Cultural Understanding: Key 1

This 3 part series is an excerpt from the the Institute of Cross Cultural Training’s “Reach Out With English” training and has been shared with ICCT’s permission.

In making your decision to become an ESL teacher, you have probably prayed about your desire to minister to those who have a range of needs that go beyond the learning of the English language. As a Christian, no doubt you want to demonstrate the love of Jesus to a group of people who find American customs and values to be very different from anything they have experienced before. But how can you minister in ways that will make you an effective witness? How can you minister in ways that will result in your students seeing your love for the Lord and your true heart for service?

Patty Lane tells us that culture is “the lens through which all of life is seen and interpreted” (p. 35). When your students come to you for English, they bring with them the only culture and cultural values that they know—their culture and their cultural values. In everyday terms, this means that they will be evaluating their interactions with you and with other Americans in the only way they know-through the lens of their own cultural norms, values, and experiences.

Most of us have no idea how frequently or in what ways we come across to others in a manner we don’t intend. We want to think that if we’ll just do our best to be what we think of as kind and loving, we’ll do just fine. But specialists in cross-cultural communication tell us that doing things the American way-including what we may think of as kind and loving-often comes across as acting superior, paternalistic, and a host of other negative images. Unfortunately, we have no idea how often we are perceived by those from other cultures not as the Christlike people we aspire to be, but as rude and uncaring-often everything that a Christian does not want to be or to convey.

And to make matters worse, our unintentional cultural blunders can do serious damage to our Christian witness. So what can we do about this?

How can we reach out cross-culturally in ways that will demonstrate the love and care that we truly want to show? How can we be positive Christian witnesses rather than negative witnesses to our ESL students and the broader community?

The first important key to effective ESL ministry is cultural understanding. If you neglect this key, your ministry will be sure to suffer. So what can you do to promote cultural understanding? Your first task is to become a learner of cultures-your own and others. You need to learn more about how our American culture views everything around us (our beliefs, values, ideals, customs, ways of interacting with others) and you need to learn more about the cultures of your students (their beliefs, values, interacting with others). Once you begin this important journey, you will find that you are becoming less judgmental of some of your students’ behaviors, better able to empathize with their concerns, and more adept at forming meaningful relationships. Your second task will be to incorporate teaching about American culture into your ESL teaching. This will help your students to better understand American ways and adjust to living in our culture.

We will address cultural understanding in one of our Reach Out sessions, and we will also point you to other resources for further study. For now, if this information is new to you or if you simply need a refresher course, we suggest you read A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multicultural World (available from Amazon and elsewhere). Filled with cultural insights and practical suggestions, this book can expand your worldview, launch you into a lifetime of learning how to communicate more successfully to those from other cultures, and help you to be a more effective witness in your in-class teaching of English and your out-of-class relationships with your students.


Lane, Patty. 2002. A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a Multicultural World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

This is part 1 in a 3 part series. Read part 2 & 3.

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