultural trainer’ and ‘cultural specialist’ seem to be popping up as some EFL teachers morph into new careers. It has, in my opinion, often been a wishy washy are (culture) that books have failed to cover in any depth from fear of being racist. Bob Dignen seems to be pushing cultural analysis more and loves getting into how culture affects people’s/student’s behaviour.

    Fine, but on a course with limited time and irregular attendance and/or constant enrolment, who has time to address all these issues? I’m very against getting too touchy feely. Yes, I acknowledge and utilise differences but sometimes they are very useful for getting real engagement and discussion going but they can also cause real arguments and also cultural clashes/personality clashes. Then I become an agony aunt and have to fix things. This does underline our role of ‘peace keeper’ and also ‘mother/father’ in a way as you often are responsible for your class and are there to help them with their problems too (unofficially). I know some schools include pastoral duties in the job spec.

    1. Hi Phil –
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I do think you’re right that much of the current vogue for ‘cultural trainers’ and ‘specialists’ is EFL teachers sniffing out a more lucrative sideline. We’ve been the victim of some of this stuff at Westminster. We get maybe 30% Chinese students, and by and large they’re great: good learners, funny, keen, punctual, etc. Some are better than others, some learn faster, as with any other group. No-one had ever voiced any concerns about ‘the Chinese’ as some kind of homogenous group and yet last year we had an ‘expert’ come in and tell us all the ‘cultural’ reasons we might be finding them hard work. I just wish we’d spend the money on better things is all.

      I believe what I’ve always believed: you teach the students in front of you, without prejudice or preconception, and allow yourself to be surprised at how unique and unusual each student is; how different we all are and yet how similar. I also think, as I hope I made clear above, that ‘cross-cultural’ conversations happen anytime any students in any class discuss almost anything. Talk about divorce or monarchy or holidays or football and you’ll get ten different angles and attitudes, even within students from one ‘culture.’

      Pastoral duties, incidentally, is very much part of our job spec at Westminster, but in 15 years of doing tutorials, the bulk of the issues have revolved around things like “How can I do this?” / “Where can I go if I want to do this?” / “How can I get better at doing this?’ rather than capital C culture.

  2. It seems to me that discussing different cultures is not a banal topic at all. As an American ex-pat living in a very different culture in Austria, I was surprised at the beginning how little people understood about my culture and, in some cases, completely disininterested in it. These are people I know longer have any contact with as there was no basis for communication in these cases although it was not based on a lack of language ability.

    I teach in mostly monocultural groups at the university but we are increasingly getting students from other countries and their input makes the classes so much richer in terms of conversational topics. My Austrian students are now very open to finding out how other people act, think and so on and I would never dream of stopping such a conversation simply because I am not a ‘cultural’ expert. Pigeon-holing or stereotyping is not the goal of cultural awareness; for me the goals are awareness and rapport. And preparing students in the language is not the only aspect of what we do, I think we are also ambassadors of a particular culture whenever we teach the language. If students are completely unaware of that fact that others do things differently they have much less chance of establishing rapport and being successful in communication, no matter how many grammatical structures and how much vocabulary they have at their fingertips.

    1. Hi Marjorie –
      I don’t think I ever said discussing ‘culture’, whatever that may mean, was ‘banal’. What it is, though, is very nebulous and hard to pin down. I believe that classes where students get lots of opportunities to discuss lots of different things are good things, and will inevitably be ‘cross-cultural’ as they will involve different points of view, and learning to deal with difference is always a good thing, as is developing a sense of curiousity about others around you. It only comes, though, through interaction and conversation- and the conversation certainly doesn’t have to be about explicitly Cultural things.

      What you said about Austria interested you, though, as maybe – and I think perhaps we are all a bit guilty of this sometimes – there’s a kind of arrogance in our assuming foreign people somehow should be interested in us and our worlds and lives, when as you say in reality they often simply aren’t! I just don’t think it’s a language teachers’ job to make those people more interested in us. I think it’s our job to teach them language. Of course, we may not end up forming life-long friendships with them, but we can still at least teach them language to do whatever it is they may want to do with it.

      As for being “ambassadors of a particular culture whenever we teach the language”, though, I am not sure I know what that means or how you might think it might play out in class. If what you mean is that we all teach what we are, then I’d agree. I would just question whether that makes us respresentatives of any broader notion of culture in some kind of national sense.

      Siting here over the preposterous Bank Holiday weekend watching the idol worship of the Queen, I feel my own sense of cultural disconnect and alienation quite strongly, and generally would resist anyone claiming that there are ‘underlying’ shared values, etc. unless they’re able to define them in such a way that is inclusive and yet that also excludes other nationalities, as otherwise it’s not a definition of a national culture. It’s just a definition of a certain set of values! What I mean is that when I hear people say things like “The British way is to believe in decency and fair play”, I cannot help thinking both of all the millions of examples of such things NOT happening in Britain as well as all the examples from other countries where I can! These things are god values for sure, but not exclusive to any one ‘culture’, surely.

      Apologies if I’ve misread you. Maybe you could clarify more what you mean by being “ambassadors of a particular culture whenever we teach the language” and what values you feel this involves, and how these values are conveyed in a classroom?

      1. As I work with a number of students who come to my classes because they want to go abroad (with the US and the UK being at the top of my list) I think it is helpful to let them know that things may be done differently in different countries. Dealing with topics of politics, religion, behavior are all part of culture to me. I really feel that I represent a different culture to my students than my Austrian colleagues do, simply because I grew up in it and have experienced it first-hand. But I also feel it is important for university students to know that not everyone celebrates the 25th of December as several of my Erasmus students have announced in class. The first time this happened, several students were in shock and couldn’t imagine why not – this sort of culture shock is becoming less which I see as a good sign.

        And regarding the fact that people were not interested in my culture, I guess this was a surprise to me coming from New York where we have a very multi-cultural society and show genuine interest in people from other places. But what was more difficult here was that my particular point of view (not eating pork for example) was considered ‘wrong’ although both the Muslim and Jewish cultures have existed in Austria for years. So if my students are planing to stay in academia or do business with people in other countries they need to learn acceptance of others and not assume that there is only one way to do things. This is what I mean by teaching cultrural differences and awareness.

        I also feel that language does not develop in a vacuum – it comes from culture. The English language developed the way it did becasue the Anglo-Saxons were the peasants and the farmers so simple words like house and hut and cow came from them while the Normans were the aristocracy and the more complicated words such a palace and beef came from French. This still exists in English and when students hear the very basic story of the development of the language, they find it fascinating and easier to remember and learn certan vocabulary.

        And as a business English trainer, there is certainly a corporate culture in companies. I lost a job recently because I didn’t fit into the corporate culture of a particular instituion and when they told me they were going in ‘new’ directions I took it as a compliment as it was a place that treated teachers extremely badly. So I feel that ‘culture’ is an important element for me when looking for teaching materials or planning and holding classes. And just giving our students the tools to speak or write is not enough – they need to learn to communicate effectively as well in a variety of situations.

        1. Hi again Marjorie –
          Thanks for this. It seems we have plenty of common ground.

          I think if you’re preparing students for entry into a UK or US university context, then you obviously have a responsibility to address certain contextual issues such as plagiarism, tough rules on sexism and homophobia and anti-Semitism and so on. I teach EFL in a university and maybe 40-50% of my students go on to study in the UK and fairly frequently, I’ll have to give a homework back and ask for it to be rewritten in the students’ own words, and have a discussion about cutting and pasting from the web . . . or else I’ll pull students up on things I think are out of order and make them at least aware of the fact that these opinions would generally in a university context be dubbed ISLAMAPHOBIC or HOMOPHOBIC or whatever. I don’t think it’s necessarily our job to deny these students the right to think what they want, but it is our duty to make them aware of how these things might be seen in other contexts – and what the repercussions of this might be, sure.

          I also think covering issues / topics / lexis related to things such as politics and religion is a good idea, especially with higher level students. These are things we’ve always tried to bring into our coursebooks and to leave space for discussion and exploration within.

          I’m also basically with you on things like making students aware that any crass over-generalizations they may make – about pork being necessary, December 25th being celebrated by everyone or all English people being white, say, are flagged up as being just that: over-generalizations, That’s all fine by me and part of my day to day practice. I just don’t see that as ‘culture’ in the sense that I felt Chia was present the concept to me!

          I kind of agree too that if students want to stay in academia or do business, it helps if they can get on, though I have also met plenty of fairly obnoxious, self-centred folk who’ve done very well in both fields without really making that much of an effort to accommodate to others! I also think there’s not much that we can actually do in a classroom sense to ensure these skills develop in our students, other than to challenge and discuss and debate when things come up. Otherwise, we lapse into trite “be nice and get on with all the different peoples of the world if you want to get ahead” kind of pep talks!

          Where I maybe differ is with respect to the emphasis you place on etymology. I just don’t see that knowing HUT is Anglo-Saxon, say, helps anyone with anything, though perhaps if students speak both French and German, it may be worth pointing out that where synonyms exist from both languages, the French is more likely to be used in some kind of higher register. Not denying that.

          I’ve mostly said what I wanted to say about language and culture over here, by the way:

          What else? Oh yes . . . I’m STILL not sure what you mean, though, by ensuring students can “learn to communicate effectively as well in a variety of situations” if you think that this involves something beyond competence in the language itself. And how, then, would you see these extra dimensions as being conveyable to students?

        2. Hi Hugh,
          Thanks for responding so promptly and so thoroughly to all the comments here.
          Just a question: How do you think I have presented the concept of ‘culture’ to you?
          You say in your comment that you just don’t see ‘that’ as ‘culture’ in the sense that Chia has presented to you.
          But in our DA discussion, I kept feeling like you haven’t truly understood what I meant by ‘dealing with culture’…
          So I’m curious to hear what it is you think I mean by that…
          ; )


        3. Well, given the fact that you felt I hadn’t understood what you meant by ‘culture’ I would suggest that perhaps you didn’t make it sufficiently clear! 🙂

          I’ve read through the interview again and I’m still not really sure what you mean when you talk about culture or intercultural communication. It seemed to me you were suggesting some kind of vague hotchpotch that took in ‘communicating interculturally’, whatever that may mean – and from your definition of communicating “with someone who is not from where you are from” it could basically mean talking to almost anyone, really; raising awareness of difference in some vague kind of way – as you seemed t be suggesting with this question: “Should we not make our learners aware of how their communication styles can be interpreted by others, and how other people’s communication styles can be misinterpreted by them?” . . . also raining awareness of “cultural characteristics of those with whom students will be communicating” . . . and helping “our learners to reflect on how the way they see the world is socially constructed”.

          From that, I just couldn’t see what exactly you wanted to happen in the classroom, or what these supposed ‘skills’ that apparently exist outside of language might actually be. I also feel that if you’re not able to define them or clarify what they actually are, then our chances of actually TEACHING them are next to none!

          Perhaps the problem was we were talking in broad brush strokes, not specifics, and so when I see someone claim that, for example, it’s good to challenge students is they make over-generalizations – about pork being necessary, December 25th being celebrated by everyone or all English people being white, say, then these should be are flagged up as being just that: over-generalizations then it’s easier for me to agree with this than it is to really understand what the big statements you were making might mean in everyday practice.

        4. This is a quick reply as I still feel that we need to raise awareness among our students. I was at a fancy dinner at the bank and the appetiser had pork in it and I said that I didn’t eat pork. The people (who own a large company here which I now avoid buying ANYTHING from) said in perfect English, ‘And if you ate it, would that really be a problem?’ So explaning to students that grammatically correct sentences are not the end of the road, but part of what they need along to road to become international communicators. And I would assume that anyone learning English as a second or foreign language is probably planning to communicate with someone from another culture rather than people from their own.

        5. Hi again Marjorie –
          Sorry to hear you’ve been subjected to another pork incident. It seems to be a recurring problem.

          The optimist in me think that there’s an outside chance the question was simply a poorly-worded way of asking something like “So why exactly is it that you don’t eat it? I mean, what do you believe would happen if you did? and could possibly simply have been curiosity . . . but probably not!

          I guess in classroom terms the way I’d see this as needing to be dealt with is that at some point during a course there needs to be a time when students discuss food they don’t – or can’t – eat and explain why. Out of this, I’d then reformulate some ideas – things like I’m allergic to them. If I eat them, I come out in a rash / my face swells up, etc. I’d then add in I can’t eat pork. It’s ……… my religion – and try to elicit against. If I had Muslim or Jewish students in the class, I’d probably also teach It’s not halal / kosher and see if the students themselves wanted to expand on this in any way.

          In short, I’d introduce the idea through teaching new language and allow any discussion that might emerge as a result to develop. I don’t really see what else can be done, though . . . and I’m under no illusion that this would stop ignorance or racism. We can only represent our own sense of justice and the world to students – and let’s face it, different teachers will see this differently, and there may well be plenty of English teachers out there who have similar ‘pork’ issues to the folk who made these stupid comments to you. Little we can do to change that apart from discuss things as and when we feel the need arise.

  3. Thanks for bringing us another great debate Chia. I found the discussion very interesting but also quite troubling and, if I’m honest, a little odd. Everything in the debate seemed to revolve around culture in the classroom which I really feel is a moot point.

    Isn’t the purpose of classroom training to aid learners in real world performance? If this is the case, cultural adaptability, the term ‘cultural intelligence’ is beginning to be used, is an extremely serious issue.

    Hugh seems to believe that as long as you can manipulate the language effectively you’ll be OK. I’m sorry Hugh, but in the real world this is utter nonsense.

    I help a lot of extremely sophisticated English users when they begin working in the UK. To assess them purely on language needs, it’s often unclear why they come to me. Their English is fine.

    As a result, I talk to supervisors, HR managers and review their writing etc. What always reveals itself in these investigations is ‘their language is fine, but they just don’t get it’.

    To distill this into an issue of directness or indirectness is really too simplistic. To help my super advanced learners fit into a new discourse community, we have to, I repeat have to, explore serious cultural issues such as face, power distance and uncertainty avoidance.

    These are serious issues relating to interpersonal skills, national and corporate culture. If you don’t think these issues matter Hugh, then maybe you should learn more about them.

    The fact is, every UK HR manager I’ve ever spoken to would disagree with you. At the end of the day, language doesn’t matter that much, it’s the awareness of and ability to adapt to different cultural norms that make a successful international communicator. Language will come in time. Not my opinion, the consensus in global recruitment.

    1. Good point Ed. I have the same problems with Adv learners living abroad. You can understand that they don’t need to learn those things but they also want to have super amazing English. Without the cultural aspect it’s just words on the page but teaching them this in an attractive way is tough. For them grammar is grammar and saying “pardon me mate, have you got the time on ya?” is not in their books or their mentality. Many of them just translate everything but when it comes to collocations, cultural references and just social norms they are lost but, sadly, often don’t care. I’ve said that they need to be in England/US etc to get the rest ie they need to live the culture because there’s only so much they can get from being abroad and learning English. At that level they are beyond the tenses and weird structures and abstract jargon that you find in Adv books. That’s another issue though all together.

      1. I’m not sure if that was the point Ed was making or not, Phil, tbh. I suspect not.
        Once students get to say CAE level, there’s still a LOT of language they need – and most of it is either high end (academic, journalistic, etc.) or low end (colloquial, everyday spoken language). It’s obviously good to push on with that and explain how things might be used as best we can.

        I would still dispute the idea of ‘cultural norms’ really existing in any kind of broad sense, though. Ultimately, if a foreign person who visits London stops someone and asks any one of the following questions:

        Excuse me. Sorry to bother you, but would you happen to have the time on you?
        I’m sorry, but do you know what time it is?
        Sorry, but do you have the time?
        Sorry mate. Got the time on ya?

        does it really matter?

        Any one of these is a ‘cultural norm’ for a particular kind of native speaker, and any one native speaker may use different ones at different times as well. These things are only really relevant if we’re talking about English for extreme integrational purposes, where students end up living and working and living with natives all the time. In which case, they often end up learning much of this anyway. And if they don’t, they’re often still able to lead happy productive lives.

        I look at my wife and her business partner: two very fluent non-natives, one Indonesian married to me, and thus exposed to my own English in all its south-east London glory, and the other a German living with another non-native. Joanna, the German, speaks amazing English, has friends from all kinds of countries including England, and has carved out a good career for herself here, but she’d certainly never say ‘sorry mate, got the time on ya?” Does it matter? I think not personally.

    2. Hi Ed –
      Thanks for your comments.

      I’m genuinely interested to know how exactly you feel language teachers should be teaching or fostering “cultural adaptability” and “cultural intelligence”. What would you recommend teachers say or do to ‘teach’ these ‘skills’? And how many of the 100 hours, say, available to us on most courses would you recommend be spent in this way?

      In terms of making foreign people into suitable workers for particular UK employment contexts, well, the reality is that for the vast majority of language teachers around the world, that’s not a realistic or necessary goal. Even for me, teaching in the UK, the vast majority of my students are not looking to STAY here and work for UK companies. On a bigger level, though, I’m still not clear what else exactly apart from language you think should be getting taught. What is this amorphous ‘IT’ that these super-fluent non-natives apparently don’t get?

      If what you’re saying is that companies themselves would do well to have induction days for new staff that discuss issues such as attitudes towards face, power distance, company cultures, etc. and make explicit their own policies / expectations with regard to these things, then I have no beef with that at all. I would simply point out that this is someone else’s job, not the job of EFL teachers whose students may end up working in any number of different employment contexts!

      However, to claim that at the end of the day language doesn’t matter much and that it’s adaptability that makes the difference is just something that, as a language teacher, I\’d beg to differ with. I would argue that once the language is in place and the students are ready to go out into whatever worlds they want to go out into, they will THEN extend their own knowledge of the world and become better at adapting and interacting through the range of experiences they then have. The job of the language teacher is to help them do this in English.

      The job of others may well be to hone and sharpen other life skills with respect to very particular contexts.

      1. Hi Hugh, sorry I didn’t reply immediately. I’ve been without internet for a couple of days.

        For me, cultural adaptability is part and parcel of my language courses (typically 30 hours rather than 100 I’d love to spend so long with my learners). If you look at many of the cultural theories, such as Hoffstede or Trompenaars, you’ll see many parallels with socio-linguistics and particularly pragmatics.

        These can be incorporated into many sessions as input and feedback and there are many great resources you can use to stimulate knowledge in these areas.

        What I tend to do a lot of is show a simple one minute video explaining the concept of face, run a discussion about face issues and give some examples of face saving and face threatening language.

        After that, ‘face threats’ are included in general feedback, highlighted, discussed and developed like any other language point.

        My learners find this extremely useful as they all want English for international business.

        As for the amorphous IT, I’m not sure what it is either but I really think that’s the point. As Phil mentions, few of the course books meet the needs of learners who really need to use English outside the the classroom.

        I see failures in my ability to help learners all the time and these generally relate to the interpersonal and cultural aspects of language.

        I think you’ve clarified your view very well in responding to comments and I really do see your point but I still don’t understand why you’re limiting your role to ‘just a language teacher’ when language is how culture is expressed and they are so tightly interconnected.

        It’s by bridging the gap between language, culture and personality in our training that we can really help our learners meet their goals, whatever they may be.

        1. Hi again Ed –
          Nice to hear back from you – and no worries about not being around for a few days! I know how it is, believe me! I have to squeeze time to reply amidst work and two kids and life in general, so fret not.

          Hadn’t realised you were teaching students geared primarily towards internatioanl business and see why you may feel this whole area is deserving of more emphasis given that. As I said, my context is very different and much more rooted in General English.

          I am obviously aware of Hofstede and Tromoenaars and the like, and also aware of how hotly disputed much of especially Hofstede’s work has become! I still stand by a few of my earlier statements though: firstly, I think ANY human interaction is essentially cross-cultural in the sense that we all have our own worlds within us and we all see the views we want to see, and negotiating this is simply a life skill that develops as one gets older and meets a broader range of people. I don’t see that there’s any serious difference – apart from language – between having me, say having a conversation with a Glaswegian taxi driver or a Swedish bus driver. People are people and we find common ground where we can.

          For me, the prospect of doing a short video on face and having a discussion about it isn’t a bad thing in itself. It’s more that I’d be more interested in what language emerges from it, what conversations may happen around it, and how i can exploit that. As a ‘topic’ for discussion, it’s fine and I have no beef with that. Again, I like the fact you’ve given a far more concrete example of how you see these things playing out in class than I felt Chia managed to during our interview.

          The fact that the IT remains amorphous bothers me still. Unless you’re able to say what the IT that these super fluent students supposedly don’t get, how can you help them to get IT? I’m also still very unclear as to what else we as language teachers might be able to give students that ISN’T language but that somehow develops “interpersonal and cultural” skills.

          I’ve linked in elsewhere in my responses to a blog post I did about language and culture, but here it is is again in case you’re interested:

          As you’ll see there, I’d argue that most language – especially that below CPE – actually isnt ‘cultural’ in any profound sense – and teachers don’t need any particular ‘cultural knowledge’ to teach or explain / exemplify it.

          Obviously, we all use language to realise and express our own identities and worlds, but I don’t see this as culture per se. When I’m saying what I think about something – the Jubilee, say – I’m expressing myself and my own sense of the world, not ‘culture’.

          Finally, I would still maintain that the real way we help to bridge “the gap between language, culture and personality in our training” is to use our precious time with them to teach as much useful language as we possibly can!

  4. I’ve really enjoyed reading this discussion, so I’d like to throw in my own oar.

    I think it’s worth remembering that teaching contexts vary almost as much as our students do, unique sunbeams that they are. Clearly there are some situations where intercultural communication might be more important such as in prep classes for students going overseas. In this situation there would be a great deal of authentic material you could draw upon for discussion of cultural norms, biases and so on. In a general English class where students have various reasons for studying which may or may not include spending periods of time abroad or with foreign people there is less of an obvious focus for intercultural communication work and it is probably prudent to limit its inclusion. A needs analysis should clear up how much to plug intercultural communication skills.

    As to the kind of practical activities you might do, these could be linked to language as it comes up in class. In both situations above you might do some ethnographic type activities. For example, if one focus of a class is ordering food and drinks you might show video footage of people doing this in a movie or TV show and ask students to take note of the process i.e whether people order at the table/bar, what kind of fare is on offer, when is it appropriate to pay. The motivation for doing this kind of activity in both cases would be promoting observation skills (rather than learning how to order food in an American café for instance). This could lead to roleplay work. Yes, students would have developed these noticing skills anyway in L1, but this is practice for using their language in conjunction with carrying out real-life activities in unfamiliar settings.

    I don’t think there is much of a call for teaching Culture as in ‘I am British English therefore we’re going to do negation through the medium of Shakespeare’. I’m sure there are learners who are motivated by a wish to engage with a specific Culture, like some probably want to translate literary texts, but the assumption is that most people want to be able to talk to people in a wide range of contexts, with native speakers and non-native speakers. I think, as we might use a text as a jumping off point for discussion and vocabulary mining, they can be used for practicing intercultural skills such as trying to understand other people’s perspectives.

    Most of the discussion above seems to be related to teaching adults in business, academic, and general contexts. While I think it is a good point that adults have plenty of experience adapting to new cultural groups and a personal style for doing this, children do not. Young learners account for a lot of the ELT market and often have different needs and motivations to adults. While it may not be the teacher’s business to tackle issues such as ‘being nice to each other’ in an adult classroom, it comes up with YLs as part of the everyday business of the class. I think that including teaching aims such as encouraging wariness of reductionist views of culture or discussing how people might interpret different behaviours are a more necessary part of language education in this context. You are helping the kids develop their own strategies for cultural adaptation when interacting in L1 and 2. This makes them better communicators overall. Also it may help to make language classes more meaningful
    to them if there are lots of reminders of what language is for and what you can do with it: relating to people all over the world.

    Thanks for giving me so much food for thought this morning- I look forward to reading your respective blogs in future.


    1. Hi Alexis –
      Thanks for such a lengthy and detailed post.

      You’ve managed what Chia never quite did during the whole interview, which was to give some concrete examples of what you take ‘doing culture’ in class to actually mean. As with many many things within the ELT field (Dogme, for example!) it’s often really hard to know exactly what people mean by things until you see it rooted in a specific classroom context and see examples of what people might actually do in class, and why they think it might be a good idea to do so!

      I probably didn’t make it clear enough myself that what I was really talking about was a general English 16+ context, as you kind of deduced. I agree that if you’re teaching classes who will all be going overseas to study then you may want to do stuff on things related to the place they’re going to be staying in that you think may have relevance, though even then, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think it’s more stuff like introducing / clarifying the notion of plagiarism, discussing the kinds of comments that’re unacceptable in specific university contexts, etc. that’d be most useful, personally, rather than ‘cultural norms’, whatever they might be. Maybe this is the result of spending most of my life in London, but I’m just genuinely not really sure what ‘norms’ means with reference to cultures a lot of the time – or the degree to which non-natives either desire OR are expected to conform to whatever norms may exist.

      I also totally agree that “in a general English class where students have various reasons for studying which may or may not include spending periods of time abroad or with foreign people there is less of an obvious focus for intercultural communication work and it is probably prudent to limit its inclusion” Couldn’t have put it better myself. All I’d add to that is that by teaching language, you are anyway teaching them how to ‘communicate inter-culturally’ – and that by sheer dint of every individual being different and inhabiting their own micro-cultural realms, ALL conversation that occurs in classrooms are by definition cross-cultural in a sense anyway, and that the skills we develop when learning about anyone outside of our selves can be learned in a monolingual classroom – as they are in our lives anyway – just as much as in a multilingual one abroad.

      I also don’t have an issue with the idea of exploring other cultures via topics like, say, food and drink. In our advanced book, for example, we have a jigsaw reading where one set of students read about an American living in Taipei and a Spanish woman in Glasgow and their takes on the food and drink culture where they are, whilst the other group read about a Taiwanese in the States and a Scot in Spain. From this, there’s then a discussion of anything foreign people may find odd about their own cultures. For me, though, this is culture with a very small c, and not what i think many people (Chia included?) mean when they talk about ‘intercultural competence’ and the like.

      Finally, as you seem to imply, I also do think it’s every teacher’s duty to ensure basic civility exists in class, and to pull people up when you feel they’ve crossed a line. This is kind of what I meant elsewhere when I spoke about the way we teach what we are: we all try to ensure classrooms correlate to the way we feel the world should be run. As I touched on above, this kind of ‘interculturality’, though, has less to do with ‘cross-cultural’ and much more to do with just basic interaction and learning to negotiate difference and diversity – within whatever kind of classroom you happen to find yourself in.

    2. Thanks Alexis for your lucid comments.
      I totally agree with your clarifications of what ‘doing culture’ in the classroom might mean.
      Indeed, it is not about essentialism and over generalisations,
      and as I mentioned before, it’s about helping learners to realise when they are not in their own fishbowl anymore and then learning to adapt outside their fishbowl.
      But the simple process of realising that the issues arising are due to the fact that one is no longer in one’s comfort zone is a difficult one on its own. Some of these issues are often attributed to the interlocutor simply being rude or uncooperative, without understanding that this is part of the context model for the interlocutor.
      Dr Sabrina M Gerland noticed that when Germans are presented a suggestion and they say, ‘The problems with this is…’, the illocutionary force behind this statement really was ‘We’re interested in your suggestion but let’s look at it from different angles and explore it thoroughly’ while their American interlocutors interpreted it as ‘We don’t like your suggestion because it is full of problems’.
      This resulted in the Americans packing in any further discussions about the topic, leaving the Germans wondering what happened there.

      I’m not saying that we should teach students that Germans mean XYZ when they say ABC.
      That would be overgeneralising, I suppose.

      What I am saying is, as Alexis, you have pointed out very nicely, we should offer learners opportunities to notice when there is a different intention and illocutionary force behind what they interpreting, opportunities to see that our assumptions and interpretations are our own and not always applicable to everyone. And through role-plays and discussions, allow students to practise using these noticing strategies and hone their adaptation and accommodation strategies.


      1. I’m still slightly confused Chia as to HOW exactly you help students to “realise when they are not in their own fishbowl anymore and then learn to adapt outside their fishbowl”! I mean, isn’t it patently obvious to anyone when they are no longer in their own fishbowl? And once you’re not, don’t you just try to work things out by talking to whoever it is you have to talk to and taking it from there? I just don’t see what activities or advice you give to students that helps them in these situations? Apart from, of course and as I keep on saying equipping them with as much language as possible so they are able to handle themselves and represent themselves in the big wife world out there,

        I also don’t really get the point of the Sabrina Gerland quote – or even necessarily believe it. Plus, let’s not forget, for every ONE of these stories, assuming it’s true, there are COUNTLESS successful US-German deals and negotiations completed.

        Anyway, it’s this kind of thing I am keen to avoid: Germans are blunt and may seem rude. Be aware of this whilst dealing with them! I think it’s a crass overgeneralization, it obviously depends both on the individual Germans themselves, on their level of English AND on who they’re talking to about what. And even if you accept the notion, what then? Should the Americans become blunter and more direct to compensate? Should the Germans force themselves to adapt to the American way? Should everyone just say “Wow! We’re all so different, aren’t we?” It just seems like a mad Pandora’s box to me and I don’t see what you think happens with this kind of thing in the language classroom.

        How exactly do you think teachers should “offer learners opportunities to notice when there is a different intention and illocutionary force behind what they interpreting.” To me, I can’t see what this means apart from giving trite little mini-lectures to students about how they should remember that their point of view is just their point of view and that they have to remember that others may see things differently.

        Which, let’s face, every sentient adult is already all too well aware of anyway, even if they only speak their own L1 with other L1 speakers!

  5. Like Alexis I’ve enjoyed this (anything that drives Chia mad). There’s lots going on here and i reckon i might chimp in a few mcuggets (sic) of wisdom.

    First up, defining culture is an issue. Personally, i relate best to small culture, process models (like some of the stuff in Holiday, Intercultural Communication and Ideology, 2010). The process model is complex, but basically gives room to manuva, instead of in / out groups and so on.

    Then there’s that in these discussions we need to be engaging with our own ‘culture’ lens it’s this cultural reflexivity that we can engage our students in, looking in before out. Much of this discussion above seems to have been ‘through a native speaker filter’…nothing wrong with that, but I think when ‘doing’ culture, we need to acknowledge our own position and subjectiveness before anything else.

    Focusing too much on how ‘they’ deal with ‘us’ here gives the wrong impression (pervasive native speakerism, big, national culture generalisations and so on). The English speaking world is made up of more conversations (is it?) between NNS than NNS to NS (and if it’s not now, it will be :)).

    Like Alexis I am comfortable with tasks that engage students in their own ‘research’ rather than telling them Americans do it like this. The idea of training in ‘Chinese students’ fills me with fear. I don’t believe these reductions. My final mcugget is that, for me, intercultural competency is strongly linked to communicative competence. Fence sitting position re-established. Halas!

    1. Thank you Edward for your comments.
      As I have said in my response to Alexis below, I totally agree that it is really about helping learners to notice differences from their own way of seeing or doing things, and to adapt and accommodate accordingly.
      And yes, the basis of this noticing can only happen when we are able to reflect and become aware of the way we see things and the way we interpret things. As you so aptly put it, it is about acknowledging our own position and subjectiveness and looking in before out.

      A great example is one of my dad.
      He lives in Australia with my stepmom in a suburban part of town.
      One day, he went back to Singapore to sort out some stuff, and a male neighbour came over to offer some help with some household issues.
      When my father heard of this, he became really angry, exclaiming that the male neighbour should not be turning up at his house when he wasn’t there, talking to his wife and even asking to enter the house when the husband is not around.
      He then added that these ‘westerners’ do not respect the traditional Chinese stance.

      Now, I’m not saying all traditional Chinese men are like my dad.
      That is far from it.
      I’m saying that my dad was, and is, totally unable to see that the male neighbour doesn’t see anything wrong with speaking to his wife when he is not around, that the male neighbour does not see it as a cultural issue at all, that perhaps it is my dad’s own discomfort and anger that is out of place.

      My dad is an example of someone who does not really realise when he’s out of his own fishbowl, and even when he does, he attributes it to the fact that others don’t respect his culture (whatever he thinks ‘his culture’ means)…not realising that the context model he is in is now different and he is the one that needs to reflect and adapt.

      Now, I’m not dissing my dad at all. I love him to bits.
      But I think my dad represents a lot of people out there who are not able to engage in the process of dealing with cultural differences…and by culture, again, I don’t just mean national culture…(in my dad’s case, his view of the ‘traditional Chinese culture’ is probably his own, and probably stemmed from his own family upbringing and not a national culture).


    2. Hi Edward –
      Thanks for this. You’re spot on when you say defining terms is a real issue here.
      In many ways, this is where most of the argument thus far has come from I think – a failure to define and agree terms of reference. This is endemic is discussions about culture in language teaching. Indeed, it was kind of this that sparked the talk I did at IATEFL this year, which explains in more detail what I think culture is – and how it can best be exploited in the classroom. If you’re interested, you can see it here:

      I totally agree about the dangers of seeing all this through a native-speaker filter. I think – hope – I made this point during the interview.

      I also agree that “intercultural competency is strongly linked to communicative competence” . . . which is why I believe the best way for language teachers to ensure they’re giving their students the best chance to succeed ‘interculturally’, whatever that may mean, is to teach them more language!

  6. Hi Chia,

    Before I forget the point I want to make & before reading any of the previous comments- for the same reason- I wanted to write it out. Ok soo.. we have just been given a portion of conceptually divided but linguistically united clip of communication above. Mr. Dellar presented & evidenced his point of view throughout this exchange and did so rather effectively. The question however, as I understood it to be anyway, was of a totally different nature.

    Imagine you are in your multicultural class debating human rights. One of, or a couple of your students come from such linguistic/cultural backgrounds that, human equates to men and men alone, and women are seen as a different breed*, or faith translates into his/her faith alone, or that doctor is a male profession and/ or parent means mother, or child means son…. Let’s keep it at that, but I’m sure you get the point..

    How would you answer Chia’s question, in the light of these examples? Would your view or perception of culture still be as you’ve outlined above? Would you not agree that there is more than the delivery of linguistic competence in our profession?

    * An extract from an ESOL classroom exchange, that’s pointed out at Sam Sheperd’s blog recently.

    Thank you for this Chia.



    1. Hi Tamara –
      Thanks for reading – and for bothering to post.

      Not sure what you understood the initial question about “dealing with intercultural communication in the English language classroom” to mean, but clearly part of the problem with this whole debate is a lack of clarity – and thus an abundance of confusion – about exactly what it is that people take these statements to mean, and how they might then imagine them to play out in class.

      It’s an interesting question that you pose, I have to say. Firstly, I have to say that I’ve never encountered quite such an extreme set of opinions in any of the students I’ve ever taught, from any background, race, religion, etc. either here or abroad. That’s not to say it’s not possible, of course, or that it didn’t happen. Simply to say that it’s a very unusual situation. I’ve taught loads of students with far more right-wing opinions that any I possess, and plenty of students who have real racist, sexist, Islamaphobic, anti-Semitic, etc. tendencies too. I think in general most students tend to be

      The second point I’d make is that I don’t believe that there ARE ‘linguistic / cultural backgrounds’ from which – or within which – “human equates to men and men alone, and women are seen as a different breed, or faith translates into his/her faith alone, or that doctor is a male profession and/ or parent means mother, or child means son”. I think that’s a dangerous assumption to make and leads to a kind of essentializing which helps no-one. If these notions were true, then one would presumably expect to find all – or the majority of – people from within these ‘backgrounds’ expressing similar beliefs, which clearly doesn’t happen. I feel it’s far more helpful to look at this as being an extreme example of the kind of sexism that you find across all cultures and from all linguistic backgrounds. To see rabid sexism as ‘cultural’ is to turn a blind eye to horrendous examples of such ideas within one’s own country.

      My third thought is that if a teacher is setting up a debate on human rights, they shouldn’t be massively surprised to see or hear radically divergent opinions expressed. This, after all, is the purpose of a debate. I also don’t feel it’s our job to turn students into what we see as being ‘better’ people and feel we kind of have a duty to accept that people will have opinions radically different from our own. We aren’t really very good role models if, in our quest for tolerance and acceptance, we fail to tolerate or accept.

      That said, I think all teachers also have a right to say when they feel something has been said in class which offends them personally – or which they feel offends others in the room. To NOT say anything is to become complicit through silence.

      How we deal with this is of vital importance. We need to do it without excluding the students we’re annoyed at, without in some way demonizing them, but still making it clear that we’re unimpressed and disagree. In this particular instance, I imagine that a fair bit of disagreement would’ve already been expressed by the other students in the class anyway, and that the teacher can then in some ways take the heat out of it by returning to language. I’d like to imagine that I might round up – or stop – the debate by saying things along the following lines – and write up new language accordingly:

      Right. So I heard some interesting – and very different – points of view there and of course, you’re all entitled to your own opinions . . . BUT if you believe that woman should have less rights than men or are somehow inferior, you may well be accused of being sexist or even a misogynist. In British universities, for example, you can be expelled for making sexist comments.

      One other thing . . . in English at least, and I’d imagine in most other languages, the actual word HUMAN means all people – men and women equally. It doesn’t imply it’s only about MEN. In the same way, when you say DOCTOR, in English this doesn’t specify if it’s a man or a woman, and if you talk about a CHILD, it can be a son or a daughter. It doesn’t specify gender.

      That’s how I’d deal with it myself.
      Not sure what Chia would advocate here.
      Thanks for raising the question, though.
      An interesting one.

    2. Incidentally, Tamara, could you put up a link to the Sam Shepherd post that started this train of thought? I’ve had a look at his blog, but couldn’t see anything that looked similar t what you describe above.

  7. Thanks for the interesting exchange! I have been thinking about it off and on for months and thinking about making a comment. I don’t expect a reply at this late stage but felt compelled to share some thoughts before the end of the year! I just now noticed all the great comments so I am worried that I don’t have too much to add. I hope you will excuse this late ramble.

    To oversimplify a bit, it seems like Hugh was saying that the most important factor in communication was language ability but Chia was saying that there is a bit more to it, especially when communicating with people from different places.
    (Perhaps raising the question of what exactly is meant by “language ability.” My sense is that Hugh has a larger view of what language ability means that I might…just a sense)

    I also got the sense that Hugh took intercultural communication as something like “learning ‘facts’ or stereotypes about people from different places.” I had the sense that perhaps for Chia it was more about giving people a chance to explore differences and similarities between (small c) cultures in class so that these issues might be easier outside of class.

    Chia wrote, “It’s about making learners more aware of the values, beliefs and opinions THEY hold, which are culturally bound, and how to adapt and cope when dealing with situations of uncertainty where their interlocutor is clearly communicating upon a different set of beliefs, rules, opinions, etc.” and I thought this summed up what she was talking about. I think Hugh was expecting more concrete examples of how this might translate to actual classroom practice. From my perspective, there is a lot of things that can be done in these spaces of uncertainty.

    Another thought I had as reading this was that perhaps Hugh had a different thought about what “teaching culture” might entail. To me, maybe it means creating situations here these issues can be explored.

    Chia mentioned raising the issue of communication styles between Latin and East Asian students and I think that creating the time and space for this while raising the related questions was probably a helpful move on the part of the teacher.

    (Moving on to the comments…)
    I really liked what Marjorie said, “Pigeon-holing or stereotyping is not the goal of cultural awareness; for me the goals are awareness and rapport.” I also really liked Hugh’s assertion that “ANY human interaction is essentially cross-cultural in the sense that we all have our own worlds within us and we all see the views we want to see, and negotiating this is simply a life skill that develops as one gets older and meets a broader range of people.” I wonder if there are some shortcuts (or specific strategies) that teachers can introduce to help speed this learning process along?

    An example that comes to mind is how Korean people often say “Did you have lunch?” as a greeting (in Korean and thus English). To my American ears this sounded like an invitation the first few times I heard this! An awkward phone call from a friend who was NOT inviting me to lunch helped me figure this out. To my mind, “Did you have lunch?” is not exactly a language issue. Helping learners see what this might sound like to people not from Korea is likely to be part of the job of an English teacher, right?

    The vast majority of my teaching has been with Korean and Japanese learners. Hugh wonders, “I mean, isn’t it patently obvious to anyone when they are no longer in their own fishbowl?” and my thought is that this is not always patently obvious. It seems to me that students (often) appreciate and expect a focus on such things.

    Thanks again for the exchange. Very enjoyable.
    (I apologize if I misunderstood or misrepresented

    1. Hi there –
      Thanks for taking the time to read through all of this and to compose your thoughts so clearly. It seems worth picking up on a few bits and pieces.

      You’re completely right to say that I believe that “the most important factor in communication is language ability,” but I don’t think I was suggesting that this is the be-all-and-end-all. Clearly, situations can sometimes arise even between very fluent speakers where you talk at cross purposes or misunderstand the others’ intentions or take offence that wasn’t intended, etc. It’s just that these are very contextually specific, and not necessarily to do with where people are from – and I was questioning the degree to which the study of such instances is relevant or useful for EFL classes.

      I also wasn’t saying that “intercultural communication . . . means “learning ‘facts’ or stereotypes about people from different places.” Rather, (I hope) I was simply saying that this is often what seems to get covered in the name of teaching intercultural communication! I was also querying the degree to which “intercultural communication” is really a meaningful or helpful concept when the vast majority of the talk it could also simply be called “talking to people”! This is why I don’t hold much truck with Chia’s vague ideas of “making learners more aware of the values, beliefs and opinions THEY hold, which are culturally bound, and how to adapt and cope when dealing with situations of uncertainty where their interlocutor is clearly communicating upon a different set of beliefs, rules, opinions, etc.” though of course were I to see, as you noticed, specific examples of what might actually occur in classrooms to realise these goals then it’d be far easier to have a concrete discussion on classroom practice and reality. As such, I’d be interested to know how / when exactly you yourself might create “situations here these issues can be explored” – and in particular I’m curious about the CREATE part.

      Finally, to end with an actual concrete example, which is always where I feel most comfortable, the thing about HAVE YOU HAD LUNCH? that you mention. I guess you could argue this is a cultural issue in that it’s presumably something which is often said in Korean as a social / small talk / throwaway kind of thing and is understood as such by those within that discourse community. Indonesians, incidentally, will often ask as you saunter past if you’ve already eaten too! The issues for me are really (a) would you TEACH this question? I’m guessing NOT and it’s hard to see how you could argue that it’s a sensible thing to teach in a classroom teaching EFL! (b) how you treat this if it does somehow come up in class – which it’s actually unlikely to, really. If it somehow did, I would personally simply say something like ‘You know this isn’t really a normal thing to say in English, don’t you? You know it’s just translated from Korean, right? And to me – and lots of other speakers too – it’s a bit confusing as it sounds like it might be an invitation. It’s much more normal in this kind of situation to just ask something like HEY, HOW’S IT GOING? or HOW’RE THINGS?


      1. Hello Hugh,

        Thanks so much for taking the time to respond! I am glad that what I wrote made a bit of sense!

        I must apologize for one point I was not clear. You wrote, “I also wasn’t saying that “intercultural communication . . . means “learning ‘facts’ or stereotypes about people from different places.” Rather, (I hope) I was simply saying that this is often what seems to get covered in the name of teaching intercultural communication!” And this is more to what I wanted to say. Something like “Hugh says this is how it often ends up” rather than how it *should be or something like that. (Because of course, you were not arguing in favor of more “intercultural communication” classes/courses/lessons/whatevers.)

        I liked your point where you wrote, “Clearly, situations can sometimes arise even between very fluent speakers where you talk at cross purposes or misunderstand the others’ intentions or take offence that wasn’t intended, etc. It’s just that these are very contextually specific, and not necessarily to do with where people are from – and I was questioning the degree to which the study of such instances is relevant or useful for EFL classes.” I think this really gets to the heart of what you are saying and even if I am (generally) a believer in thinking/talking about culture in EFL classes I can see where you are coming from.

        In terms of the how, some teachers that i have worked with like to introduce frameworks with which to analyze and discuss aspects of culture… to help students become aware of their own culture. This book might not be up your alley….

        Here is a page on my blog that I think deals with cultural aspects.
        You might say that this is the same old “tips and rules and stereotypes” but from my view when students are encouraged to evaluate and choose which advice is good and to consider the cultural assumptions or backgrounds for what is being said it can be helpful. Would this qualify as “making learners more aware of the values, beliefs and opinions THEY hold, which are culturally bound, and how to adapt and cope when dealing with situations of uncertainty where their interlocutor is clearly communicating upon a different set of beliefs, rules, opinions, etc?” I am really not sure.

        Of course, the language use/practice in creating their own tips can also be considered as the most valuable part.

        Thanks again for the very interesting and helpful exchange (which occurs as I am planning for next term!)


        PS-As for the “did you have lunch” thing. It is super common! It comes up all the time.
        (Especially perhaps because I am ready to hear it). But right, I would start with introducing the potentially confusing expression.

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