Approaching Cultural Differences and Breaking the Ice in ESL classes by Steve Nugent - Profesor de inglés

Approaching Cultural Differences and Breaking the Ice in ESL classes


Cultural Awareness & Strangers in a Strange Land - What can we do in ESL classes to explore &, if necessary deconstruct national stereotypes?


In May’s blog for Oxinity & Get Up Idiomas I mentioned a plethora of creative stars that I have looked up to. Some – David Bowie, Stephen Fry, Inspector Clouseau - make another appearance here.

In the context of Language teaching I interpreted quotations from writer Jorge Luis Borges & singer songwriter Mark Hollis as counselling us to first master the fundamentals of communication - including body language & silence, before striving for something true & affecting, be it pleasant or dissonant or discordant – some can make beautiful music but sometimes it can come across as a trill or a drone.

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Take this song from David Bowie’s mid 70’s ‘Plastic Soul’ period - a complex call & response vocal track, but pretty much just two chords. But with Bowie there's always learning:

"Right” is putting a positive drone over. People forget what the sound of Man’s instinct is—it’s a drone, a mantra. And people, say: ‘Why are so many things popular that just drone on and on’. But that’s the point really."

A question here to ask is do we need to do our cultural homework as to avoid appropriation, ignorance & arrogance so that we can ‘come across’ as genuine & authentic so to gain the admiration & respect of our peers, be them from different traditions?

Picture the scene then - New York & Philadelphia in 1974. The gifted Puerta Rican rhythm guitar session man Carlos Alomar is sporting an afro & can pass as an African American man in his native New York. He meets the whitest or white British singers & his first impulse is that he needed a good meal; he spirted him away to his house in Queens to receive some beans & rice lovingly cooked by his equally gifted singer (& African-American) wife Robin Clark:

“My first impression.. was that he was slightly odd. But then the humanity of David showed up. He said all these strange, little American sayings that sound so ages ago: “Hey man,” “Oh, that’s real cool.” But he was trying, so we started hanging out. “You want to see what’s cool? Let’s go to a few after-hours joints, let’s go to Spanish Harlem. Let’s go to some salsa. Let’s go to the Apollo Theater.” And that’s how we actually met, well before Young Americans.” (Rolling Stone Magazine, January 2006).


A stranger in a strange land as documented in Cracked actor, a seminal fly on the wall documentary by lan Yentob for the BBC. In the back of a limo we see a seemingly disorientated Bowie observing a drowning fly in his milk & uses this as an analogy of the overload of the senses that he was experiencing in America – ‘I couldn’t help but soak it up’. ‘Picking up on’ the latest sounds from Philadelphia he was, as ever, transitioning in style this time from a ‘glam rocker’ & wondered if he could get away with his take on Philly Soul. He self-depreciatingly referred to it as ‘plastic soul’; reverential to the form, tradition & source. However with an ‘integrated’ funk band also including lomar & Clark’s young friend Luther Vandross could the project that became Young Americans be seen as a true expression of authentic Soul Music?

Many legions of Bowie fans formed bands to became ‘blue-eyed’ soul boys in the early 8os. Did these people have soul? The trend sprung from this key time & place - a south Londoner by way of Brixton & Bromley transposed to Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound by way of a stop over in New York to employ a Puerto Rican bandleader & the cream of his circle of musician friends. The sessions were produced by Brooklyn born Italian American Tony Visconti who cut his teeth in London in the late 60s where he met Bowie. They bonded over a love of early Rock n Roll & Jazz & particularly Little Richard. The project then took on an early 60’s Chicago Black youth culture fashion aesthetic with the adoption of the word ‘Gouster’ as the albums working title – a term that might have Scottish origins – meaning “a violent or unmanageable person, a swaggering fellow” springing from backing singer Ava Cherry’s stories about her father’s dapper wardrobe as a young man & some more contemporaneous Puerto Rican styled duds.

It begs the question – what does an authentic soul singer look like & sound like? Does it matter? But more presciently how do you gain credibility & acceptance of any sort – personal, professional, cultural, communicative & artistic when in someone else’s backyard? Do your homework, become informed, be collaborative, give credit, be humble, be generous, be receptive to learning & new experience, take some risks, step outside your comfort zones & bring along others to experience the thrill of the ride?



Ok I’m a Bowie fan & also an immigrant (I much prefer this term to expat) - a (northern) Brit ESL & Humanities teacher & have lived in Spain for the last 8 years. Like waves of arrivals to a new country, & to a new language & culture, before & after me, for better or for worse, I have had to come to terms with the fact that they also do things differently here. Try this video recently shared by fellow Oxinity teacher Mark Venning in which 70 people reveal how they can tell if someone is from their country.

Typically in ESL introductory classes to upper intermediate & advanced classes I have introduced the phrasal verbs look like, take after & look up to to try to get to the bottom of a student’s prevalent personality traits. This explores the old dichotomy – how does nature & nurture form us & what are the cultural variables that go into the mix? The topic is great too for building vocabulary particularly with personality adjectives (including synonyms & antonyms with both positive & negative connotations) & for use of verbs of perception, comparatives & superlatives.

Getting an introductory class on Cultural Awareness started – we can ask: How many senses do we have & what are they in English?

We can start by eliciting a class for the senses in English & the accompanying descriptive phrases – sight (looks like), hearing (sounds like), touch (feels like) etc. You can then ask: what does a Spanish person look like? – students will probably reply that typically they have (AmE), or they’ve got (BrE) brown eyes & dark hair & a darker skin tone – the term ‘complexion’ causes confusion as it is a false friend - in Spanish the phrase is comparable to ‘build’ in English to describe a person’s body shape. We can ask what the opposite of ‘dark’ is & a student might reply ‘light’; ask for synonyms of this & some students might know ‘fair’ or ‘pale’ – but which of these can we apply to skin tone & which to hair colour? This is a question of appropriacy. A building can be either big, high or tall, a mountain tends to be high or big rather than tall, a man or woman can be all three but high in this context means we could be talking about the middle word in the typical collocation associated with a rock icon - ‘sex, drugs & rock n’ roll’. In the mid ‘70s Bowie’s prodigious unfortunate cocaine habit was coupled with some would say fortunate incredible promiscuity:

What was the deal David – were you bisexual, pansexual, trisexual?…I thought being gay was like the Foreign Legion – once you tried it once, you weren’t allowed back” (Johnathon Ross – 2002).


Taking some risks with your Cultural Awareness discourse: What do the British & Spanish smell like?

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A tad pungent? Does the term fee-fi-fo-fum hold the answer? According to this article Queen Elizabeth 1st took a bath either once a month – ‘whether she needed one, or not’, or according to the excellent & authoritative QI game show hosted by the ever-engaging Stephen Fry - just a few times a year. However, Queen Isabella 1st of Spain reigning in the century before Elizabeth, apparently only ever had two baths – once at birth & once just before she was married. I’m guessing male nobles bathed even less. Victoria Beckham or ‘Posh Spice’ claimed that she did not say that the ‘Spanish smell of garlic’. She said in an interview in Vanity Fair Espana in 2014: “I would never say anything so disrespectful”– tellingly at a time when both her & her husband were peddling their new range of fragrances.

And what do the Spanish sound like?

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What are the synonyms with positive & negative connotations that are often applied to describe the sheer volume levels for conversation in Spain & perhaps in other Mediterranean territories such as South-West France & central Italy – loud, noisy, expressive, exuberant, rowdy, shouty? Of course, there is a great diversity of accents & diversities across Spain but in Valencia where I have landed, I might just have found one of the loudest places on earth! Occasionally I find myself annoyed by this & like Giles Tremlett – writer of the highly recommended of ‘Ghosts of Spain’ I betray my extranjero anglosajón roots bewildered by the fact that nobody seems to complain….

Fellow northern Brit abroad Phil Ball has also written a good book – this time about Spanish Football called ‘Morbo’ – the term said to encompass the unique combination of history, regional nationalism, language & politics in Spain that gives football rivalry a special flavour. In his chapter on Valencia featuring Los Che (Football Club Valencia) he provides some valuable insights. As with any reading task of authentic texts ESL students & teachers might need to consider either to separate the more idiomatic language as a pre-reading task or to attempt to understand it context - in chunks or as common collocations e.g.: fiercely loyal, baying hordes holler, famous for, interminable racket:

Aside from Betis & Athletic Bilbao, it is hard to think of a club with a more rowdy, committed, or fiercely loyal set of supporters. Mestalla built in 1924, has for some time been one of Spain’s more intimidating stadiums, from whose apparently sheer vertical walls & baying hordes holler their allegiance. It seems to function as a microcosm of the city itself, also an incredibly noisy place…Equally famous for making an interminable racket is Spain’s most famous fan, Manuel Cáceres Artesero, otherwise known as Manolo el del Bombo (the guy with the drum).”

In the same book I noted with interest that football fanzines have not really caught on in Spain. In most British football clubs there has been a long tradition of both official & unofficial magazines published for, or by, fans to chew over various articles, interviews, profiles & even Manager’s Notes. This suggests the predilection of even the most vocal of British fans towards a few quieter moments for reflection expressed through reading or even spirited attempts at writing. The Spanish, in contrast are far readier to just unwrap their bocadillos & to talk – loudly & animatedly, of course about much the same topics.

Another contributing factor & a collocation to consider is the ‘quirky rhythms’ in Spanish life – are cultural norms, regular fiestas & warm weather wholly responsible for the noise into the wee hours? In a Wall Street Journal feature on a quixotic lobby group – ‘the Association for the Rationalization of Spanish Schedules’ blames much of this on the ‘wrong’ time zone introduced by Franco, Mari Carmen Torres, a 49-year-old in Valencia, complained:

“..about the noise late at night and hopes Spain will turn the clocks back. She runs a website on insomnia and figures that a quarter of Spaniards suffer from it.”

How com-fort-tuble/ˈkʌmf.tə.bəl/ are we with pronunciation?


If we acknowledge the stereotypical image of more noise what about the obstacles that we need to address for the Spanish in phonology? Certainly L1 interferences between syllable timed & stress timed languages, the vowel sounds // and /ɪ/ & ed-endings. Regarding the first there are some old chestnuts such as ‘comfortable’ & its close cousin ‘vegetable’? The tendency for the Spanish will be to pronounce each syllable phonetically – /veg – et – table/. Learners are advised to drop the middle syllable in both, & from this northern Englishman’s perspective to change table to ‘tuble’ which needs to be modelled as the ‘u’ sound in (northern) English which in Spanish is closer to ‘oo’. As for the problematic vowel sounds - the grouping of beech, bitch, bear, beer, beard, bird can cause no end of problems.

For ed-endings all ESL learners have to contend with the 3 sounds - /t/, /d/ & /id/ & including unsuccessfully noted ‘French’ persona Inspector Clouseau – “until we meet again & the case is solv-ed”. Some helpful hacks exist, of course – shorten to comfy & veg? find synonyms like seaside? refer to your female dog in the pronoun as a ‘she’? Avoid using past tenses?

An extension of the introductory routine is to elicit for the name of the sixth sense – ‘intuition’ assumed to be the domain of women, or the more evidence based ‘deduction’ – the domain of budding Detectives or Private Dicks (careful! Investigators). In a mixed paired introductory class instead of asking students to introduce themselves, we can ask them to make use of all of the verbs of perception they can think of including ‘seems like’ & (BrE & AmE) functional language such as I guess/suppose/wonder/imagine/figure/reckon/figure/gather to ‘come up with’ an intuitive or deductive profile. Students in this way can, of course, try to intuitively build up a profile of the teacher – hometown, nationality, age, marital status, interests with the rejoinder – ‘it’s ok to be offensive – don’t worry about upsetting this careworn teacher ’. In ‘Annie Hall’, perhaps his best film, Woody Allen had fun with something similar –imagining what his school classmates were up to, or into. in adult life.

Taking even more risks with Cultural Awareness - What does a Spanish person feel like?

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Film buffs of a certain age might recognise the scene below where comic actor Benny Hill playing a professor inappropriately gets to grips with …an a Italian woman.

Playing devil’s advocate – always fun in class – using the term’s more literal meaning you could ask what does a Spanish person feel like? Well my wife is Spanish – I should know but of course I’m British & so the story goes that I am emotionally & physically supressed. In his hilarious text How to be an Alien (1946) - later collected as ‘How to be a Brit’ - Hungarian exile George Mikes thought one-line was sufficient for his section on Sex for the British:

Continental people have sex life; the British have hot-water bottles”.

Experimenting in class with the instruction: “stand up please & feel your nearest partner!!?” might be a little inappropriate & result in - as was the case in the 1969 film ‘The Italian Job’ shown above - a slap in the face or a hand-bagging or two. We now, of course, thankfully live in time when behaviour that was once thought merely offensive is now in statute books as a prosecutable offense. However,
casting a blind eye to some seemingly deviant behaviours might seem to be more prevalent in some societies as we enter into the realms of 'cultural determinism' – as the saying goes: ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’. Perhaps counter-intuatively, the film reflects well on Roman men in the 1960s – if memory serves me well, justice was done the woman got the police involved after being felt up by the eccentric professor.


However the stereotype, of course, has it that natives of Latin cultures are more tactile, or in more idiomatic language – ‘touch-feely’; northern Europeans are more reserved, overly concerned about personal space & emotional distance or ‘standoffish’, they keep themselves to themselves.

What Preparations do we need to take to minimize culture clashes?

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These differences & other characteristics have been coded, categorised & placed on a spectrum or mapped particularly since Edward Hall’s 'The Silent Language' (1959) as ‘high-context & low context communication styles’ or since Richard Lewis’s ‘When Cultures Collide’ (1996) with reference to the Lewis Model – ‘Linear Active, Multi-Active or Reactive’. From these we can discuss in class with modals for advice & obligation how to prepare for culture clashes in our personal or work lives? We might not be prepared for doing business with a seemingly different cultures – say a brash American or a punctilious Swiss might live by the maxim time is money & want to get on with the agenda, an uptight Brit who is uncomfortable with informalities, or an inscrutable Japanese or Chinese senior manager who says very little in a meeting. The clues & social cues can be found in ‘reading between the lines’, do they place a higher premium on developing relationships before making a decision? are you the kind of person that they like doing business with?


The need for the International Business Traveller, Students, Academics or Sports Person to be prepared for their trips abroad will be the subject for a future blog & for some Oxinity Business English materials currently under development.

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For now, an advanced ESL learner might consider the following personality adjectives to describe stereotypes often associated with certain nationalities. Which are usually seen as positive, negative or neutral? which do you think are synonyms & antonyms? which do you think that many might use (rightly or wrongly) to describe typical traits of your own nationality? & which countries are the first that spring to mind when you think of some of the other adjectives?

A focus on stereotypes, is of course, often considered lazy thinking – nobody wants to be pigeonholed, generalised characteristics perhaps should be taken with a pinch of salt. Yet they can also be a bit of fun. The United States is well known as a cultural melting pot - I recently caught up on the mid-western comic Bob Newhart’s take on his own heritage:

“I’m three quarters Irish & a quarter German which makes me a very meticulous drunk”.

Abrupt, adventurous, aggressive, ambitious, arrogant, affectionate, assertive, big-headed, bigoted, bitchy, boastful, boorish, brave, candid, cantankerous, charismatic, chaotic, chatty, clever, clingy, cliquey, cocky, cold, confident, conforming, confrontational, conscientious, courageous, cowardly, crazy, creative, creepy, critical, cunning, curious, cynical, demanding, dependable, dependent, determined, devious, diplomatic, dominating, easy-going, eccentric, efficient, egotistical, elegant, emotional, empathetic, energetic, enthusiastic, excitable, expressive, fashionable, flaky, frank, friendly, fun, fun-loving, funny, fussy, generous, greedy, grumpy, hardworking, heavy-drinking, hesitant, homophobic, honourable, humble, ignorant, impatient, indecisive, influential, inscrutable, insensitive, inspiring, intellectual, introspective, introverted, jolly, kind, laidback, lazy, loud, loving, loyal, macho, mad, manipulating, materialistic, mature, mean, merry, meticulous, modest, moody, moralistic, nationalistic, nasty, negative, noisy, nosy, obedient, obnoxious, odd, open, open-minded, optimistic, organised, passionate, passive, passive-aggressive, persistent, picky, pliable, polite, proud, punctual, pushy, quirky, racist, rash, relaxed, reliable, reserved, resourceful, respectful, romantic, rude, secretive, self-depreciating, serious, sexist, shallow, shy, sleazy, sly, sophisticated, soulful, stingy, stoic, strange, stubborn, stuck-up, stuffy, suspicious, tardy, thick, thoughtful, timid, tight-fisted, touchy-feely, tough, traditional, trusting, truthful, undisciplined, unsure, upbeat, vain, violent, volatile, vulgar, warm, weird, witty, xenophobic

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