English Teaching: Chinese Students Cultural Differences

Abstract

Awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching is a very sensitive topic in modern society where many international students are keen on learning this language. As action research, it was important to identify the challenges that teachers often face when teaching English to international students and propose ways of addressing such challenges. The paper focused on determining how teachers can overcome the cultural challenges, especially the effects of the first language, which limits the ability of international students to learn English. The study used both primary and secondary sources of data.

Secondary data was obtained from books, journal articles, and other reliable online sources. Primary data was obtained from sampled participants. The researcher identified 50 participants using a stratified sampling method. The research used qualitative methods in analyzing primary data collected from the field. Using evidence from international Chinese students and data collected from primary and secondary sources, the researcher has clearly outlined these challenges.

The findings of this study show that cultural differences are a major issue that affects students’ ability to master the language. It is also evident from the findings that teachers are yet to treat this issue as a major problem when teaching English. Many teachers ignore this problem because the existing syllabus is silent about it. The study shows that awareness of cultural differences is important in enhancing the teaching of the English language. It enables teachers to address the root cause of the problem. Several recommendations have also been provided to help address the identified challenges.

Introduction

Background of the Study

English is one of the languages with the highest demand at the global level. It is the lingua franca of academia and business (Armitage 2012). The language is spoken in 94 countries around the world and it is the official language for several major international organizations such as the United Nations and World Trade Organisation (Dörnyei & Ushioda 2013). Currently, English is the most used language on the internet, accounting for most of the internet users (Garcia 2012).

These statistics demonstrate how important the language is at the international level. Anyone keen on achieving global success may need to learn how to communicate effectively using this language. The increasing relevance of this language has seen a sharp increase in the number of those who are trying to learn the language. Other than the native speakers, the number of international students who are taking English classes has been on the rise over the recent past.

From the Chinese and Japanese who are keen on doing business at the global level to Africans who are looking for better opportunities away from their home countries, English remains a very critical language. In line with the increasing demand, the number of English teachers has also increased over the past few decades.

According to a study conducted by Hooper (2013), teaching English to international students may not be as easy as when handling native speakers. Culture is known to affect the ability of learners to comprehend the language, especially when English is learned as a second, third, or even fourth language. The cultural background of people defines how they speak. Hajar (2016) says that language is often considered part of people’s culture.

It is always a tool that people use to preserve and pass on cultural practices from one generation to another. It means that language is as unique as people’s culture. The first language that people learn, in line with their culture, has a significant impact on their ability to be fluent in other languages. Some languages lack some very important sounds. Others have sounds, which do not exist in either written or spoken the English language. The phonological differences make it difficult for international students to have a mastery of the English language compared to their colleagues who are native speakers. The problem is often exhibited in both spoken and written English. They make grammatical mistakes, which can directly be linked to the effect of their first language.

Teachers have the responsibility of ensuring that their students understand the concepts taught in class. The ability of a student to speak fluent English is just as important as it is for them to have grammatically correct texts.

However, Lynch (2016) says that teachers often find themselves in challenging situations when they have to handle students who are affected by their culture and first language. The problem is compounded when these teachers have to handle students from different cultural backgrounds having varying problems when it comes to learning the English language. The problem that affects one group may be different from what affects a different group. In some languages, the sound ‘r’ does not exist.

In other languages, the same sound is so important that it cannot be ignored in a sentence. As such, it is common to find cases where some speakers use the sound ‘l’ instead of ‘r’ while others use the sound ‘r’ even when it should be silent in a sentence. When a teacher is handling such two extremes within the same class, it is important to start by understanding the cultural differences between these two students.

Understanding their culture and why they cannot speak in a given pattern may offer the most appropriate solution when it comes to addressing their problems. The teacher will be targeting the root cause of the problem instead of just focusing on the symptoms. In this paper, the researcher seeks to research awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching with evidence from international Chinese students.

Research Problem

English literature, also known as Anglo-Saxon literature has always been an integral part of English as a subject for students (Mehisto & Genesee 2015). It was important because it enabled them to understand their history, culture, and the source of their language, including changes that have been witnessed over the years. It involved stories about the past using various formats. English literature remains very important among the students learning English.

However, a new problem has emerged following the growing popularity of English among international students. The Anglo-Saxon literature is no longer relevant to the international students who have to overcome the effect of their own culture and first language to become fluent speakers of the English language. These international students need to understand why it is important to unlearn some of the practices considered standard in their culture and first language. In their case, the focus should be on their culture and how its effect on these students can be dealt with in the most appropriate way possible.

The problem is that most of the teachers handling international students rarely focus on their culture. When it comes to learning English literature, more emphasis is still placed on Anglo-Saxon literature than the literature of the students being handled (Rubie-Davies 2015).

Although it helps in improving their language, it does very little in identifying and eliminating the problems that these international students face, especially on the issue of pronunciation. The problem is further complicated by the fact that in many cases teachers are forced to handle students with varying cultural backgrounds. A class may have Chinese, Japanese, Arab, and African students. Within these groups, some sub-groups make the students unique.

Teachers rarely take time to understand the uniqueness of these students based on their culture. The traditional belief that ‘practice makes perfect’ is often used by many of these teachers, hoping that their students will finally overcome these challenges as they get more exposed to the language. However, some of these problems are often so entrenched that it may almost be impossible to overcome them without close and personal attention given to the students.

Importance/Rationale for the Research

Researching awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of teaching English is important, especially when handling ESL students. As the number of students keen on learning the English language continues to rise, teachers find it increasingly important to find out the factors that affect their students’ performance. According to Tandon (2015), international students need unique attention when teaching them English because of the effect their culture and first language had on them. In the past, little attention was paid when it came to investigating how culture affects their spoken and written the English language.

However, recent studies have pointed out a fact that cultural difference among English students is a major issue in many schools. For instance, the United Kingdom has registered an increase in the number of international students in many institutions of higher learning.

Most of these institutions use English as the standard model of communication when teaching. It means that even if a student is not taking English as a major, it is often necessary for them to have English classes, especially when they are not fluent in that language. These students may need assistance in overcoming the challenges associated with their culture. Through this study, teachers will understand the factors that make these students special and the best way they can be handled to help them achieve success when learning the English language.

This research project is particularly important to English teachers who are handling international students. For a long time, these teachers have been struggling to handle international students with varying challenges when it comes to speaking fluently and writing grammatically correct English (Selley 2012).

As a standard practice, they have to follow the syllabus. The main problem with the syllabus is that it is often silent when it comes to the issue of cultural impact on students’ spoken and written English. Most of their students fail, not because they are stupid, but because nothing is done to address the root cause of their problem. This is going to change if the recommendations of this study will be implemented.

This research will be critical in introducing the major changes in the currently used syllabus when handling international students. Tandon (2015) proposes that international students should always be offered an extra lesson where forces associated with their culture are discussed to find ways of overcoming them. The study will help teachers to argue their case and convince the policymakers that a time has come when change is needed when handling these international students.

The project will also be important to international students. They will learn that it is important to face their cultural factors that affect their learning of English to achieve the desired success in their classes. Parents will also benefit from the study because their students will register better performance if the recommendations are implemented. The researcher will observe several ethical considerations when collecting and analyzing data. Consent will be obtained from relevant authorities before collecting data. Any form of personal bias will also be avoided in the entire process of data collection and analysis.

Research Aim and Objectives

Researching awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching, as explained above, is very important to policymakers, teachers, students, and parents. It is important to outline the goals and objectives of this study. They will help in evaluating the report to determine if what was desired has been achieved by the end of the research. The primary aim of this study is to create awareness about cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching, with evidence from international Chinese students. The following are the specific objectives that should be achieved by the end of this research:

  • To determine the significance of awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching in the United Kingdom.
  • To identify the specific cultural factors that affect the ability of international students to learn English.
  • To come up with ways through which cultural challenges associated with learning of English can be overcome.

Research Questions

A researcher must have proper guidance when it comes to collecting data from the field. Rahma (2014) advises that data collected from the field must be capable of addressing specific issues within the study. The data must meet the goals and objectives set in the research project. That is why it is important to set research questions that will help in that process. The following questions will be used to collect data:

  • What is the significance of awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching?
  • What are the cultural factors that affect the ability of international students to learn English?
  • What is the impact of cultural factors on one’s ability to learn English?
  • How can cultural challenges associated with learning of English be overcome?

Contribution to Knowledge

The primary goal of every piece of research is to make a significant contribution to the existing bodies of knowledge. In this project, it will be critical to creating new knowledge about cultural differences among international students and how it affects their ability to learn English. This report will not only benefit the English teachers but also students, policymakers, and parents. The knowledge must be relevant to each of these stakeholders.

Teachers want their students to excel. Students want to have a mastery of both spoken and written English. Policymakers want to have a system that will make it easy for international students to understand the concepts taught in class. Parents want their children to take the shortest time possible in school to achieve the set goals. The knowledge from the report should meet their needs.

Literature Review

This chapter will focus on published literature done by other scholars on this topic. Cultural differences among English students and their impacts on their ability to learn the language is an issue that has attracted several scholars across the world. According to Wiseman and Anderson (2013), all languages often evolve, not by specific universal rules, but in their idiosyncratic ways. In most of the cases, the pattern is often defined by the changing cultural patterns and events within a given society.

The English language is getting thousands of new words because of the cultural changes in the regions where the language is spoken and the interaction with the international community. The word ‘safari’ is a Swahili word, which means a journey. The word has received acceptance among the English speakers because of their constant visits to the regions where that word is very common. As such, language and culture are closely intertwined.

Zou (2015) says that it may be possible to separate language from culture but such a move may bring to question issues about validity. Language plays a critical role in defining people’s culture. People rely on a given language to preserve and pass on their culture from one generation to the other. Without it, it may not be possible to have a clearly defined culture among a given people. On the other hand, culture defines language.

Variation among English Speakers

According to Frank (2013), spoken English varies a great deal from one group of people to another, especially if they are significantly influenced by their culture and first language. English spoken by a Briton is different from that spoken by a Russian, a Chinese, a Yemeni, or a Nigerian. The variation can be detected in their accent (pronunciation), lexicon (word choice), syntax, and morphology (Papaja & Cem 2016).

It is important to note that such variations may not necessarily constitute incorrect sentence structure. Most often, they are caused by socio-cultural factors among the speakers. Romanowski (2017) notes that the various forms part of social identity. It is easy to determine According to Bo, Yinqiu, and Yunxi (2015), some words mean completely different things based on their cultural contexts. One such word is bullfighting.

Among the Spanish where the practice is common, a man has to face a bull in a ring in a combat that is often expected to end in the death of the bull. Among a section of Africans, bullfighting is a combat between two bulls without any involvement of people in the actual combat. It means that the same statement may be interpreted differently based on one’s cultural practices.

Emphasis placed in their sentences, their tone, the speed with which they speak also helps in defining their identity. Nagatomo (2012) says that in the past lexicon was used to determine the social class and occupation of a person in the United Kingdom. The rich were taught how to be courteous in their actions and speech. They were always very keen on their choice of words. Similarly, lawyers, doctors, and engineers had vocabularies that made it easy to identify them with their profession. However, it is important to note that the variation under this discussion goes beyond the choice of words.

There can indeed be cultural differences among people who share the same culture based on their socio-economic differences. However, among the international students, the variation is deeper, especially because of the effect of their first language. Besides having problems when it comes to the choice of words, these international students have major accent variations. In many cases, these variations do not have significant impacts on their written grammar.

Culture and How It Causes Variation among the International English Students

According to a report by Sit (2017), it is estimated that there are 7,000 languages actively used around the world today. Each of these languages has tremendous diversity in structure and most often are attached to a given culture. Thomas (2014) notes that some languages place verbs at the beginning of a sentence, others in the middle, while others place it at the end of the sentence. The problem arises when one tries to speak or write an English sentence based on the structure of their first language. In some cases, such a sentence may make sense though it may be grammatically incorrect.

In other cases, the sentence may mean something completely different from what the speaker or writer meant. In other cases, the sentence may be meaningless. According to Mahrooqi, Thakur, and Roscoe (2015), language does not exist independent of culture. The variations mentioned above arise from the fact that the culture of people also varies. The culture of people determines how they view the world. Their view of the world is often expressed in the language.

For instance, Brisk (2013) says that the French are often considered the most romantic people in the world. French as a language has so many words that can be used to express love and romance because the culture emphasizes it. Sometimes it becomes difficult to have an accurate translation of these romantic words from French to English. Using an alternative word may not bring out the meaning as accurately as one would have desired.

It is important to note that some cultural practices in one society may be different from that of another society. In sections of Africa, wife inheritance is a practice that is very common when a woman is widowed. It is a practice where the widow is required to marry a close relative of the deceased husband. This practice is not common in Europe, North America, and most parts of Asia-Pacific. As such, it is easy to have a misinterpretation when one is talking about the practice.

It is easy for a Briton or Chinese to assume that one is talking about the wife’s inheritance instead of wife inheritance. Both fall under the same context and that is why it is easy to confuse them. It will require one to understand the cultural practice of wife inheritance to avoid such confusion. The confusion can even be more pronounced if one’s spoken or written English is grammatically incorrect. If one meant the wife’s inheritance but instead writes wife inheritance, the meaning of the sentence is completely changed. What comes out to the audience is not what the speaker meant.

Theoretical Framework

In this section, the researcher will look at some of the theories that have been put forth by scholars to help explain the impact of cultural differences on one’s ability to learn a new language. It is important to look at some of the theories relevant to this study. These theories may help in supporting the conclusion and recommendations made in the research.

Theory of Sociolinguistics

One of the theories that have gained popularity in this field over the recent past is the theory of sociolinguistics. Coupland, Sarangi, and Candlin (2014, p. 120), say that sociolinguistics “deals with variations and regularity in language use, sometimes with interaction and meaning but often within a formalist, structural framework, rather than a truly dialogical, contextualized and interactional paradigm.” This theory holds that language is shaped by the culture of people and other forces within their immediate environment. Factors such as ethnicity, religion, status, gender, and level of education all have an impact on the language that people use.

Ethnicity is directly linked to the culture of a given people. Haynes (2012) says that the concept of speech community may help in understanding how ethnicity has an impact on language. The concept describes why people from different ethnic backgrounds use language in a unique manner that is mutually accepted amongst them (Kinginger 2013). People from other ethnic groups may find a problem using or even understanding the language when spoken in that manner. The heavy use of slang, especially that which is based on factors unique to that particular group, makes it almost impossible to understand what they say even if they are using the English language.

The sociolinguistic theory also explains how one’s status in society may influence their spoken and written language. As people climb the social ladder, they become sensitive to what they say or write. They know that society is paying attention to their actions. As such, they would try to polish their language to ensure that their speech is a reflection of their social status in society. Gender is another common factor that defines how language is spoken.

For instance, the phrase ‘yeah man’ has become a common acclamation among young men, especially those who love reggae music. It is rare to find women using such phrases in their speech, although a few do. The level of one’s education is another factor that shapes the language he or she uses as explained in the sociolinguistic theory. Chadwick (2012) says that the use of jargon among some professionals makes it difficult for their language to be easily understood by the other section of society. For instance, instead of saying that someone is engaged in an immoral or illegal act, a lawyer would use the term malfeasance.

It may not be easy for one to understand such complex terms uniquely used by people in a given profession. Status, gender, and level of education all explain how there might be further variation in the language used by people of the same culture.

Chomsky’s Theory

Noam Chomsky came up with a unique view of language and its acquisition. According to Birkin (2012), Chomsky’s Theory of Universal Grammar has been the focus of many scholars keen on investigating the differences in the structure of sentences in different languages. In his theory, Chomsky explains that human languages often follow similar patterns and rules when it comes to grammar (Andrews 2012).

He argued that it is not just by coincidence that they share the same grammatical structure. For instance, almost all the languages have the past, present, and future tenses in a sentence structure. It is also true that a verb is another common part of a sentence in many languages used across the world. Deiner (2013) says that the similarity in the grammatical structure of sentences in various languages may be attributed to the way of life (cultural factors) of human beings. Every community indeed has a distinct culture that makes it unique from other cultures. However, human beings share a lot irrespective of their culture.

The need to love, protect, provide, unite, compete, and achieve various goals in life is common across all these cultures. Differences often emerge because of geographical differences that create different problems for different people. Those living close to or at the northern and southern poles of the earth are exposed to extremely low temperatures. On the other hand, those close to the equator have warm temperatures throughout the year.

The culture of these two groups will differ because they face different challenges in life. Their culture must help them overcome the challenges they face in life. As a scholar who is trying to investigate the cultural differences associated with the improvement of English, one must first appreciate that natural forces that influence a people’s culture cause differences that exist. In case these differences are making it difficult for a student to have a proper mastery of the language, a teacher needs to first focus on the culture, find specific hindrances within that culture, and eliminate them to help that student.

Piaget’s Theory

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development has been commonly used to explain the process through which one (especially a child) develops knowledge and intelligence (Issa, Isaias & Kommers 2014). It explains how people gradually acquire intelligence, construct, and then use it within their environment. It holds that as one attains biological maturity, knowledge and intelligence is gained through environmental experiences.

As people develop, they acquire new knowledge that helps in addressing the discrepancies between what they already know and what they face in real life. The theory emphasizes the role of language in knowledge acquisition. Indeed, people often learn through the experiences they encounter in life. However, they also need to be informed about various issues within the same environment to have a better understanding.

A child will need to be warned against actions and things that may pose danger to them or others around them. That must be done using a specific language used within the community. That child will also need to learn how to interact with peers and their seniors. That is why naturally a child would acquire the ability to speak faster than they can gain the ability to have abstract reasoning.

According to Garcia (2013), one of the most important proposals made in this theory is that knowledge and intelligence are often gained through a participatory approach. The learner must be actively engaged in the process of gaining new knowledge. That is why learning is currently shifting from a teacher-centered approach to a child-centered approach. Most of the international students use English as a second or third language.

The pattern of gaining knowledge in their case is slightly different from what Piaget explained in his theory. His theory holds that a child first develops a mastery of language and uses it as a tool to gain knowledge and intelligence. In this case, however, one has already gained knowledge using a different language before being exposed to English as a language. That is why they often make mistakes that can be traced to their original language or culture.

They try to make the new language, which in this case is English, fit into their primary language. Some of these students, therefore, make mistakes such as direct translation of words or phrases from their first language to English. Having awareness of such problems associated with a student’s culture as a teacher makes it possible to find a way of helping them. Sometimes students may need to unlearn some of the knowledge about sentence structure and choice of words emphasized in their first language to become fluent in spoken and written English.

Methodology

The above chapter has provided a detailed analysis of the existing knowledge available in published literature. In this chapter, the focus will be to provide a comprehensive analysis of the method that the researcher used to collect data from various sources.

As Bailey and Handu (2013) say, when conducting research it is important to define the methods that will be used to collect and analyze data. A researcher must start by explaining the sources of data to enable readers to understand the validity and reliability of the information provided in the report. This chapter will start by explaining the research philosophy, research approach, and research strategy.

It will then provide a detailed analysis of the data collection approach, including sources of data, data collection instrument, and the sampling method, and sample size used. It will then explain the validity and reliability issues. It will finally explain the ethical considerations, a timeline of the research, and resources that enabled the researcher to achieve the set objectives in this study. The selected method must help in creating awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching.

Research Philosophy

When conducting research, it is important to define research philosophy. Bernard (2013) says that research philosophy focuses on the source, nature, and development of knowledge. In many cases, just like in this study, data is often collected from primary and secondary sources. A researcher must be capable of defining each of the sources before going to the field for the actual data collection process. It emphasizes the need for a researcher to be aware and able to formulate beliefs and relevant assumptions in the study. It is often placed at the outer layer of the research onion as shown in the figure below.

Research onion.
Figure 1: Research onion (Astin & Antonio 2012).

Depending on the assumptions and beliefs that a researcher wishes to embrace, it may be appropriate to embrace pragmatism, positivism, realism, or interpretivism as the most desirable philosophy. It is important to explain each of these philosophies briefly before selecting the most appropriate one for the study. Positivism is a philosophy, which holds that knowledge gained through the senses (observation) and measurements can be considered factual and trustworthy (Brennen 2013).

When embracing this philosophy, researchers must realize that their role is limited to the collection of data and interpretation objectively. The findings and conclusions made from such a study must be observable and quantifiable when using this philosophy. The researcher must remain independent and neutral at all times, keen on avoiding any direct or indirect influence on the subjects of the study. It holds the belief that knowledge is gained through human experience. It emphasizes the need to conduct statistical analysis when conducting research.

Pragmatism is another common philosophy that researchers often use in their studies. As Amelina (2012) observes, pragmatism as a research philosophy holds that a concept can only be accepted to be true and relevant only if it supports action. Unlike positivism, pragmatism is of the view that several ways exist through which the world can be interpreted. No single view can provide a complete picture. It is also true that at times there might be multiple realities.

This philosophy, as its name suggests, is very pragmatic. It acknowledges that human beings by nature are biased. Sometimes one may be presented with multiple realities, but most often one will ignore other realities and only focus on what they want to believe in as the only reality. That is why it emphasizes on embracing assumptions and beliefs which are flexible. This philosophy considers research questions as critical components of research because they guide the process of data collection.

Realism research philosophy holds that reality is independent of the human mind and embraces the assumption of a scientific approach in the development of knowledge (Bryman & Bell 2015). Realism is divided into two: critical and direct realism. Direct realism embraces the assumption that what one sees is what is held to be true. It portrays the world through human senses (Caillaud, Rose & Goepp 2016). On the other hand, critical realism holds that people often experience images and sensations of the real world.

In most cases, these images and sensations of the real world may be deceptive and as such, may not portray forces in the real world. Illusions of the mind may misguide someone into believing that a given concept is true. Critical realism, therefore, argues that one should be critical of the realities presented by various observable forces. One should take time to go beyond what is observable to establish the truth.

Interpretivism research philosophy entails the interpretation of various elements in a given study (Fowler 2013). The primary assumption, in this case, is that a researcher can have access to reality through social constructions such as shared meanings, instruments, language, and consciousness (Gast & Ledford 2014). It embraces the concept of idealism when conducting research. The philosophy rejects the argument that meaning often resides in the world independent of consciousness.

As such, it embraces phenomenology, social constructivism, and hermeneutics approaches. When using this philosophy, a researcher as a social actor must appreciate the differences that exist between people. People are unique in one way or the other, and their views over a given issue will often vary. When developing knowledge, the philosophy emphasizes on the need to embrace multiple methods to help bring out varying aspects of the issue under investigation (Gourlay & Stevenson 2017).

In this research, the focus was to create awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching with evidence from international Chinese students. Interpretivism is the most appropriate method for the study. It appreciates that people have several factors that make them unique and different in one way or the other (Yanow & Schwartz-Shea 2014). It also accepts the use of different methods when developing knowledge with the primary goal of ensuring that varying aspects of a given issue are brought out clearly. It will help analyze why cultural differences among international students affect their ability to learn English.

Research Approach

In the research onion shown in figure 1 above, the research approach comes immediately after the research philosophy. It is important to explain the research approach that was considered appropriate for the study. According to Hair (2012), three different research approaches exist that one can select in a given study. They include a deductive research approach, an inductive research approach, and an abductive research approach. It is necessary to discuss briefly each of them to justify why the researcher selected one of them as the most appropriate for the study.

According to Choy (2014), the deductive approach focuses on the development of a hypothesis based on the existing theory or theories. A researcher is then required to design a research strategy and test the set hypothesis. It involves reasoning from particular or specific to a general idea. The test is meant to determine if there is a relationship between two variables. If it is established that the variables have a relationship, then it is possible to come up with a generalization out of it. The figure below shows the pattern that is often taken when a researcher is using a deductive approach in research.

Deductive reasoning.
Figure 2: Deductive reasoning (Hammond & Wellington 2013)

Deductive reasoning supports the statistical analysis of data. Although it is possible to use this method when conducting qualitative research, most researchers often prefer using this approach when there is a need to conduct a mathematical analysis to accept or reject a given hypothesis.

Inductive reasoning, also known as an inductive approach, starts with making observations before theories can be proposed based on what has been observed. It gives the researcher freedom at the beginning of the study to come up with an appropriate way of observing patterns and then come up with a theory or a new concept that explains the pattern.

Jackson (2013) notes that it is important to understand that inductive reasoning does not completely disregard the existing theories at the stage of formulating research objectives and questions. Sometimes a researcher may find a relevant theory that may help in understanding the new concept developed after making the observation. It allows a researcher to collect and analyze data to identify specific relationships and patterns to build a theory.

It is the approach that the researcher considered the most relevant in this study. Instead of starting with a formed opinion (specific theory), the researcher will be able to make observations before developing a pattern. It will be possible to explain how cultural differences affect the ability of students to learn English. It will also be possible to create a pattern in which a given culture affects international students learning English as a second or third language. It will allow the researcher to come up with a conclusion based on what has been observed. The figure below shows the pattern of reasoning when one is using inducting reasoning:

Inductive reasoning.
Figure 3: Inductive reasoning. (Jasti & Kodali 2014).

Abductive reasoning was developed to overcome the weaknesses of both deductive and inductive reasoning. This approach starts with identifying surprising puzzles or facts. The researcher is then expected to explain these puzzles or facts using empirical phenomena that cannot properly be explained using the existing theories (Kara 2015). When using this approach, the researcher aims to select the most appropriate explanation among the existing alternatives to explain the puzzles identified at the beginning of the research project. It allows the researcher to combine both cognitive and numerical reasoning to explain the surprising facts or puzzles. It is a good research approach, but it was considered inappropriate for this study.

Research Strategy

It is now clear, based on the above analysis, the research philosophy and research approach that is appropriate for this project taking into consideration the set goals and objectives. It is now important to narrow down further to define the appropriate research strategy that will be used. It is important to go beyond case studies and action research. A researcher can opt to use archival research, case studies, experimental studies, action research, surveys, or narrative inquires (Kuada 2012). The selected strategy must be in line with the philosophy and approach chosen. It must also be capable of meeting the goal and objectives of the study. The researcher opted to use case studies, action research, and survey, as discussed below:

Survey

In this research, it was important to use the survey because of the nature of the study. The researcher was interested in creating awareness about cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching. It will be important to collect data from a sample of respondents to support secondary data. Data collected through the survey can be analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively to arrive at a given conclusion. To achieve the set objectives and to answer the research questions, it will be necessary to conduct a statistical analysis using data collected from these respondents.

Case Study

A case study is also an appropriate strategy in this study. As the researcher seeks to establish awareness about cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching, there will be a special focus on international Chinese students. As McNabb (2013) states, case studies enable a researcher to relive a given phenomenon to help in elaborating a given fact. It explains a given pattern of events and the outcome of such an event.

It is, therefore, possible to explain that when something happens in a given pattern, a given outcome will be expected. English has become a major subject among Chinese students, especially those who are studying away from their home country. Focusing on a pattern observed in the past about how their culture affected the process of teaching them English can enable the researcher to make specific conclusions.

Action Research

It is important to note that this study will also entail action research. Nestor and Schutt (2014) define action research as a study initiated to solve a given problem or reflect upon it by engaging with the affected community as part of their team. It seeks to provide a guideline for the best practice. In trying to solve the problem, a researcher is strongly advised to be part of the affected population.

In my college, several international students are learning English as a second or third language. Other than taking a distant stance by being a non-participating researcher, I intend to be part of these students and to learn firsthand how their culture could be affecting their spoken or written English. Reis and Judd (2014) say that one of the biggest advantages of being a participant in a study is that it allows a researcher to collect data that is not manipulated. Sometimes the affected group may not know that they have a problem. However, the researcher will be capable of understanding their weaknesses and then be able to relate it with their cultural differences.

Data Collection Approach

Data used in this research will be collected from both primary and secondary sources. Secondary data sources will come from books, journal articles, and other reliable online sources. Primary data was collected from sampled respondents and through the researcher’s participation and involvement with the affected group. Data from both primary and secondary sources were used to inform the conclusion and recommendations made in this study.

Pilot Study

It was important to conduct a pilot study before embarking on the actual data collection process. As mentioned above, the impact of cultural differences on English teaching is an issue that is common in the United Kingdom, especially in the institutions that handle international students. I am currently sharing some classes with international students from various countries around the world and I have noticed how their spoken and written language is affected by their culture and first language. In the pilot study, the researcher took the time to monitor how these international students with varying cultures struggle to learn English.

I was keen on determining how these students can be helped to ensure that learning English becomes simpler by overcoming some of their weaknesses associated with their culture. Through the pilot study, it was evident that several students from Africa and Asian countries have serious problems when it comes to speaking English. They have a unique and varying accent in their speech. Students from Russia and other countries in East Europe also had problems in their spoken language.

As one of the students in their class, I observed that there was little awareness about cultural differences among these students and its impacts on their ability to learn English. Teachers are yet to place proper emphasis on solving this problem although a number often admit that differences in the cultural background are posing significant challenges when it comes to teaching English.

Data Collection Instrument

According to Mehl and Conner (2012), when planning to collect data from respondents, it is important to develop a questionnaire. The questionnaire helps in guiding the entire process of primary data collection. In this project, the researcher developed a questionnaire that had three parts. The first section of the research focused on the background and demographic information of the respondents.

The section was important in understanding the background of the respondents to monitor the pattern of their responses. The second section focused on the academic background and experience of the teachers handling international students. The last section focused on awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching. The questionnaire was administered through a face-to-face interview.

The researcher was able to interview 30 teachers and 20 international students. Data were collected from three different institutions. A face-to-face interview was considered appropriate because it creates a personal attachment between the researcher and the participants, making it easy to extract the needed information from them. The fact that these participants are easily accessible within a small geographic location made it easy to use this approach.

Justification of the Data Collection Instrument

This instrument of data collection was selected because of the nature of the study. It was important to have a properly defined method of collecting data from the respondents. This instrument made it possible to collect data in a uniform data. Ross (2012) says that when planning to conduct statistical analysis, it is necessary to have a uniform way of collecting data. The questionnaire made it possible to have uniformity. That is why it was used in the study.

Sampling Method and Sample Size

It is always desirable to collect data from as many respondents as possible (Vaioleti 2015). However, when dealing with a large population it may not be possible to collect data from everyone, especially when faced with time and resources constraint. It becomes necessary to come up with a manageable sample of the entire population. That is why sampling is very important. A researcher should select a sampling method that is capable of selecting the needed participants.

In this study, it was necessary to collect data from students and teachers. The most appropriate method that would make this possible is a stratified sampling method. In this case, there were two strata: teachers and students. In each of the strata, the researcher used simple random sampling to identify specific participants for the study. Fifty respondents (30 teachers and 20 students) were selected to take part in this study. The sample size (n = 50) was selected based on the time available and resources for the study.

Reliability and Validity of Data

The primary goal of any piece of research is to add new knowledge in a given field of study. In this particular project, the new knowledge that will be developed should help in improving the process of teaching English. Many English teachers in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world find it very challenging when it comes to handling students from varying cultural backgrounds. It is necessary to ensure that data obtained from the study is valid and reliable because the information may be put into practice by policymakers and other teachers (Theron 2012). Triangulation was used to enhance the validity of the study. The research questions were analyzed from multiple perspectives to have consistency across data sources. Triangulation makes it easy to identify inconsistencies and eliminating them to ensure that the final information is verifiable.

Ethical Considerations

When conducting academic research, it is important to take into consideration several ethical issues during the process of collecting and analyzing data. Saldanha and O’Brien (2013) say that it is the responsibility of the researcher to ensure that ethics is observed at all stages of the research because it helps in improving the validity and reliability of the study. As mentioned in the sections above, the researcher collected data from teachers and students at various institutions within the United Kingdom.

It was ethically important to get approval from the relevant authorities in these institutions before engaging their teachers and students. As such, the researcher made a formal request to the administrators of these institutions as soon as they were identified.

Teachers and students were only contacted after getting the approval of the administrators. After selecting a sample of the population, the researcher informed them about the importance of this study and their role in it. An appeal was made to them to help in collecting the needed data. They were informed that they had the freedom of withdrawing from the study at any time without any consequence. All the questions that they had about this research were properly answered. The researcher also avoided any form of bias when selecting the participants and when analyzing data from them.

Research Timeline

According to Skott and Ward (2013), every piece of the research project must have a specific timeline within which all activities must be completed to make it relevant. In this study, the researcher set a specific timeline for various activities. The table 1 below in the appendix shows the timeline of various activities conducted in this project. As shown in the table, the process started with the development of a proposal.

The researcher then started developing questionnaires while waiting for the approval of the proposal. Review of literature was a continuous process because it was started during the proposal development and continued until the time when final issues were being addressed in the study. The respondents were then sampled before collecting primary data from them. Data was then analyzed. The researcher then wrote the report. The final stage was proofing the paper to eliminate grammatical mistakes.

Resources

To achieve the goals set in this research project, the researcher needed to have relevant resources. Time was the most important resource, as it was needed to accomplish all the activities outlined above. The researcher used books and articles available in the library. The financial resource was also needed to ensure that all the relevant phone calls are made and to facilitate the movement of the researcher from one place to another. The funds also helped in printing the questionnaires used in interviewing the respondents.

Results and Discussion

The previous chapter provided a detailed description of the method that the researcher used to collect and analyze data in this project. In this chapter, the researcher will provide a presentation of the findings made from the analysis. The primary data that the researcher collected from the sampled respondents was analyzed using the mathematical method. The findings made in this section will be compared closely with the information that was obtained from the review of the literature. The analysis will focus on the research questions that were set in the paper.

  • What is the significance of awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching?

This was the first question in this research. The researcher wanted to determine the significance of this study as per the views of the respondents. They were asked to state if they agree that creating awareness of cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching is important. The figure below shows the response that obtained from the respondents:

Awareness about cultural differences in important (n=50).
Figure 4: Awareness about cultural differences in important (n=50).

As shown in the figure above, the majority of the respondents strongly agree with the statement that awareness about cultural differences associated with the improvement of English teaching is very important. They explained that when teaching English, one needs to understand the core factors that affect the students’ ability to learn. It has been established that culture, especially a students’ first language, has significant impacts on their ability to be fluent in spoken and written English.

Only a few of the respondents had a contrary opinion, stating that it is easy for one to overcome the effect of their first language even without assistance from their teachers. As Elsner, Helff, and Viebrock (2013) say, many students are often able to overcome the cultural forces when learning English, especially when introduced to the language at a tender age. However, those who come to learn English at advanced stages of their education are the worst affected by this problem. They may need some assistance to overcome the challenge.

  • What are the cultural factors that affect the ability of international students to learn English?

The researcher wanted to identify the specific cultural factors that affect the ability of international students to learn English. The respondents were requested to name these factors. It was important to rank these factors, on a scale of 1-5 to determine the forces that are more significant in terms of how they affect the process of learning English. The graph below shows the forces as identified and ranked by the respondents:

Cultural challenges when learning English (n=50).
Figure 5: Cultural challenges when learning English (n=50).

The respondents were able to identify several factors related to culture (learners’ first language) that affect their ability to become fluent in written and spoken English. On a scale of 1-5, accent problem was identified as one of the main problems that these students face as they try to learn the English language. They stated that it is a major problem because in most cases one is unable to overcome it completely even after years of actively using the language.

The problem is more pronounced among those who started learning the language at advanced stages of their lives. The problem is common in spoken English, although sometimes it also affects one’s ability to write in a grammatically correct manner. Lack of some sounds in one’s first language also affects them when they try to learn English. They find it difficult pronouncing some sounds and in some cases, they come up with an absurd way of pronouncing them.

Limited vocabulary is another major issue. Students suffering from this problem find it difficult to be articulate in their speech. They sometimes use alternative words that they believe will bring out the intended meaning. Most of the respondents stated that the more one uses the language, the easier it becomes to overcome the problem. Confusion of meaning is another problem that is associated with culture. As stated in an example above, bullfighting will mean different things to different people based on their cultural practices.

To some people, it means a fight between a man and a bull where the man is finally expected to kill the bull. To others, it is a combat between two bulls, and although the bulls may sustain injuries, they are expected to live. Such confusion emanating from cultural differences of people may make it difficult for one to communicate efficiently.

  • What is the impact of cultural factors on one’s ability to learn English?

It is now clear from the analysis of the above two questions that culture is an important force when it comes to one’s ability to learn the language. Some of the cultural forces have positive while others have negative impacts. The respondents asked the participants if they believe culture is a force that has a major impact on one’s ability to learn English. The figure below shows the outcome of the analysis of their response:

Cultural impact on one’s ability to learn English (n=50).
Figure 6: Cultural impact on one’s ability to learn English (n=50).

As shown in the figure above, an overwhelming majority (96%) believe that culture has a significant impact on one’s ability to learn English. Depending on several cultural factors, one’s ability to speak or fluently write English is often impaired. As Finkbeiner and Lazar (2014) suggest, teachers ought to understand these forces to be capable of helping their students who are experiencing problems when it comes to speaking or writing grammatically correct English.

  • How can cultural challenges associated with learning of English be overcome?

This project was action research and as such, it was important to find a solution to the problems identified. In this question, the focus was to come up with solutions that can be applied to address the identified problems. The information collected from the primary and secondary sources strongly suggests that culture is a force that affects the teaching of English. The topic of this research shows that the focus is on teachers.

They should be capable of improving their capacity to teach English when handling international students. The researcher engaged the teachers who were participants in this study to find out how to overcome cultural challenges when handling international students in English classes. They were requested to share their experiences and views on how this issue can be addressed. They suggested a systematic solution to this problem.

The first step is to develop a close relationship with each of the students in a classroom setting. In many cases, teachers fail to realize the problems that their students face in their classes. This is common in cases where a teacher has to handle large classes of over 40 students. The time available for these teachers makes it impossible for them to have a personal relationship with the individual students. However, the participants strongly suggested that teachers should find time to engage with their students at a personal level. When handling large classes, it is common to find that most of the students are not affected by the problem.

The teacher should identify those who are adversely affected by the problem within the class. It is easy to identify such students based on their spoken or written English. Their problem will always be pronounced when they are faced with a situation where they have to speak before their colleagues in a classroom setting. These students should be singled out so that they can be given special treatment to help them overcome the problems.

The next step is to identify their unique problems associated with their unique cultures. Challenges that a Chinese student faces in an English class is different from the challenges that a Russian or an Arab student will face. Understanding their unique problems enables the teacher to understand how to approach them appropriately. Some of these students may have a problem in pronunciation while others may have a limited vocabulary in their speech.

Confusion of meaning may be another common problem among these international students. A teacher should try to classify the students based on the similarity of their problems and culture. Those struggling with accent problems should be clustered in one group. Further clustering will be necessary based on the uniqueness of their problem.

The next step is to solve these problems based on the clusters developed in the previous step. Machado (2016) advises that the best way of solving such problems is to inform these students that they have a specific problem. To be empowered, these students should be made to appreciate that they have a problem and that it is normal to have such problems based on their cultural background. They should know their current problems to be able to overcome them.

Once they understand their unique problems, it will be easy for the teacher to help them become fluent in spoken and written English. The students will appreciate that they have a problem that needs to be solved hence they will put personal effort to overcome their problems, making the work of the teacher simple. Working with students who understand what affects them is easier than handling them when they are not aware of these unique problems.

Constant practice will be needed to help solve these problems. In their clusters, these students will be encouraged to practice how to speak fluent English. Given that each group will have students who share the same problems, issues such as stigmatization will not be a hindrance to improving their spoken English. They will be comfortable making mistakes in their speech and learning from these mistakes.

Case Study: Xiao-lin Yin-Croft’s Experience Working with Chinese ELLs

Xiao-lin Yin-Croft is a teacher who handles third grade Chinese English language learners (ELL) students in Ulloa Elementary School in San Francisco (Croft 2017). She was originally from China and now she is focused on helping young Chinese in the United States to learn English. According to her, ELL teachers face several challenges, which in many cases administrators and policymakers fail to understand.

They have to handle students from different backgrounds, some of whom speak different languages. According to her, working with Chinese bilingual students may not be easy, especially if the teacher does not understand Chinese culture. At Ulloa Elementary School, some of the teachers who handle Chinese students have limited knowledge about Chinese culture. In her experience as a teacher at this institution, she notes that one of the biggest challenges that Chinese students face are related to stereotyping practices.

Some teachers strongly believe that the cultural background of these Chinese students makes it almost impossible for them to become fluent in spoken and written English. As such, they place little or no effort at all in ensuring that these students improve. Croft (2017) outlined several issues that Chinese students find challenging when learning English.

Pronunciation

Croft (2017) explains that Chinese is a monosyllabic language, where every character has one syllable. The sounds in most of these characters start with a consonant and then end with a vowel (Croft 2017). Each of the characters in a word must be pronounced, a practice that is very different from English sounds. That explains why Chinese students find it challenging when it comes to pronouncing words that begin with a vowel sound such as the ear. These students often tend to pronounce each syllable in a word, making their spoken English sound choppy. In her experience as an ELL teacher, Croft (2017) says that most of these challenges can be overcome through practice. However, she says that it is necessary to understand the problem and point it out to the student in a constructive manner. These students need to know why their pronunciations need to change when speaking in English.

Word Order

According to Croft (201), another major challenge that international Chinese students face when learning English is word order. The order of words in Chinese sentences is slightly different from that is normally used in English. The problem is very common in adverbial phrases of time and place. In Chinese, these phrases cannot be placed at the end of a sentence (Croft 2017). They have to be placed immediately after or before the subject in a sentence. The two sentences below can help in explaining the variation:

  1. I met her in London (as it is in English).
  2. In London, I met her (as it would be in Chinese).

As shown in the two sentences, the audience may understand what the speaker is talking about: meeting her in London. However, the structure of the second sentence is grammatically incorrect. In Chinese, adjectives must always come before a noun irrespective of their length, unlike in English sentences where lengthy clauses or phrases may be placed after the noun they are modifying (Croft 2017). The following example may help in explaining the variation between English and Chinese sentences when using noun modifiers:

  1. She is the most attractive girl I have ever met in my life (as it is in English sentence).
  2. She is in my life have met the most attractive girl (as it would be in Chinese sentence).

In the two statements above, it is clear that a student who is significantly influenced by the Chinese language may find it challenging when it comes to constructing a meaningful English sentence. The second sentence above is grammatically incorrect. Its meaning does not come out because it can be interpreted in different ways.

Misuse or Omission of Words

In Chinese, it is common to find cases where a verb is omitted, especially before an adjective (Croft 2017). For instance, instead of saying ‘he is handsome’ in Chinese, it would be ‘he handsome’. The second sentence is not complete because it lacks a verb. In Chinese, there is also the issue of misuse of the possessive personal and simple personal pronoun. Male and female personal pronouns, in Chinese, maybe written differently but they have the same pronunciation (Croft 2017). As such, it is common for these students to use ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘his’ instead of ‘her’ and vice versa. Sometimes these pronouns can be completely omitted in a sentence. In many cases, such omissions may make an English sentence incomplete or ambiguous.

Use of literal/direct translation

Croft (2017) says that one of the biggest problems she has encountered as an ELL teacher handling Chinese students is a direct translation. The problem is not unique to Chinese students as other international students from other backgrounds also face similar problems. In many cases, students would repeat the same mistakes in her classes even after being corrected. The following are some of the common mistakes students make in terms of direct translation:

  1. ‘Open/close the lights’ instead of ‘Switch on/off the lights’
  2. ‘I will revenge you’ instead of ‘I will pay you back’
  3. ‘Power is gone/lost’ instead of ‘There is a blackout’

The above sentences clearly show that some of these problems are unique to a given culture. When one says that ‘power is lost,’ it may not make any sense to someone who does not share the same culture/language with the speaker. The direct translation is a common problem among international students who lack proper English vocabulary. The more they learn the language, the easier it becomes for them to overcome the challenge.

Conclusion and Recommendation

Culture is an important factor in defining the language that people use. As shown in the above discussion, language and culture are closely intertwined. Culture is preserved and passed from one generation to another using language. On the other hand, language stems from the culture of a given people. It is shaped by cultural forces within a society. That is why languages that people speak across the world are different based on their culture.

The English language is increasingly gaining popularity in various parts of the world, especially in China. As the country becomes a major global power in trade, the need for the Chinese to learn internationally used languages has been on the rise. Most of them find English to be the most relevant international language. In China, English is now one of the most popular subjects. International Chinese students in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia struggle to be fluent in English.

They know that to be empowered in the modern global society, they need to master global languages that can enable them to work and engage in business activities away from their home country. Despite their effort, studies suggest that teachers find it challenging when it comes to teaching international ELL students. The impact of their culture on their ability to have a mastery of spoken and written English is significant.

In the case study above, Xiao-lin Yin-Croft made several recommendations to help international Chinese students overcome the challenges they face when learning English. One of them is that teachers should understand the Chinese culture that affects their fluency in spoken and written English. Understanding their culture is the only way through which a teacher will understand the root cause of their problems.

She also argues that teachers should encourage bilingualism among the students. Knowing more than one language is not a hindrance to gaining fluency in spoken and written English. Students should understand that each language they use is unique. The knowledge of one language should be a platform of knowing other languages instead of being a hindrance. Teachers are also encouraged to draw strength from what students find to be interesting.

It may be through short stories, poems, novels, or other literature that will make a student spend more time reading English materials. Through such materials, they get to practice and eliminate some of the common mistakes associated with their culture.

It is clear from the data collected in this paper that most of the teachers who handle international students are not aware of the influence of the cultural differences on the ability of their students to master the language. Although they know that the cultural diversity of their students is an issue in terms of teaching them English, very few have taken time to investigate the pattern. Limited knowledge on this issue partly explains why this problem has existed for so long but a lasting solution is yet to be identified in many institutions within the country. Creating awareness about this problem will empower teachers to know how unique their students are.

It will make it possible for these teachers to know how to address the challenges of each group without basing personal judgments on stereotypes. The knowledge will help with the improvement of English teaching. Instead of coming up with a common solution to the varying problems of the students based on their background, a teacher will be capable of developing specific solutions to each of the groups of students facing common challenges. The following recommendations should be considered to help in the improvement of English teaching:

  • Teachers need to understand the culture of their students. Understanding students’ culture will enable the teacher to understand the factors that are unique to a given group of students and how to overcome them.
  • Teachers should specialize in handling international students from specific cultures. The specialization is important in ensuring that once a teacher understands the problems associated with a given culture, he or she will be capable of handling students of that culture with ease.
  • Teachers should encourage bilingualism among students. Bilingualism helps these learners to appreciate the uniqueness of each language. It will be a reminder to them that English is unique in its ways and must be treated as such.
  • When handling students from various cultural backgrounds, teachers are encouraged to draw strength from what the learners find to be interesting. Short stories, poems, and songs may help them improve their spoken and written English.

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Table 1: Timeline of project activities.

Time/Work
2017
April 1- April 15 April 16- April 24 April 26- April May 14 April 16 May 15- May 28 June 1- June 30 July 1- July 7 July 8- July 28 August 1- August 25
Proposal Development
Questionnaire Development
Proposal Approval
Literature Review
Sampling Respondents
Primary data collection
Data Analysis
Writing the Paper