Culture Shock: What ESL students need to know

culture shock photo


If you can afford it, learning English outside of your country is always the better option, but beware, there may be many differences that you are not ready for.  Your reaction to these differences is called ‘Culture Shock’.

Maybe you are the first person in your family to travel overseas to study. This is truly going to be an adventure for you. But you have to also get yourself ready for what you may find on the other side. How you react to this can affect everything about your experience and your future. So I’m going to give you some typical ‘culture shock’ reactions and give you ideas on how to deal with it.

a. “I hate the food” – Every culture has a different taste and you don’t have to love it all, so the best thing to do is to at least try something that some of your friends from your country say is okay. Then when you meet a local and they ask you what food you like, you can at least say something positive.

b. “I can’t believe they do that kind of thing in their culture” –  Some countries have very different kinds of rituals, e.g. in India in one festival they attach metal hooks to their back and carry hot burning coals in their hands. You don’t have to do that yourself, but it is interesting to find out why they do that and what it means to them. The more you find out about your host culture, the friendlier they become.

c. “I don’t want a friend who is not my religion” –  strangely enough the very thing you really want is the very thing you keep stopping. If you have decided to study English in a western country, you will probably want a native English friend, but sadly for you he probably won’t be your religion. Don’t let this stop you. Take this as an opportunity to talk about other things other than religion, e.g. food, football, fashion, movies….there are many things to talk about. Always know that your friendship doesn’t have to be deep, it can be someone you can have a laugh with or share ideas about things you are both interested in. Who knows he may even ask you about your religion. Now there’s a great opportunity for you!

d. “It’s too hot” – experiencing different climates is just one of those things that you have to deal with. Ask locals how they deal with the climate, they will have their own tricks. For example, in Malaysia the weather is always hot, so locals generally don’t go outside during the middle hours of the day, their social life happens mainly in the evening.

e. “I thought everyone spoke English” – Yes and even if you go to a western country (particularly England!), you may even find that they are speaking English but their words and accent are almost impossible to understand. Don’t worry, master your own English with those you understand first, and then let yourself explore the variations later.

f. “I don’t like how the girls dress here” – When you move to a new country and culture, it is often a realization that you and your country are not the only people living on this planet. We all feel like that if we have never traveled. But this doesn’t mean you have to feel negative about the new culture you are seeing or that you have to say something positive about it. See this as part of the wonderful mixture of what happens in life. Unless you feel they are forcing you to be like them, try to keep a neutral opinion about it.

Does your friend have ‘culture shock’?

If you notice your friend who has just arrived in the country is suffering from these problems: tiredness, sleeplessness or oversleeping, headaches and stomach aches, or anxiety, irritability, aggressiveness or depression. It may be time to sit down and ask them what is going on. Firstly you need to make sure they know that all these reactions are ‘normal’ and many people suffer these when they come to a new country. Most of all don’t let them give up everything, including their chance of learning English and furthering their education, to go back home simply because they couldn’t adjust. This will be one of the biggest steps into maturity and responsibility they will take in their life.

I know you will always try to make friends with people who are from your country, we all understand that, they speak the same language, they understand your culture and religion, but also try to meet locals as this is the best way to learn 10x more than what you teacher will ever tell you.

DYK #12

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One thought on “Culture Shock: What ESL students need to know

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