Cultural Observations

It’s interesting to note the different cultures that are encountered when teaching English. It deeply affects how well the class can be run and could either be a help or a hindrance to how well a student learns. Culture does matter even though it was fashionable until

recently to say “all people are basically the same”. That statement was naive and could only lead to frustration and confusion.

With Thai, students’ education is not seen to be very important whilst the idea of having fun or “sanook” is. This leads to the disaster of “edutainment”. Rote learning, or just simply copying, is seen to be more relevant than the question and answering format favored in the west. Great shyness and reluctance to answer questions are shown. This can be gradually changed. Getting students to write the correct answer on the whiteboard is useful in helping them become more confident.

Every time you enter a classroom in Thailand the entire class stands up and almost shouts at you ”Good morning/afternoon teacher, how are you?”. You then say “Fine<and you?” and then they say “Fine, thank you very much. ”No homework can ever be given out because there are no consequences for not doing it. The same applies to tests-everyone passes no matter what grade they get. Consequently, Thailand has a poor reputation for learning English even though it has a massive tourist industry.

With Saudi students, you are expected to be one of the boys. They recognize that you are from a different culture but you can still get along with them so long as you don’t mention religion. You end up having some empathy for them because their lives are so dull because of the nature of their society. They can never go to a movie theatre, a concert or a nightclub or a bar. At least that’s what it was like in 2013 when I first went there. They can only talk to a girl via text messaging on their phones. They can’t have a tattoo or wear jewelry. They are always encouraged to be more religious; the stock answer for Saudi Arabia’s problems is that there is not enough religion and that there needs to be more of it.

You have to be aware of who the “big” guy is in the room. It’s the muttawa-the man who takes his religion the most seriously. Everyone has to tag along with him. That’s one part of their culture. The other part is that they are generous in offering you their kabsa-which is chicken and rice along with Pepsi-in huge quantities. It’s a huge part of Arab culture to be hospitable to those who are perceived to be helping them.

As far as their learning capabilities are concerned I would say that they are slightly better than the Thais because they are quite keen on making a good impression with you. They still lack a solid work ethic but they can quickly grasp new concepts. What hurts them is their lack of attention to detail and their shock at not being given any slack for not doing what they were supposed to do. This is called “mafi mushkla” or move along to get along or look the other way when something corrupt happens.

I do hope this illustrates some of what I have learned. What cultural differences have you encountered in your life?

Nick Hanlon

I'm an Aussie interested in topical issues.

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