Cultural Contextualization: What every teacher should know before teaching abroad


We mentioned ‘appropriate vocabulary’ above, but here our focus is on appropriacy in relation to cultural contextualization. A subtler aspect of meaning that often needs to be introduced to learners is whether a particular item is appropriate for use in a specific context. The appropriacy of a piece of speech is measured against socio-cultural norms. 

photo of woman tutoring young boy
Photo by Julia M Cameron on

Please note that the same piece of speech in one society’s culture may not be considered appropriate in another culture. Possible repercussions may arise from a learner saying words that could be viewed as inappropriate in another culture and society. For this reason, you must make your learners aware of possible cross-linguistic problems.

Your learners must learn when a particular word or phrase is very common, or relatively rare, or ‘taboo’ in, say, polite conversation. They need to know when a word tends to be used in writing but not in speech, or when it is more suitable for formal than in informal discourse. For example, weep is virtually synonymous in denotation with cry, but it is more formal and poetic, tends to be used in writing more than in speech, and is much less common. So far, we’ve focused on the learner. But what about YOU?

Here’s what you need to know and reflect on to ensure you get cultural contextualization right the first time:

1. Communication is culture-bound. The way an individual communicates and the words and structures she uses emanate from her culture.

2. Students with different cultural norms are at risk if you have little knowledge, sensitivity, or appreciation of the diversity in communication styles. You may perceive differences as problems and respond to students’ diversity with a negative attitude, low expectations, and culturally inappropriate teaching and assessment procedures.

3. Cultures vary internally and are changeable. There are usually many cultural differences within a single race or nationality. Avoid stereotyping your students. 

4. What is logical and essential in your culture, e.g. always tagging on please to a request, or taking turns to speak, may seem irrational and unimportant to learners in another culture.

5. In describing another culture’s language, teachers tend to stress the differences and overlook the similarities. Do not fall into this trap.

6. Avoid some inappropriate cross-cultural communication barriers:

  • Be aware of words, images, and situations that suggest that all or most members of a racial group are the same. 
  • Be aware of possible negative implications of word/color symbolism and usage that could offend people or reinforce bias. For example, terms such as black magic or black market can be offensive in some cultures.
  • Avoid words that have questionable racial or ethnic connotations. For example, a phrase such as you people may have a racial overtone. 
  • Be aware that words, objects, characters, and symbols may reflect different beliefs or values for different groups. For example, the Confederate flag and Uncle Remus stories may offend African Americans because they reflect the culture of slavery and the Old South.
  • Be aware of different approaches to taking turns during conversations. For example, some cultures frequently perceive ‘breaking in’ to reinforce or disagree with another’s point of view to be perfectly permissible, indeed desirable. 

Cultures often have different standards/levels for loudness, silence, speed of delivering a message, attentiveness, and time taken to respond to another’s point. For example, Far East societies place high value on contemplation and tend, therefore, to feel little need to respond immediately during a conversation. Understanding another culture’s language is a continuous process.