World View: Focus on the Multicultural/Multi-Language Classroom

The multiple culture/multiple language classroom is the new reality. It offers some unique challenges, but they can be overcome successfully with awareness and genuine effort.

By Lester Stephenson

It is becoming increasingly common for training classes to have students from all over the world. But it is impossible to 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 someone from Mexico and another from Atlanta, GA. Throw in language issues, and the task facing the instructor can be overwhelming—even intimidating.

The multiple culture/multiple language classroom is the new reality. It offers some unique challenges, but they can be overcome successfully. Here are some strategies that can help:

  • The burden is on the instructor to create an atmosphere that will be conducive to learning. Success begins with the course introduction, which sets the tone for the entire class. A little more time at the beginning creates an atmosphere that unifies the class and promotes learning. In many cultures, it is unthinkable to ask questions, especially of teachers and authority figures. A warm and friendly introduction where you get to know them and they get to know you helps to overcome that.
  • Do not worry about doing something that is offensive in their culture because you do not know enough about it. 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 know how much money it cost to travel. They will be eager to do whatever is necessary to learn and get their money’s worth.
  • Overcome your lack of cultural knowledge by being friendly and courteous; behave the way your mother raised you. As simple as it sounds, smile a lot. A smile works in any language and any culture.
  • Open the class with a cheerful greeting. Welcome to ABC Company and welcome to the United States. 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. Comment on or ask questions about a couple of their answers. Tell them at what point in the course you will be covering the topics that most concern them.
  • Make a serious effort to pronounce their names; if you can’t, admit it and say something such as, “My mouth is having trouble forming those words.” Then keep trying. They will appreciate the effort. Don’t worry if they can’t pronounce your name; you’ll know when they are addressing you.
  • It is OK if the course introduction takes longer than normal. You need the time to figure out how you are going to interact with them and be sure they are going to learn. Ask a few questions about their country. That shows you are interested in them. Everyone wants to talk about home—it helps them to become comfortable in a strange setting.
  • Later in the course, if time permits, open an Internet map and find out where they live and work. Besides showing your interest in them, it is always fascinating.
  • Be sure to go over the entire syllabus and the class schedule. Explaining the syllabus is important in any class, but doubly so with foreign students. It 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 as it is in the U.S. Europe has stringent safety standards, but in many countries, safety is little more than “do whatever works, just avoid injury.” Plan on a longer than usual safety brief to not only explain safety rules, but the reason they are necessary. Jokingly mention that government agencies are watching. People understand that in every nation.
  • Never shy away from the language issue. It will not go away, so meet it head on. Point out at the beginning that you and the class may have difficulty understanding each other. Remind them if something you say is not clear, they must 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 different dialects.
  • Addressing language difficulties up front can be a useful tool to overcome the Oriental reticence to ask questions. You have demonstrated a commitment to their learning. They know language is going to be a problem. By bringing it up early, it ceases to be a barrier, 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 U.S. 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, so plan on more time to explain unusual technical words.
  • Be descriptive about what you are presenting and keep side talk to a minimum, as it is distracting. 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. They may have an important question. 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. Trainees will respond positively when you make an effort to understand them just as you want them to understand you.
  • Never shout, it is silly and demeaning, and never works. Hearing is not the problem. Normal speaking tones always work with all people. 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. Southerners have an advantage here because they often naturally speak slower.
  • Try to learn a few words in the language of your trainees. They will appreciate it. There are Websites available that will help. One,, actually pronounces the translated words. The best source for leaning new words is your trainees. Ask them how they would say, “take a break” or “let’s go to lunch.” Be prepared for laughter when you try. Just laugh along with them.
  • Asians may not be forthcoming for fear of offending their trainer or other students. They tend to show great respect to teachers. Many times, they will bow when speaking to the trainer. Accept it and smile. They tend to be agreeable and will tell you they understand because they expect you want that answer. For important points and key objectives, use the language difficulty as an excuse to ask 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 in their language or do 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.
  • Many 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. If the course has a test, consider replacing it with a performance check. Meet with the trainee as soon as possible afterward for a review. This enables 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.

Lester Stephenson is a freelance writer, technical trainer, and consultant in South Carolina. He has traveled and worked in 35 countries and 49 states. The material in this article comes from his sometimes hard-earned and occasionally embarrassing experiences teaching people from all over the world.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.