There's more to learning English than drinking tea (but that's a good start) – Online English Lessons

One of the things I love most about my work is meeting really interesting people from such different cultural backgrounds.

I travelled a lot when I was younger (though not so much in recent years), and meeting people from all over the world, plus my love of language, was my inspiration to become an English language teacher.

The students I’ve taught have come from many different countries: I’ve taught students from Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, China, Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Turkey, Argentina, Peru, and the Faroe Isles – and as you can imagine, their (your!) cultural backgrounds have been fascinating and very varied 🙂

Culture and cultural fluency 

The culture of a country or group of people is the system of things such as values and beliefs about life that they share; and which affect or guide the way they behave.

Cultural fluency is your knowledge and understanding of aspects of a different culture’s approach to things such as power, humour, respect, politeness, and status.

It’s important that we, teacher and learner, learn as much as we can about each other’s culture. If we understand our different ways of doing things we’ll be able to communicate well, and avoid misunderstandings and potential embarrassment or offence.

“…Americans have been socialized into responding ‘Thank you’ to any compliment, as if they were acknowledging a friendly gift: ‘I like your sweater’ – ‘Oh, thank you!’ The French, who tend to perceive such a compliment as an intrusion into their privacy would rather downplay the compliment and minimize its value: ‘Oh really? It’s already quite old!’ The reactions of both groups are based on the differing values given to compliments in both cultures, and on the differing degrees of embarrassment caused by personal comments.” Claire Kramsch in Language and Culture*

Many years ago, when I hadn’t been teaching very long, I was explaining something about the English language to a group of learners, and I was using my hands to try and explain it instead of words. I suddenly realized that the students were looking a little uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed. I discovered that my hand gestures, which were inoffensive in my culture, were actually quite offensive/rude in the students’ culture. I was red-faced and embarrassed that day I can tell you!

Learning all I can about your culture and traditions means that I know when important festivals might affect when you can and can’t have lessons; or that you will be fasting and this might affect how you feel during our lessons.

It means I can plan and write appropriate lesson content that will be relevant and interesting for you and will respect your beliefs; and it means I can get to know and understand you better.

The fifth skill

“The aims of language teaching are to teach both linguistic and cultural competence.” **

You already know how important it is to master the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening when you’re learning English: well, many people say that ‘culture’ is the fifth skill you should learn.

Knowing about the grammar of a language doesn’t really tell you anything about the values and beliefs of the peope who use it as native speakers. As well as learning the language, you should also learn about the culture of your target language and be able to recognize, understand, and value any cultural differences.

Because using language is a very social activity and skill, having cultural knowledge of the people you are communicating with will help you be more prepared for new social situations, and will enable you to respond and interact appropriately.

That’s why you’ll find English lessons and posts about UK life on this blog (because as a UK resident that’s what I know best); plus a directory with lots of links to useful websites with interesting and useful information about UK life, citizenship and immigration.

And that brings me back to the title of this post. The English are famous for being a nation of tea drinkers (as well as being obsessed with the weather, queueing, never wanting to complain about poor service, avoiding saying what we really think, being overly polite, and having an odd sense of humour!); and it’s true, we do love a nice cup of tea, and we’ve been drinking it for over 350 years 🙂

It’s just one aspect of British life that’s fun to learn about and helps you to understand a little more about a country with native speakers of English. It’s a lot easier to learn a language if you have a positive attitude towards the language, the country where it’s spoken, and its people; so even learning about quirky traditions such as tea drinking in the UK will help you with your English 🙂

Over the coming months I’ll be posting more posts about life and culture in the UK so if you’d like to learn more, add your email address to the box on the top right of the home page to receive new posts in your inbox; and also sign up for my newsletter. I look forward to learning more about your culture too.

Note: From today (25th March 2013), people taking the Life in the United Kingdom tests and applying for UK Citizenship or permanent residency will take the new test. The new official Life in the UK handbook has details about the process of becoming a citizen or permanent resident, plus information about: the values and principles of the UK; UK traditions and culture; people and events in UK history, and UK government and law.


* from Language and Culture by Claire Kramsch

** Byram, M. and Risager, K. (1999) Language teachers, politics and cultures. Bristol PA, Multilingual Matters

Image credits:

Teacup Photo Credit: Big Stock (Prosperity’s Kitchen)

Image of people laughing in a cinema, from one of my favourite little books for discussing culture/humour in lessons: How to be British by Martyn Ford and Peter Legon.