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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.

Woman teaching a class
Photo: rawpixel, unsplash

Thinking about Teaching English in Berlin? Here Are 5 Things to Know

in Berlin/ELTABB/Teaching

Living and teaching in Berlin is a dream for many English-language teachers. Located in the center of Europe, the German capital is a vibrant city with amazing art, music, and nightlife, but relatively inexpensive compared to cities like London, Paris, or New York. Berlin is indeed wunderbar–which makes it a competitive place to try to set up shop as an English trainer, whether you teach kids, adults, or business English. If you’re considering moving to Berlin, here are some things to keep in mind when looking to land your first teaching job.

There are a lot of native speakers teaching English in Berlin…

For better or worse, Berlin is a destination for many native English speakers. This means that the market is very competitive, and language schools can have their pick of teachers. When you first arrive, expect to do a lot of cold-calling, emailing, and showing up at language schools with CV in hand. Be patient and make sure you have enough saved to see you through, because it can take weeks or months to land that first gig.

…Which means that speaking German will put you at an advantage

Even though Berliners have a reputation for speaking excellent English, there are still true adult beginners to be found. Excellent German skills are a huge help with these groups, and speaking German will generally help you as a job candidate. There are also some job opportunities only available to people who speak German as well as English, such as teaching in the Volkshochschulen.

Your teaching qualifications count

Because the market is so competitive, it helps to have at least a CELTA under your belt. Without that qualification, or a lot of experience, you’ll most likely have a hard time finding work. Luckily, it’s relatively easy to get a CELTA qualification, provided you are willing to invest four weeks and a bit of money. There are training centers in almost every country, so you should be able tick it off your list before actually moving to Berlin.

Teaching English in Berlin is NEVER a 9-to-5 job

Full-time staff positions are rare for English teachers over here, so most work freelance. This usually means irregular schedules and a lot of time on the U-Bahn. I like having my mornings free for other projects, and I don’t mind digging into a great novel on my commute, so, depending on your personality, you might see this as an advantage. For others, it might make you want to pull your hair out. Another option is to work from home and teach remotely.

The red tape is no joke

Every freelancer has at least one story of a bureaucratic nightmare. For me, it was a Kafkaesque series of letters, emails, and phone calls with the Finanzamt to get my tax number. Especially when you’re first starting out, keeping all your visa, health insurance, pension, and tax paperwork in order can sometimes feel like another part-time job.

Teaching English in Berlin isn’t an easy or particularly lucrative career choice, but if you love teaching, it can be really rewarding. I’ve worked with many kind, dedicated, interesting students, and I’ve found the community of teachers to be very welcoming and supportive. So if you do decide to take the plunge and come teach English in Berlin, we’ll raise a glass to you at the next ELTABB Stammtisch. Viel Glück!

If you are all fired up after reading this article and feeling that you can’t wait to teach English in Berlin, take a look at Paul’s tips for freelance teachers and learn about his funny (and lucrative!) side gigs.


So You Want to Teach English for Specific Purposes? How Not to Be a Muggle*

in Teaching

Many of us meet our first English for Specific Purposes (ESP) class and panic. I’ll never forget my own first time. I was in my first year of teaching, and I was given a class of cosmeticians to teach. How on earth was I supposed to be able to understand, let alone teach, all their specialised language? Where was I to find appropriate materials? How could I possibly come across as credible to my students?

My first session with them was horrible, a bit like a muggle facing Bellatrix Lestrange (some of them had similar makeup, but that’s another story). I left feeling bruised and battered, and with the bitter taste that the class had definitely won that contest.

Clearly, I needed to stop being a muggle, find the right wand, and learn how to use it.

And so, like Hermione, I went to the library to do some research (no internet in those days …). I soon found that people had been writing about ESP for years, and there were lots of basic tools and techniques, (or the wand, if we keep this metaphor going …), which have been developed to deal with precisely these sorts of situations. Yet finding the wand was easy. The hard work still had to be done – I still had to learn the spells, (I’ve decided to keep this metaphor going …).  But if others could do it, so could I.

In this article I would like to briefly discuss three of those spells. There are others, of course, but I think these three are fundamental for any ESP teacher. They are as follows:

  1. Requisitorum aestimatio
  2. Incantatorum civitas
  3. Retiacula colloquium

Let me explain.

Requisitorium Aestimatio

Requisitorum aestimatio, or to give it its English name, needs analysis, is one of the things which separates ESP from TENOR (Teaching English for No Obvious Reason), a term used by Abbott and Wingard in 1981.

As teachers we need to know what our students need (or want) to learn in order to help them learn it. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. A needs analysis involves not only understanding where the students need to be (the target situation), but also where they are now (the current situation). The difference between the two is known as the training gap and forms the basis for everything that follows.

Many teachers tend to think of needs analysis as something that happens between the teacher and the learners. So it involves things like questionnaires and placement tests at the beginning of a course, and then some sort of informal, ongoing analysis which allows us to tweak things as we get to know our learners better.


But there is a third element which is really important to an ESP teacher, and that is the needs analysis that takes place outside the classroom. Some people call this triangulation, which basically means using a number of sources or methods in an investigation.

So for us this means things like speaking to other trainers, reading about what others have done in similar situations, speaking to people who are already working in the target situation, speaking to colleagues and supervisors, and doing language analysis using corpus analysis tools.

For my cosmeticians this meant me speaking to ex-students to find out how they used English in their workplace and doing quite a lot of reading to find out what it is cosmeticians actually do. Who do they speak to in English? What do they talk about? I soon found out, for example, that, like many professions, my cosmeticians had to use technical language when speaking to colleagues, but layman’s language when speaking to their clients.

Incantatorium Civitas

Incantatorum civitas, or the community spell, is based on two concepts, the discourse community and the community of practice. It involves slightly advanced magic, and is useful when we really want to understand the target situation in more detail.

Part I: Know Thy Word

There are two parts to the spell. The first part involves understanding the discourse community our learners will work in. This is a concept first made popular by a famous English wizard, John Swales, who explained how discourse communities use language in very specific ways. So we could use a simple framework to look at key characteristics of this discourse. This includes: goals, mechanisms of communication, participation, genre, lexis, and expertise.

For example, my students talked about peeling in a way that seemed to have nothing to do with vegetables. This was a technical word I had to learn.

Part II: Know Thy People

The second part of this spell came from another famous wizard, Étienne Wenger, and involves understanding the Community of Practice (CoP). Wenger pointed out that different groups of people develop their own way of doing things as they get to know each other. He called this a shared repertoire.

Analysing this shared repertoire helps us understand what we need to focus on in our teaching. An English classroom is a typical CoP. Classes share ways of doing things with other classes. But they also develop behaviours which make them different from other classes. When we visit someone else’s class they feel both similar and different to our own. There are insider jokes, for example, which we might not fully understand.

Remember, it’s not your English – it’s their English.

As far as concerns ESP, one of the things we need to do as teachers is understand the CoP our students will be a member of. This concerns not only the professional language they might need to use, but also understanding what counts as normal or typical behaviour.

There is nothing worse than a teacher relying on intuition / guesswork and informing students that “we would never say that” when in fact that sort of language is used all the time in the target CoP.  Remember, it’s not your English – it’s their English. For my cosmeticians I soon found out that the ability to gossip successfully (ie relationship building language) was going to be far more useful to them than any technical language about cosmetics.

Retiacula Colloquium

Retiacula colloquium. The third spell is probably the easiest, but also the most rewarding. It can be loosely translated as networking / having conversations and refers to the idea that we should be interacting with our professional peers as much as possible, sharing ideas and learning from each other.

We shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel, spending hours developing materials and activities when someone else has already done something similar. I was not the first to teach a class of cosmeticians, and I was surprised to learn that there was plenty of material already out there. I just had to look and ask around.

For example, I found one lady who had done a masters thesis on the language cosmeticians use, and was happy to share her research, and another who had been teaching cosmeticians for years. Both were fantastically useful, and both made my job a lot easier.

The only way to find these people is to network, either online, or better face-to-face at workshops and conferences. Google only goes so far. And this spell doesn’t have to be expensive.

ELTABB does an excellent job of providing all sorts of networking activities, and the expertise is unbelievable.

It always surprises me that people can afford not to attend. Yes, that’s what I meant to write.

Teaching ESP in a nutshell

So, to recap – ESP teachers need to know three important spells. The first is needs analysis, which needs to include triangulation to be effective. The second is communities, which helps analyse both the discourse and the practice in the target situation. And the third is networking, which means not re-inventing the wheel. Even if you don’t want to or can’t invest in schools of wizardry or witchcraft, don’t assume you know more than other experts in the field. Do the reading, learn the techniques, and don’t be a muggle.

*The Cambridge Online Dictionary offers two definitions for muggle: “a person who does not have a particular type of skill or knowledge” and “a person who does not have magical powers”.

Enchanted? You can find more ELT magic in this review about using corpus analysis tools in the business English classroom.


Abbott, G., & Wingard, P. (1981). The teaching of English as an international language: A practical guide. Glasgow, Scotland: Collins.

Swales, J.M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

And of course, Rowling, J.K., a former language teacher, whose influence in this article should be obvious to all non-muggle folk.



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