A positive view of the target culture makes learning the language easier. It helps if the learners identify with the people whose language is under study. Culture and language go together. Cultural understanding is essential for both learners and teachers.

As I wrote in 2014, "One of the greatest challenges we encounter when studying concepts related to culture and the learning of culture is agreeing on what it is we are talking about. Cultural concepts are transmitted by language, and they mediate between the speakers of the language and their environment."

Language learning is easier if one has a positive attitude.The instructor cannot be an expert on every culture but should be aware of some of the more common areas of potential conflict.

In this article, I will look at some aspects of the cultures of individual countries.

Saudi Arabia

The status of women in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is showing more signs of change. Here is an account of a Saudi woman, Maha Al-Mutairi, who is showing her independence by getting her own place, a secret apartment, while maintaining the traditional family connections.

"At 35, like most unmarried Saudi women, she still officially lives at home. Her father decides what can and can’t happen in his home. Decisions about what she will study, where she will work, all are subject to her father’s permission."

More than just where to live, she also wants to have a say about the person whom she marries. She rejects the traditional arranged marriage.

Here is another example of changes from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has slowly started granting more rights to women. These changes are in response to calls from their own citizens and human rights advocates.

It seems the ideas of Arab reformers such as Qasim Amin are finally beginning to take hold,

Cultural traditions can be harmful. These customs inherited from the past overshadow true Faith.

As she wrote in 1896, "Customs can overpower religion and then corrupt and transform it so that everybody who is acquainted with it will deny it."

By adopting parts of the western culture that do not interfere with true belief, Amin hoped to provide a cultural model that will lead to progress for the Muslim people.


Another reformer, Layla al-Baalbaki, also advocates for women through Modern Arabic fiction. She addresses the issue of women in the home and workplace in her autobiographical novel, Ana Ahya (I Live) and calls for more cultural freedom.

Her character, Layna, studies at the American University of Beirut and works in a downtown office. Her liberated lifestyle causes friction between her and her more traditionally minded parents. Layna becomes more and more alienated as life seems to turn into a question mark.

She rebels against her closely knit traditional family after she notices her father watching a neighbor woman. She starts meeting a young man at a coffee shop, and her mother accuses her of unbecoming behavior:

"Who are you meeting? He is playing with you, he..."
Layna cut in sharply “He…he, what concern is it of yours?"
"You, when has a young lady from our family ever been out roaming the streets?
When has she been meeting men? And smoking in front of her mother? Tell me, what is the reason for this rebellion and immorality?"

Even at home, Layna is torn between two cultures: "I am lost in our house. I am neither eastern nor western, neither bond nor free, neither blond nor brown."

She describes a foreign woman in the coffee shop and compares the East and West: "The woman lit a cigarette and none of the men showed any concern. She is foreign. She is not one of the women of our East who are imprisoned by men.”

The Middle East Modernists can be described as follows by Ronald L. Nettler:

"Though smaller in numbers and, most far most likely less broadly influential than Islamist intellectuals in the same period, the modernists represent a highly particular intellectual reconsideration of traditional thought with the construction of a ‘new Islam’. To their minds, this ‘new Islam’is not only consonant with the modern world but embodies the original essence or core of the tradition."


A Ukrainian professor, Tetyana Svelyka, comments on American cultural influence on society:

"We often meet features of Americanization in our life. As you know, the United States of America have great influence on our culture, on our customs, values, and people, too. I know that some people want to be look like Americans and they try to do what Americans do, they try to live how Americans live, and these people think that they will live better on their native land, because they will be look like American."

But she warns of the negative effects of this trend. Even though she likes American culture she feels that it could overshadow Ukrainian traditions:

"When people learn foreign traditions, they forget their own. I think that each country should have its own culture. And each culture is interesting."

One factor she finds disturbing is smoking. She feels that the cigarette advertisements are encouraging young people to start smoking:

"The problem is that smoking is too fashionable. They think they are already adults. They see handsome smoking men in American films too often. I think that it is a very big problem."

Overall globalization is good but not at the expense of national traditions:

"So, I think that the influence of globalization on our society in general is good, but some people are fond of the West too much. I think that everybody who lives in Ukraine should remember Ukrainian traditions and customs."


Even though English is one of the official languages of India, Indian students can still face obstacles. Shabina Kavimandan, from India, had to deal with cultural differences.

"Kavimandan, who moved from India when she was 22, said she often uses her own experiences of culture shock and lack of acceptance to educate teachers on how to deal with ELLs in the classroom.

Now, along with being K-State’s Associate Director of Curriculum and Innovation, she works as the project manager and instructor for the collaboration with Shawnee Mission under Herrera. The program has worked with 10 schools so far in the district.

Although Kavimandan knew English when she came to K-State, she said things like accents, cultural differences and unfamiliar skills made the process of interacting with teachers and students a difficult one."

Students expect more formal educational settings.

Thus, as per Mary McGroarty, learners from more traditional educational systems may expect teachers to behave in a more formal and authoritarian fashion during classes and may be displeased, puzzled, or offended if a teacher uses an informal instructional style, such as using first names in class or allowing learners to move freely around the room.

"In India, we come from a very regimented, very disciplined kind of system in classrooms," Kavimandan said. "You come here, and I’m sitting in my graduate level class and people were allowed to eat snacks, call the teachers on a first name basis. It was a shock. We don’t realize those things."

Knowing these cultural differences will help ESL instructors and administrators as well as the regular teachers who have international students in their content-area classes.

Teaching hints: Sample Culture Lessons

Complete the following statements. Compare your responses with the responses of your partner/team.

My native country is ___________________________________. (Name of country)
Many people in _______________ eat _______________________.(Your country name(s) of food _________________________________________ for breakfast)
Many people eat breakfast at ________ at ___________________. (Time, place)
After breakfast children go to ________________________. (Place)
After breakfast adults go to ______________________________. (Place)

Here is another helpful lesson:

In a perfect world, we would use national stereotypes less often. However, it is true that national stereotypes are used when discussing other countries and peoples. This subject often comes up in English classes and can be used to advantage to help students reconsider their own use of national stereotypes. Use this lesson to encourage a healthy and open discussion of the topic, rather than shy away from the use of stereotypes in class.

Aim: Discussion of stereotypes, explaining, improving character adjective vocabulary

Activity: Discussion and comparison of National Stereotypes

Level: Intermediate to Advanced


  • Write the word 'Stereotype' on the board and ask students what the word means. If students are unsure, help them by asking them to finish the phrase, "All Americans..." or something similar.
  • Once students have understood the concept of what a stereotype is, ask them to mention a few of the stereotypes about their own country.
  • Include a few provocative stereotypes of your own at this point in order to get students thinking about the negative or shallow aspects of thinking in stereotypes. Example: American food is fast food. OR Americans love guns.
  • Ask students to divide into pairs and choose two of the listed adjectives to describe each nationality. Tell them that they will need to explain their reasons for the adjectives provided.
  • Go through the sheets asking different students to explain their reasoning for the adjectives they have chosen. Ask other students whether they agree or disagree to promote conversation.
  • Once you have finished your discussion of stereotypes, ask students why stereotyping can be often be bad and which stereotypes of their own country or region they do not like. Ask them to explain why.
  • As homework, have students write a short composition comparing their own region or country to another one. Ask them to include various stereotypes, as well as examples from their own experience that either confirm or refute the stereotypes they mention.