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Top 5 Aspects of US Culture That ESL Students Should Know About

Emily Smith

Learning a language isn’t simply about learning how to speak; to learn a language you have to learn what a person means by what they say, which is not always very obvious. Gaining a better understanding of a culture will help a person learn a language more effectively. If you are an English teacher, then you may want to teach your students about US culture. To help you, we’ve compiled a list of 5 of the most important aspects of US culture for an ESL student to know about.


1. Sarcasm. Not all cultures use or understand sarcasm. While the US may not use sarcasm as much as the UK, it’s still an important part of US culture that should be understood by an ESL student. Sarcasm is largely to do with the tone and context in which something is said. ESL students need to understand sarcasm so that they don’t take something at face value when the speaker actually means the exact opposite.

2. It’s better to say “no” and mean it than to say “yes” and not. The word “no” is a hard word for many Asians to use, particularly when asked to complete a certain task or for help. If you’ve ever been to Asia, then you may have experienced this when asking someone for directions. It’s not uncommon for the person to give you directions even if they don’t actually know the way. This is because saying no or “I don’t know” is not always culturally acceptable. However, this results in a lot of misunderstandings, particularly because Americans expect people to just say “no” or “I don’t know” when they cannot complete a task rather than say “yes” just to save face. If you don’t teach your students this, then they may face trouble in the US later.

3. People are usually on time in the US. When two Americans agree to meet somewhere at 6:00pm, chances are both will get there on time. Most people live by the “fifteen minute grace period” in the US; it’s acceptable to be fifteen minutes late to a meeting, but never more than that. In other cultures, the idea of time is a lot more liberal. Saying you will meet somewhere at 6:00 can actually mean you’ll meet as late as 7:30. ESL students need to learn that in the global scheme of things, Americans are pretty punctual people. It’s also important that your ESL students understand that if they think they may be late, it’s a good idea to call and let the other person know.

Learning a language isn’t simply about learning how to speak; to learn a language you have to learn what a person means by what they say, which is not always very obvious.

4. Americans like personal space. Many cultures have a different understanding of personal space. Some cultures have little to no concept of personal space while others may believe that you should initially keep great distance from other people. Your ESL students should learn that it’s a good rule of thumb to keep at an arm’s length unless you have an intimately close relationship with a person.

5. Personal questions are usually off limits. In many countries, it’s okay to ask questions like “How old are you?” “How much money do you make?” and “Have you put on weight?” Americans, however, aren’t that fond of questions of a personal nature unless you are extremely close to someone, and even then, the question may still not be appropriate. Also teach your ESL students that in the United States it’s illegal to ask some personal questions such as those pertaining to marital status and religion during an application or interview process for a new job.

These are some of the most important parts of American culture that ESL students should learn about. Understanding these cultural aspects will help your students to speak and understand American English with more proficiency. There are many other aspects unique to American culture that you may want to teach yours students. What other aspects of American culture have you taught your ESL students?

About the author

Emily has taught English to ESL learners in four Asian countries. Although she taught students from 3-60, she has a definite affection for preschoolers and college students. She has also worked as an ESL curriculum writer and is TESOL certified. When she is not teaching, she loves watching and making films.