Vol. 3, No. 2 (January 15, 2010)

Building bridges through English-language teaching

Rebecca Cheney


Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

I am often asked as a language teacher, why I chose to be a teacher.  Quite often, the question actually comes from my own students.  My usual simple and generic, yet sincere, response is to make a difference in the lives of others; specifically, to help the students be successful in their own lives, to in turn, make a difference in the lives of others.  However, earlier this year, one of my students asked me the same question in the middle of a class and the response was expressed with much more detail.  I must have needed to talk about my life story that day, because that is what emerged in a little impromptu speech that left my students with mouths open and questions about how many times I had delivered that personal speech.  The speech was unrehearsed and unshared previously with anyone other than close friends and family, but it was a download of my personal experiences and changes in career paths that eventually led me to the point of being a language teacher.

Being a teacher of some kind was always part of my plan and desire.  The student population and the subject matter have both changed many times over the years, but I was still inspired to be a teacher to be with and to know people as individuals and friends, not just students.  An indescribable sense of gratification occurs when I witness the progress and success of the individuals whom I have worked with and become friends with.  Interestingly, I have only learned through teaching that part of that desire extends to a greater scope beyond individual success, which is to build the future human capital within societies throughout the world, to bring about change within those societies and eventual progression within the global sphere.  By working with individuals to help them improve their foreign language abilities, I am able to be a small instrument in opening the door to a larger part of the world.  Then, these students will walk through that door and enter into an area that will open up more doors, not only for them, but also for their country and future generations.  In turn, this door will swing both ways allowing other nations to enter and gain awareness of the individuals and their nations. 

The above explanation is the ideal description of a foreign language teacher’s desires.  However, it does not account for the challenges that are inevitable in every language-teaching situation.  Multiple factors in language classrooms contribute to these challenges.  For example, the dynamics vary from one group of students to the next, taking into account that the teacher and the students are from a different cultural background or multiple cultural backgrounds.  Additionally, adjustments are necessary based on these dynamics, which are often difficult as a teacher comes in with certain expectations for their classroom.  For example, the delivery of instructions or the consideration of students’ varied learning styles must be taken into account.  These learning styles become clearer as the students’ past learning experiences and environments are recognized and more familiar to the instructor, which will be discussed in more detail. 

ESL vs. EFL Teaching

I have taught in both English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classrooms (with language environments other than English) and English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms (with surrounding English-speaking environments).  The multiple challenges with the adjustments come through the expectations that one will be like the previous classroom, although my knowledge and experience tell me otherwise. 

Most recently, I transitioned from the ESL environment to the EFL environment, from Monterey, California at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) to Baku, Azerbaijan at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA).  The most recent ESL classes included students from many countries spanning nearly all regions of the world, including the following countries: Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Spain, Brazil, and Colombia.  As these students come from varied learning backgrounds and language training, coupled with the fact that the language classroom within the English-speaking environment is generally conducted quite differently than what the students are accustomed to, the need exists for learner training to help with this transition. 

At the beginning of each session at MIIS, a learner training session helps the students to get to know what the differences will be from their own past experiences both in language classrooms and in typical academic classrooms.  The same training occurs in the EFL classroom, including at ADA.  However, in spite of training, an adjustment period is still expected for the students in both situations.  For example, one main difference from the past experience of most students is the interactive classroom where students work together during partner and group work to accomplish tasks and activities or even in the full group.  Most students are accustomed to the opposite lecture-style classroom (even in the language classrooms in their individual countries) where they primarily sit and listen and take notes, perhaps with occasional full-group discussions or small-group work with case studies or other materials; or in the case of the language class, there may be the student repetition of the instructor’s translations or pronunciation of the target language.  Essentially, for most students, the majority of the past learning has taken place more on an individual level rather than through interaction. 

As previously mentioned, a certain level of expectation arises when moving from one group of students to the next.  Within the ESL classes I taught at MIIS, for example, there was a certain level of expectation that the previous students would be as interactive as the last or that they would need some time to become accustomed to interacting within the classroom (e.g. in the case of the Japanese students as described below).  Other expectations may be that the students would work well with one another or that the students would be respectful of one another and the instructor, learning to work with and even become friends with each other in spite of cultural differences or language levels, etc.  As a teacher, I anticipate being the facilitator of this expected and necessary transition.

Much of that same type of expectation came with me to ADA.  I knew there would be differences both with the students and the EFL environment, but an adjustment period was needed for me as well.  In the ESL classroom, more adjustment is made on the part of the student, yet I found that in the EFL environment, much of the adjustment is for the instructor.  The main reason behind this difference is that in the ESL environment, the students have been taken out of their comfort zone into entirely new surroundings including the housing situation, the community, and the classroom.  The students generally adapt to this all English-speaking and cultural environment, not without occasional culture shock; nevertheless, they usually acclimatize. 

Conversely, within the EFL situation, the instructor, if native to an English speaking country, must learn to adjust to the new cultural community and classroom.  At the same time, the instructor still conducts the class with the same interactive learning methods.  The problem arises when the students do not adjust to the instructor’s style because the teacher is, in a way, the intruder on the students’ environment.  The group of students who is native to the surrounding community and that has experienced the same type of educational culture, perhaps throughout their educational career, would not expect the minority (i.e. the instructor) to change the group’s behavior or the classroom culture that they are accustomed to.  Thus, a mismatch occurs between the students and the instructor and between the learning and teaching style as described in two smaller examples that follow. 

First, in Azerbaijan, for example, the classroom culture is quite the opposite of the Japanese classroom.  The typical Japanese students are used to sitting and listening silently while never volunteering to answer questions or to interact with their classmates.  I have learned how to help the Japanese students to adjust to an interactive and communicative atmosphere.  The opposite is the case in the classroom in Azerbaijan.  The students are accustomed to interacting at most times, including when instruction is being given for the activities or tasks or when groups or individuals are presenting what they have learned to the rest of the class.  I have had to learn to keep the students focused and respectful of each other and of me as the instructor.

Second, cell phones in my past ESL classrooms are understood as not acceptable.  Students are generally embarrassed if they have forgotten to turn off their phones and they ring during class.  In each case, with the exception of one, when this has occurred in my ESL classroom, the students quickly turn it off and apologize for the interruption.  Contrastingly, answering phones and texting are commonplace in Azerbaijani classrooms as well as during business or other meetings, which is an adjustment I have not been willing to concede to in the classroom, especially as I prepare students to work amongst the diplomatic community where the practice will not be accepted and the students will need to change prior to entering into it. 

These two examples are primarily classroom management issues and are minor as far as the adjustments that need to take place.  Yet, as small as they may seem, they too have a great effect on the classroom environment and the learning or lack thereof that might take place.  Another problem that is more specific to the learning culture is the expectations of the students to take charge of their own learning.  The students at ADA have joined a more stringent, demanding, and participatory style of learning than seems to be previously expected of them.  Typically, students in much of the world experience a bit of an awakening when they begin their graduate level studies; however, the gap may not have been as broad as it is for the local Azerbaijani students joining ADA after their Bachelor’s studies in Azerbaijan.  In the language classroom, this gap is apparent when the role of the teacher tends to be more of a classroom manager than a facilitator for language learning and development.  As a facilitator of learning, the language teacher strives for a communicative classroom that is focused and organized, where the students respectfully work together to gain from one another’s strengths.  To minimize the gap and to identify and eliminate the mismatches, it is necessary to conduct ongoing needs assessments, learner training, and check-ins between the instructor and the students as a group and as individuals.  In most cases, it is necessary for both the EFL instructor and the EFL students to make adjustments in the classroom and in teaching and learning strategies.  

ESL vs. EFL Learning

The main difference between the ESL environment and the EFL environment is that in the ESL environment, students adapt to the US language classroom culture at the same time that they are adapting to homestays and the surrounding community; in other words, the culture as a whole.  The ESL student recognizes the immediate need to adjust to the environment; however, students adjust at different rates.  Many of the Japanese students I have taught are in the U.S. for a one month intensive English program; thus, the initial learner training and ground rules for the classroom and even in the homestay are set forth from the very beginning and incorporated.  The students generally take a few days in class before they begin to participate more verbally and to interact.  These students’ adaptability as well as that of other ESL students is quick and effective for the rest of the learning period.  However, in the EFL environment, the students do not expect to adjust to a new environment and the typical classroom behavior carried on from previous classrooms continues in spite of the introduction of classroom rules or initial learner training geared toward familiarizing the students with the different learning atmosphere.  Also, as the students are in a familiar surrounding community setting, the students from the local culture are the majority; thus, the students continue in their familiar behaviors together. 

In the case of the Azerbaijani students in the EFL environment, another significant difference is that the majority of the students have neither studied outside the country nor with students from other countries.  As the local Azerbaijani students are not accustomed to studying with people from other countries, they need to learn some of the cross-cultural differences and learn to work with people from different cultures.  A helpful suggestion, offered by a non-Azerbaijani student studying amongst the locals, would be to begin new programs with a joint cross-cultural training course for both the local students and the international students, rather than just including a brief cross-cultural training as part of the orientation.  In the case of the ADA students, they will go out amongst other countries as diplomats following their studies; thus, they need extensive training in this area.  In the case of the international students, they may or may not have learned amongst different cultures prior to coming to ADA, but they need to learn about the local learning environment and how to work with the locals in the classroom and outside the classroom.  The Azerbaijani students need to become familiar with and know how to communicate with people of different cultures both in the classroom and in their future professional diplomatic careers.

Therefore, adjustment is inevitable on the part of both the locals and the foreigners.  The students need to gain a common understanding and need to learn to adapt and work together.  Much of this adjustment is on a personal level, based on experience and personality; however, the adjustment must extend to a global level to function in and then beyond the classroom.  As suggested, there exists a given level of adjustment by the international students, because they have moved out of their own environment and they know that they have to become accustomed to the local environment.  This process may often include varying levels of culture shock over a period at the earlier stages after arrival.  These students are similar to those who are in the ESL environment except that they are not just like all the other students; they are in the minority.  The foreigners need to be careful that they are not waiting or expecting locals to change or to have had the same professional or international experience as they do.  The international students generally have more of both and have experienced different classrooms with international groups of students.  The locals have primarily only been in classrooms with other Azerbaijanis.  Another issue arises from this situation: In many cases, the foreign students feel as if they are not accepted because the locals are protective of their culture, their nation, and each other.  The foreign students feel that they are regarded as “Westerners” who bring their western ways and want to impose them on the locals.  The foreigners also feel as if they are looked down upon as if they are a lower race, especially if they have ever committed an “error” in their eyes, the opinion is lost forever, as if they are a disgraceful person.  Thus, some of the foreigners do not feel that they are allowed into the circle.  This issue seems to be the case especially among the local females toward the foreign females.  Somewhat to the contrary, the local men are quite protective of the females, mostly of the locals, but even the foreigners.  Thus, if there were ever situations that were to occur that the men don’t agree with, they would basically die to protect them. 

The above examples of differences can become strengths amongst the group as the awareness is raised and as they are communicated across the cultures amongst themselves.  Finally, when the students recognize these differences for their strengths rather than weaknesses, they will learn to build their own bridges within the classroom, which will extend beyond into their future diplomatic careers. 


Teaching and learning English in different environments requires adjustments and open-mindedness on the part of both the instructor and the learners.  As a teacher, it is important to me to become friends with the students, to build a mutual relationship of trust, and to become a facilitator of their learning.  The greatest challenge occurs during the necessary adaptation period, especially if the students view the instructor’s role differently.  This mismatch may create a barrier, which will inhibit the ability of the teacher to reach individuals both on a personal and a needs-based level.
The students also require an adaptation period, although it differs from within the ESL environment or the EFL environment, and also from within the EFL environment as a local student or as an international student.  In the case of the ADA EFL environment or a similar learning environment, ongoing learner training and an initial cross-cultural training course involving both the local and the foreign students are suggested to facilitate the necessary adjustments and to ensure an optimal learning environment.

If both the teacher and the learners recognize that adjustments are necessary and are willing to work collectively and simultaneously, the optimal learning environment may be realized.