“Language education and global citizenship” (2) – Intercultural barriers in “international” English course books (by R. Dengler)

Editor’s note: “Intercultural barriers in ‘international’ English course books” (or: “‘What is Mozart’?”) by Rebecca Dengler (Team IV and Team V) is the second research article  in the new series “Language education and global citizenship” edited by I. Martin (University of Education Karlsruhe). The first article by L. Malchow dealt with the topic “Reentry shock – an explanation of an underrated phenomenon“.
Ms Dengler’s article is based on her State Exam thesis “Teaching English to Lao adult Beginners: Intercultural barriers to language learning in Western General English course books by the example of ‘Straightforward Beginner’” (71 pp.) submitted in summer 2017 (which corresponds to a Master thesis). Her previous findings were posted on this blog when she helped set up work in the new science lab at Phang Heng Secondary School or created new “English Clubs“.
Ms Dengler then decided to make her thesis the basis of a larger (doctoral) study, and her first paper was delivered at the International Conference “Focus on Language: Global Justice and Language Education” at the University of Education Freiburg in March 2018 (where the editor also delivered a paper about “Teaching English in Laos”). The papers are published in the conference proceedings (2019).1

Ms Dengler was accepted as a doctoral candidate at the PH Karlsruhe in July 2019 and won a 2-year scholarship for doctoral candidates from the “Stiftung der Deutschen Wirtschaft“, a German foundation. She is now about to start her “Erasmus+ Student Mobility” at Savannakhet University on 23 September 2019 to do research for her doctoral dissertation for the next 8 months (… and she is on the plane as I write this). The working title is “Intercultural barriers to language learning in Western English course books – A case study at Savannakhet University“.
The following article spotlights some of Ms Dengler’s findings so far.
Congratulations from all of us to our first doctoral candidate in “TheLaosExperience” project!


“What is Mozart?”

Teaching and learning English as a foreign language can never be separated from the context it is taught in. It is influenced by the learners’ culture, the local context, the proficiency level of the teachers and pre-knowledge of the learners, but it also depends on other variables like the course book that is used.

In many English course books produced for the “international” market, British and American cultural content still dominates, and native-speaker norms are still assumed as the underlying goal. Since it seemed to offer slow progression and “simple” content for beginners (and because we obtained the book as a donation from the publisher when the project started in 2015), the “General English” course book Straightforward Beginner (Clandfield 2013) was used to teach English to teachers in Laos in the project “Teaching English in Laos”.

The book Straightforward Beginner was produced for the “international” market, but it contains mostly British and American cultural content and it is quite European-centred. The cultural content and the topics are supposed to help the learners to understand and study the foreign language. The course book is set in a Western context and relies on the learner’s knowledge of Western concepts and culture.
However, Lao learners are not familiar with most Western concepts and therefore many intercultural barriers became obvious while I was teaching English teachers at a school in Laos as part of Team IV. The learners do not only have to learn the new language content but also get to know and understand a very unfamiliar cultural context without explicit explanations. Not only the casual mentioning of famous Western artists (e.g. “Mozart” or “Madonna”), but also illustrations, topics, icons, symbols, and less obvious Western concepts such as English names posed barriers to the Lao adults’ language-learning.

The following article first points out several reasons why it is important to adapt course books for the Lao context. Later examples of intercultural barriers for Lao learners in the course book Straightforward Beginner are described and explained.


Reasons to adapt course books for the Lao context

A study conducted with students at a Lao university shows that almost “90% of them rated their English proficiency as poor to fair” (Xaypanay et al. 2017, p. 365). The findings of this study point out that many students show demotivation of EFL learning due to their “difficulty to achieve linguistic accuracy, negative attitudes toward English, curriculum issues, lack of supports and resources, and foreign language anxiety” (ibid., p. 361). Especially more advanced learners of English are affected by the lack of resources and support and are unhappy with the activities and content their course books offer. Xaypanay et al. (2017) strongly advise that the available resources and necessary support should be improved to increase the students’ motivation for learning English and also to enhance their English language skills.

Bouangeune et al. (2008) confirm that Lao students have difficulties in achieving language-learning goals. They also see the design of the course books used, the curriculum, and the teaching methods as fundamental factors contributing to the Lao students’ great difficulties in learning English.

Many course books focus on presenting the target cultures, and when they include other cultures the focus is mainly on European, also Western, cultures (Böcüa & Razı 2016). Like Alptekin (2002) argues, material should reflect the learner’s local context as well as the international context and prepare the learners to be local but also global speakers of English. Texts should not exclusively present discourse between native speakers but also between native speakers and non-native speakers, and between purely non-native speakers.

Souriyavongsa et al. see another one of the reasons for poor performance of Lao learners in English language learning as the mismatch of the students’ learning styles and the teachers’ teaching. Poor performance can arise if the “English course does not relate to the students’ needs and interests” (Souriyavongsa et al. 2013, 183).
They postulate as well that the curriculum and course books should take the students’ needs and interests into account when they are being designed. The language teaching should encourage the students to study English and to develop their language skills. It should not, as Xaypanay et al. (2017) show, be the source of demotivation.


McGrath’s four reasons to adapt course books

To fit the particular needs of the students, a course book and its contents must be adapted. McGrath (2002) sums up four reasons why course book adaptations should be considered. The first is to localise the learning content by substituting Western concepts and settings with regional ones. This helps to keep the focus on the language and does not use up the efforts of the students to understand the cultural setting. The language objectives have first priority. In a later step, also new cultural information can be presented when it has been made sure that the language objectives have been achieved. This helps to not overwhelm the students with new language and new cultural content at the same time.

A second reason to adapt course books is to personalise them so that the activities and the content directly relate to the students’ interests. Chea, Klein and Middlecamp (2012) bring in the example to first let the students come up with an English menu containing local dishes before they study a Western menu with Western food.

Another reason why course books sometimes need to be adapted is when its content is outdated. In this case, the outdated content needs to be substituted by more up-to-date content. When topics like technology or media are included this must happen very often because technology and media are changing and developing constantly and rapidly.

The last and fourth reason McGrath (2002) points out is adaptation to simplify the learning content. A teacher is supposed to know her or his students and their knowledge and learning level. According to this knowledge, the teacher decides whether exercises are too difficult, too easy, or not adequate for the students and, on this basis, adapts the exercises.


Examples of intercultural barriers in Straightforward Beginner

As the course book Straightforward Beginner is not adapted for the Lao or Southeast Asian context, many intercultural barriers were encountered. Western cultural and conceptual knowledge is assumed, and this causes problems that hinder the learning process of the Lao learners.


English names and the distinction betwen “she” and “he”

“Douangdeuane, Houava, Khamphong, Souvankham, Sevinay, Xok, Sihn, Thongloun”.
When one tries to read out these names (or the ones in our word cloud), which are typical Lao names transliterated from Lao letters to English letters, one will not be sure from the written form alone how to pronounce these names.

In the first unit of Straightforward Beginner, the Lao learners of English are confronted with various English or Western names. The book does not limit the names to a few recurring ones but a vast number are mentioned on the first pages. The learners are confronted with names like Jack, Orion, Emily, Willy, Ben, Emma, Thomas, or Jessica. At first, from the written form alone, the Lao teachers find it difficult to read out the names and pronounce them correctly (ditto for ours in the word cloud).

The Lao names are not only hard to pronounce for Western people, but we can also not tell if the name is a name for a woman or a man. How can you tell whether “Houava” is a female or male name? Or if the name is even bound to a certain gender? For the Lao learners it is grammatically difficult the other way around, as in the Lao language, there is no distinction between the pronouns “she” and “he”. Therefore, exercises in which Lao learners are to replace nouns with the personal pronouns “she” or “he” are a challenge.
However, once the concept is explained, it is not very hard to understand. In my teaching, I experienced that the students could explain when to use “she” and when to use “he”, but they still had trouble using the right forms. It took a while until it was clear that the distinction between “she” and “he” was not the problem – but instead, differentiating the male and female names caused the problem.


Over-representation of Western people, countries and cities

The English names in the book were not the only difficulties. This became clear when the question “What is Mozart?” came up. In total, a huge overrepresentation of European or Western people and also cities and countries was noticed. Often the learners did not know where the city or country is located. The intention of the course book writers was most likely to include well known cities, like Rome, Frankfurt, or New York, but, for the Lao teachers, most of these cities were unknown. There were only a few Asian cities mentioned in the book. Therefore, activities like matching cities and countries could only be done by guessing, or with a lot of help and input from the teacher.


Underlying concepts

Sometimes underlying concepts formed the intercultural barriers. The units of our book are based on the concept of being a tourist or at least a consumer. The Lao teachers who have tandem-worked with us German volunteers in this project, however, have never been to an English-speaking country before and most of them are poor. Most of them have never been outside Laos, and the ones who have have been to Thailand, which is just across the river from Vientiane or Savannakhet. They have never stayed at a hotel nor got to know what Westerners link with the idea of travelling. They have never seen (m)any Wester consumer goods and would not have the money to buy any anyway. So, this concept, which should have supported the learning process, imposed additional topics to learn about for the Lao learners.

An entire unit in the course book does not only deal with famous Hollywood actresses like Jennifer Aniston and Glenn Close, but also with famous Hollywood movies and TV series. At the beginning of the unit, posters of the movies M:i:III, James Bond- Dr.No and The Dark Knight are presented, and the students are asked to talk to their partner about which of these movies they know. The Lao adult learners did not know any of these movies. Therefore, the exercise was not suitable to use in the Lao setting.


Visual “aids”

The cultural differences became especially clear when my tandem-teacher tried to figure out signs in the book. With the sign which is supposed to represent a beach he had the most trouble. The sign shows a pile with a shovel and a bucket. I asked what he thought the sign stood for, and he answered that it must stand for work or a construction area. Laos is a landlocked country, and the Laotians who have never been outside Laos have never been to the sea. They have never seen a beach at the coast, only in pictures or videos. For my tandem-partner, a shovel and a bucket stand for work or construction, whereas Western people would associate that children on holiday with their parents play at the beach with shovels and buckets to build sandcastles.



A last example of the many intercultural differences and barriers experienced occurred with the topic of food. The course book introduces breakfast vocabulary such as “orange and apple juice, a cup of coffee, a cup of tea, a glass of mineral water, a croissant, an omelette, a cheese sandwich”. These are food and drink items that many Western people have for breakfast. However, the typical Lao breakfast consists of noodle soup, fish, rice, or other salty dishes. All this vocabulary will not be used by the Lao adults when they talk about their eating habits, but it might help them to understand what people from Western countries eat. (Editor’s note: The question which words are (to be) chosen for vocabulary-building in “international” course books is not a trivial one.)


Further research

To confirm the intercultural barriers that were experienced during the former teaching periods in Laos, scientific studies should be conducted that focus on the intercultural barriers to the English language-learning processes in Laos and the local interests and needs with regards to the English language.

This is what my dissertation will aim for in the context of Savannakhet University (SKU). Research will proceed in the form of a case study with the central question of how intercultural barriers to English language-learning of Lao adult learners presented in teaching material and teacher interaction can be overcome.


Text by R. Dengler

Photos by I. Martin & R. Dengler

Word cloud by I. Martin & F. Stober


Editor’s note

1 Mentz, Olivier & Papaja, Kasia (eds.) (2019). Focus on Language: Challenging Language Learning and Language Teaching in Peace and Global Education. Muenster: LIT Verlag, vol. 10 of the book series Europa lernen. Perspektiven für eine Didaktik europäischer Kulturstudien.



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Böcüa, A. B. & Razı, S. (2016). “Evaluation of textbook series ‘Life’ in terms of cultural components.” ‘Life’ ders kitapları serisinin kültürel bileşenleri açısından değerlendirilmesi, 12(2), 221-237.
Chea, K., Klein, A. & Middlecamp, J. (2012). “Adapting Textbooks to Reflect Student Needs in Cambodia and the ASEAN Region.” Language Education in Asia, 3(2), 218-229. Online: https://doi.org/10.5746/LEiA/12/V3/I2/A10/Chea_Klein_Middlecamp.
Clandfield, L. (2013). Straightforward. Oxford: Macmillan Education.
McGrath, I. (2002). Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. Edinburgh University Press Series: Edinburgh University Press. Online: https://books.google.de/books?id=PiqLQgAACAAJ
Souriyavongsa, T., Rany, S., Abidin, M. J. Z. & Mei, L. L. (2013). Factors Causes Students Low English Language Learning: A Case Study in the National University of Laos. International Journal of English Language Education, 1(1), 179-192. Online: http://www.macrothink.org/journal/index.php/ijele/article/download/3100/2631
Xaypanay, Vanhnaly, Shaik Abdul Malik Mohamed Ismail & Hui Min Low (2017). “Demotivation Experienced by English as Foreign Language (EFL) Learners in the Lao PDR.” Asia-Pacific Edu Res 26, no. 6: 361-68.

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