ESL students and culture shock

This page explains the causes and effects of culture shock (particularly what I call school shock) on students coming to a new school in a new country.


The information here is copied from the answer to the question about culture shock on the more advice about teaching ESL students page.

The advice page was written for mainstream teachers at Frankfurt International School (FIS). But its content will be applicable to most teachers whose classes are joined by non-native English students from a different country.

As indicated below, there is more information on this issue in the Parents section of the site at ESL students and culture shock.

The parents article focuses on what parents can do to alleviate culture shock. This article focuses on the shock of the new school, with its unfamiliar classroom practices and expectations of students.

Before continuing with specific issue of school shock, it is important to bring to mind that cultural diversity encompasses much more than clearly perceivable facets such as food, dress, religion and artistic expression. This cultural iceberg graphic shows what lies beneath the surface of cultural difference.

What do I need to know about culture shock?

Some ESL students at FIS suffer from physical, emotional or behavioural complaints that may be caused by culture shock.

The shock can be caused by difficulties in adjusting to Germany and German culture. It is more likely however to be the result of trying to cope with the demands of a very different school system from the one they have left behind.

The effects of culture shock - or to be more precise, school shock - are described in some detail in my article to parents elsewhere on this site.

My intention here is to make mainstream teachers aware of some of the teaching practices at FIS that may be unfamiliar and stressful to ESL students.

Of course, it is not suggested that colleagues change their teaching methodologies to avoid all possibility of discomfiting ESL students. But an awareness of the points below will often be sufficient to prevent teachers drawing the wrong conclusions about the behaviour and attitude of the ESL students in their classes.

@ It can help to alleviate stress if ESL students feel that the teacher is knowledgeable about and sympathetic to their difficulties. ~Teachers can also help adjustment to the new culture by reinforcing the student's pride in his own culture.

Possible sources of school shock

  • Students may be used to acquiring a large number of facts by rote; and unused to discovery learning, analysis or critical thinking as practised at FIS.

  • @@ Students may feel threatened by the amount of participation expected of them in class, preferring to remain silent for fear of 'showing off' or losing face by giving the wrong answer. ~~

    They may also perceive a wrong answer as causing the teacher to lose face. And for the same reason, they may feel uncomfortable with the idea of asking questions or for help.

  • Students may not wish to share opinions or beliefs, regarding them as private.

  • Students may be severely embarrassed if reprimanded or excessively praised in front of others.

  • Students may be unused to mixed classes or being taught by teachers of the opposite sex.

  • Students may find it difficult to come to terms with the open and friendly relations between teachers and students. They may be uncomfortable with the amount of noise in the classroom.

  • Students may be uncomfortable with some expectations regarding teacher-student behaviour (e.g. looking the teacher in the eye when being spoken to).

  • Students may be from a very competitive school system and unused to working co-operatively with other students.

  • Conversely, they may come from an educational background in which grades do not have the importance to students, parents and teachers that they do at our school.

  • Students may believe that having fun in the classroom is incompatible with learning.

  • Students may feel uncomfortable at being involved in deciding on learning goals and how they are to be assessed, considering it to be the teacher's job.


Of course, not all ESL students come from countries whose educational culture is different in the ways listed above. And most of those who do will not experience more than a temporary discomfort on joining our school.

@@@ What is common to all ESL students, however, and probably the main cause of school shock, is the huge mental effort required to work for more than eight hours a day learning new content in a foreign language. ~~~

For this reason it is clear that students will benefit directly from any efforts by teachers to make the classroom language and homework tasks as comprehensible as possible.

Ways to do this are described in the following articles: