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December 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Lessons in Intercultural Communication… from Teenagers

Paul Dummett is a freelance teacher and materials writer based in the UK and has written various titles for National Geographic Learning (including Keynote, 2016; LIFE, 2018, Critical Thinking in ELT, 2019). His main interests are the use of images in teaching, how we make learning memorable and critical thinking.

Samir Salama is an ESL teacher, TEFL certified, a former English language trainer at the IUG in Palestine. Currently an Amideast Access teacher. He is keen on helping young learners in Palestine to better their English through virtual and in person classes. He has been teaching English for almost 17 years.


This is a description of a course which we run online with teenage participants from Palestine, Venezuela, Ukraine, Bosnia, Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Taiwan, India and Turkey. It is a course whose principles and methodology have in large part been guided by the learners themselves. To put it another way, we set out to give opportunities for teenagers from different cultures to talk about their lives and identities and ended up learning a lesson ourselves in what intercultural communication means.

The course is run by the Hands Up Project (HUP), a charity that aims to give a voice to young people in English, through the medium of storytelling, conversation and drama. The organisation started out serving children in Palestine, many of them refugees in Gaza. But via online links and exchanges, HUP has now extended its reach to children (and teachers) in many other countries across the world. Linking students internationally is seen as key to learners’ development, especially for students in Gaza who have no possibility or prospect of foreign travel.  One of the courses to grow out of this expansion in international link-ups was the Online Intercultural Communication Course.

The first and in many ways the most important lesson we learnt from our teenagers on this course was the need to emphasize strategies for communication when the language ‘isn’t there’. In other words, to encourage the use of collaboration in negotiating meaning by any means at their disposal: reformulation in English, translation to and from their mother tongue, images, mime etc. We found that, without prompting, students naturally incline towards collaboration and this flexible approach to communication. It might seem at first a poor substitute for accurate verbal expression of ideas in the target language, but in reality it’s an approach that often enhances students’ ‘voice’ and helps them exercise greater creativity in expression.

This emphasis on a more ad hoc and carefree style of communication is in contrast to the traditional approach of (principally business English) intercultural communication courses in ELT, which tend to focus on ways to avoid miscommunication or putting your foot in it culturally. They invoke the analogy of culture as an iceberg (Hall, 1976): we see a few superficial differences between cultures - a handshake here, a bow there; showing appreciation of your food by finishing it up here or leaving some there. But underneath these differences, says this school of thought, there lie complicated codes of communication and different sets of values that are hidden from others and form an obstacle to understanding. How true or useful is this conception of intercultural communication? 

Of course, when we study codes of communication across cultures, we find differences in both verbal and non-verbal messaging, (the language we use, the music we make, what kind of touching and proximity to each other we permit, how we dress and decorate our homes etc.) We also find differences in values, especially where strong religious beliefs are involved. But these differences tend to be much fewer than the similarities, the shared codes if you like. And so, the problem with the iceberg characterization is that it suggests getting it wrong or misunderstanding the codes, might sink you, like the Titanic – and that in fact seems to be rare. Occasionally, breakdowns do occur, values clash - and in business that can pose a risk to a transaction - but these are not common instances in everyday life. The other problem with focussing on cultural misunderstandings is that quite quickly one strays into the territory of ascribing stereotypical behaviour to a given culture and of course no-one wishes to do that.

What we are more interested in – an attribute highlighted by our teenage learners - is cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence is defined as person's capability to adapt as they interact with others from different cultures (Earley, 2003). In other words, it is a measure of how willing and open you are to learning about others’ cultures, institutions and languages, and also of how much you already know about others’ cultures, institutions and languages.  What we have learned from the young people we teach at the Hands Up Project is that even if they have limited cultural knowledge, they possess a natural openness to other cultures. They approach each other without the accumulated prejudices and biases that we adults have – and we all have them, however much we try to distance ourselves from them intellectually. This is particularly true of our Palestinian students.

Palestinian students live in extremely hard conditions due to the occupation that has imposed many constraints on their daily lives, the greatest of which is a restriction on their freedom of movement. In Gaza, at least, they are effectively prisoners. This has resulted in a great desire to discover and know more about other people and their cultures, both as a matter of social curiosity i.e. to be able to understand those cultures and as a way to explain to them their own situation and the justice of the Palestinian cause. Furthermore, Palestinian students understand that acceptance and openness to other cultures are key to breaking down cultural barriers and to building connections around the world.

So, what does all this imply for the content of our Online Intercultural Communications course?  A certain amount of considering the different ways we all have of doing basically the same things - getting around, eating snacks, greeting each other, getting into (and out of) long-term relationships, looking after the elderly, denoting social status, having family time - is interesting and fun. We enjoy comparing others’ behaviour to ours - obviously not in a judgemental way.

More importantly, we have learnt that understanding each individual’s situation and experience, not just their cultural context, is the key point in empathetic communication. So perhaps examining an individual tree and its roots might be a better analogy than a cultural iceberg.  Last, but not least, we set tasks that give an opportunity for peer collaboration.  What we are really looking for in an intercultural communications course is how to promote and engender understanding of others. And what we’ve learnt from the young people on our course, is that the values that underpin intercultural communication are not very different from the values that underpin any human interaction:  

  • Tell your own story (be yourself) 
  • Speak clearly and intelligibly
  • Speak with sensitivity and humility
  • Listen to others respectfully
  • Be interested in others’ perspective and accept difference
  • Ask if you don’t understand (the language or the idea behind it)

So here are a few of the activities that have evolved from this approach, divided into topic categories. The activities reflect the online nature of these courses and how we use Zoom technology. The Chatbox (activities marked ‘C’) is great for quickfire answers which can then be followed up on with questions from the teacher or from across the room. Longer activities are usually done in breakout rooms (activities marked ‘B’) with students reporting back on what others have said.

Words and language

What word or expression do you use most often in your language?  (C)

What’s your favourite word in English? Why?  (C)

Write down the first thing that comes to mind when you hear each word. (sport, family, cool, afraid, luxury, etc.)   (C)

What noise does a cat/dog/horse make in your language?  (C)

Teach me the most useful word or phrase in your language. (B)

What’s a saying in your language that you especially like? Why? (B)

Language being such an important part of a person’s identity, it’s important from the outset to open this space so that learners to feel relaxed about referring to their own language. 


Senses and abilities

What can you see and hear right now?  (C)

What’s your favourite smell, taste, view? (C)

What ability are you proudest of?  Why? (B)

What special ability do you wish you had?  What would you do with it?  (B)

Sensory perception gives important clues to our immediate environment and also to the things that we cherish. Our abilities and hoped-for abilities frame our aspirations. 



Name 1 good thing about your house/flat. And 1 bad thing.  (C)

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of home? (C)

Describe a journey that you make each day. I’ll close my eyes.  Help me to visualise what you see, hear and smell. (B)

What do you like about the area you live in? What do you dislike about it? (B)

Visualization is a powerful tool in language learning. The images that are created in our minds as we listen and read serve as crucial links to the language that describes them. 



Are there more wheels or doors in the world?  (C + B)                           

Your best news headline 5 years from now.  (B)                                 

What’s an important problem in your community? What are possible solutions? (B)                   

In the first collaborative activity, we have an example of thinking fast and slow. Students give their initial answer in the Chatbox and then discuss the question more at length in a Breakout room. It’s a critical thinking activity that you could apply to any question that requires thinking through.  In the third activity, students are given a problem such as ‘Kids have nothing to do after school’. They then each think of possible solutions, such as ‘Set up an after-school club’. But rather than expand on and explain the solution themselves, they ‘give’ the idea to another person in the group to elaborate on. The idea is that this way they may have a perspective the originator of the idea did not have.    

There is so much that children can teach us. They set an example to us in the engaging way they give testimony and the way they tell stories about their worlds. Children also seek understanding of others without any fear or favour. It has been a privilege for us to learn with them.       



Hall, E.T. (1976) Beyond Culture

Earley, P. (2003) Cultural intelligence: individual interactions across cultures


Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.

Tagged  Various Articles 
  • Lessons in Intercultural Communication… from Teenagers
    Paul Dummett, UK;Samir Salama, Palestine

  • Similarities Found Between Cultures of Korea and Manipur
    Ahanthem Romita Devi, India