Culturally Speaking- Online: How daunting can it be for EFL Students in Taiwan?
Aiden Yeh

Instructor, Shir Chien University, Taiwan; EFL Teacher



A major responsibility of teachers at all grade levels is to teach the language and communication skills needed for academic success, and for career and social mobility (Taylor, 1987). Carel (1997) states that recent developments in foreign language education have indicated a trend towards the development of communicative competence among foreign language students. Taiwan is not to be considered a social laggard in this aspect. Courses such as Communicative Skills and English Conversation are being offered in Taiwan universities today.

"Communication is culture bound". (Taylor, 1987)

Learning a foreign language and learning about the culture of that language have always existed in a symbiotic relationship (Mountford and Wadham-Smith, 2000: 82). "Culture" is quite a complex word. According to DuPraw and Axner (1997) culture refers to a group or community with which we share common experiences that shape the way we understand the world. Culture is what makes up such a reality in terms of products (literature, music, artifacts) beliefs, values, institutions, and behaviours (custom, work, leisure) (Tomalin and Stempleski, 1993:7 in Mountford and Wadham-Smith, 2000:82). As Porto (2000:89) argues that cultural awareness is unavoidable within a notion of communicative competence and that it is pedagogically and educationally relevant. To attempt to divorce language from its cultural context is to ignore the social circumstances, which give it resonance and meaning (Pulverness, 2000:86). Taylor (ibid) adds that in communicating with one another, teachers and students naturally will follow the assumptions and rules governing discourse within their respective cultures. Teachers need to integrate cross cultural communication topics and materials into the curriculum. This was perhaps one of the reasons why the book, "Culturally Speaking" by Genzel and Cummins was chosen by the Department of Applied Linguistics at Shih Chien University as the textbook to be used for Communicative Skills Class TO4. Constrained by lack of sufficient access to the target culture, teachers often rely on textbooks and classroom materials in teaching language (Carel, 1997). 'Culturally Speaking' may provide a handful of activities and exercises that would provide students with the conversational and cultural tools they need to communicate effectively, but this book is intended for students learning English as a Second Language (ESL). Majority of the students in Class TO4 have never been to the United States or Canada. Exercises such as 'using the directory' or 'going to the doctor-an American doctor) or shopping from catalogues seemed futile in our given situation. Armed with a textbook, this was going to be a lose-lose battle. But I was adamant in making Class TO4 work. Carel (ibid) suggests that hypermedia/multimedia environments may provide a more appropriate context for students to experience the target culture. But, it is always easier said than done. Or is it the other way around? Speaking is a strenuous task for Taiwanese EFL learners. How much pressure to do we put on our students if we ask them to communicate in a cultural specific context during an asynchronous online communication? How daunting can this whole process of learning be? This paper will discuss the importance of learning the culture of the target language and how can educational websites such as Ruth Vilmi's International Writing Exchange (IWE) help Taiwanese students cope with learning EFL without having to leave Taiwan.

Culturally Speaking

"Communication permeates education" (Taylor, 1987)

The graduating students of Class TO4 were expected to learn good communication techniques necessary to help them communicate with both native and non-native speakers using English as the medium of communication. Each chapter of the book, Culturally Speaking, focuses on a different aspect of mainstream North American culture. To enhance the students' communicative skills in culture specific contexts, they had to make cultural comparisons, model conversations, dialogues and role-plays.

Not Enough Time

Class TO4 was an eighty-minute, once a week class. And, time was surely of the essence. So, I set up a Yahoo groups account, which to my surprise was gladly welcomed by my students. See But, I felt that this venue was limited, in a way that it only provided an access for me to get in touch with my students. I needed another site that would offer my students more opportunities for communicating in English with other EFL students and native speakers of English. JoAn Miller, the past Co-Chair of TESOL's EFL-IS list, suggested Ruth Vilmi's International Writing Exchange (IWE) See I took JoAn's advice and registered my class for one of Ruth Vilmi's IWE rounds.

What is IWE?

IWE courses are arranged in modules or "rounds" lasting five or six weeks, which take place throughout the year. Students have the opportunity to study English and exchange ideas with others from many other parts of the world. The courses are primarily for classes of EFL or ESL students, with intermediate or advanced language skills, as well as business students and teacher trainees (Vilmi, 1994). The students joining the forums are also summoned to write freely to any of the DiscussIt Forums for Individuals at any time. IWE was exactly what I was looking for.


The students' participation at IWE Round 14 Blue (April 20 to May 20, 2002) was graded based on content and the manner and number of times they have posted. Participation was voluntary and students were given extra credits. There were several factors that hindered me for making this activity compulsory for all students. 1) The students' access to computers; 2) access to the Internet; and 3) computer and Internet literacy. Those who wanted to improve their written and conversational skills whilst earning extra marks were encouraged to participate.

IWE Round 14 Blue

In Round 14 Blue of DiscussIt forum, my students were asked to post personal introductions. Specific instructions were given by Ruth Vilmi to post messages under the teacher's name so everyone on the list would know who's who in Taiwan, Korea, Poland, etc. Everyone was also reminded to be mindful of what they write, in other words, politeness and proper use of words should be strictly observed. After posting their personal introductions, the students were asked to post messages, comment, and/or reply to other people's postings. There were ten topics, which range from alternative transportation to being vegetarians.

On Using Language Appropriately

How do we know when to speak (and when not to), what to talk about (and what not to talk about), to whom, where and how? (Hymes, 1967 in Porto, 2000:89). It is this ability to use the language appropriately which determines whether we are linguistically competent or not. And it is in this area where learners of other languages are bound to face difficulties (Porto, 2000). To illustrate, read the following messages that were posted by two of my students under Personal Introductions.
jeanlin0227 wrote:
sisi...are you sure you're a lovely, cute and beautiful girl ??!!
my goodness...
how disgusted you are..... "

sevilinne wrote:
"HI, I'm Kevin, a bad boy....
Hope you all have a nice university career... "
The postings were deleted by Ruth Vilmi from the message board. It is true, indeed, that unfamiliarity with cultural communication differences can lead to misinterpretation, misunderstanding and even unintentional insult (Taylor, 1987)

Abusing the Forum

Problems often result from misunderstandings or value conflicts between teachers and students who are obeying different culturally based communication rules. (Taylor, 1987)
Ruth Vilmi wrote:

Dear Aiden Yeh,

Is jeanlin0227 one of your students please? If so, perhaps you could remind her/him that these forums are for language learning purposes, not for dating or for being rude to other users. I have deleted her message, but pasted it below. I have also deleted sevilinne's introduction as it is unsuitable too. If I see such messages as jeanlin's again she will be banned from these forums. You have many students on line now. Please help me by reading your students' writing, and making sure that they understand the rules on the IWE handouts

A Student Reacts

"Every culture enjoys some form of humor. But, humor has difficulty crossing cultural boundaries because what is humorous in one country is often not humorous in another." Axtell, R. (_______)

Acting swiftly, Chimei or otherwise known to her friends and classmates as "Maggie" posted a message in response to Ruth Vilmi's.

I am chimei (Maggie). As far as i know, sisichen and jeanlin are not only roomates, but also are best friends. so about what jeanlin wrote, i think it' s just kidding. Maybe the word she used is not suitable. But this is our culture for dear friends' joke or communication. i am sorry it bothered you. maybe that is the different culture makes misunderstanding.

Soothing Out the Differences

Mistakes are inevitable, but sensitivity to cultural and communication issues can enhance the quality of education for all students. (Taylor, 1987)

Ruth Vilmi responded:

Thank you for apologising. It's easy to have misunderstandings on the Internet. In my British/Finnish culture it is rude to tell someone they are disgusting. I'm glad that Jeanlin did not upset you, and that she did not mean to be rude. Please give my regards to your teacher, and tell her that I am happy her students are so active. (Ruth).

The Teacher Responds

I honestly believe that what Jean and Kevin posted were written without any intentions of deliberately offending someone. Something was lost in translation. Translating what they have written would be perfectly acceptable in Taiwanese settings. Unfortunately, they forgot that this is an academic forum. I have spoken to the two and I think that they have learned their lesson. Majority of my students live in the dorm (within the university campus) and they see each other almost every day. The lack of interaction or discussion (in this forum) among them could be attributed to this. (Aiden Yeh)

Ruth wrote:

I'm glad the misunderstanding was cleared up. I want students to realize that these forums are for serious learning purposes. If some people start using the forums for other purposes people very quickly copy them and things may get out of hand. You said," Translating what they have written would be perfectly acceptable in Taiwanese settings." This is interesting. Thank you for telling me.

Learning from Experience

"knowledge of other cultures is better acquired by experience than by study" (Taylor, 1987)

Jeanlin re-posted her personal introductions. So did Sevilnine (or Kevin).

hello, everyone, Kevin is my name, I live in a small town called Yu Chi(it means fish pool in Chinese). I enjoy surfing the net and sketching very much. P.S. I'd like to make an apology for my foolish posting last time, I'm terriblely sorry to every body..

What Went Wrong

At distance, the non verbal aspects of human communication are generally absent, and so the emphasis in interaction shifts to the exchange of information. (Gonzalez, 1995).

It has been said that what happened was a cultural misunderstanding. The students did not mean to be rude but rather expressed their humor in such a way that they thought was acceptable in their own social settings. It was rather ironic in a sense that Taiwanese- having a Chinese heritage- show great reverence for proper behavior. Keqi is a character trait that Taiwanese take pride of. Ke means guest and qi means behavior. It not only means considerate, polite, and well mannered, but also represents humbleness and modesty. It is impolite to be arrogant and brag about oneself or one's inner circle. (Millet, J. 2000)

But, looking at some of my students postings at IWE, most of them contained words that were haughty and boastful.

I am the most lovely, cute and beautiful girl,
There is a lovely woman who was born in Taiwan, named B____ T___
The most intelligent and charming girl is me!-
This is E___a, a sweet and lucky girl.
cute girl is comeing~

From a Taiwanese point of view, such words are only acceptable to be vocally expressed amongst family members and circle of friends. In other words, a social group. And in this case, the students were classmates, some of them were even dorm mates, who have known each other for two-three years, and have established friendships and camaraderie.

Is cultural difference at play in our given context? If what DuPraw and Axner (1997) say about culture, that it is central to what we see, how we make sense of what we see, and how we express ourselves is true; then the answer to the question is 'yes'.


Computer Mediated Communication encourages active involvement as opposed to the passive learning from books or lectures. It gives learner and teacher control and interactions are revisable, archivable, and retirevable (Harrasim, 1994). However, the examples given in this paper show that having cross cultural competence and awareness is necessary for effective communications, either face to face or virtually online. To be linguistically and culturally competent is a daunting task for EFL learners. Not only would they need motivation in learning but they also have got to have confidence and determination to pursue. Mistakes could either make or break a student. Luckily, Kevin was courageous enough to accept responsibility for his misconduct. It is, therefore, imperative for EFL teachers to remind their students that mistakes are inevitable and trials and errors are essential components of learning and are part of the education process. Experience, anyway, is the best teacher.

Being a good communicator is not simply a matter of being a good listener; sensitivity to appropriateness within a given social context is likewise an inherent element. Cross cultural knowledge should not only be required among students but among teachers as well. EFL teachers have come a long way, but the role of the teacher is not only to disseminate information but to apply new teaching methodologies to make learning possible. By providing my students other venues for practicing their communicative (both oral and written) skills did not only increase their interest and motivation in using the target language but also provided an alternative route to gaining their confidence, trust, and respect.


Axtell, R. (______).Do's and Taboos of Humor Around the World
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Taylor, O. 1987. Cross-Cultural Communication: An Essential Dimension of Effective Education.
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Mountford, A., Waldham-Smith, N. 2000. British Studies: Intercultural Perspectives. UK: Longman
Porto, M. 2000. Integrating the Teaching of Language and Culture in British Studies: Intercultural Perspectives by Mountford, A., and Wadham-Smith, N. (eds) UK: Longman.
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Vilmi, R. 1994. The International Writing Exchange. Available.

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