Adapting to an Alien Culture & Language

By Neil Root
Neil Root is a writer and London based English Language teacher with 10 years experience.

Adapting to an alien culture

By Gulustan (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

EFL teachers are usually adventurous people, and one of the main reasons people do the job is to travel and broaden their experiences. It can be thrilling and massively rewarding, and develop your character greatly. But it is also important to remember that you are going to a country with an alien culture or language, unless you’re lucky enough to know the country and speak the language.

When culture shock kicks in

It’s the first few weeks that hit you. For a few days on arrival you’re busy meeting colleagues and your boss, settling into where you live, exploring like a tourist. But then you are into the working routine, and you have to operate like you would at home, but with far more hurdles in your way. It’s worth attempting to learn the language there (or before you depart) if you can- it can be very alienating. I happen to be very tall, and I remember teaching in Azerbaijan, and the stares I used to get walking around because I towered over the locals. It was quite disconcerting at first, but I got used to it after a while, although for a time I was checking my flies weren’t undone regularly!

Mix with your colleagues

Go out with your colleagues for drinks when they invite you, and if students offer any hospitality, go for it. You’ll learn a lot about the culture and traditions. Explore the city or village you’re in, getting lost in a new place is great, but be careful- when I was teaching in a large European city, I wandered all over, but found myself in a less salubrious neighbourhood which I later heard was a gang area, and there I was taking pictures, marvelling at the old buildings (which may well have been brothels or crack houses in retrospect). I got stares there too, but not because I was tall.

Throw yourself into the place and your job, enjoy every minute and if you ever feel alienated, speak to a colleague, and just remember that everywhere is just a plane trip away. If you can’t learn the language easily, at least learn enough so you can interact and hold basic conversations. I remember being asked for directions in Czech in Prague after I’d been there a few months. I think I may have sent him the wrong way, but I was thrilled to be asked anyway.


Neil Root is a London-based writer and journalist who has also worked as an English language teacher for ten years, in London and several countries abroad.