Similarly, when Chinese students learn English, it may be difficult for them to remember to write capital letters. What is even more common, however, is that they stumble on words they don’t know, thinking these are vocabulary words, when in fact, they are actually proper names. I once had a friend who got hung up on a term for several days, till he finally asked me in frustration, “What is the meaning of this vocabulary?” The words he showed me were “Youngstown, Ohio.” Obviously, it wasn’t in a dictionary.

This next example is something that happened to me in Korea, but it could just as easily have happened in China.

A Korean teacher of English was preparing her lesson, when she came upon a word she didn’t know. She stuck the book in front of me, and asked, “What does this mean? I looked it up in the dictionary, but I can’t find it.” The word was “Chunnel.” I had never heard the word before, and I hadn’t read the text. But, I saw a picture of the coast of England at the top of the page and instantly guessed what it must be.

“The Chunnel is the name of the tunnel that runs under the English Channel,” I said. I was about to walk away, when I saw from the look in her eyes, that she hadn’t understood. So, I explained, “The English Channel is the body of water that separates England from France.” Once again, her response was a blank, almost angry look. “Yes, but what is Chunnel?” She repeated. “It is the name of the tunnel that runs under the English Channel, connecting England and France.” I explained again.

It hit me at that point that we had gone beyond the linguistic. She knew the words “tunnel, connect, England, France…” The issue was cultural. She didn’t necessarily know that the image in the photo was the coast of England. Further, she had never heard of the English Channel. If she had never heard of the English Channel, she probably was unaware that there was a tunnel under it.

Am I convinced that her lack of understanding should be considered cultural, not linguistic? In this explanation I don’t believe there are any words I wouldn’t expect a college graduate, with a degree in English, who teaches English for a living, to know: “It is the name of the tunnel that runs under the English Channel, connecting England and France.”

With an inflected question in her voice, she drew a tentative conclusion. “It means tunnel?”

“No” I said. “It is the name of a particular tunnel. The tunnel which runs from England to France.” Then I pointed at the capital letter “C” in “Chunnel.” “Don’t you see? It’s a name.”

Once again, she had missed the grammatical clues. She didn’t instantly see that the unknown word began with a capital letter and was thus a name.

Culture and Context

When I was a teenager, I saw Peking Opera for the first time in my life. I absolutely loved the martial arts and discipline of the actors, but I couldn’t always follow the stories. A Chinese friend was explaining the action as it happened. “That’s the general.” He said, as a man walked onto the stage. I had guessed that already. And from the sound effects and scenery, I also guessed there was a battle in progress. “The general is retreating,” my Chinese friend explained. “How did you know that?” I asked, amazed. “Because he walked onto the stage backward,” he answered.

Similar cultural contexts exist in all languages, cues and clues which native speakers pick up on instinctively, which communicate more than words. Learners often miss these cues because their brains work differently. They are looking for other cues, other ways of conveying meaning, which English may lack.

Most of the students who walk into my university classroom in Shanghai have had twelve years of English, and posses a vocabulary of thousands of words. And yet, they can’t speak English, because speaking or using a language is a lot more than knowing the words. Culture is one of the most important determinates of how we communicate, understand, and learn.

Failed Listening

Most of the ESL books I have used in my fourteen years of teaching have contained less than five minutes of listening per chapter. A frequent feature in my classrooms in China and elsewhere is that the reading and grammar exercises are at an appropriate level for the students, where I could give an explanation, do an example or two, and assign the rest for homework. I have never had the experience that I pressed play on the CD and the whole class was able to complete the listening task on the first listening. Neither have I had this experience on the second listening. In fact, my experience has been that if I weren’t in the room, coaching and cajoling them, and if they weren’t copying off the smart kids, the class would never get through a single listening task.

Sometimes, the students’ inability to complete the listening task is because of poor listening skills. But sometimes, the problem is the cultural basis of the selection. In this case, no matter how many times or how slowly they listen, they will never get the answers.

To test if the student’s failure to complete a listening exercise is skill related—in other words, he simply can’t listen well—or is cultural, you can give them a transcript of the audio. If, after reading the transcript they can complete the task, then it probably is skill related. If after reading, they still can’t complete the task, there is a good chance that, assuming the level is appropriate, there is some cultural reason why the selection simply has no meaning for the student.

These are transcripts similar to conversations on ESL listening exercises.

  • Middle Aged Woman: She’s a lovely girl. David has really done well for himself this time. I am sure they will be happy together.

When a native speaker hears this or reads it, he guesses that David is getting married. The speaker is probably David’s mom. And she very much approves of David’s choice of partner. A Chinese speaker, on the other hand, may not read so much into this selection. Later, he would have trouble completing the exercise, for cultural reasons.

As a native speaker, can you guess the scenario in each of these selections? Do you think the average Chinese speaking student would guess similarly?

  • I left my last job because my boss was a jerk. But I bet I’ll be happy here.
  • “These masks make it hard to breath.” “Yeah, but at least no one will be able to identify us afterwards.”
  • Coach told me if I can cut my time by two seconds, I have a got chance of going to state.

Things We Know at a Glance

What are these? The Belmont Herald, The Southbend Journal, The Daily Post, Sand Mountain Reporter, Alexander Reporter, Andalusian Star? When a native speaker encounters these words in a text, he instantly knows that these are the names of newspapers or magazines.

Words that key native speakers that the capitalized words are the names of newspapers: Tribune, Courier, Messenger, Weekly, Daily, Times, Standard, Ledger, Sun, Today, Record, Advocate, Democrat, Enquirer, News, Eagle, Planet, Sentinel, Advertiser, Reporter, Advisor…

Where is the Southbend Journal published? I have never been to Southbend, but I am guessing it is the name of a very small town somewhere. And, the Southbend Journal is most likely the local newspaper. I can go on to guess that it is a publication with a very small circulation, with a lot of local weddings, funerals, maybe birthdays and awards, wedding anniversaries, the happenings around the small town, and a classified section for selling second-hand farm equipment.

Plugging English Words into Chinese Language

As English teachers, we are constantly telling our students to read newspapers and online articles as a way of practicing their language. But without the cultural background, much of this reading is completely incomprehensible. This headline from the online MSN News Headlines from September 4, 2012, for example would need more explanation than it is worth: “Fall Flicks: A Harvest of Promising Movies”.

Students may or may not know that “Fall” is “Autumn”, and that “flicks” refers to movies. They probably don’t know that new movies and TV shows are released in the fall. If they looked up the word “harvest” in a Chinese, bilingual dictionary, they will come up with “收成” (shou1cheng2) which is the literal harvest of agricultural produce. The students might think the article related to farming. If they look up “harvest” in a bilingual dictionary, they could find an entry similar to this one from Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary:

1har·vest  /ˈhɑɚvəst/ noun

plural har·vests

[count] 1 : the season when crops are gathered from the fields or the activity of gathering crops

▪ The beginning of the harvest varies from year to year. ▪ It is time for the harvest. ▪ harvest time

2 : the amount of crops that are gathered

▪ They prayed for a bountiful harvest. ▪ We had enormous harvests of corn this year. ; also : the amount of a natural product gathered in a single season

▪ the salmon/timber harvest — sometimes used figuratively ▪ The government will reap a bitter harvest of discontent [=many people will be extremely unhappy and angry] if it fails to meet the people’s needs.

The final definition does tell students that “harvest” can be used figuratively and gives the useless example of “bitter harvest”, which would mean just as little to the students as the original title.

These were other headlines from MSN News Headlines, September 4, 2012. Take a few minutes and think about what each of these titles would mean to an English learner, with a bilingual dictionary, finding literal definitions:

  • Contestant takes a tumble
  • Toys R Us waives fee for layaway program
  • Weekend Rewind: What you Missed
  • Convention host N.C. finds itself as pivotal battleground
  • Bride-napping in Romania is bigger and brasher than ever
  • One-ton bacon cheeseburger leaves no one asking ‘where’s the beef?’
  • Lead guitarist for Starship, dies in Nebraska
  • Dad: Honey Badger to enroll at LSU
  • Virginia Tech claims OT thriller
  • Firms step up 401K funding
  • Hunter bags two ‘pigzillas’

Knowing all of the words isn’t enough. Student need to understand the culture of the English language, in order to achieve fluency. To teach successfully, foreign teachers need to be aware of cultural/linguistic differences between Chinese and English. If teachers could better anticipate where cultural barriers lie, they could prep their students and concentrate on language and tasks. Teachers could also look for materials that help students learn about cultural/linguistic features of English.