Incorporating culture into the english language classroom

Prof. Petrișor Adina,

Colegiul Național „Ecaterina Teodoroiu” Târgu Jiu

A question germane to our discussion is, how can we incorporate culture into the foreign language curriculum, with a view to fostering cultural awareness and communicating insight into the target civilization? In the past, this has been attempted by dint of discoursing upon the geographical environment and historical or political development of the foreign culture, its institutions and customs, its literary achievements, even the minute details of the everyday life of its members. At other times, insights into the target community have taken the form of ‘lecturettes’[1] or a “homily” on such issues as marriage customs and ceremonies, festivals, Sunday excursions, and so forth, thus rendering the study of the foreign culture a tedious and unrewarding task. Admittedly, we cannot teach culture any more than we can teach anyone how to breathe. What we can do, though, is try to show the way, to teach about culture rather than to posit a specific way of seeing things-which is corollary and ancillary to cultural and linguistic imperialism. By bringing to the fore some elements of the target culture, and focusing on those characteristics and traits that are of importance to the members of the target community-refraining from taking an outsider’s view-teachers can make students aware that there are no such things as superior and inferior cultures and that there are differences among people within the target culture, as well. ‘[Teachers are] not in the classroom to confirm the prejudices of [their] students nor to attack their deeply held convictions’[2]. Their task is to stimulate students’ interest in the target culture, and to help establish the foreign language classroom ‘not so much as a place where the language is taught, but as one where opportunities for learning of various kinds are provided through the interactions that take place between the participants’[3] (Ellis, 1992, cited in Kramsch).

According to Straub (1999), what educators should always have in mind when teaching culture is the need to raise their students’ awareness of their own culture, to provide them with some kind of metalanguage in order to talk about culture, and ‘to cultivate a degree of intellectual objectivity essential in cross-cultural analyses’[4]. What is more, another objective permeating the teaching of culture is ‘to foster… understanding of the target culture from an insider’s perspective-an empathetic view that permits the student to accurately interpret foreign cultural behaviors’[5]. Prior to considering some concrete techniques for teaching culture in the foreign language classroom, it is useful to attempt an answer to the question posed at the beginning of this chapter by providing some guidelines for culture teaching (most of the discussion that ensues is mainly based on Lessard-Clouston, 1997).

First, culture teaching must be commensurate with the dynamic aspects of culture. As Lessard-Clouston (1997) notes:

“[s]tudents will indeed need to develop knowledge of and about the L2 or FL culture, but this receptive aspect of cultural competence is not sufficient. Learners will also need to master some skills in culturally appropriate communication and behaviour for the target culture…[C]ultural awareness is necessary if students are to develop an understanding of the dynamic nature of the target culture, as well as their own culture”.

Second, it is important to eschew what Lessard-Clouston (1997) calls ‘a laissez-faire approach’, when it comes to teaching methodology, and deal with culture teaching in a systematic and structured way. Third, evaluation of culture learning is a necessary component of the “foreign culture curriculum,” providing students with feedback and keeping teachers accountable in their teaching. A fourth point is made by Cruz, Bonissone, and Baff (1995) pertaining to the express need for linguistic and cultural competence as a means of achieving and negotiating nations’ political and economical identities in an ‘ever shrinking world’[6], as they put it.

Our world has changed, but in many ways our schools have not. Linguistic and cultural abilities are at the forefront of our ever shrinking world. Yet we continue to shy away from addressing these very real global necessities. Just as no one superpower can dominate without censure from others, citizens must now begin to see their global responsibilities and must learn to move comfortably from one cultural environment to the next. Persuasion rather than armed coercion has become the way to do things politically and effective persuasion requires that one know the other party’s values and manner of establishing rapport[7]. Apparently, culture can become a third (or second, for that matter) “superpower” dispensing justice and helping maintain stability and equilibrium if need be.

A cursory glance at most textbooks nowadays is ample to show what educators must first combat and eradicate: stereotypes. As Byram, Morgan et al. (1994) observe, ‘[textbook writers] intuitively avoid bringing learners’ existing hetero-stereotypes into the open and hope that [their] negative overtones… will be… counteracted by presenting positive…images of the foreign country’[8]. As a matter of fact, stereotypes are extremely tenacious, in so far as people from different cultures have their own schemata through which they conceptualize and understand the world, and to step into another culture is ‘to deny something within their own being’[9]. In order to provide a different perspective on “the foreign culture,” teachers should use comparison, with a view to identifying common ground or even lacunae within or between cultures (see Ertelt-Vieth, 1990, 1991, cited in Byram, Morgan et al.)[10]. Most certainly, learners will not relinquish their ‘cultural baggage’ (ibid.) and begin to see the world “in the French, English, or Japanese way,” so to speak. Nevertheless, they can acknowledge that any “intellectual antinomies” emanating from their exposure to the target culture are natural and by no means pernicious.

Before venturing into unknown territories[11] (Grove, 1982), learners must first become conversant with what it means to be part of a culture, their own culture. By exploring their own culture, i.e., by discussing the very values, expectations, traditions, customs, and rituals they unconsciously take part in, they are ready to reflect upon the values, expectations, and traditions of others ‘with a higher degree of intellectual objectivity’[12] (Straub, 1999). Depending on the age and level of the learners, this task can take many forms. For example, young beginners or intermediate students should be given the opportunity to enjoy certain activities that are part of their own tradition, such as national sports, social festivities, or songs, before setting about exploring those of the target culture. Here, we will only be concerned with the latter. ‘Beginning foreign language students want to feel, touch, smell, and see the foreign peoples and not just hear their language’[13] (Peck, 1998). At any rate, the foreign language classroom should become a ‘cultural island’ (Kramsch, 1993; Singhal, 1998; Peck, 1998), where the accent will be on ‘cultural experience’ rather than ‘cultural awareness’[14] (see Byram, Morgan et al.). From the first day, teachers are expected to bring in the class posters, pictures, maps, and other realia in order to help students develop ‘a mental image’ of the target culture (Peck, 1998). According to Peck (1998), an effective and stimulating activity is to send students on “cultural errands” (my term) -to supermarkets and department stores-and have them write down the names of imported goods. Moreover, teachers can also invite guest speakers, who will talk about their experiences of the foreign country.

Another insightful activity is to divide the class into groups of three or four and have them draw up a list of those characteristics and traits that supposedly distinguish the home and target cultures. Tomalin & Stempleski (1993) provide a sample of the kind of list students could produce[15]:


race                                         national origin


architecture                              customs                                  arts and


clothing                                   physical features                      food


In this way, it becomes easier for teachers and students to identify any “stereotypical lapses” and preconceived ideas that they need to disabuse themselves of. To this end, once major differences have been established, students can be introduced to some ‘key words’[16] (Williams, 1983), such as “marriage,” “death,” “homosexuality,” etc., and thus be assisted in taking an insider’s view of the connotations of these words and concepts. In other words, they can query their own assumptions and try to see the underlying significance of a particular term or word in the target language and culture. For example, in English culture, both animals and humans have feelings, get sick, and are buried in cemeteries. In Hispanic culture, however, the distinction between humans and animals is great, and bullfighting is highly unlikely to be seen as a waste of time, as many western spectators are apt to say. For Spanish people, a bull is not equal to the man who kills it-a belief that has the effect of exonerating, so to speak, the bullfighter from all responsibility; a bull can be strong but not intelligent or skilful; these are qualities attributed to human beings. In this light, notions such as “cruel,” “slaughter,” or “being defenceless” carry vastly different undertones in the two cultures[17] (see Lado, 1986). Besides, the way language and social variables interpenetrate should inform culture teaching in the foreign language classroom. The main premise is that language varies according to social variables, such as sex, age, social class, location […], and the concomitant register differences should not go unnoticed. For example, students can be taught that there are certain words used more by women than by men, and vice versa, and that there are also different dialects which may not enjoy equal adulation and prestige (for example, Cockney as opposed to Received Pronunciation in England) (see Henrichsen, 1998).

Through exposure to the foreign civilization, students inescapably draw some comparisons between the home and target culture. ‘Cultural capsules’ (Singhal, 1998, and others), also known as ‘culturgrams’[18] (Peck, 1998), attempt to help in this respect, presenting learners with isolated items about the target culture, while using books and other visual aids. Yet, according to Peck, a more useful way to provide cultural information is by dint of cultural clusters, which are a series of culture capsules. Seelye (1984) provides such capsules, such as a narrative on the etiquette during a family meal. With this narrative as a springboard for discussion and experimentation, students can practice how to eat, learn how, and to what extent, the members of the target culture appreciate a meal with friends, and so forth. A word of caveat is called for, though. Students must not lose sight of the fact that not all members of the target community think and behave in the same way.

Henrichsen (1998) proposes, among others, two interesting methods: culture assimilators and cultoons[19]. Culture assimilators comprise short descriptions of various situations where one person from the target culture interacts with persons from the home culture. Then follow four possible interpretations of the meaning of the behaviour and speech of the interactants, especially those from the target culture. Once the students have read the description, they choose one of the four options they think is the correct interpretation of the situation. When every single student has made his choice, they discuss why some options are correct or incorrect. The main thrust of culture assimilators is that they ‘are good methods of giving students understanding about cultural information and…may even promote emotional empathy or affect if students have strong feelings about one or more of the options’[20]. On the other hand, cultoons are visual culture assimilators. Students are provided with a series of four pictures highlighting points of misunderstanding or culture shock experienced by persons in contact with the target culture. Here, students are asked to evaluate the characters’ reactions in terms of appropriateness (within the target culture). Once misunderstandings are dissipated, learners read short texts explaining what was happening in the cultoons and why there was misunderstanding. Nevertheless, much as cultoons ‘generally promote understanding of cultural facts….they do not usually give real understanding of emotions involved in cultural misunderstandings’[21].

Cultural problem solving is yet another way to provide cultural information[22] (see Singhal, 1998). In this case, learners are presented with some information but they are on the horns of a dilemma, so to speak. For example, in analysing, say, a TV conversation or reading a narrative on marriage ceremonies, they are expected to assess manners and customs, or appropriate or inappropriate behaviour, and to employ various problem-solving techniques-in short, to develop a kind of “cultural strategic competence” (my term). Singhal (1998) sets the scene: students are in a restaurant and are expected to order a meal. In this way, learners are given the opportunity to step into the shoes of a member of the target culture.

Indisputably, conventional behaviour in common situations is a subject with which students should acquaint themselves. For instance, in the USA or the United Kingdom, it is uncommon for a student who is late for class to knock on the door and apologize to the teacher. Rather, this behaviour is most likely to be frowned upon and have the opposite effect, even though it is common behaviour in the culture many students come from. Besides, there are significant differences across cultures regarding the ways in which the teacher is addressed; when a student is supposed to raise her hand; what topics are considered taboo or “off the mark”; how much leeway students are allowed in achieving learner autonomy, and so forth (for further details, see Henrichsen, 1998).

Alongside linguistic knowledge, students should also familiarise themselves with various forms of non-verbal communication, such as gesture and facial expressions, typical in the target culture. More specifically, learners should be cognisant of the fact that such seemingly universal signals as gestures and facial expressions-as well as emotions-are actually cultural phenomena, and may as often as not lead to miscommunication and erroneous assumptions (see Wierzbicka, 1999)[23]. Green (1968) furnishes some examples of appropriate gestures in Spanish culture[24]. An interesting activity focusing on non-verbal communication is found in Tomalin & Stempleski (1993)[25]: The teacher hands out twelve pictures showing gestures and then invites the students to discuss and answer some questions. Which gestures are different from those in the home culture? Which of the gestures shown would be used in different situations or even avoided in the home culture? Another activity would be to invite learners to role-play emotions[26]: The teacher writes a list of several words indicating emotions (happiness, fear, anger, joy, pain, guilt, sadness) and then asks the students to use facial expressions and gestures to express these emotions. Then follows a discussion on the different ways in which people from different cultures express emotions as well as interpret gestures as “indices” to emotions. As Straub[27] succinctly puts it, ‘[b]y understanding how cultures and subcultures or co-cultures use these signs to communicate, we can discover a person’s social status, group membership, and approachability’. According to him, it is important to encourage learners to ‘speculate on the significance of various styles of clothing, the symbolic meanings of colors, gestures, facial expressions, and the physical distance people unconsciously put between each other’[28], and to show in what ways these nonverbal cues are similar to, or at variance with, those of their culture.

Herein lies the role of literature in the foreign language classroom. Rather than being a fifth adjunct to the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), culture can best find its expression through the medium of literature. As Valdes (1986) notes[29], literature is a viable component of second language programs at the appropriate level and… one of [its] major functions… is to serve as a medium to transmit the culture of the people who speak the language in which it is written.

First of all, literary texts are an untapped resource of authentic language that learners can avail themselves of. Exposure to literary works can help them to expand their language awareness and develop their language competence. Moreover, trying to interpret and account for the values, assumptions, and beliefs infusing the literary texts of the target culture is instrumental in defining and redefining those obtaining in the home culture (Gantidou, personal communication). Of course, literature can extend to cover the use of film and television in the FL classroom, for they ‘have the capacity…to present language and situation simultaneously, that is, language in fully contextualized form’[30] (Corder, 1968, cited in Jalling, 1968). A major shortcoming, though, is that the viewer can only be an observer, not a participant. There is only reaction but no interaction on her part[31]. What is more, there are some difficulties regarding the methodology of teaching literature. Carter (1990, cited in Carter & McRae, 1996), for example, cautions that a limited knowledge of linguistics could blindfold teachers and students to the fact that literary texts are ‘holistic artefacts which are situated within cultural traditions, are historically shaped and grow out of the lived experiences of the writer’[32].

The literature on culture teaching methodology is vast and a great many techniques have been employed, in an attempt to strip away the layers of obfuscation the term culture has been cloaked in, and show that ‘a basic competence in the English language proper, with a minimum of cultural references’[33] (Bessmertnyi, 1994), not only is of little value but can also lead to misunderstanding, culture shock, even animosity among nations. What should be made explicit is that the “cultural references” Bessmertnyi alludes to can only act as facilitating devices, so to speak, in the process of socialisation into the target community. Knowing a second or foreign language should open windows on the target culture as well as on the world at large. By the same token, speaking English or Chinese should give the learner the opportunity to see the world through “English or Chinese eyes,” without making him relinquish his own grip of reality, his personal identity, which can step back and evaluate both home and target cultures. In a sense, cultural knowledge and experience should make us aware that, far from becoming members of the same ‘monocultural global village’[34] (Kramsch, 1987c), we can actually become observers and participants at the same time, registering what is transpiring in every culture and trying to find ‘third places’[35] (Kramsch, 1993), a third niche, from which to divine pernicious dichotomies and bridge cultural gaps. After all, as regards language teachers, ‘[w]e cannot teach an understanding of the foreign as long as the familiar has not become foreign to us in many respects’[36] (Hunfeld, 1990, translated by, and cited in, Kramsch, 1993).

[1] Wilga Marie Rivers, op. cit., p. 272

[2] Ibidem, p. 271

[3] Claire Kramsch, Context and Culture…, p. 245

[4] Ibidem, p. 5

[5] Ibidem

[6] Gladys I. Cruz, Paola R. Bonissone, Suzanne J. Baff, The Teaching of Culture in Bilingual Education Programs: Moving Beyond the Basics, In New York State Association for Bilingual Education Journal (v10 p1-5), 1995

[7] Ibidem

[8] Michael Byram, Carol Morgan and Colleagues, Teaching and learning language and Culture, British Library, 1994, p. 41

[9] Ibidem, p. 43

[10] Ibidem

[11] Cornelius L. Grove, Improving intercultural learning through the orientation of sojourners, Occasional Papers in Intercultural Learning. AFS International, 1982

[12] Henri Straub, op. cit.

[13] Deborah Peck, op. cit.

[14] Michael Byram, Carol Morgan and Colleagues, op. cit., pp. 55-60

[15] Barry Tomalin, & Susan Stempleski, op. cit., p. 16

[16] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London, Fontana, 1983

[17] Roberto Lado, op. cit.

[18] Deborah Peck, op. cit.

[19] L. E. Henrichsen, Understanding Culture and Helping Students Understand Culture, 1998 (Web document)

[20] Ibidem

[21] Ibidem

[22] M. Singhal, Teaching Culture in the Foreign Language Classroom, Thai TESOL Bulletin, Vol. 11 No. 1, February 1998

[23] Anna Wierzbicka, Emotions across Languages and Cultures. Diversity and Universals, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999

[24] Jerald R. Green, A Gesture Inventory for the Teaching of Spanish, Philadelphia, Chilton, 1968

[25] Barry Tomalin, & Susan Stempleski, op. cit., p. 117-119

[26] Ibidem, p. 116-117

[27] Henri Straub, op. cit., p. 6

[28] Ibidem

[29] Joyce Merrill Valdes, Culture Bound: Bridging the Cultural Gap in Language Teaching, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 137

[30] Hans Jalling, Modern Language Teaching, London, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 65

[31] Ibidem, p. 68

[32] Ronald Carter, and John McRae (eds.) Language, Literature and the Learner: Creative Language Practice, London, Longman, 1996, p. xxii

[33] Alexander Bessmertnyi, Teaching Cultural Literacy to Foreign-Language Students, English Forum, 32:1, January-March, 1994

[34] Claire Kramsch, Foreign language textbooks’ construction of foreign reality, Canadian Modern Language Review 44/1, 1987

[35] Claire Kramsch, Context and Culture…

[36] Ibidem, p. 234

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