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Cultures in the classroom

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tod's cyber monday
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Information for teachers

Non-verbal aspects of language (Paralinguistics)


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What we communicate consists not only of the words we speak. Just as we can ‘read between the lines’ in written text there also is a lot of the meaning between the words or sentences in speech.  Tone, pitch and intonation convey emotions, politeness or sexuality, for example.  Pauses and stress aid understanding and indicate importance. But there are linguistic differences in all of these that can alter the messages sent and received. The social implications of these messages are also subject to cultural interpretation.  

Stress, tone and pitch

Stress, tone or changes in pitch vary a great deal between languages. Some Asian languages, for example, have a fairly flat profile reflecting a respect for self-control. In contrast, Latin languages have a ‘lively’ profile with many changes in pitch reflecting a more emotional culture. English lies somewhere in between. Someone speaking English using an Asian profile sounds disinterested, boring or remote while a Latin profile sounds exaggerated and over-emotional. Stress also conveys emotion but also meaning. There’s more stress in German and in English Germans can sound forceful.  

Pitch has linguistic and social meanings. In English it’s used primarily to express emotion. In tonal languages such as Mandarin, Thai and Vietnamese, it determines meaning with similar words or symbols differentiated by tone. In other languages it differentiates statements and questions, “He is going to school today?”  Concepts of masculine and feminine also affect pitch. In a New Zealand TV advertisement only men with deep voices get a 4WD – a real man’s car! Equally, some cultures favour a light, high pitch in women.

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Pauses and tempo changes

Every language has patterns of pauses and tempo changes. Most English speakers pause fractionally every few words, and vary the tempo of their speech. Formal speeches demand even greater expression. A good speaker varies pace to maintain listener interest and pauses to add emphasis. In contrast, in some Asian languages people pause only at the ends of sentences and too many changes in tempo indicate a lack of control and over-emotional expression.

The pauses between dialogue partners are very important. In some languages, including English, you can begin speaking as soon as the other person finishes. In others such as Japanese it’s polite to add a ‘thinking’ pause in between. In Spanish and Italian, speakers can start speaking before the other person has finished, without sounding rude. So while a Japanese student politely waits to say something, a Spaniard has long jumped in with their reply.


Silence is golden but only nine carats in some cultures and twenty four in others. In most Western countries, silence is considered a failure of dialogue to be filled as quickly as possible, even with a facile reply. However, in many Eastern cultures silence has traditionally been highly valued as a sign of respect for the previous speaker and a person who says little is considered, respectful, deep-thinking or calm. In contrast a person who says little in an English-speaking environment is considered shy, taciturn or uncommunicative.

In the classroom silence reflects several aspects of culture. In western classrooms, for example, ‘having a go’, is encouraged, but in other cultures you shouldn’t answer a question unless you really know the answer. Students are punished, or publicly humiliated for giving a wrong answer. In most Anglo-Saxon cultures, speaking up is actively encouraged. In contrast, in Sweden students are less likely to initiate communication even though there are no sanctions for making mistakes.

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Yes and no

Yes and no don’t always mean Yes and No. In many Asian countries, for example no is considered rude and people will avoid using it or ‘Yes’ means, “I heard you” rather than “I agree”, for example. This can lead to a lot of confusion if Yes/No cultures interpret a ‘Yes’ to mean agreement. Agreeing with a suggestion, for example, may be the best way to save face for both sides. Of course, it is then unlikely that any action will follow.

In English you say ‘Yes’ to agree with a positive statement
“You like him, don’t you?”  “Yes, I do.”

 And ‘No’ to agree with a negative statement
“You don’t like him, do you?”  “No, I don’t.”

In many languages you use “Yes” in all cases of agreement.  


Body languageIn some languages people say what they mean while in others they can only imply it, Even UK English is indirect relative to American and is loaded with phrases such as, “Would it be all right if…?” East Europeans are also relatively indirect and messages are communicated by what is NOT said as well as what is said. Direct communicators perceive indirect communicators as evasive or even dishonest. Indirect communicators experience the direct are rude and insensitive.

Differences in communication styles can cause friction in the classroom. Those who speak as briefly as possible are frustrated by classmates who never seem to get to the point. Students who openly state their opinions offend classmate from cultures in which courtesy demands more tact. Indirect styles of communication are difficult for EFL students to understand. “Would you mind closing the door?”, for example, is more difficult to understand than “Please close the door”.

English communication patterns are linear. In formal situations, we usually start with the most important points and add details. In other languages the details come first with the punch line at the end or speakers circle in on, or hint, at the main point, perhaps never mentioning it. Others express themselves in a ‘stream of consciousness’ manner, saying whatever comes into their minds. The potential for missing the most important points when someone from another culture is speaking is obvious.

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People from some cultures tend to exaggerate or overstate, while others understate. This is true even within English speaking cultures. The English, usually understate, “My son isn’t bad at football”, while Americans are more likely to overstate, “My son is a great football player”. Neither of these statements is dishonest or meant to deceive. Within their respective cultures, the message is clear. Other cultures have similar patterns. The Japanese tend towards understatement while the Spanish are comfortable with extravagant statements.


In English conversations good listeners respond verbally from time to time. They say ‘Yes’, ‘Sure’, ‘Really?’, or use tag questions ‘Does he?’, ‘Is it?’ to show they’re listening. However, in other cultures saying anything may register as an interruption so attention is indicated in other ways. ’The Japanese tend to show they’re listening by nodding from time to time, for example and they may even close their eyes to show they’re listening carefully.


Interruptions are part of conversation. They’re an irritating part of dialogue, but the level of ‘rudeness’ they’re considered to display varies from culture to culture. What constitutes an interruption also depends on the language group. In hierarchical societies, it depends on the status of the conversation partners.  The reasons for interrupting also vary.

Students from other cultures have internalized different sets of ‘interruption’ rules. In some countries students interrupt teachers with questions or to challenge something that’s been said, but in others it’s very rude to interrupt even if the class has gone overtime, the teacher’s made a mistake, or students haven’t understood. Teachers in some countries interrupt students to end activities while in others students expect time to fit the activities rather than vice-versa. Other rules govern student/student behaviour. Can students interrupt each other in a discussion, for example or contradict or challenge each other in class?

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In multicultural classes ‘turn-taking’ is an issue. Some students politely wait their turn and don’t get to say anything, while others dominate the conversation, jumping in at every opportunity, or interrupting. Although this is an issue in any classroom, cultural differences exacerbate the problem. Differing speech patterns are an issue. In some cultures it is also assumed that everyone should have an opportunity to say something while, in others, it’s assumed that if someone has something to say, they’ll say it. Status may also determine who speaks.

Giving opinions

When asking for opinions, teachers expect ideas and reasons. However, Japanese students may simply state whether they agree or not. If asked for a reason they will often give a brief answer, “Because he’s friendly”, for example. Russian students, in contrast, can spend time explaining their thoughts on a subject without saying whether they agree or disagree.

In many educational systems students aren’t encouraged to form opinions. They therefore find it difficult to develop and express opinions especially on educational topics. However, most hold opinions on personal topics such as likes and dislikes and this is a good place to learn to express opinions. These students should have a good grasp of material and terminology before being expected to discuss it.

For many students holding an opinion doesn’t include considering other points of view.  This is true of some students in all cultures, but particularly among those who have never been expected to weigh pros and cons. In addition, they may not be used to justifying their opinion.

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Making mistakes

Every aspect of error correction is cultural. Different beliefs about the nature of knowledge and diverse educational philosophies mean that schools and teachers in different cultures and countries have different ideas as to what constitutes a mistake and how to deal with these errors. This affects the way students learn and the difficulties they face when changing countries and educational systems.

What’s considered a mistake depends on beliefs about knowledge. If knowledge is thought to be absolute and unchanging there can only be one right answer to any question. In this case answers that don’t accurately replicate this knowledge are wrong. However, if knowledge thought to be constantly changing and a matter of perspective, there may be a variety of answers. The correctness of an answer then depends on the reasoning or the process of finding the answer.

Our beliefs about knowledge affect teachers’ behaviour in the classroom. When teachers are the keepers of knowledge rather than facilitators in students’ learning, their responsibility for producing the correct answer is high. So too is their desire to defend this knowledge. However, if students are expected to discover information themselves, teachers’ responsibility for producing the correct answer is lessened and they’re open to alternative answers. This is confusing for students from ‘keeper of knowledge’ cultures. They may mistrust a teacher who doesn’t produce an absolute answer or who is prepared to discuss an answer. 

Forms of address

Forms of address reflect culture: formality, power distance and hierarchies, relationships. English, unlike most languages doesn’t distinguish between familiar and formal forms of ‘you’ and distinguishes male and female only in the singular ‘he’ and ‘she’ but uses plural is ‘they’ for everyone. We don’t distinguish cousins my sex and aunts and uncles from mother’s and father’s family. All of these features exist in other languages.

English is fairly informal, especially American English. People frequently use first names even with relative strangers or business colleagues which would be unthinkable in some cultures. Students may therefore find it difficult to use the teacher’s first name or even family name, for example and use ‘Teacher’, which sounds impersonal to us but is respectful in many languages.

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Humour in the classroom lightens things up, but it takes care and practice to get it right. Most people like things that make them laugh, but nothing is more cultural than humour. A hilarious joke in one culture is insulting, puerile or inane in another. While some cultures find jokes about body parts and functions funny, for example, others find them disgusting. Comedy and tragedy are juxtaposed in some cultures and a disastrous event can have people in fits, while in another country it will have people in tears.

Word-play based humour relies on linguistic skills. While situational humour translates well, word plays often use a high level of language; using words with more than one meaning, playing with homophones or complex constructions. Some is based on social or political events and incomprehensible to newcomers.

Many jokes are about other cultures or nationalities. The English make jokes about the Scots and Irish. Austrians bear the brunt of Swiss jokes. In cross-cultural situations such humour has no place as it’s often perceived as deliberately offensive. Cultures also differ in their willingness and ability to laugh at themselves, Taboo subjects also vary. While in Western cultures very little is sacrosanct, in other cultures, religion or may be off limits.

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Contact: Ngaire Jehle-Caitcheon | Email: info@culturesintheclassroom.com

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