Category: Language issues

Teaching culture in an EFL class

I recently wrote about cultural misundersatnding & teaching EFL. Today I continue along similar lines.

Hall (2002) writes that people learn how to perform social tasks, which are part of daily living through “time and experience in our activities with the more experienced members” (p.49). Now part of performing a social task is using language, and language teachers are always trying to help learners develop linguistic resources. Less clear, however, is how to help learners develop cultural knowledge.

Perhaps some people feel that the only way to learn culture is through interacting with “experienced members” of a culture. However, it seems that there must be something we can do in the classroom to help learners with the cultural knowledge they need to fully understand the language they are learning in class.

Then with English there is the question of what culture to teach. Many people of the world learn English as a non-native language. My EFL students in Korea may be learning English to interact with Americans, or Japanese people, both, or neither. Must English learners know sociocultural norms from every culture? This is probably impossible, although I imagine that it would be very fun to try. I have been considering proposing a new course at my university, in which students would learn English through studying other cultures. It would be a CBI course with cultural content.

Another possibility is to take a normal conversation course and bring up the subject of cultural differences. As I write in my essay for my sociolinguistics class, Romaine (2000) says:

Some English-speaking communities are more likely to give and accept compliments than others. Either of these differences could cause an uncomfortable situation, because, as Nishida (1999) points out, situations that don’t make sense to a person’s PSI schema lead to stress. (Trotta, 2004)

This reminds me of a problem I often have: my students telling me how handsome I am. In an American classroom, it is pretty rare for college students to tell the professor how attractive s/he is. It happens to me in Korea all the time. Perhaps a way to reduce my own stress and help students realize that having the language to say something doesn’t make it an appropriate thing to say would be to discuss the differences between how Korean teachers and Western teachers are treated. I honestly don’t know if Korean teachers receive compliments about their physical appearance. Do learners do it because it is acceptable in their culture? Or do they do it because they think it is acceptable in my culture?

Hall, J.K. (2002). Teaching and Researching Language and Culture. London:


Nishida, H. (1999). A cognitive approach to intercultural communication based on schema theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 23 (5), 753-777.

Romaine, S. (2000). Language in Society (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Super tough pronunciation question

From ESL’s questions forum:

Ok, today’s question is.. do you (as a native English speaker) make distinction between syllables when you speak a word? You know.. like.. first syllable, then second one and so on.

How do you know where one syllable starts and ends?

What I mean by that is…

do you make conscious, unconscious, physical or psychological effort to give a distinction between syllables in a word when you speak them?

If so, that means you know how many syllables there are in a word and you know what they are, right?

Then how did you manage to make such syllabic divisions in a word when the English alphabetical spelling doesn’t tell you how to do that.

For example, when you say the two syllable word ‘playing’ /pleI.Ing/ ,

Do you first say, /pleI/ then /Ing/ so it’s aurally different from one syllable word /pleIng/ (I know the word doesn’t exist in English..)?

*please note that I used a dot (.) to indicate syllabic division


For the word ‘better’

should /bet. er/ sound different from /be. ter/ (if the accent difference is disregarded)?

If they sound different, is it because you gave a small pause or glottal stop between the two syllables? If not how did you differenciate the two examples above?

Ok, here is a background of why I’m asking such questions..

I always believed that syllables are the order of consisting sounds when a word is spoken because I do consciously speak by syllables when I speak my native language (Korean) which incidentally spelled in syllables.

There is only one letter for one syllable where one letter can be consisted of multiple phonemic symbols.

So there is no chance of confusing where the inter-vocalic consonent should go (to the left syllable or to the right) as I do in English.. and I can’t even begin to fathom how on earth can one syllable have upto 9 or 10 letters in it as they do in English. (ie. scrunched)

The word scrunched would sound like it has 5 syllables for a Korean because, in Korean, you can’t have a consonent only sound (like ‘s’ in scrunched).In other words, we actually have a vowel for every syllable we pronounce, and yes even the “s” only sound. So a Korean would pronounce the word “scrunched” as below

/s. k. run. ch. t/

5 syllables, not one..and it sound completely different from original one syllabic word.

Hence…I’m stumped because I can’t figure out where the syllables start and ends in English and whether I should give any kind of indication (ie: a small pause maybe?) in between 2 syllables due to the problem I described above.

Sure I can check it with my dictionary, but am I not supposed to “know” it naturally? Sometime, I get confused how many syllables there are in one word.

In Korean, if one syllable consists of one onset, one nucleus and one coda (not obligatory), it’s represented as one letter consisting 3 phonemes with onset on top, the nucleus in the middle and the coda at the bottom (not always though).

For example, the word cook would be represented as




(in English)


(in Korean)

and that’s one syllabic letter with 3 phonemic symbols in it. (2 dimensional)

And also there is physical and psychological stop (almost like glottal stop) between the syllables when you say them, so I must say Korean is very syllable oriented language..and sort of syllable timed when you are reading also.

I’m sorry if I’m not explaining it right, I tried my best to be as specific as possible.

Can someone please help me…. it took a whole day to complete this post.. T_t

I need help answering this one. Any ideas?

World Standard English

In 2003 Penny Ur gave a speech about how our students need to learn World Standard English, an emerging dialect different from British English and American English (though more different from British English).

Since this variety is not clearly defined (I don’t know of any grammars that describe WSE as there are for standard American English and what not), it seems to be up to EFL teachers, and certainly learners too, to define what is the new world standard.

Grammar question answered

Linguist List – Ask A Linguist Index Page is a great web site! I was correcting some quizzes and the first three I looked at had “… are showed” as an answer. As I marked the third one wrong I said “Wait a minute! The past participle could be showed”: Have you showed him the pictures? I get my dictionary: showed or shown. I get the teachers book: shown. I do a web search and find this Ask a linguist site. It turns out someone asked my question back in 1998. In the active shown and showed are both possible. In the passive, it has to be “shown”. I just wish I’d told my students before the quiz…

Couldn’t do vs. wasn’t able to do

There was an interesting question recently on the TESL-L email list. One person mentioned that the presentation of grammar point: “be able to do, was able to do, etc.” in a certain textbook was confusing because it followed a chapter in which “could do” was presented. “Wasn’t able to do” sounded unnatural to me (compared to “couldn’t do” which sounded OK) so I did a google search to see if people use this term on the web and it turns out they do.

“Wasn’t able to install” seemed to be a big one. That got me thinking of collocations as I recently taught my students how to use the wonderful Oxford Collocations, using obtain as an example. “be able to” collocates with obtain. I think it would sound unnatural to use “couldn’t obtain” now that I think about it.

Perhaps teachers can turn this confusing presentation of grammar forms into a positive by pointing out that natural sounding English depends on collocations and having students keep journals (for example of which actions go with “could” and which go with “be able to”). Of course, keep in mind that the book may be wrong and when your book uses unnatural collocations students must be made aware of this.