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Analysis of a Language Learning Activity


By Robert Musgrave-Evans  




Analysis of learning activities is essential in research into language pedagogy. This article analyses a learning activity from three different perspectives in order to gain insight into how the activity relates to learners. This analysis is done by examining how the activity addresses diverse language proficiencies, cultural factors and particular learner factors.



The activity




The activity was designed by myself to fit into an EFL conversation class lesson entitled ‘Culture Clash’. This lesson is one of a series of lessons focusing on the culture of native English speakers. The lesson is held at a language institute with mature age students in South Korea as a supplement to their textbook lessons. All of the students at the institute are Koreans with varying amounts of experience with other cultures ranging from none to a number of years studying overseas. The lesson addresses cultural differences between people from Korea and people from English speaking countries and the problems that can arise when these differences generate misunderstandings.






Although there is a strong focus on the passing of international English proficiency tests such as the TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS in Korea, the learners who come to conversation classes want to do more than just pass tests. The goal of these learners is to be able to interact successfully with English speakers they meet in Korea or when they are overseas doing further study, conducting business or just traveling for pleasure. In order to interact successfully, the learners need to not only have knowledge of the linguistics of the English language, but also have knowledge of the socio-cultural factors involved in interaction with those who speak the English language.


It is with the above mentioned goal and needs of the learners in mind that the activity aims to make the learners culturally aware of themselves and of people from English speaking countries, and to use appropriate language to handle situations when cultural misunderstandings arise.



Procedure of the activity and its place in the lesson




Before commencing the activity, the learners are led into thinking about cultural differences through the sharing of past experiences of misunderstanding they may have had when interacting with foreigners in Korea or overseas.



The Activity


Full detail of the activity is given in Appendix I. What follows is a brief description of the activity’s procedure.


The activity consists of the following three parts:


A. The learners are shown a picture of a common culture clash situation and asked to watch and listen to the pictured scene being acted out by their teacher. The teacher elicits the enacted dialog from the learners and discusses it with them in terms of language functions and social and cultural implications.


B. Learners are grouped in pairs and shown a number of scenes of various culture clash situations between Koreans and native English speakers and asked to create a dialog for one of them.


C. The learners role play their dialog up in front of the class.





The completion of the activity is followed up by the teacher and learners discussing and comparing the material developed and performed by the learners during the activity.





The expected outcomes of the activity for the learners are as follows:


-         Increased cultural self-awareness

-         Increased awareness of target culture and how it differs from their own

-         Increased awareness of the various functions of language

-         Knowledge of how to use language to diffuse culturally problematic situations and maintain intercultural harmony

-         Improve listening, writing and oral skills.


Diverse language proficiencies


Range of proficiencies


Stephen Krashen (1982) proposed the theory that acquisition of a language happens best when the learner’s input “contains forms and structures just beyond the learner’s current level of competence in the language” (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p. 39). Brown (2000) echoes these thoughts by stating that “the language that learners are exposed to should be just far enough beyond their current competence that they can understand most of it but still be challenged to make progress” (p. 278). From this perspective of the appropriate level of difficulty for input, then the activity would fall into the intermediate range of English proficiency. However, for this activity the input is used primarily as an example for the learners and a way to get them to start to think about their own cultural practices as well as those of others and how differences that lead to misunderstanding can be handled in a gentle and understanding way. Therefore, this activity could also be used by advanced students who could use their greater English proficiency to create more advanced dialogs and learn from the experience of creation of such dialogs.



Diversity within a class


Within a class, learners can have a variety of proficiencies for a number of reasons such as unreliable proficiency testing and level placement or premature promotion of students up to higher proficiency classes. “One of the biggest problems teachers face is a lesson where the students are at different levels” (Harmer, 1998, p. 127). In general, the greater the difference in proficiencies, the more difficult it is for the teacher. However, the activity takes advantage of these differences by grouping learners together. Yahya & Huiei (2002) state that some teachers fear that low status learners will be dominated in groups by high status learners and not participate (p. 1). Although this is true, it is more likely to occur when the group sizes are large – it is much easier to have full participation in small groups. Harmer (1998) suggests that when classes have students of diverse proficiencies, the teachers can “adopt a strategy of peer help and teaching so that better students can help weaker ones” by “explaining things, or providing good models of language performance in speaking and writing” (p. 128). By placing students in pairs, the activity caters for differences in the language proficiency of the learners within a class and creates a mood of cooperation rather than competition where the learners can act as resources for one another.



Cultural factors


The activity was designed to be used with Korean learners in their native environment. In this context, the cultural difference between the learners is not a factor in their learning. However, the cultural difference between the learners and the teacher and his or her teaching materials is a factor that can have a direct effect on the learners. This context is paralleled in EFL classes in China where Brick (2004) states that the “classroom is in itself a cross-cultural laboratory” (p. 149).



Roles of the teacher and learners


The Korean traditional view of education is one of the teacher as disseminator of knowledge and the learners as receptacles for that knowledge. “Korean students are used to viewing teachers as authority figures in class” and “tend to quietly wait to have knowledge transmitted to them” (Lim, 2003, section “Perceptions Underlying Korean Students Behaviors”, para. 1). In the activity, the teacher acts as a mediator which “differs from a more narrow view of the teacher as disseminator of information” (Williams & Burden, 1997, p. 68). By acting as a mediator, the teacher assists the students to “find ways of moving into their next level of understanding of the language” (ibid., p. 66). The activity makes the learners central to a learning process where they can aid one another and take responsibility for their own learning with the teacher facilitating this process. To avoid any possible clash between the learners’ preconceived notions of the role the teacher and the mediator role that the lesson calls for, the activity has the teacher initially present a piece of text orally, which the learners have to write down, and then has the teacher explain aspects of this text before the learners work together in groups. This sequence of events eases the learners from a traditional teacher centered class to a learner centered one by moving the focus gradually from the teacher to the learners.



Performance anxiety


Traditionally, Korean students do not perform role-plays of dialogs in front of others and so can understandably be nervous about doing this. Korea is like many Asian societies which can be “termed ‘high-face’ societies, where loss of face is felt very keenly and has great social ramifications” (Mangubhai, 1997, p. 33). The dyad grouping of the learners in the activity helps to lessen any performance anxiety they may have – to have someone with them makes the situation less intimidating.



Cultural self-awareness


The heart of the activity is based on the premise that “culture teaching must begin with comprehension of one’s own native cultural behavior, its prejudices and ethnocentric outlook, which can be used as a basis for cross cultural application and analysis” (Kim, 2003, p. 30). Kilickaya (2004) believes that teachers should create an environment where learners can “discuss their own culture together with the target culture in meaningful and communicative tasks and activities” (section “How Can We Introduce Cultural Content in Our Classrooms?”). In the activity, the scenes depicting common Korean and non-Korean habits give the learners the opportunity to explore their cultural self-awareness and awareness of the target culture. This is enhanced by the use of groups, which Cullen and Sato (2000) believe creates for learners the opportunity to use the target language, discuss the target culture, and gain additional perspectives on their own culture (section “Group Work”).



Cross-cultural harmony


The activity does try and give a balanced perspective on cultural behavior by presenting both Korean and native English speaker habits. However, there are some risks associated with the activity. One risk is that because there are more Korean habits presented than non-Korean ones, and the habits are negative, some learners who don’t see the humor of the situations, could become offended; the activity could backfire on the teacher with learners becoming offended even though the native English speaker habits are also being judged negatively. The degree to which the learners can relate to the native English speaker habits as well as the Korean ones, and see that a balanced view is being presented, will be determined by how much exposure they have had to the cultures of people from English speaking countries. Another risk is that the activity may stereotype native English speaker behavior and reinforce the already prevalent Korean stereotype of English speakers all being white skinned and blonde haired.


Despite these risks, the activity attempts to educate the learners on how language can be used to facilitate tolerance, acceptance and cross-cultural harmony. The activity directs learners towards developing competency in intercultural encounters by teaching them that when we communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds, both parties enter into a process of adjusting their expectations and behaviour” and that when “differences arise they must be negotiated openly” (Bianco, 2004, p. 6).



Particular learner factors


Each learner’s progress in learning and acquiring a language is influenced by a number of factors particular to that learner. There are cognitive factors which relate to the learner’s thinking, such as intelligence, aptitude and learning style. There are ‘affective’ factors which are “emotional factors that may influence language learning” (Richards & Schmidt, 2002, p. 16), such as the learner’s motivation and level of anxiety. There are social factors such as the learner’s social status, gender and ethnicity and finally, the learner’s age can have an influence on learning.



Intelligence and aptitude


Differences in intelligence and aptitude are addressed in the activity through the formation of groups of two. By working in pairs, learners can use their particular strengths together. Harmer (1998) cautions that when forming groups, teachers should “ensure that weak and strong students are put together” (p. 128). So long as the teacher does not place learners of equal intelligence and aptitude together, the differences between groups in the class will not be significant.



Learning styles


Learners can differ in the way they prefer to engage in the learning process. These different ways, or cognitive approaches, to learning are called ‘learning styles’. Walqui (2000) gives the following examples of different learning styles:


Some learners are more analytically oriented and thrive on picking apart words and sentences. Others are more globally oriented, needing to experience overall patterns of language in meaningful contexts before making sense of the linguistic parts and forms. Some learners are more visually oriented, others more geared to sounds (section “The Learning Process”, para. 2.)


By using listening, reading, writing and speaking skills together to involve learners in sentence analysis and creative construction and performance of meaningful material through collaboration with others, the activity covers a range of language learning styles and thus provides an opportunity for all the learners to do well regardless of their particular learning style.





The degree to which learners feel comfortable with expressing themselves during social interaction, that is, whether they are introverted or extroverted, can influence their preference for a particular learning approach or environment. Introverts can be expected to prefer “individual learning and language knowledge” (Cook, 1996, p. 114). While extroverts may prefer “communicative teaching that emphasizes group participation and social know-how” (ibid.).


By engaging learners in individual and group work, the activity attempts to accommodate both the introverted and extroverted learners.





Motivation can be categorized into two types – integrative and instrumental. Cook (1996) defines integrative motivation as “learning a language in order to take part in the culture of its people” and instrumental motivation as “learning a language for a career goal or other practical purpose” (p. 96). The following quotation from a Korean learner discussing English study motivation, is taken from an interview conducted by O’Neal Cooper (2003): “To be bilingual has many merits in Korean society. Especially, if I can speak fluently, I will have many opportunities to choose my job in many fields” (p. 101). This opinion is very common in South Korea and is shared by most of the Korean learners I have met in my ten years of teaching. For these learners, their motivation for studying English would fall into the instrumental motivation category. Although the motivation of most learners is not integrative, their instrumental motivation does require that they have harmonious relationships and encounters with native English speakers, whether for business or study, and so the activity does address this motivation.


As well as addressing the motivation the learners bring to the class, the activity can itself be a source of motivation. Lightbown and Spada (1999) believe that when learners work in groups, the fact that they know that the other learners in their group are counting on them, can increase their motivation (p. 57).





The activity, through its grouping and co-operative learning approach, reduces learner anxiety by embodying “a collaborative spirit, a clear sense of direction and a sense of fun” (Turula, 2002, p. 31). This approach can also reduce anxiety by increasing “the self-confidence of students, including the weaker ones, because every participant in a co-operative task has an important role to play” (Lightbown & Spada, 1999, p. 57). Anxiety can arise from feelings of isolation. Turula (2002) says that learners can feel isolated when “they find that learning a foreign language is reduced to drills and has no connection to real life situations” (p. 30). The activity avoids this by having the learners create their own material for humorous real life situations.





The nature of the culture class situations used in the activity would appeal to adults of all ages. Children however, may have trouble relating to the situation involving the drinking of alcohol presented in appendix II.



Social Status


Differences in the learners’ social class would not be an issue for the activity as the scenes depicted involve activities that people of all social levels commonly engage in.





The examples of the native Korean and English speakers’ behavior are equally applicable to females and males, so the gender of the learners would not influence the learners ability to relate to the scenes depicted in the activity.





Cook (1996) says that for “class teaching the aspects in which students are different have to be balanced against those that they share” (p. 116). The analysis of the activity has revealed that its mixture of teaching styles and use of co-operative group work to produce meaningful communicative language output, would succeed in handling a diverse range of language proficiencies and particular learner factors within a class. The analysis also shows that the activity addresses the various cultural factors that can exist in the socio-cultural context for which it was designed and although there is a chance that learners could be affected negatively by the activity’s depiction of cultural habits, the chance of learners being positively affected by the activity are much higher. Outside South Korea, learners would have difficulty relating to the culture clash situations used in the activity. However, by changing the situations, the lesson could be easily modified to suit use in another country with different cultural habits.








Bianco, J. L. (2004) Cultural Learning. Resources of Cultural Language Learning. Melbourne, Australia: CAE Press, p. 6.


Brick, J. (2004) Learning and Teaching. China: A Handbook in Intercultural Communication (2nd Ed). Sydney, Australia: NCELTR, p. 149.


Cook, V. (1996) Learners as Individuals. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (2nd Ed.). London, UK: Arnold, pp. 96, 114 & 116.


Cullen, B. & Sato, K., (2000) Practical Techniques for Teaching Culture in the EFL classroom, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 12, section “Group Work”. Retrieved September 9, 2006 from


Kilichaya, F. (2004) Authentic Materials and Cultural Content in EFL Classrooms, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. X, No. 7, section “How Can We Introduce Cultural Content in Our Classrooms?”. Retrieved September 9, 2006 from


Kim, J. (2003) Teaching Culture in the English as a Foreign Language Classroom, The Korea TESOL Journal, 5 (1), 30.


Krashen, S. D. (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon.


Harmer, J. (1998) How to Teach English. Essex, England: Pearson Education Limited. p. 127.


Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (1999) How Languages are Learned. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 39 & 57.


Lim, H. Y. (2003). Successful Classroom Discussions with Adult Korean ESL/EFL Learners, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 5, section “Perceptions Underlying Korean Students Behaviors”, para. 1. Retrieved August 8, 2006, from


Mangubhai, F. (1997) Primary socialization and cultural factors in second language learning: wending our way through semi-charted territory. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, Series S, No. 14, p. 33.


O’Neal Cooper, J., Jnr. (2003). Acculturation and the EFL/ESL Hybrid: The Optimal Distance Model Revisited – A study from South Korea. The Korea TESOL Journal, 6 (1), 101.


Richards, J. C. & Schmidt, R. (2002) Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. UK: Pearson Education Limited. p. 16.


Turula, A. Language Anxiety and Classroom Dynamics: A study of Adult Learners: English Teacher Forum, April, pp. 30 & 31.


Walqui, A. (2000) Contextual Factors in Second Language Acquisition. Eric Digest. Washington DC: ERIC Cleaninghouse on Languages and Linguistics. section “The Learning Process”, para. 2.


Williams, M. and Burden, R.L. (1997). Chapter 4, What can teachers do to promote learning? Psychology for language teachers: A social constructivist approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 66 & 68.



































                                                Appendix I


The activity consists of three parts – A, B and C.


Part A


1.      Learners are shown the picture of Appendix II.


2.      The teacher acts out the dialog in Appendix III, taking both the role of the Korean and native English speaker. Realia such as empty beer bottles and glasses are placed on a table at the center of the enactment.


3.      The learners try and memorize the dialog as it is enacted.


4.      The teacher elicits the dialog from the learners and writes on the board at the front of the classroom. The teacher repeats the enactment of the dialog until the whole dialog has been written up on the board.


5.      The teacher and learners discuss the functions of the language used in the dialog and their implications (see Parts A and B of Appendix IV).



Part B


1.      The teacher puts learners in pairs and hands out a sheet with the pictures shown in Appendix V to each group.


2.      The learners are given time to look at the pictures and are prompted by the teacher to reveal if they have experienced any of the situations depicted and if they think they could cause misunderstandings between Koreans and native English speakers.


3.      The learners are asked to choose one picture and construct a short dialog for the scene a la the dialog of Appendix III.



Part C


1.      The learners memorize their dialog.


2.      The learners act out their dialog in front of the class.






Appendix II


Picture taken from Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans, Min Byong-Chul, (1995), p50, BCM Publications, Inc., Seoul, Korea.






                   Forcing people to drink too much.









Appendix III




Korean: Drink this special drink.


English speaker: No thank you. I feel drunk. I should stop drinking.


Korean: Don’t stop! This is a famous Korean drink. It’s beer and whisky mixed together!


English speaker: I really must stop drinking. If I don’t stop I will be sick!


Korean: I’m sorry. I don’t want to force you. Shall we go? I will help you get a taxi.



































                                             Appendix IV



Part A - Dialog Analysis:


1. Korean: Drink this special drink. – Imperative/offer.


2. English speaker: No thank you. I feel drunk. I should stop drinking. – Polite refusal and excuse/explanation.


3. Korean: Don’t stop! This is a famous Korean drink. It’s beer and whisky mixed together! – Strong imperative/order and attempt to persuade by implication of Korean culture being rejected if imperative is not followed.


4. English speaker: I really must stop drinking. If I don’t stop I will be sick! – Stronger refusal, but still polite, almost pleading, slight tenor change through use of the words ‘really’ and ‘must’, and more detailed explanation.


5. Korean: I’m sorry. I don’t want to force you. Shall we go? I will help you get a taxi. - Complete tenor change: Apology, realization of misunderstanding, and offer of help/assistance.



Part B - Dialog structure:


1. Introduction of cultural behavior that could be open to misinterpretation or seen as offensive to those from another culture.


2. Initial reaction from culturally different person.


3. Continuance of cultural behavior with continued ignorance of repercussions.


4. Stronger reaction by culturally different person.


5. Understanding, apology and refrain from cultural behavior causing trouble.












  Appendix V


Pictures taken from Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans, Min Byong-Chul, (1995), p26, 29, 46, 52, 124 &140, BCM Publications, Inc., Seoul, Korea.




A.  Eating squid in public.                    B.  Bragging about oneself.




C.  Forcing people to sing.                   D.  Asking personal questions.




        E.  Ridiculing  Korean food.               F.  Being rude to waitresses.