LOS Reflections – Same Language, Different Cultures

Being fluent in a foreign language takes me nowhere. I must also
learn to understand the culture of those who speak that language.  

I have been teaching students from different cultures for almost 10 years. However, only after I read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, specifically the first chapter, did I come to the point where I realized that even if we all spoke one language, we would never be able to completely understand each other. 

When learners from Asia or the Middle East translate from their
mother language to English, their translation appears to be too
complicated for Europeans with a simple language structure. Furthermore,
students from Asia tend to speak indirectly and more sophisticatedly,
so the listener needs to read between the lines to grasp a message. If
you are not aware of this fact, it can be very difficult for you to
understand each other, and you may think they are ‘blurring the
message’. We can say that Asians may be too polite to say the truth
directly.  This can be seen not only in face-to-face conversation but
also in emails or online communication. In contrast, students from some
European countries can be seen as very rude and too direct as they
express their message simply and clearly. That is why I think it is
vital for all teachers not only to teach their students a language, but
also the culture of that country so that common ground and potential
pitfalls are defined. 

Moreover, I certainly have experienced cultural differences within
European countries. During my 6-year stay in the UK, I had to learn how
to express different messages. Since Brits are very polite, they often
consider other nations to be rude and impolite.  Therefore, when I was
teaching students from different countries, I had to advise them on how
to ‘fit in’ and be almost 100% more polite than in their own native
language. I remember one situation when I was shopping at a car boot
sale, and a man from Romania asked an English seller: “Hey woman, how
much?” instead of: “Excuse me, Ma’am, can you tell me how much it
costs?” I use this example in my classes regularly, as it is a clear
example of how harsh and negative people of other nations might appear
to Brits.

Many European cultures also promote a tendency to criticize a lot,
use many negative words, and provide very little positive feedback. On
the other hand, English speakers and some from Asian countries use many
down graders to soften the criticism, and they also wrap a positive
message around the negative one. In this situation, we may not realize
we have been criticized. I found it very difficult, after coming back
from the UK where you are given positive feedback first and then some
ideas to improve, to talk to my children’s teachers in Slovakia. They
all sounded negative to me, and as a mother, this was hard for me to
accept. I genuinely thought my children were hopeless. I really miss the
English style of evaluation, as I think it motivates you more when you
hear some positive words about yourself rather than only criticism. 

I think all teachers should spend some time in the country of the
language they teach in order to understand its cultural background. Only
this way can a teacher fully help their students to understand cultural
differences between nations. Once the students are aware of these
differences, they can easily switch between styles so as to sound and
behave more like natives. 

Eva Griesova, LOS Consultant