Friday, January 22, 2010

Culture and communication styles in the classroom

“Okay, that was a dialogue. Now I want you to deliver a monologue.”

What? Hellllp!

Have you ever been in this situation? Being back in classes has once again turned on my sensitivity to learning styles. But I’ve also made some surprising discoveries about culture in the classroom.

Here are the two concepts that I’ve been pondering lately:

1)    The effect of personality type on language learning.

I have touched on this briefly in other posts. It concerns the idea that those who are extroverts or simply more talkative will receive more speaking practice. The teacher must find ways to engage everyone.

On the other hand, those who spend more time listening will take in valuable observations that their peers may miss.

2)    The effect of culture on language learning. continue/-

I will have the same conversation teacher for the rest of January. In class she asked me to retell a text that I had read. I hesitated.

“What exactly do you want me to tell you?” It seemed completely pointless to deliver information that we both knew.

She then prompted me with questions, and we were able to have an interesting discussion.

BUT then she asked me again to retell the whole text, from start to finish, without any help. I just stared at her, then squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, with no idea of how to approach the problem.

A monologue? What’s that?

I realized that, in addition to generally feeling uncomfortable being the only one speaking, it was not a skill that I had been taught in school or university.

I’ve noticed that Russians are very good at giving toasts and speeches, even spontaneously. At birthday parties they often congratulate the guest of honor orally, whereas we prefer to slip a card into the gift pile.

It was perhaps my Russian professors in college who gave us the most practice, teaching us how to string thoughts together with the help of connecting words. But even after that, it doesn’t come naturally. It is one thing to memorize a presentation and another to be able to respond to prompts of “Tell me about…”

Where does the monologue format exist in American culture? It can be found through either a memorized report or through a presentation on a topic that the speaker is familiar with and has a personal stake in.

Russian education has much more emphasis on oral retelling. Many exams are oral. American examinations are not. It takes practice to be able to access information from within and express it orally. In writing we have time to sketch an outline and organize our thoughts; in speech we have to always be one step ahead.

So the question remains:  am I capable of cultivating a skill that is not a part of my upbringing? How can I find the motivation, if the format is one that makes me uncomfortable?


  1. Brilliant Liz! Even just when speaking with Russians, I've found that they're a lot more open to letting the other person give a long monologue, where Americans are more likely to interject questions and develop a dialogue. It was certainly startling at first, trying to figure out what to say about myself when they asked me to tell them about myself. Not what my hobbies are, or what I was interested in, just to talk about myself. That's pretty broad to an American mind! ))

  2. I think Americans expect a lot of verbal feedback from their listeners, such as expressions of interest, surprise, dismay, etc. Silence means the person is confused or bored. Maybe a head-nod or eyebrow movement would suffice. But in Russia, silence can just mean agreement.


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