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Teachers helping teachers: Find and share classroom tips, research, experiences, and stories.

View on the slums of Manila from the water
Photo: Richard Shaw

English for EduCharity: Giving Teacher Training in the Philippines

in Teaching

When Richard took a shot at teaching English 10 years back, little did he know where it would lead him one day. Here, he relates his summer experience of delivering a teacher training course for charity in the Philippines.

Adventure calling

It started with a phone call on my university graduation day in July 2015. A small team of teacher trainers were due to fly out to Manila the following month to deliver a two-week training course, but one of the trainers had to drop out because of passport issues.

The project was a collaboration between two Rotary clubs in the UK and the Philippines. Its objective was to improve the teaching quality of a school in Manila, which had been built from upcycled shipping containers in a previous project.

On the phone, I was asked whether I could fill in for the missing trainer and co-deliver the course (which had still yet to be written). I said I’d need a few days to think about it, as I would need to organise some things. Besides, I was concentrating on having a great day with my family following completing university.

Despite this, there was only one answer in my mind and I called the person back 20 minutes later saying to count me in.

Pulling together to make things work

Due to a breakdown in communication between us and the school, we had to work with very little information about where we were going, the teachers we’d be teaching, the types of courses they taught and what they were expecting from us.

Notwithstanding, we pooled our combined knowledge and experience together. Working as a team, we designed a training course that we thought made sense and was beneficial to the teachers in Manila.

The place of action

The school is situated in the district of Tondo and sits right on the foot of ‘Smokey Mountain’, a truly enormous landfill site. Its name comes from the noxious gas clouds that the waste creates and the size of the site.

This is home to around 25,000 people and is one of the most impoverished places in the world. The people there live in slums, and the family members, including the children (regardless of how young they are) pick through the landfill finding things to sell.

Some of the children that go to the school often fall asleep in class because they are so tired from foraging until the early hours of the morning. Attendance can vary from child to child due to family problems, including severe illness of a family member, domestic violence and sexual assault.

A challenging arrival

We arrived in Manila, jet-lagged and tired, but excited to meet the 28 teachers and the school staff members. There is no public transport infrastructure in Manila, so everyone travels by car. We got picked up by the school’s minibus driver and made our way from central Manila to Tondo.

This journey of only a few kilometres ranges from twenty minutes to three hours, depending on the traffic. The gradient of scenery also changes along the road – starting with the downtown buildings to shacks made from corrugated iron and wooden pallets.

When we arrived at the school, the most noticeable thing was the smell. Due to the location of the school next to a giant bin and the very warm and humid climate, the initial smell was almost too much to bear. Try sticking your head in the communal bins on a hot day, for eight hours.

Making necessary readjustments

We observed most of the 28 teachers over the next two days and got together to discuss the results. We came to the conclusion that most of the sessions we had thought would be relevant to the teachers were actually irrelevant. Also, we all saw where the teachers had gaps in their knowledge and technique, and where we could give more useful sessions in replacement for the ones that we took away.

This did mean though that we were now writing sessions in our accommodation’s lobby after arriving back from the school in preparation for the next day. Even more of a challenge when hot, tired, and still jet-lagged!

Once we had cracked that nut, it was relatively plain sailing from there. The training sessions were well-received by the teachers, and we felt like we were giving a lot more beneficial training – and ultimately having a lot more fun and rewarding experience.


Group of young teachers in Tondo, Manila
Smiling faces: members of the teaching staff in Tondo

Teacher problems: traditional roles

One observation, and one of our biggest challenges, was to break the teachers out of the classical teacher role: the teacher stands at the front of the class and tells the students the information. The teacher also writes on the blackboard and dictates which student should speak and when they should stop.

The more you’re doing as a teacher in the classroom, the less your students are doing.

This role, we strongly assumed, came from the teacher’s preconceived notions of what a teacher ‘should’ be like. It was most likely due to their past learning experiences, and/or having learned this during their teacher qualifications.

In subjects such as English and the subjects taught through the medium of English (see Content and Language Integrated Learning ‘CLIL’) a seemingly one-to-one information exchange from teacher to learner is not sufficient enough for language acquisition.

Facilitating rather than teaching

This is where a teacher could design a lesson in order for him/her to ‘take a back seat’ in the class and let the students take the reins in order to have as much (meaningful) practice of the language as they can.

You earn your pay check in the effective planning of the lesson and the progress of the students.

Initially, the teachers may feel that they are not in control, or are not doing enough in order to feel like they are earning their salary; but in fact, you earn your pay check in the effective planning of the lesson and the progress of the students.

In this more up-to-date model, the teacher can act as a facilitator rather than a teacher: helping students discover the language by creating situations and activities for meaningful practice and provide input when necessary, rather than ‘teaching’ the students contrived language.

[…] facilitate learning by giving more autonomy and responsibility to [the students] but being there when they make mistakes or have a question or get a little lost.

A little off topic, but I’d also like to take the opportunity here to say that, despite having almost nothing, living in the conditions described above, and what these people must have to go through on a daily basis, you couldn’t meet a happier bunch. They were so kind, so polite and helpful, and really couldn’t do enough for you.

They all had grins from ear to ear and lived life appreciating and celebrating what they do have, and not focussing on what they don’t have. Walking through the slums and working in this area was a little daunting for me at first. However, the people there made us all feel welcome.

Visiting again a year later

The teacher training team returned back a year later to run an evaluation on the teaching of the school. We saw a lot of familiar, friendly faces, and also some new ones.

It was great to see that the teachers had taken some of the training on board and have implemented a number of the ideas in their classes. A few teacher-led classes still remained of course, and a few old habits. But on the whole, the students seemed to be more involved in the process – and that for me was mission complete.

All in all, I am very thankful to be able to have had that experience in such a place. I will take the memories and the things that I learned with me for a long time.

Storytime! Funniest Teaching Moments

in ELTABB/Teaching
Photo: Ben White, unsplash

We asked teachers about their funniest experiences in class. Here’s what we got.

Clumsy Teacher

When I did my CELTA at the Berlin School of English in October 2016, one of the students asked me during the break what the word ‘clumsy’ meant. He seemed to understand the meaning, but was struggling to use it. As you all know, CELTA trainees have each 40-minute-slots to teach. It was my turn after the break. Although I was already an experienced teacher, I was very stressed being constantly observed and given feedback, by the lack of prep time and all the ‘lovely’ factors the intensive course provides. I totally messed up with tons of copies I made for the group – a bigger one, over 10 people. The lesson didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked, so I tried to play cool. While giving new instructions, I was backing off to the teachers desk, when suddenly I stumbled over the chair. I almost hit the floor and the handouts fell out of my hands in the best traditions of silent comedy movies. Jumping upright again, I cried out, “That’s what being clumsy is!”


Mr and Mrs Dictionary

It was a Monday morning the day new students arrive. Fresh faces. Starting the class, I introduced the new students and asked them to tell us a little about themselves. This went as normal, embarrassed students with a resentful look saying “I can’t believe he is doing this to me”, saying a few words and sitting down.

That was until we got to Gabriel, or Gabi, as he introduced himself. Ten minutes later, Gabi had given us a brief history of his 20 years on this planet using vocabulary that stunned me for a B2 class. Once I regained composure, I went on with the class, a vocabulary lesson covering idioms and phrasal verbs. Every time I tried to elicit a word, inevitably Gabi would raise his hand and say the word I was looking for. I thanked Gabi for making my job easy, “Thank you Mr Dictionary “. The class had a giggle as did Gabi. I spoke with Gabi after the class and asked him why he knew so much vocabulary. “I read the dictionary all the time”. In fact, he had one in his hand.

I had to move Gabi to the C1 class because by the end of the week I was convinced he was misplaced.

The following Monday, and again the class started as normal. Well that was until we got to Yasmin. Groundhog Day, but this time Yasmin spent ten minutes telling us about her 21 years on this earth and also her hopes for the future. Once again the variety of vocab shocked me. Once I had gotten over the sense of deja vu, I went on with the class. Things went in much the same way and by the end of the week I told Yasmin she would be going to the C1 class, because I thought she too had been misplaced. I also told Yasmin there was a guy called Gabi in the class she would get along with.

A few weeks later at a school pub night I saw Gabi and Yasmin walking in together holding hands. I greeted them, “Oh hello, Mr and Mrs Dictionary!”.

Unfortunately, Mr and Mrs Dictionary split up when Gabi returned to Brazil. I spoke with him a few weeks ago. He reads the thesaurus now.


“You bet!”

Last summer during a Business English lesson revising presentation skills, trying to focus on signposting language and body language while presenting the most recent projects our group had at work.

So, meet Vlad, a hipster-looking, extremely smart and witty co-founder of a gaming IT start-up in Kyiv. He would always be on time, ticking on his clock to everyone who was late in the group, even 30 seconds later. Vlad would always arrive with a fancy coffee or specially brewed tea in his hand. Sometimes on his electric gyro-scooter right through the glass doors of our Business English classroom. He likes to be in the focus and enjoys it. And here’s the time to present his project –  a “wheels of fortune”-like game-app they recently created for the US market.

I assigned the other girl, Valerie, a tender and feminine (but extremely competitive and passionate) sales assistant, to count the number of signposting and linking phrases Vlad would use during his 5-minute-long project presentation. They made a bet: he’d use 20. Yes, in 4 minutes. Yes, along with the presentation of his project.

And here he goes: Vlad actually built all his presentation around functional language, trying to underline each phrase with mimics and hyperbolized body language, to make sure Valerie counted each of those. When he used “and”, “but”, “also”, Valerie would not count it, showing vividly she wouldn’t bend her fingers for such “basic” linking words.

The guys were so artistic and so into it, we were all laughing and keeping our fingers crossed hoping Vlad would win this bet. Val is counting using her fingers so that everyone sees nobody’s cheating. The time is about to run out.  It’s 18 phrases counted and 30 seconds left… Everything’s at stake and he says: “That brings me to the end of my presentation.” – 19 phrases. “Greatest thanks for your attention” – 20 phrases!!! “The floor is yours, Val!” – The timer goes off.  “But, you’ve run out of fingers, Val!”


If you had fun reading this, check out Evan’s post and learn how not to be a muggle when teaching ESP to cosmeticians.

Teaching English with TED Talks: How to Create Compelling Materials for ESL Learners

in Teaching

TED talks offer free and engaging content for teaching and learning English. Teachers can use them to enhance their lessons and spark their students’ interest in language learning. Beate Ziebell explains why TED talks are great for boosting learner motivation and how to make them into actual learning resources.

Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) in the classroom

Motivation is one of the key factors for successful language learning. So here’s the good news: any learning material which is interesting for a student is intrinsically motivating. Ideally, the teaching material should be funny, entertaining, useful for the job or otherwise intriguing.

Learning English, and at the same time learning something new, hits two birds with one stone: studying the subject matter and the target language.

Examples for teaching English through a different subject could be:

  • Learning about history (children could learn about the mysterious world of the Sumerians or the Roman empire)
  • Learning a programming language (there are some funny and simple programming languages designed for kids)
  • Reading a funny or entertaining book (here, one could find books for almost every age), or study literature

Research confirms that CLIL is a compelling and effective method for learning a new language.

TED talks for your English lessons – teaching and learning with passion

TED talks are great resources for teachers looking for a CLIL-like approach to teaching ESL. The organization is non-profit and devoted to spreading ideas, mainly in the form of short, powerful speeches. There are TED talks about almost every topic – technology, science, design, health, the environment, personal growth and many others. Currently, over 3100 talks are available. Therefore, it is possible to find an inspiring talk for every individual student in class. Just check out the official TED website.

Which TED talks should teachers choose for teaching English?

When teaching English with TED talks, choose one which has a lot of vocabulary in it to help students learn as much as possible. You can suggest three TED talks to your students and let them choose.

Never mind if the talk contains difficult words, because almost all of them have transcripts in multiple languages. So, with the help of the transcript, learners will be able to grasp the meaning of difficult words quickly.

How to make a parallel text transcript from a TED talk

To make learning convenient and fast, create a parallel text transcript. Please make sure to do this only for personal use in the context of the classroom. See the TED talks usage policy for more information.

A parallel text transcript can be created following these steps:

  1. Open a Google Sheets document (or Excel/Open Calc). Here I will use Google Sheets since it is free and can be used wherever you are. But the how-to should be very similar for each of the programmes mentioned. Because some of the functionality of Google Docs/Sheets works only with Google Chrome, it is best to use the Chrome browser for this purpose.
  2. Copy the English transcript to column A. To this end, select the entire English transcript, click into the first cell of the Google Sheets document, and select ‘Copy’.
  3. For the column format, choose ‘Format/Text Wrapping/Wrap’.
  4. Copy the transcript of the mother tongue of your students into column B and select “Wrap”.
  5. Now adjust both widths of the columns so that it is comfortable to read. This can be done by clicking on the column header and choosing ‘Resize Column’.
  6. Additionally, select ‘Format/Align/Top’, so the text of each cell starts at the beginning of the cell.
  7. Now compare the columns. Do the languages match? Unfortunately, sometimes the transcripts are not well adjusted.
  8. Search for (Laughter/Lachen) as a reference point in the transcript. Insert needed cells. In my example, I needed to insert some cells and copy some text to it so that the languages matched. For a long text (“The surprising science of happiness”) this took 20 minutes.
  9. Adjust the column font and size to your liking. This can be done by selecting the entire column and changing the drop-down menu for font and size.
  10. Now you can convert the parallel text transcript to a PDF. Go to ‘File/Print/’. Choose ‘Portrait’ and ‘Next’ in the right-hand corner of the document. Now you can click on ‘Save as PDF’.  

How to adjust the speed of the talk and download its audio

Now, the students should listen to the talk multiple times and make sure they comprehend it. Note that you can adjust the speed of the talk. Hover with the mouse over the wheel of the talk. Then, you can speed up or slow down the video by clicking on the speed selectors.

In order to improve pronunciation and to remember the vocabulary, it is helpful to download the audio to your smartphone or MP3 player.

To achieve this:

  • Visit a talk page
  • Click the “Share” button
  • In the pop-up box that appears you have several options for sharing or downloading the file
  • Choose “Download audio”

Now the students can listen to the talk again and again during other activities and will memorize the new vocabulary without much effort.

Understanding the talk and listening to it multiple times can be a starting point for discussions in class and other activities. To make the most of your talks, you can use this free TED talk worksheet to make sure your students have understood the video.

Help with your TED talk and free content for your English lessons

Please contact me via if you have any questions regarding creating parallel text content. If you teach in Germany and would like some ready-to-use material, please visit my webpage ‘English for Kids’. The page contains a free bilingual book you can use in class, including the famous poem ‘The Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll and some chapters of the book ‘The Story of Mankind’.

If you found this article useful and would like to learn more about computerized teaching, take a look at this post on using corpus analysis tools in the classroom.

Tools like scissors, sello-tape and cutters on a blue table top

Workshop Review: ‘Using Corpus Analysis Tools in the Business English Classroom’ with Evan Frendo

in ELTABB/Teaching

Galina recaps Evan’s April workshop on corpus analysis tools for business English teachers. She shares what she learned about data engines, the internet as a resource to find out about students’ real-life needs and ways to apply this knowledge in class.

This was a special ELTABB workshop for me, not only because of the unusual all-day format that allowed us to have a glimpse at several corpus analysis tools and play with them a little, but also because I had been looking forward to this workshop for over seven months and was honoured to be a scholarship winner.

The Conundrum of the Corpus

The first time I heard about the term ‘corpus’ was at one of our FTBE study group sessions back in 2017, when a group of daring ELTABB members were preparing for the First Certificate for Teachers of Business English. I have to confess, we didn’t have enough time to cover this topic, and I was thus left with a very vague idea of what it was and how it could be used.

Connecting the Dots

So what is a corpus? It’s a collection of texts, spoken or written, held in electronic format. Sounds not very impressing, right? How can a collection of texts be of much interest? What can we do with these electronic texts? Why bother analysing them?

I think all teachers at some point are faced with a question:

What should we teach and what do our students need the most?

That is exactly when corpus analysis tools come in handy by providing evidence instead of intuition, examples from real language use, as well as differentiating specific lexis.

Having come to the workshop prepared – with the required text documents and software downloaded and several online tools opened in our browsers, most of us still had not the slightest idea of the important terminology, such as KWIC (Key Word in Context), concordance, collocation, idiom principle, clusters/n-grams, keyword analysis. Evan led us through these terms, providing us with examples and giving us the opportunity to try them out using the online tools.

After mastering the terminology, we learned about the fascinating research that had been conducted, including Mike Nelson’s ‘Corpus-based study of the lexis of business English and business English teaching materials’, the ‘Language in the Workplace Project’ studying real interactions in New Zealand, as well as ABOT (American and British Office Talk Corpus) and CANBEC (Cambridge and Nottingham Business English Corpus).

Exploring Different Online Tools

After a short coffee break, we played a bit with online corpora:




Each of the above has its own advantages and disadvantages. While SKELL gives us a ‘taste’ of the Sketch Engine and is very good for searching collocations (the one I used the most after the workshop), COCA is a corpus of American English and very colourful and visual. HKCSE, however, is a corpus of spoken English.


collection of words related to "strawberry"
Corpus for the word “strawberry”

Before lunch, we managed to have a look at an offline corpus analysis tool – ‘Antconc’, which allows you to analyse any corpus you have. Evan let us work with the ‘EnronSent’ corpus that we downloaded beforehand. This is an email dataset which contains 2,205,910 lines and 13,810,266 words. It was when we started analysing the ‘EnronSent’ corpus that it became clear what a valuable tool for teaching business English it was with its fascinating examples of real life English, intertextuality and metaphors.

We took our impressions to lunch and spoke about ‘Enron letters’, how we could get our BE clients to share their data for us to analyse and why the results of corpora analysis were not used in course book writing as much as they deserved to be.

Using Corpora for our Teaching Practice

Lunch was followed by an overview of teaching activities one can create using corpus analysis tools such as: word clouds, gap-fills, language questions. Evan gave us some outstanding ideas and tips, e.g. using ‘cloze test creator’ to make gap-fill tasks online and how to answer unexpected questions like, “When do I say ‘looking forward’ and when do I say ‘going forward’?”, etc.

We finished the day playing with the new tools. While some just read the ‘Enron letters’, others tried to create materials for their classes. I decided to try to use my client’s website and created a couple of word clouds and gap-fills. We all agreed that for teachers, corpus analysis tools can be challenging but rewarding, and that investigating them might be time consuming but fascinating.


  • Handford, M. (2010). The Language of Business Meetings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Holmes, J. (2006). Gendered talk at work. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Holmes, J. and Stubbe, M. (2003). Power and Politeness in the Workplace. London: Pearson Education.
  • Koester, A. (2010). Workplace Discourse. London: Continuum.
  • Leber, J. (2013). The immortal life of the Enron e-mails.
  • Styler, W. (2011). The EnronSent.
  • Nelson, M. (2000). A Corpus-based Study of Business English and Business English Teaching Materials, PhD thesis, University of Manchester. (retrievable from his website)
  • O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M., & Carter, R. (2007). From Corpus to Classroom: language use and language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Vine, B. (2004). Getting Things Done at Work: The Discourse of Power in Workplace Interaction. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Want to read more from Galina? She shares a funny teaching story here.

Promoting Cross-Cultural Understanding: ‘Bringing the Intercultural into the Classroom’ with Mandy Welfare

in ELTABB/Teaching
Group of four teachers discussing around a table.
Photo: ELTABB archive

In her educational March workshop “A hitchhikerʼs guide to bringing the ‘interculturalʼ into the classroom“ at the Berlin School of English, Mandy discussed the topic of cross-cultural communication and intercultural competence in ELT. For those who missed out, don’t worry – here is your summary of the main points and activities.

What role does cultural difference play in cross-cultural communication?

1) Warm-up

The first group task consisted of an introductory round in which the participants introduced themselves to as many people as possible within 4 minutes. As a follow-up question, Mandy wanted to know whether the interactions varied in terms of length and level of comfort. It turned out that people with similar backgrounds found it easier to connect with one another. This was especially true for people from anglophone cultures. They reported finding it easier to start a conversation with other native speakers, even if all parties spoke English.

The group discussion revealed that our cultural background influences the way we act in cross-cultural communication. The exercise had helped raising awareness for this, as one participant pointed out:

Once you understand your own cultural conditioning, it becomes easier to understand another personʼs.

We also discussed that the way people relate to one another varies due to different backgrounds (e.g. educational / professional). Previous experience with an individual person plays a role as well. Thus, there are a number of factors which influence our interaction with other people, both consciously and subconsciously.

Interculturality: the elephant in the room

2) Place yourself: rarely – sometimes – often

The next exercise was about the amount of attention teachers give to intercultural communication in class. We gathered in groups that reflected the frequency of our bringing up intercultural topics or issues. These varied from rarely to sometimes to as much as I can. All types were represented, with a large number of people in the sometimes group. After that, there was a group discussion in which

we found out that :

  • Interculturality is an inherent factor in language teaching, because different cultures and experiences naturally get together and mingle in a languange-learning setting.
  • Even if all parties involved in communication are native speakers, there will still be cross-cultural differences (e.g. Brits vs. Americans, Australians vs. Canadians, Liverpudlians vs. Somersetarians etc.).
  • A group itself is a culture of its own (i.e. a group of engineers will differ from a group of flower arrangers, regardless of nationality). Besides, individual groups tend to establish their own specific cultures over time, meaning no two groups of learners are alike.

As Mandy pointed out, the ‘intercultural’ is present in any setting that involves more than one person, because

You communicate interculturally as soon as you walk into the room.

Mandy Welfare

With interculturality being intrinsically present in language teaching, it’s the teacher’s job to choose how much attention to give to it (e.g. learning from each other and dealing with conflict as a form of cross-cultural training). Thus, students can develop their communication skills and awareness in class.

The role of national culture, cliches and the individual

We then went on discussing the impact of national culture in cross-cultural understanding. Is it a help or more of a hindrance?
In the case of British culture, the answer was controversial. On the one hand, it is one of the most widely known cultures in the world – a little smalltalk about fish and chips, Earl Grey tea or Shakespeare can go a long way towards easing social interaction, especially for business people. On the other hand, the cliche of British politeness also involves vague language, ambiguity and reading between the lines. As a consequence, underlying implications that need decoding can make cross-cultural understanding harder than it has to be.

Also, there can be a sense of inequality between a native speaker and a non-native speaker of English. Thus, two non-native speakers who do not know each other’s cultures very well may actually be at an advantage when using English as a lingua franca.

Finally, if you add factors such as personality, gender, age or time spent abroad to our cross-cultural differences, national culture is just one of many factors to consider. Mandy brought our attention to a definition of intercultural competence as

[…] perceiving the interlocutor as an individual whose qualities are to be discovered, rather than as a representative of an externally ascribed identity.

Byram et al. (2002)

As a conclusion, while national culture does have a certain influence on intercultural communication, everybody is more complex than their nationality and it is always individuals engaging with one another in intercultural settings.

Cross-cultural communication: talking to friends, strangers and those in between

3) Task: My intercultural star

Next, we drew a star-shaped diagram pointing at the different groups of people we interact with and the ways we communicate with them.

We clarified that the way we connect depends both on the people we relate to as well as the context. Our interaction with family and friends at home usually differs from how we talk to work colleagues or strangers, and this is where our intercultural competence shows. We may use different types of language(s), avoid or prefer certain expressions and address people differently.


One common issue for native speakers of English in Germany that was brought up was the ‘Sie-du-problem’. While there is a tendency in anglophone cultures to break down formal barriers where possible, for Germans this is a gradual process with different degrees of formality. So someone with English as their L1 might struggle to find the right way to address people in various settings. Choosing between ‘Sie + Herr/Frau + last name’ (very formal), ‘Sie + first name’ (semi-formal) and ‘Du + first name’ (informal) may cause insecurity.

On the flipside, the lack of distinct markers of formality in English can be a source of confusion for Germans as well. Being on a first-name basis with your boss may easily be interpreted as a sign of being on friendly terms with them, which is mostly not the case – something that native speakers of English are perfectly aware of.

Another issue for Germans is the famous “How are you” question. While used by native speakers of English as a formal means to start a conversation, Germans tend to take the question at face value. As a consequence, they may reveal too much personal information when a simple “I’m good, how are you?” is all that may be expected.

Scales of formality in intercultural communication

For practical purposes, Mandy suggested using a scale of formality. Cultures tend to fall closer to one or the other side of the spectrum, ranging from very informal to highly formal. She gave Russian as an example for a very formal culture and Finnish as a very informal one, based on her own experience at the workplace.

High context vs. low context cultures

As a practical example of different expectations in intercultural communication, Mandy presented an encounter between an Englishwoman named Sylvia and her Chinese friend Min (see Chia Suan Chong’s example in Successful International Communication). Sylvia approached Min with the words,”You won’t believe what happened to me!”, to which Min did not react, but waited. Sylvia was offended by that, seeing that he obviously wasn’t interested and stopped talking to him. Min was puzzled because he did not understand what he had done wrong.

This illustrates how the British stereotype of underlying messages and vagueness may play out, but it is also an example of a clash between a high-context and a low-context culture. While Sylvia was not only interested in the factual aspect of what had happened to her, but also in the emotional dimension (expecting Min to be curious and excited on her behalf), Min just waited to hear what had actually happened (the facts). He wasn’t interested in the context of the information, his conversation with Sylvia, but waited for her to get straight to the point. Min obviously comes from a low-context-culture, whereas Sylvia comes from a high-context-culture.

The art of misunderstandings: What you hear may be different from what’s being said

Speaking of linguistic undercurrents that need decoding, and much more so in an intercultural context, Mandy talked about Schulz von Thun’s “4 sides of communication” model. The basic premise is that there are 4 aspects to every message, and that what the speaker says and means may differ from what the listener actually understands. Apart from the factual aspect (the neutral information), any message has a purpose that relates to something that the speaker wants from the listener (appeal), says something about how the speaker and listener get along (relationship) and provides insight about the speaker (self-revelation). Misunderstandings often arise when people refer to different sides of a message without being aware of this. One common example is the statement, “There’s something orange in my soup!” over dinner at a friend’s house. The message could imply that:

  1. there is something orange in the speaker’s soup (factual)
  2. she wants the listener to say or do something about the orange stuff (appeal)
  3. the speaker is angry because the listener should have known that she doesn’t like orange things in her soup (relationship)
  4. the speaker is disgusted by the orange stuff in her soup (self-revelation)

Depending on the listener’s interpretation, he or she may respond to any of the four sides and thus misunderstand the speaker’s intention.

Listening as part of cross-cultural competence

4) Listening exercise

Finally, we listened to an audio track in which an Italian speaker talked about his experience at his bicultural office (to be found in English for Business Listening by Ian Badger). He described a Japanese and an Italian section, using Dante’s heaven and hell trope.

For him, the Japanese section represented the heavenly aspect (peaceful, harmonious and organised). In contrast to that, the Italian part resembled the chaotic, noisy and cluttered hellish part. Of course, there was an ironic undertone to this. He pointed out that the hell section was as productive as its heavenly counterpart, but approached things differently.

The speaker talked with a thick Italian accent which required close listening. It was also clear that his cultural identity was linked to what he described as the hell part of the office. The hell metaphor represented his cultural identity as an Italian to a certain degree.

Therefore, to communicate successfully here, a non-Italian person would need to tune in to the strong accent and acknowledge the speaker’s sense of Italianness.

A suggestion on how to approach intercultural communication

Mandy presented the “adapt model” (Chia Suan Chong, 2018) for improving one’s intercultural competence:


Don’t judge


Persuade yourself


This model promotes an outlook of pragmatic awareness and trial-and-error in lieu of prejudice or received wisdom. You can find out more about it in Chong’s book on successful international communication (see reading list below).


The workshop brought us new insights on the subject of intercultural competence. The most fundamental one was that cross-cultural communication happens naturally in any group of learners, in subtle and explicit ways. This was also related to acknowledging the inclusive nature of interculturality which comprises aspects far beyond culture and nationality (e.g. profession, gender). The art of communicating interculturally can be seen as the ability to strike a balance between dealing with obvious cultural differences as well as adjusting to the individual and the specific situation.

Given its importance in today’s globalised world, cross-cultural understanding definitely is a skill worth cultivating in the classroom. It’s up to teachers to decide to what extent they want to include aspects of cross-cultural training in their lessons.

Recommended reading:

…and the tastiest bit saved up for last:

Galina kept an old promise and baked Mandy-Welfare-cookies (pardon, biscuits) specially for the occasion! How cute is that?

Want to know more about Mandy? Check out her ELTABB profile.

To read Galina’s article on corpus analysis tools, click here.

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