Teaching ESL: A Cultural Exchange

Let your ESL learners educate you about their culture while you teach them English.

By Tom Duda


Teacher talking to students

Two years into my relocation to Turkey, I was sitting in a café smoking a Nargile. I was proud to know that word, which means water pipe. I felt like I was starting to fit in. This served as my nepenthe after a day on the Turkish buses and the busy streets where people would try to speak to me while I hid my chagrin and pretended to understand; with a polite smile, I usually said Evet (which means, yes). Generally, their puzzled looks would segue into a polite grin as they realized that I was a Yabanci or foreigner. I wasn’t fooling anyone. I knew relatively nothing about the culture. As I pulled in the smoke, and puffed back out, this realization was reinforced when the waiter returned and tried to test his English. It was obvious that I knew nothing about his country when, once again, I tried to speak Turkish to return the favor. His assumption was that I was a tourist, and after the amount of time I had spent in his country, I should have engendered a different idea in the locals. 

I came to the realization that after twenty-four months, I had put forth little effort toward trying to learn the language or culture of my host country. What was even more surprising was that for the most part, I spent my days teaching Turkish students about American culture and the English language. I never bothered to take an interest in their culture. 

There were the basic things, or surface cultural aspects of society, that I learned. But truly, I never ventured deeper, and I was thus chagrined when I came to the realization that I was standing in a room full of cultural teachers every day (my students), yet I didn’t capitalize on it.  

Changing My Methodology 

The first time I remember making the transition from teacher to student was when I did a conversation class about George Washington. I set up the lesson to make it look like I was giving an American cultural/history lesson, complete with PowerPoint slides. I entitled the lecture “Great Leaders” and talked about Mr. Washington with my class. Of course, we hit the ten-minute mark when the yawns started contagiously moving from pupil to pupil. Then, on my SMART Board, I flashed up a slide that said, “Other Great Leaders.”  I informed my students that it was time for them to speak of other great leaders. I solicited responses from them. Names such as, Ben FranklinThomas Edison and even Barak Obama reverberated quickly off my classroom walls. Since this was not the angle I was looking for, I flashed up a picture of Ata Turk—the equivalent of George Washington in Turkey. I then said, “Now I am the student. Everybody explain Ata Turk to me.” It became immediately obvious that my scholars loved explaining their heroes and culture to me. In an effort to do so, their level of English seemed to rise. 

Engaging Everyone in Cultural Education 

While I found this first lesson to be both exciting and informative, not everyone stayed fully engaged in the conversation. I certainly learned about Turkish culture, and got my students past their shyness and boredom. However, it also became obvious that what works well for one gender, does not always work well for the other gender. For example, speaking about war heroes and revolutionaries was generally only exciting for my male students, and not even all of them. This led me to enter each class prepared with three different types of lessons. I had the “guy-talk lesson” ready for when only men showed up to class. Here, I would get the class talking about war and conquest, local nightlife, sports, and anything I thought might inspire men to talk. I would also prepare “female lessons” where I would talk about topics such as Altun Gunu or Gold Day; a day set aside for women to gossip and exchange gold. Then there would be the “mixed lessons” where I would talk about general news issues, upcoming events, points of interest around town, etc. While my classes’ English got better, and I learned a lot about their culture by using this type of lesson plan, I discovered it is always a good idea to go from discussing your own country and segueing into theirs. Students love to learn about the culture of the teacher, but they also adore talking about their own country; especially when the teacher is interested in learning. It may take a little bit of research on your part, but you can come up with a whole host of topics where your class will love being your teacher.  

Everybody Teaches and Everybody Learns 

The great part about this type of teaching is that everyone is teaching and learning together. Primarily, the students were in my class to learn English. Nevertheless, their learning became very strong when they were motivated to figure out how to talk about themselves and their country in a different language. Although my classes and pupils had various levels of English, even those at the lower levels were willing and able, to really reach back into their brains to search for what they knew so they could tell the teacher what they wanted him to know. Also, they really got to impress their classmates! Everybody learns and nobody loses! This is where being a teacher really becomes fun. 

Further Lesson Ideas:  

Follow these links to find ideas for getting your classes started on a cultural exchange. 

War Heroes


Female Inventors