Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Culture Clash And Online Classes

Education, and specifically language learning, are drifting towards online. Some are skeptical about online language courses and one-on-one sessions with native speakers. Others, on contrary, are very enthusiastic. There is one aspect, however, that I found being overlooked by both supporters and deniers of online language learning: cultural differences. The Guardian has published a story about the problems that Anna Parkin was having when trying to find a good tutor to teach her Russian. As I could tell, the biggest problem there was miscommunication caused by cultural differences.

One-on-one sessions – the most popular format for online language lessons – are all about communication. Numerous self-help books like How To Convince People, How Make Friends et cetera shows that communicating in your own language is hard work which requires some specific skills. You've been developing and mastering those skills from early childhood by watching our parents, consuming pop culture and gaining personal experience. So you've acquired cultural standards. The way you communicate is framed by your culture. Now, another person, who is supposed to teach you a language or to learn it from you, was raised in a culture that is different from yours. In such a situation miscommunication is very likely.


Even before a sessions starts, a student and a teacher may have different expectations. Different countries have different education practices: highly competitive, progress-oriented environment vs. stress-free approach, memorizing techniques vs. creative learning, strictly scripted syllabus vs. free improvisation and student-driven scenario and so on. One may expect a dense schedule and a good load of homework, while another expects to have a nice conversation once a week. Both variants are fine, as long as the student's expectations match the teacher's approach, but more often than not they don't.


Different cultures promote different conversation styles between a teacher and a student. In some cultures, students subordinate when talking to a teacher and never ask questions unless being explicitly allowed to. In other cultures, there is higher degree of equality between a teacher and a student in the communicative level, and a teacher expects a student to interrupt him or her whenever a question arises.

What to talk about

One of the problems that online teachers and students struggle with is the choice of topics. Some cultures have specific taboos like sex, death, personal income, bodily functions and so on. Normally, we are more or less aware of those taboos, but it is always good to ask your vis-a-vis openly whether it is OK for him or her to talk about those things. Sometimes taboos are not that obvious and direct. For example, I can discuss politics with everyone who wants to talk about it with me, but I know many people who would feel very uncomfortable touching that topic with a complete stranger.

It is even more important how we talk about things. The vocabulary that is just normal in one culture may be considered aggressive in another country. Speaking negatively about goods or services is absolutely fine in Russia – we give negative feedback openly (which makes the job of smart marketologists very easy). In some other countries, however, direct negative feedback is considered impolite.

Words of Encouragement

In some cultures, saying “Good job!” to a student every time he or she does anything correctly is a standard. In other cultures, teachers react to mistakes rather than to correct answers. If you happen to have a teacher that never says good words no matter how hard you work, it is not because your teacher is mean, but exactly because you are doing all right! Otherwise, he or she would let you know.

A mere awareness about cultural differences may help you to improve your communication with students and/or teachers. If you feel an irrational irritation about a person who teaches you or takes your lessons, it is very likely that you are dealing with a culture clash. Take a step back, try to analyze what exactly makes you feel bad, and do not hesitate to speak up. Your teacher or student may be completely unaware of breaking your cultural standards. By communicating those issues you'll help him or her realize the differences and to adjust your classes accordingly. You may also learn a lot about your own culture and language by discussing those topics.

culture clash
Photo by Gianluca Vegetti