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Teaching English - Cultural Differences


Differences between cultures play a very important role in teaching English. Teachers will often work on role plays, teach structures, etc. that mirror the exchanges of their own society rather than that of the society in which they are teaching. While it is true that teachers should encourage students to learn to speak English as it is spoken in an English speaking country, it is equally true that the more teachers are aware of cultural differences the better they can help students understand - and use - English in native speaking countries.

Cultural Differences Affects:

  • What students expect to hear in a conversation
  • Vocabulary and set phrases students try to use
  • Degrees of formality / informality
  • Literal translations from own language into English.
  • Cultural misunderstandings

Cultural differences can especially cause confusion for standard situations such as:

  • Saying hello / goodbye
  • Job interviews
  • Making excuses
  • Accepting / giving presents
  • At mealtimes

Here is an example of a situation in which two friends say goodbye. In the US, this exchange tends to be quick and to the point. Italians, however, often like to stretch this exchange.

Transcription of Italian closure

Stephano: A domani, ciao!
Pietro: Ciao, senti, non dimenticare!
Stephano: No, no. Volevi che faccio un salto da Tonio?
Pietro: Si, se puoi darlo un consiglio sarei grato.
Stephano: Va bene, allora salutami tua moglie.
Pietro: E la tua. Buon divertimento.
Stephano: Ciao, a domani.
Pietro: Ciao.


Stephano: 'till tomorrow, bye!
Pietro: Bye, listen don't forget!
Stephano: No, no. You wanted me to drop by Tony's.
Pietro: Yeah, if you could give him some advice I'd be grateful.
Stephano: Ok. Well, greetings to the wife.
Pietro: And yours. Have a good time.
Stephano: Bye, 'till tomorrow.
Pietro: Bye

Closure is Italian is almost always a much more drawn out process than in English. Probably the most notable difference is the Italian custom of pre-boundary marking. In other words, when an Italian says goodbye he generally first says good bye while at the same time beginning a new final subject. Once the final subject (or a reference to an earlier part of the conversation, as in the above example) is taken care of, the final boundary markings take place. This is a trait that I've often noticed which also usually includes body language. First the Italian will say good bye and move away, then he will return to start the final last phase of the discussion. After this has taken place, the Italians will part. This pre-boundary marking can take place many times depending on how close the participants of the conversation are. Generally, the closer they are the more times they will return to a 'final' discussion before parting.

Another difference between Italian and English closing is the necessary reference to greetings to the family. I often remember that I haven't greeted the family after having finished a conversation and feel rather ashamed that I haven't played by the rules. Greeting the family and wishing them well are absolute necessities in Italian closure!

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