Isn’t just knowing English enough? – raising awareness of cultural English

In the first class of Intercultural Communication Skills, one of my French students asked me “Isn’t just knowing English enough?”. A great question, how can I raise awareness of the importance of culture on language use? Luckily a recent talk by David Crystal (need to register to view video) gave me some useful material to try to do just this.

Note the following is a lesson idea I have not yet used but hope to do so next class.

First* tell students in small groups: Read the following sentences, can you understand them?

1. It’s just not cricket, treating her like that.
2.The job isn’t all beer and skittles, you know.
3. [after a very bad joke] You’re not a writer for Xmas crackers, by any chance?
4. [after leaving a hotel] That made Fawlty Towers seem like paradise.
5. [after someone has complained about something] Oh, come on, disgusted of Tunbridge Wells!
6. His book refreshed the parts other books couldn’t reach.
7. It was like Clapham Junction in Oxford Street today.
8. His watch was more Petticoat lane than Bond Street.**
9. To drive or not to drive-that’s the question.

(Crystal, 2012; **Crystal, 2011)

Depending on student reactions one can spend as much or as little time as you want in going through the sentences.

Next show them the cartoon below, saying: The following is a conversation between a famous English language expert and their colleague from the Czech Republic. What has caused the breakdown in communication?

Getting lost speaking the same language.

– adapted from Crystal (2011).

The explanation is that houses in that part of the Czech Republic are numbered differently than houses in the UK. They are numbered when they are built and registered. That is why the Czech person is surprised at the coincidence.

Be sure to check a related post on international communication.

* An alternative start could be to use the figures quoted by Crystal in his talk – 2000 million English speakers, 400 million of whom are ‘native’ speakers. That is every 4 out of 5 speakers of English will be ‘non-native’. That significant number is another point of awareness to raise regarding intercultural communication.


Crystal, D. (2011). The future of Englishes: going local, in Roberta Facchinetti, David Crystal and Barbara Seidlhofer (eds), From International to Local English – And Back Again (Bern: Lang), 17-25

Crystal, D. (2012). Plurilingualism, pluridialectism, pluriformity, plenary paper for the annual conference of TESOL Spain, Bilbao, 10 March 2012


Chia Suan Chong@chiasuan has a fab post with a great example of the service industry’s custom of not saying no, do check it out. Looking forward to part 2.

Mike Griffin@michaelegriffin has some very intriguing examples of Korean use of English.

13 thoughts on “Isn’t just knowing English enough? – raising awareness of cultural English

  1. There is so much more than grammar and words to learning a language. My students often complain of how they thought they knew English before arriving in Canada. It is frustrating and overwhelming to be confronted with new idioms and slang. Anyone who disagrees with this should take a short jaunt to another English speaking country! I will be looking out for my articles on this topic.

    1. hi Marla

      thanks for taking time to comment, i have been living in France for nearly 7 years now and i still can’t get used to turn-taking in conversations or lack of with the French 🙂
      do let me know when you have some articles on this


  2. A great follow-up reflection and pratical example of the talk given recently. Thank YOU. 🙂

    I totally agree that just knowing words and grammar is not enough. In Brazil we have a great chance to make a point about this and I do use it as example whenever I can to show that learning depends of having clear purposes. For example, if the aim is to understand music/movies in English as teens usually say so when we ask and youths and adults say it is to work or travel, the purpose affect the what to learn in my humble opinion. Even in our L1 we have to learn the conventions to communicate effectively in a certain situation. As I said in Brazil we have a very different set of lexis depending on the region/state we are in, that happens in many countries but our students are usually well aware of that. This also brings the intercultural discussion which should be also brought to the students’ attention in my opinion. We don’t leave in an isolated world anymore.

    It is a great change to think of English learning this way as we once taught it was just a matter of grammar and vocabulary and make the words glue together. Oh boy new dillemas. Don’t we have enough challenges to deal with? lol Just kidding.

  3. hi Rose,

    thanks for your thoughts. as you heard in his talk, Crystal states that the more specialised the context the less effect there is of cultural factors on language, he mentions things like “classrooms, boardrooms, clinics, and labs” (Crystal, 2012). however this struck me, since if we assume cultural assumptions are deeply embedded in people how do they avoid that in these particular contexts but don’t in more informal contexts?

  4. Of course it all depends on how the language will be used later. If people are going to use English to talk to the Japanese (for example), it might be best to forget the idioms. If they are going to use English to communicate with the British, the idioms might be useful, but before they become a significant issue it is likely that other aspects of the culture make themselves felt. The idea of British reserve is a bit of a cliche, but it exists. Here in Greece it is fine to ask someone you have just met their age and income. In the UK that wouldn’t be the best way to break the ice. It’s also interesting to see what the British don’t say. Again, let me compare Greece. Here, they have set phrases to celebrate (in a sense) a whole range of things that the British ignore – things like a new haircut, for example. Similarly, the British don’t say anything to each other on the first day of the week or the first day of the month (as they do in Greece). It is interesting for Greek students (and perhaps others) to see how British culture refrains from encouraging a celebratory attitude, which is clear not in what people say, but what they don’t say.

    1. hello tornhalves!

      it’s absolutely great to see you here, your posts on educational issues are superb.

      i agree trying to educate this flexibility in thinking is a key aspect in this area. thanks for the examples between Greek and UK behaviour, could you possibly include some examples of the phrases Greeks use to celebrate a new haircut, first day of the week and first day of the month?


      1. Mura, The particular phrases Greeks use when they see a new haircut or it’s Monday are not especially interesting and they don’t translate into English (although a literal translation would come out something like: “Joy to your haircut!”, “Good Monday!” etc.). The interest – I thought – was merely in the fact that the British can sometimes reveal more about themselves in what they don’t say than in what they say.

        And I have to agree with Tyson that some of those idioms above were completely new to me. I lived in London for three years and never heard anyone say Oxford Street reminded them of Clapham Junction. But perhaps that’s because I was living in Hackney?

      2. hi tornhalves

        yes i did take your point that it is revealing what people don’t say. i was just curious about the actual form of the language, so thanks for those literal translations.

        is there an appropriate response when one says ‘joy to your haircut’ or ‘good monday’?

        also ‘clapham junction’ wasn’t that familiar to me, i am more used to ‘piccadilly circus’ as the place where things can be decribed as chaotic.


    1. hi Tyson

      thanks for commenting, and chuffed(very pleased) you may consider using idea 🙂

      i believe that many French-from-France people find in addition to lexis differences that the attitude of French speakers in Canada strange to adapt to i.e. the way that French-from-Canada people have a North American attitude rather than a European one?

      also as this is my blog, i can be as indulgent as i want and link to this vaguely related track on Canadian stereotypes in song 😉


    1. hello steve
      thanks for commenting, and for your link, had a quick scan and looks very good, as well as the comments there. will read in in depth asap.
      i eventually did this with two different groups, one university students and one evening class of mature adults. it seemed to work with both groups but there seemed to be more of a realisation of this issue or aha moment with the mature adult group, where most of that group seemed to think initially that knowing English was enough.

      p.s. recommend this blog i found recently looking at Native English speakers and their use of the language in ELF contexts has some great stuff which can be adapted to stronger English language learners

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