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ESL Teaching Abroad: Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Engage with Young Students

ESL Teaching Abroad: Overcoming Cultural Barriers to Engage with Young Students
Admin - Jul 18 2016

Communication is the cornerstone to effectively teaching younger students. However, when teaching ESL abroad, cultural barriers may stand in your way of successfully reaching your students. It is important to remember that every situation is unique and social norms differ between societies, sometimes even within the same nation. Politics, religion, and urbanization all play a crucial role in determining a society’s values and it is up to you to learn the ins and outs of a society prior to embarking on your journey of teaching there. This helpful guide will highlight some of the larger issues you should closely examine to best be successful overseas.


Learn the Culture

First and foremost, you must learn the culture of the region you will be teaching at. You must learn appropriate behavior, decorum, and etiquette to best be able to interact with students and the surrounding community. When teaching in Eastern nations, an educator will be quick to learn that societies are more conservative than what they may be accustomed to in the West. These regions have populations with a large density of Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist practitioners and observe conservative values. While the urbanized regions may be more liberal, the vast swaths of rural areas still hold onto cultural traditions and conservative ideals.



Behavior and Etiquette

As a teacher, you will be expected to extrude professionalism and set a positive example as a role model for your students to follow. Young students are easily impressionable, and it should always be remembered that you are teaching them to be contributing members of their respective societies. As such, you must place emphasis on principles valued by natives in the region and remove as much of your personal biases as possible.


Regardless of wherever you teach, conservative dressing with professional attire is a must. This entails dress shirt, with a tie, and dress pants for male teachers and knee-length skirts and tops with sleeves (sleeveless blouses are frowned upon in some areas of the world) for females. Show of excessive skin is taboo in a majority of foreign locales; conservative dressing would better display professionalism. Furthermore, public display of affection is considered inappropriate in many regions of the world, so it is best to avoid engaging in any behavior or activities that the native population would deem unfitting for a public setting. As they say, when in Rome do as the Romans do.


Accepting Cultural Differences

Coming from a liberal society, some cultural differences may seem strange and foreign to you, however it is important to learn to accept cultural differences. Both individual and cultural differences of your students must be taken into account in order to best engage with them. You may not agree with local customs, traditions, beliefs, or system of politics, however you must remember you are guest and must be weary of expressing your opinions on these matters in public. Collectivism is prioritized over individualism in some regions, therefore students would tend to prefer not to stick out. This results in unengaging classrooms, and while promotion of verbal expressions should be encouraged, it should be limited in order for students to better incorporate themselves within their societies. You must teach students to match behaviour with their setting. Teach them when it is appropriate to express themselves, such as in a classroom setting and differentiate it between what is expected of them in a formal setting.


Accommodating Differences

Effective teachers are ones who students find approachable and are readily available to accommodate students’ needs. Accommodation is best achieved through mutual respect and cross-cultural understand, however, many strategies could be employed to achieve the desired outcome. Younger Eastern students tend to be more shy than their Western counter-parts; providing opportunities to raise self-esteem with positive reinforcement would greatly help in such cases. Presentations and group work oriented towards everyday life would allow students to grow more comfortable in expressing themselves. Furthermore, family and collectivism is a highly valued aspect of Eastern life, as such, great emphasis must be put towards incorporating these values into lessons.


Religion also plays a large role in the lives of students all over the globe. This much be taken into account to appropriately accommodate your classroom. When teaching in a majority Muslim region, students have to leave class early on certain days to attend mosque, similarly girls will wear pants under skirts to cover their skin, in addition to a head scarf. Furthermore, students should be taught in these regions to not point their feet at elders and authority figures, as it is considered highly disrespectful.


A Teacher’s Role

As a teacher, the best way to engage with students with different cultural backgrounds is to build a relationship with them. A good rapport goes a long way towards mutual-respect. This could be further accomplished by talking with parents, coworkers, and locals for insight into what is acceptable in certain scenarios. Incorporate family-oriented lessons if deemed appropriate, such as presentations on a trip with their families or a group project on building friendship. Encourage students to provide rationale for every lesson, so they know the skills and values they are being taught with each successive unit; this approach better enables students to internalize what they are learning. Frequent reviews of previous lessons would only further enhance the learning process and better facilitate incorporating future knowledge. Combined with frequent positive reinforcement, young students should be taught to balance different skills and employ them at appropriate settings in their daily lives. 




It is important to remember that young students are very impressionable and easily molded by those around them. As a teacher, it is your job to guide them to best contribute to their respective societies. It is recommended that you approach teaching these students through the perspective of what is expected of individuals from their region, and remove as much of your personal bias as possible. To best accomplish this, you must first learn the cultural expectancies of the region you’ll be teaching at, including; aspects of behaviour and appropriate etiquette. Thereafter, you must accept the cultural differences of these areas to your own ideals, and do your best to accommodate them in the classroom whenever possible, whether it be by letting class out early to practise religion or placing emphasis on local beliefs through your lessons. For example, while individualism and personal expression are highly praised in the West, it might not be as appropriate in other parts of the world. It might be of greater merit to instill family values, cooperation, and collectivism in these students instead. It is up to you, the teacher, to best prepare young minds to succeed within their respective communities.

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