Discussion on Culture in the EFL Classroom

Hello dear reader. Welcome. Imagine you are asked to answer the following questions:

  1. In your experience, as either a student or a teacher, reflect on a time when you witnessed how culture impacted language learning. Describe the incident briefly.
  2. How did you or your teacher deal with the situation?
  3. What do you think about it now?  What changes or modifications would you like to make to the approach that you or your teacher used?

Do any examples come to mind? If so I would truly appreciate it if you could share your response in the comments of this post. I would likely share it with future training course participants (unless you tell me you’d prefer me not to).

If you have a few minutes and are interested please do share your response. You might even choose to type it up before you read on. Please do give the questions some thought.

Don’t just skip to the next section. Yeah, you.


Does this hippo look embarrassed to you? Source

I doesn’t seem fair to just ask for replies without offering anything in return. I’d like to share the background for this and some of the responses I’ve seen and perhaps some food for thought. This task is from an online course on CBI I’ve been teaching on for a while.

Quite often participants (EFL teachers from around the world) respond with things like the following partially fictionalized responses.

  • In my L1 bread is countable but in English it’s not so I need to teach students more about this and sometimes I bring bread as an example.
  • In my L1 (Spanish) embarazada (pregnant) is not the same thing as embarrassed in English. Students get confused and maybe sometimes, ahem embarrassed, by this false friend and I need to teach them about the crucial difference. False cognates are tough.
  • In Korea and Korean we count by ten thousands and in English they count by hundreds and thousands and millions and so on. It’s really hard for students to think differently. I have no idea how to handle this except for more practice.
  • In Chinese we actually have so many borrowed words from English and sometimes the meaning is different in Chinese or Chinese English than “real” English. It’s tough to keep up with. Toast is one such example. Students can’t seem to realize that, by definition, toast needs to have been placed in a toaster and otherwise it’s probably just bread.
  • My students were amazed to see that a word from their L1 is actually used in English. They thought it was amazing that flamingo, the bird, would be known by most native speakers in North America.

In Portuguese this is called a “flamingo” Source

Do these answers match what you thought about for the original questions? To me they are a bit off the mark as I think they are about language more than culture. I try not to get into a whole thing on Whorfianism but I try to nudge participants to think less about language and more about the culture of learning for this assignment. I get that language and culture are linked and intertwined. I get that students can get confused about such things.

I guess for me, the “X is different in English than my language” is important but not central to a conversation about culture in the classroom. I also think such posts don’t lend themselves to a deep discussion. The takeaway is often something like, “I will focus more on this in class and make sure students get it.” Also many of the above answers are not really describing an incident but rather a difference (or similarity ) between languages. 

As you might imagine, I try to provide models of answers that I think work well (and yes my initial request above is related to that) and also try to nudge participants in what I think is a more productive direction. I am also thinking about ways to revise the instructions and text that precedes this discussion.

To be clear, I don’t think the responses above are particularly bad or wrong but rather just not the most productive track for a discussion on how culture can impact learning. What do you think?


  1. ddeubel

    Yes. first thing that struck me too. I actually was thinking …. oh no, what’s happening here ….

    Too often I think many confuse language with culture. For example (addressing your point about Whorf and a pet peeve of mine) – that the language one speaks makes one more / less X. This isn’t the realm of language, it is culture operating and making one more / less X.

  2. mikecorea

    Thank you for the comment David. My current/recent thought is that English teachers are so used to thinking in terms of language that this becomes the first thing that comes to mind when asked such a question. I think you make an interesting point about the (over) use of Whorf! Thank you for the comments as they got me thinking more.

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