ATL: Communication skills – Using intercultural understanding to interpret communication

Use both hands to receive. Don’t stick the chopsticks in your bowl of rice. Never ever walk into someone’s home with your shoes on. These are just a few of the many Chinese customs and etiquette rules that we had to learn before moving here. So, why did we bother learning these? As expats, we could have always used the “I’m not from here, I didn’t know that’s what you do” card to excuse ourselves from not knowing the cultural norms of our host country. However, by acquainting ourselves with the various rules for social interaction, or at least the most widely used, we
made sure, not only that we could fit in and be respectful to the locals, but also that we could understand what was happening around us, especially when non-verbal communication was being used. This is what intercultural understanding is about.

When planning our first unit of the first year of Spanish, we decided that this ATL skill (use intercultural understanding to interpret communication) was essential. Unlike English, in Spanish we have different subject pronouns to address another person, depending on how much respect we need to show him or her, or the level of familiarity we have. In other words, we have two ways for saying you: tú or usted.  In Spanish-speaking countries, getting these pronouns mixed up can make for very awkward social interactions. Similarly, we have etiquette rules about the body language used for greetings and goodbyes, which also show us the level of respect or familiarity between two people. Knowing these will save you from embarrassing yourself and others.

So, how exactly to convey the importance of intercultural understanding for communication?  I started sharing some of the things that I mentioned at the start of this post with my students. I then asked them what other rules or social norms they knew and that are specific for China. Although not all the students knew some, they were all curious to know the rationale behind them. We were very lucky to have some Chinese students in the class who were able to clarify and explain them to us. Now it was the students’ turn to share unique etiquette rules or social norms from their own countries.  During both sharing sessions, I guided the students to think about rules that were specifically about how we address or interact with others or about how we greet or say goodbye. At this time, I asked the students why it is important to know these rules when communicating. For the students to consider this question, we did a Think-Pair-Share.  The students shared first within small groups and then the groups reported to the class. The answers were very insightful and it was clear that the students were aware why intercultural understanding is important for communication.

At this point, I introduced another Visible Thinking routine: I used to think…, but now I think.. with the document below.


Click here to download a PDF of the document.

The students spent some time filling in the I used to know... part individually. The guiding questions I gave the students were: What do you know about the words/phrases used in Spanish to greet/say goodbye?  What do you know about the body language used in Spanish-speaking countries when greeting or saying goodbye?

There were lots of different answers, which gave the class a good starting point.  As the unit progressed and we explored different aspects of the Hispanic culture and language conventions, the students went back to the document and filled in the but now I think… section.

To further explore this ATL skill, during the unit we looked at:

  • Differences between tú and usted and when to use each.
  • Words and phrases to greet and say goodbye and which are formal, informal or both.
  • Questions and answers to introduce yourself and have a basic conversation and how to have the conversation using formal and informal register.
  • Body language used for formal and informal greetings.

I used a variety of resources during this unit. Below you will find a few of them.

To explore the differences between tú and usted (formal and informal form of address) I used this video from Señor Jordan as a starter:

After exploring a variety of language conventions used to introduce ourselves and exchange information, I gave the students the document below to summarize their knowledge.


Click here to download a PDF version of the document.

To explore the body language used in greetings and goodbyes, the students read about greetings in Spanish-speaking countries and they watched this video:

We discussed the body language used in formal greetings.

I also showed them this document:


They also completed the following document to summarize their understanding of body language used in greetings in Spanish-speaking countries.


Download the file here.

You can find these and all the other resources that I use in my classes in my Pinterest!


Featured image by GLady on Pixabay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s