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The Global Classroom

By Lester L. Stephenson

It is becoming more and more common for an instructor to encounter students from all over the world. How do you adapt teaching styles and classroom culture to a student from India when sitting next to him is one from Vietnam, behind him is one from Iraq, and nearby is another from Mexico?  Rounding out the class is a student from rural Georgia, USA!  Throw in language differences and the task facing the instructor can be overwhelming.

Teaching in a multiple culture/multiple language classroom is the new reality.  It offers some unique challenges but is not impossible. The burden is on the instructor to create a classroom culture that is conducive to learning.  Success begins with the course introduction.  The introduction sets the tone for the entire class. A little more time getting to know each other at the beginning creates an atmosphere that unifies the class and promotes learning. A warm and friendly introduction where the teacher gets to know the students and vice versa goes a long way to overcoming disparities in culture and language.

Naturally, you do not want to do anything that is offensive in another culture, but you will likely not know the cultures well enough to avoid all cases of offense.  Remember, they are here in your culture.  Their need to fit in is greater than your need to meet them.  Their greatest concern is whether their English skills are good enough to learn the material.  Cultural differences are secondary and in some cases irrelevant.  They will be eager to do whatever is necessary to learn and get the knowledge they desire.

Overcome your lack of cultural knowledge by being friendly and courteous. As simple as it sounds, smile a lot.  A smile works in all cultures. Open the class with a cheerful greeting.  Have each person introduce themselves, describe what their company does, how long they have worked there, what they do for their company, and—this is important—what they expect to learn from the course.  Make comments or ask questions on a couple of their answers.  Tell them when in the course you will cover the topics that concern them.

Learn to pronounce their name. It will show you are interested in them and they will appreciate the effort.  Some names will be difficult.  Keep trying and, if you can’t, admit it and say something to diffuse any awkwardness.  Nevertheless, keep trying.  Don’t worry if they can’t pronounce your name; you’ll know when they are addressing you.

Let the course introduction take longer than normal. You need the time in order to figure out how you are going to interact with them and how you will make sure they are going to learn.  Ask a few questions about their country.  Everyone wants to talk about home—it helps them become comfortable in what is perhaps an unnatural setting.

Discuss the entire syllabus and the class schedule. Explaining the syllabus is important in any class, but doubly so with foreign students.  This course preview gives them some security on what is coming and helps them to prepare.  Explain the break schedule, rules for snacks, restroom location, and any rules for the building.

In many foreign countries, safety is not a concern.  In some countries safety is little more than avoiding injury.  Plan on a longer than usual safety brief to not only explain safety rules, but also the reasons they are necessary.

Never shy away from the language issue. It will not go away so meet it head on.  Explain at the beginning that you and the class may have difficulty understanding each other.  Point out that if something you say is not clear you expect them to ask you to repeat it.  Tell them you speak southern English or have a New England accent that is probably different from the English they learned.  People everywhere understand languages have different dialects.

Addressing language issues up front helps eliminate the language difficulty. Everyone knows it is going to be an obstacle.  By bringing it up early, it ceases to be a barrier, and instead becomes just a communication problem that everyone is working to solve.  Dialogue will flow.

Many countries use English in business and education, but it may not be the trainee’s native language. Some foreign colleges require English because their textbooks are from the UK or USA. It is common to see students with an extensive English vocabulary who cannot communicate verbally because they have never heard the words pronounced.  Many foreign English courses do not teach technical terms; plan on more time to explain unusual technical words.

Be descriptive about what you are presenting and keep side talk to a minimum. Be constantly on guard to avoid using slang, idioms, and catchy phrases common to Americans.  If you do use an idiom, stop and explain it.  Often someone in the class will counter with a similar idiom from their country.  Then everyone laughs and you move on.

A foreign accent can be challenging. Never, never pretend to understand what they are saying. Admit you are having trouble understanding.  Ask the speaker to slow down.  Never hesitate to clarify your understanding by repeating the question.  Do not rush the speaker.  Encourage him to take all the time necessary.

Never shout – it is silly and demeaning and never works. Hearing is not the problem.  Speak clearly without raising your voice.  Slow down the speed of delivery.  If your natural rhythm is fast-paced, slow yourself down and be deliberate in your approach.  For important points and key objectives, use the language difficulty to gauge learning by asking them to repeat it back.

Use examples from their industry or their country. It will be more meaningful to learners and will help them remember the content.  Ask the students how they would say a key point it in their language or explain a course objective in their country.  That shows you are interested in them, provides reinforcement, and makes the material relevant.  Equally important, it gives you an understanding of how well they are learning.

People from some cultures do not want to join in small group activities or role-play exercises. Nevertheless, they will readily perform actions, individually or in groups, on procedures and equipment they are learning.

During the hands on portion of technical training, observe the trainee closely if he is having difficulty. The problem may be timidity rather than lack of knowledge.  Sudden immersion in a new culture and a strange language is overwhelming.  Adding complicated procedures can be devastating.  Walk them slowly and carefully through the procedure.  The trainer must show great patience and be as encouraging as possible.  Allow extra time to follow instructions, steps, training procedures, etc.  Illustrated job aids help trainees master complex procedures.

Many foreign speakers of English cannot read with comprehension and a test would be disastrous. Consider replacing tests with a performance check.  Conduct a review as soon as possible. This helps the trainee to see the areas in which he has learned well, and those with which he is having difficulty.  Provide an opportunity for additional practice on troublesome steps until successful.

Be gentle and helpful. Remember, you are the host.  As a trainer you are, by definition, engaged in helping them.  That includes ensuring a pleasant experience and good communication as well as dispensing subject matter.

About the Author

Lester L. Stephenson is a skilled technical writer, curriculum designer and trainer with particular experience in manufacturing. You can connect with Lester through Writing Assistance, Inc. at or