How different cultures affect teaching and learning

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How different cultures affect teaching and learning

By Ruth Dolan

Being a native speaker in a language does not mean that teaching your mother tongue as a second language is easy. As a native speaker in your own language you don’t always follow the rules but instead imitate the speech patterns of those around you. Culture influences the way a person speaks and as a teacher you must be extremely conscious of the language used in class. You may be the students’ only direct interaction with the language. Even filler words such as “um” and “so” and phrases like “hold on a sec” can be confusing to someone who is learning English for the first time. Sometimes I change my speech patterns to sentences that are not natural for me, but translate more directly so my students can understand me. For example, a common Spanish phrase is “en este momento” which translates literally to “in this moment” but if I am talking to other native speakers I would say “right now” instead. And as an American I must be conscious of the differences between British and American vocabulary as well because I am preparing students for British English exams. While I have the advantage of not committing the same errors in speech while teaching that Spanish speakers do, I have to monitor my speech as they do so I can teach my student’s effectively.

My experience teaching English differs greatly from a native Spanish speaker who has studied the language. Native Spanish speakers understand the common mistakes that they made in their own studies and can help students find ways to overcome those problems using references to Spanish language or culture. For example, the word “theatre” was difficult for my students do pronounce after looking at and reading the word. Even after explaining that the letters make different sounds English, it was still difficult for them to remember. But when I wrote “ziater” on the board next to “theatre” they understood the pronunciation right away. I could only use that tool because I myself am learning Spanish.

At the same time as I try to make learning English easier for my students by monitoring my speech, I try to make the experience authentic. I give examples they can relate to and share information from my own country, especially with my older students who can understand more English. Getting that cultural perspective increases the students’ interest and even performance. One study of reading comprehension suggested that including native materials lead to increased language performance (Bahman, 2017). The researchers concluded that cultural aspects are “a vital necessity for many students to learn and improve their language knowledge, communicative skills, and comprehensions in same ways as native speakers do” (Bahman, 2017). Cultural context is an important tool for a student to learn a language well.

Another benefit of language study is that students of second languages tend to have more positive attitudes towards the people and culture of that language than students who only learn one language. One study showed that elementary school students who study Spanish had more positive attitudes toward Spanish speakers than students who did not study Spanish (Riestra 1964). I agree that my own opinions of and respect for the Spanish people has only increased as I continue to learn the language and understand the culture more. Before moving to Spain last year, I did not study Spanish culture and was confused by siesta time, the different work schedule, and the value placed on relaxation time. Now these differences do not bother me, although some days I still think they are strange. I came to Spain because I wanted to improve my Spanish and learn more about different cultures because I felt the opportunities for this were limited in my own country. While I have since realized that there is more cultural variation within one country than I previously thought, I have learned the most about Spanish culture just from talking to people while traveling around Spain. I hope that my own students will gain a more positive opinion not only of Americans, but also of all English speakers through their classes and that they become more empathetic to people of different cultures. I benefited from learning from native Spanish speakers and I’m hoping to give my students a positive experience. I feel that I have a responsibility to my students to give them the best possible experience with English that I can with the time I have with them and to prepare them for the next step in their English-speaking journey.


Bahman Gorjian, Farshad Aghvami, The Comparative Study of EFL Teachers and Learners’ Perceptions on the Importance of Teaching Culture, Journal of Applied Linguistics and Language Learning, Vol. 3 No. 3, 2017, pp. 71-78. doi: 10.5923/j.jalll.20170303.03.

Riestra, M. A., & Johnson, C. E. (1964). Changes in attitudes of elementary-school pupils toward foreign-speaking pupils resulting from the study of a foreign language. Journal of Experimental Education, 33(1), 65-72. from PsycINFO database.

Ruth Dolan

How different cultures affect teaching and learning