The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain

After many failed attempts, Eliza Doolittle in the musical ‘My Fair Lady’ finally manages to pronounce the difficult sentence ‘the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’ without lapsing into broad Cockney. This is much to the joy of her teacher, Professor Higgins, who now hears her speak as he himself speaks. She fits in now: she has become ‘one of us’. Meanwhile, the professor has fallen madly in love with his student. The musical’s story is based on a play by George Bernard Shaw, who in turn took his inspiration from an ancient Greek legend called Pygmalion. In the legend, a sculptor makes a statue that reflects his dream of the perfect woman so well that he falls in love with his own creation. The gods take pity on the desperate man and change the statue into a woman of flesh and blood. Creativity rewarded! When are teachers satisfied with their ‘creations’? At what point do international students and lecturers have a command of the language that is good enough for them to be considered ‘one of us’? What are the criteria for this? Conversely, when do international students feel at ease with the language of their new environment to such an extent that they can express their emotions in this language? In the excitement of the horse races Eliza falls back into her old accent, to the dismay of the people around her. She definitely does not fit in! Do we know enough about the extent to which students feel at ease in other culture


The growing number of foreign stu­dents taking part in classes and joining in with domestic students has given an increasingly intercultural flavour to higher education around the world.In many cases En­glish is used as the language of in­struction. Sometimes a special curriculum is designed to accommodate the needs of both foreign and domestic stu­dents. In some cases international stu­dents take courses in sepa­rate groups but are taught by lecturers in a language other than their mother tongue. More and more frequently, foreign guest lecturers are invited to teach courses. I define all of these situations as ‘the international class­room’. The main feature of the international classroom is that the language of in­struc­tion is not the native language of all those involved, thus creating a challenging multi-cultural educational setting.

Over the last decades I have worked in the ‘internationalisation of higher education’ in the Netherlands and in various other countries. I have done so in different capacities; teaching, managing, organising, participating and learning. The format and objectives of these activities differed greatly but they invariably shared English as the language of communication. The question is: what kind of English? Howhave I managed and how have others? It is clear that language issues are closely interlinked with broader cultural issues. Misunderstandings are not simply ‘cultural’, but rather are often rooted in linguistic aptitude. It my view it is important to be cautious in simply referring to cultural differences when it comes to misunderstanding. This explanation is an easy excuse. In fact, personal and cultural issues in conjunction with language influence understanding and the success of the international classroom.

In this essay I reflect on my own experiences as a non-native speaker of English, both in environments of native and other non-native speakers. I discuss what have I observed and what have I learned. Most learning moments occur as a result of critical incidents – situations where things go differently from how you expect them to go. In the conclusion I will make a brief reference to theory and possible themes for research.

Critical incidents

Having drinks

He was a Vietnamese student and arrived in my morning class with a can of beer. I did not notice right away, but at one point I saw him drinking from the can and realized it was beer. Other students in his direct environment had also noticed and there was a bit of giggling. Not everybody was aware and, in my view, there was not enough disturbance to interrupt the class. At the end of the lecture, however, I indicated for him to step down to have a word. I asked him why he had brought beer to the classroom and expressed my great displeasure with his action. He was stunned. His reply was sharp and hurt. He felt insulted. ‘There were various places in the building where it said: no food, no drinks. But not here in this room and, by the way, other students were having drinks as well’. He reminded me that I had said that drinks were allowed. I replied that it should have been self evident that ‘drinks’ did not include alcoholic beverages. Others were drinking water or soft drinks and I assumed that this was completely clear to him. His answer surprised me, but made me smile – ‘when you are invited for drinks, do you expect to get water?’

What happened next was a conversation on what the word ‘drink’ could mean in various situations. Of course, this incident was about other things as well, but it was clear that language played an important role – certainly in discussing the mutual notions implicit in various words. It offered me the possibility to discuss with the student whyhe saw no difference between beer and soft drinks. Our class later discussed this interesting case study of cultural differences in classroom behaviour. In Vietnam, the student was not allowed to bring any food or drinks into the lecture hall. The informal setting of the Dutch classroom had created a context wherein this student had become confused about his own role as a student. He no longer felt secure about appropriate behaviour inside and outside the formal classroom setting. For him the ‘self evident’ difference with regard to drinks was between hard liquor and everything else, including beer. How was he to understand the unspoken differences between correct and incorrect classroom behaviour?


She was a very intelligent and diligent Chinese student in a master’s mathematics class. In fact, she outshone everybody. Over the course of the year, she became more and more silent and withdrawn. She showed no interest in her peers, made no effort to engage in group work and discussions and spent her time exclusively with other international students of her own background. Her teachers ascribed her behaviour to the level of her English. At one point, her withdrawal was also showing in her study results. I was not her teacher, but my advice was requested because I was involved in the management of the scholarship program that supported her. I made an appointment and tried to talk to her. It was a very difficult conversation with little more than monosyllabic input from her side. It was clear she was not amused. By the time I had almost given up, she turned to me and said quite angrily: ‘why do I not get the perfect score, why am I not appointed as a leader of my class?’ I asked her what she meant, what she expected, and what she wanted. I learned that her knowledge of English was not bad at all; rather, she was bitterly disappointed.

In Dutch institutions, as in various other ‘western’ universities, students are required to be articulate, assertive and accomplished in group work. Egalitarianism is the norm and prevails. Excellence and honours are in high esteem but are usually not bestowed in the daily setting of the classroom. They are given to the individual and not to individuals as part of a group. Whereas group work is important, the interaction within the group is expected to be based on ‘equal’ input. Leadership is important for reasons other than hierarchy. Students must derive their self esteem from private success more so than from ranking within the group. Verbal interaction is important and presentation skills are part of the evaluation of results.

Making jokes

Rightly or wrongly, I consider my own English to be quite good. I feel ‘comfortable’ when speaking English and believe that I can express myself well – most of the time, that is. I remember an evening spent with colleagues after an intensive day at a conference. It all had gone very well, and we were looking forward to an informal dinner and a night on the town. We were a ‘multi-culti’ group but with a large number of Australians and British people. As the evening went on I realised that I understood less and less. As the language became more and more colloquial the few ‘Europeans’ in the group were not able to join in making jokes, or even understanding the jokes. I was asked if I was enjoying myself. I said I was a bit tired, which was true. The energy taken to handle another language is often underestimated. My Spanish colleague later said to me ‘they [those who spoke English as a first language] are just not nice’. That certainly had not been the case; they simply had a good time. Nevertheless, we both felt excluded.

In an intercultural group the language that is used is a lin­gua franca (often English). When native speakers dominate the floor the use of a lingua franca can lose its role of communicator and become the ‘only’ language. This may result in misunder­standings or feelings of exclusion. Everyone might be speaking easily but will still be using the language in the cultural context of their personal background and native tongue. Others may be under­standing the words but not always comprehending the meaning as it was intended. Humour as well as body language and other non-verbal signals communicate important messages that can easily be misinter­preted. Such messages are easier to correct verbally if they are not lin­ked to a group using them from the dominant position of native speakers.

The issue of language is very important when it comes to safeguarding cultural diversity in the international classroom. The dilemma faced by those in non-Anglophone countries interested in further internationalising higher education is how to combine increased use of the English language while also acknowledging cultural diversity. On a practical level this means that lecturers’ command of English and other languages is under scrutiny. Dealing with cultural diversity in international groups is, to a large extent, dealing with language issues. Lan­guage expres­ses so much more than what is literally said.


Incidents like the ones described above will be recognized by those involved in international education. Our countries are increasingly multicultural societies but there is growing scepticism about the extent to which this leads to intercultural learning. One could question the actual contribution that the presence of foreign students on campus makes to the international dimension of the host institution. The potential for interaction between students from different cultural backgrounds (potentially contributing to global learning objectives) does not automatically lead to intercultural learning and understanding.

Creating a classroom where true intercultural learning can take place means blending concepts like ‘foreign’, ‘strange’ and ‘otherness’ into teaching strategies that make an effort to integrate the cultural input of all students. For the curriculum this means including both content-oriented goals (such as foreign language skills, regional and area studies, humanities and international subjects like international law and business) and attitude goals (such as broad-mindedness, understanding and respect for other people and their cultures, values and way of life) in order to strengthen students’ intercultural competence.

Global learning, understood as learning for all students, seeks to promote understanding of cultural diversity by exposure to different ways of teaching, learning and living. Inevitable, it will increasingly include ‘virtual mobility’ and web-based learning. Intercultural learning does not simply happen. It requires prearranged settings and clearly defined aims. The concept of cultural diversity embraces the general assumption of increasing social diversity (for example, by nationality, ethnicity, gender or professional discipline) as a basic feature of modern society and its institutions. But many issues remain implicit. As I have argued earlier, teachers in international classrooms need specific competencies for teaching across languages.

Geert Hofstede has described culture as the collective mental programming which distinguishes members of one group or category of people from members of another culture. Besides collective mental programming, each member of the group has his or her own individual mental programming and all members of the group share a common human biological nature. Defined in this anthropological sense culture covers all spheres of life. It is learned and it is very hard to un-learn. It defines the way we think, feel and behave. The source of our mental programming is our social environment. It starts at home and continues to develop on the street, in school, at work and in all the social settings a person encounters. Although it is difficult to change deeply ingrained notions, it is not impossible. People have the fundamental capacity to adapt their mental programming throughout their lives as a result of new social settings. Education is such a setting and an international learning experience can provide a very important stimulus to redefine one’s ideas. Culture is never static and is always the result of interaction between social groups.

When considering the international classroom we refer to culture in various ways. On the one hand, there is the anthropological definition of culture as the behaviour of groups resulting from collective mental programming; on the other hand, we also deal with the specific cultural situation of an international group of individuals taking part in an international educational program. Knowledge of specific behaviour in different cultures is useful but not necessarily helpful for individuals who encounter each other in the international classroom. They are looking for practi­cal solutions to problems that result from an unfamiliar situation and personal confrontations. This implies that not all cultural differences have to be taken into account, only those affecting communication in the educational process.

ICT has a great potential to enrich ‘traditional’ teaching, with input from around the world enhancing the international perspective and thus adding an important cultural component to the curriculum. This can energize and enrich content within any setting. Students can discuss topics from the courses they are taking with others around the world, creating a completely new international ‘classroom’. The learning process is thus re-engineered, becoming more flexible and less subject to geographical boundaries. It may offer an intercultural experience, but the internet can never stand in for real life encounters (a truth often ignored when justifying budget cuts). The use of ICT in the classroom can raise questions about our image of learning in higher education and teaching as a ‘people skill’. It is clear that the use of ICT in higher education will no longer be a question of internationalising a ‘national’ curriculum but a matter of whether and how an internationalised curriculum incorporates a clearly defined ‘national’ component.


The specific qualifications that are listed below are meant to prompt further discussion of the role of the non-native speaker in the in­ternational classroom. Of course it is not possible to generali­ze about conditions that would apply in every situa­tion. The qualifications presented speak of ‘an ideal situation’ that does not exist and focus attention on a topic that has been largely neglected, despite its importance. To question language issues in the international classroom is to challenge established notions of professional quality in lecturers and academic skills in students. For staff to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes listed, important staff development measures must be in place in any institution of higher education that uses a language of communication that is not the native tongue of the lecturer. Training is also essential in cases where native speakers teach non-native speakers. Students also need to rethink interaction between native and non-native speakers. In all situations a new awareness is recommended to acknowledge the impact of language in the academic process.

Ideas for discussion

Here follows a list of knowledge, skills and attitudes. I see them as a basis for communication in the international classroom. The list is relevant for non-native speaking students, but is equally applicable for teachers and others. This list is not meant as a blue print; rather, it is intended to invite participants to discuss what is needed in students and staff to communicate in a multi-cultural and multi lingual environment.

Desired qualifications:

In terms of knowledge, a person should:

  • have a very good oral and written command of the language of instruction
  • be capable of writing general texts, scientific reports and articles in the language of instruction
  • be familiar with the specific terminology used in teaching the subject in question and be familiar with the jargon in his or her field
  • realise that culture can be defined in different ways
  • be aware that formal education is one of the most important features of a national culture
  • remember that culture is learned and is very diffi­cult to un-learn

In terms of skills, a person should:

  • be able to use the language of instruction in such a way that the natural flow of speech is not impeded by unnatural use of the voice, such as speaking very loudly
  • be aware of the role that body language plays in communicating a message and not use it in an extreme manner, such as making exaggerated movements to support spoken lan­gu­age
  • be willing to say things in different ways, rephrasing sentences that are not understood
  • be able to use audio-visual aids in support of spoken texts
  • avoid using two languages at the same time, for example to explain something quickly to some of the other students and thus excluding others
  • be able to distinguish cultural differences from personal traits, for example, knowing whether a person is only shy or feels that it is not appropriate to ask a question

In terms of attitude, a person should:

  • be aware of the fact that he or she is not using his or her native tongue and reflect on this fact
  • acknowledge that body language and other non-verbal aspects of communication have a great impact on the way he or she is understood (or misunderstood)
  • be aware of the role of humour in communication and know that humour can quickly intrude in culturally defined spheres of personal identity
  • realise that different levels of language proficiency within the group may account for differences in performance, but not simply ascribe attitude to language (a ‘silent’ person may be shy, not interested, incompetent, bored or full of respect for the teacher)
  • try to be open to suggestions with regards to the use of language
  • try to remain aware of his or her own culture and under­st­and that this strongly colours his or her own views
  • try to avoid thinking in stereotypes
  • try to made adjustments for cultural differences within the group, while at the same time respecting these differences.

Note: This article has previously appeared in the Trigger Papers of the Centre for International Curriculum Inquiry and Networking Conference June 2009 Internationalising the Home Student, held at Oxford Brookes University.


Hanneke Teekens is the Director of Communications for Nuffic, The Netherlands Organisation for International Co-operation in Higher Education.

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