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15 most fun cultural training topics

Tackling cultural topics like the differences between how business is done in different countries can be a popular topic that is both useful and interesting for students. The only problem with tackling this can be that the person with all the knowledge is generally the teacher. This and the difficulties of explaining why people in […]

Tackling cultural topics like the differences between how business is done in different countries can be a popular topic that is both useful and interesting for students. The only problem with tackling this can be that the person with all the knowledge is generally the teacher. This and the difficulties of explaining why people in different places do the things they do mean that student talking time (STT) can be quite low, leaving a whole class discussion without warmers, pairwork etc. However, with a bit of planning all these problems can be avoided. Below are some games involving cultural differences that are not only useful and fun, but also interactive and student centred.

  1. International mimes
    Give students some words and expressions to mime that are different in different countries, e.g. “okay” or “money”. After 5 or 10 minutes of them guessing what their classmates are miming, discuss which mimes the students just used and which ones they think are universal (answer- very few).
  2. International mimes 2
    Give students descriptions of gestures that are used somewhere in the world, e.g. tapping the side of the head with the index finger. Students listen, do the action they hear described, and try to guess what it means. Then get them to do the same thing with gestures they know from their own and other countries, e.g. a high five.
  3. Taboo topics challenge
    Give the students a list of conversational topics, some of them ones that are easy to talk about with strangers in their own or other countries (e.g. the weather), and some of which are difficult to talk about or even taboo, e.g. a death in the family or how much you earn. Get the students to rank each topic from 1 (easy) to 5 (difficult or taboo). Students then decide how difficult a topic they want to try and talk about, and are given a percentage of the points available for that topic by the people who were listening, e.g. 4 points for an almost successful attempt at a 5 point question. At the end of the game, the person with most points is the winner. After the activity, discuss if the difficulty of some of the conversation topics might be different in other countries, e.g. in Saudi Arabia it is taboo to talk about your pet dog.
  4. The guess the cultural rules meeting
    Give students roleplay cards with lists of cultural rules, e.g. “Try to avoid eye contact and make lots of agreeing noises whatever your partner says to show you are listening”. Put students in pairs or groups to have a discussion, e.g. a negotiation over prices. When they have finished, they have to guess what cultural rules the other students were following. Discuss if those things are true in the students’ country or countries and if they might be true anywhere else.
  5. Countries colder warmer
    Give the students a map of the world and get one of the students to choose one of the countries on it and give one sentence clues to which country they are thinking about, e.g. “I think it must be hot”. The person guessing points at a country and says its name, then is told if they are warm (geographically close to the country being described) or cold (far from it). Students continue with more hints and “colder” or “warmer” comments depending on whether they are moving closer or further away from the country being talked about. Students can then continue with yes/ no questions instead of statements, for better practice of talking about something you don’t know too much about, e.g. “Do they eat spicy food?” “Because it is next to a country that is famous for spicy food, I would think the answer is yes”
  6. Guess the stereotype
    Students answer yes/ no questions about the people in a particular country or region, e.g. “Are they tall?”, until their partners guess which country they are thinking of. This is a good opportunity to introduce the language of generalisation that students need to talk about cultural differences intelligently without offending anyone, like “Many people think that” or “A considerable number of people in that country are”
  7. Around the world adverbs of frequency
    One person makes a sentence about an action and a particular nationality, e.g. “British people have scones for tea at 3 o’clock”. The other students have to add an adverb of frequency to make a factual and grammatically correct sentence, e.g. “British people hardly ever have scones for tea at 3 o’clock”. This game is good practice of Present Simple, a good way of cultural myth busting, and gives even low level students a way of avoiding cultural generalisations that are too sweeping.
  8. Calendar call my bluff
    Brainstorm all the national and religious holidays that the students know onto the board, from January to December. Add one more holiday from anywhere in the world, either real or imaginary, to the list. Tell the students something about it, e.g. “In Mexico, they celebrate the feast of St Zebedee on the 3rd Sunday of August by setting fire to dolls houses”. Students need to guess if the sentence is true or false. Continue with the students giving details of more holidays, either from their knowledge and imaginations or selecting from ones you have prepared in advance. You can also do this with all true holidays and festivals, but with one changed detail that the students have to spot.
  9. How bad?
    This is another good way of avoiding gross cultural generalisations without getting heavy about it. From a list of various cultural taboos such as waving your chopsticks around, students choose one and explain in detail exactly how taboo they really think it is in more and more detail until their partners guess which one it is, e.g. “It is bad in Japan”, “It is quite bad in Japan”, “It is usually quite bad in Japan, but if you are drunk or excited no one will really notice” . Other useful sentences (which you might want to give the students) include “Your mother tells you not to do it/ you’re not supposed to do it, but everybody does” etc.
  10. Cultural reasons guessing game
    Students choose one of a list of descriptions of customs in different cultures and give reasons for why it occurs that they know or can make up, without saying which sentence they are describing. The other students try to guess which sentence they are talking about, and then discuss if they think that explanation is possible or not. This is good for practice of language like “in order to” which is used in academic writing.
  11. Cultural Venn diagrams
    This is another nice way of talking about cultural differences without giving the impression that all other cultures are weird. Draw two intersecting circles on the board and label them with the names of two countries, e.g. “Spain” and “Germany”. Brainstorm things they have in common into the space where the two circles intersect (e.g. European), and things that are only true for one country to the spaces of their respective circles outside the intersecting part. Split the class into three teams, and do the same for two different countries, but with each team choosing which segment to brainstorm for- the team with the most items in their segment at the end of the time limit being the winners. After the brainstorming time is up, let the teams argue about whether things should be in another section or be crossed off because they are not true without lots of hedging language. At this stage, usually to people’s surprise, the intersecting part of things the two countries have in common usually wins.
  12. Cultural collocations
    This game combines words that tend to stick together with words that tend to stick to countries. Give students two columns of words from split up compound nouns and other common collocations connected to particular countries, e.g. “bowler” plus “hat” and “exam” plus “hell”. Without using a pen, students try to match up the halves and then give their partner clues on the matches they have found, e.g. “British businessmen often wear these in the movies, but I have never seen one in real life”.
  13. Generalisations sentence expansion
    Give students a sentence with a cultural generalisation, e.g. Italians are noisy. Teams take turns expanding the sentence in some way, each time making sure it is equally or more true, e.g. “Many Italians are noisy”, “Many Italians are noisy some of the time”, “Many Italians are noisy some of the time, especially when they are speaking to a large group of people” etc.
  14. Cultural pyramid ranking debate
    Give students a list of things to rank whose positions might depend on the culture of the people ranking them, e.g. a list of ten jobs to rank from highest status to lowest status, or a list of things to rank by how rude they are. After they have agreed on a ranking in pairs, they should combine with another group, compare their answers and make a new agreed ranking between all four of them. This can also continue in larger and larger groups. Compare the rankings in the class with a list that the teacher has prepared in advance that represents what someone from another country would decide on. Discuss if the cultural differences between that and what the class decided are any greater than the differences of opinion between people with the same culture in the class or not, and why.
  15. Guess the roles game
    In a roleplay of a discussion where people might disagree due to cultural reasons, e.g. deciding the schedule of a school day including the lunch break, give students roleplay cards telling them what culture they have to pretend they are from. Without saying where they are from, students should take part in the discussion with the viewpoint they imagine someone from that culture having (possibly with the help of any cultural information you have put on the roleplay card). When everyone has agreed on the topic under discussion, they should try to guess which culture people were pretending they are from and if they represented that culture well.
Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net February 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

3 Comments

  • Babakan says:

    Thank you so much, Alex. Great ideas I’m sure my students are going to like the games.

  • Oriana Isabel says:

    I’m teaching cultural topics for the first time this semester and i’m really excited about these activities! thanks for sharing! you’re a lifesaver!

  • steve jones says:

    A really useful source of ideas and activities. An excellent starting point for further thought.

    Thank you for sharing your efforts and allowing others to use your work.

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TEFL.net : ESL Lesson Plans : Classroom Ideas : Cultural : 15 most fun cultural training topics