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.

Film extract to illustrate international communication

A quick post describing an activity that uses an extract from an independent light-hearted comedy movie called Big Dreams Little Tokyo.

The extract is from 1:01:19 –>1:12:08. It shows a business meeting between a Mexican business man and his Japanese counterparts mediated by two young translators (one of whom is the films’ hero).

Need to point out to students that since extract is from a comedy film some behaviour is exaggerated for comic value. Total extract length is about  11 mins and you can stop the video after the Mexican guy toasts everyone and drinks the sake.

Earlier in the lesson I had boarded the stages of a typical meeting (see photo below). Before playing the video I asked students to note down any communication issues/behaviour corresponding to the different stages – these are indicated in green in the photo)

  • Greetings/Introductions – [update *Cantinflas (what Mexican man says to Spanish interpreter)], Dress of Mexican man, not wearing a sombre suit, red shoes; Time – Mexican man annoyed to have arrived early; Japanese wearing dark suits; there are 4 of them; they make a small bow; they present business cards very formally; Mexican does not have business card
  • Small Talk – there is no small talk outside restaurant but there is in restaurant – Japanese guy asks Mexican guy about eating Japanese food, Mexican guy ask the same about Mexican food; Mexican guy ignorant of Japanese custom of removing shoes; Japanese guy uses humour; length of response to joke; hierarchy demonstrated when 4th Japanese man is prodded to laugh by one of the three main Japanese characters: the small talk extends into the eating of the meal, Mexican guy glad when Japanese guy indicates start of meeting
  • Meeting behaviour – Mexican guy is very direct, the Japanese interpreter wisely turns comments into indirect comments; Mexican guy shows a contract, which is a big no-no in Japanese business etiquette;
  • Closing meeting – indicated by drinking sake and saying kampai, use of alcohol in business meetings

There may be other relevant observations as well.

The two groups tended to show strong interest in the extract and it seemed to clarify the aspects of business communication covered earlier in the class.

The activity lasted about 30 mins – can be longer if you get students into groups to write down ideas instead of whole class feedback as I did.

meetings stages and film extract
meeting stages and film extract

(photo: meeting stages and film extract)

* Thanks to one of my colleagues for finding out that Cantinflas is the name of a famous Mexican comedien. A great example of a word I had no idea the significance of until now due to lack of cultural knowledge.

See this related post on cultural English.