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Culture in the Language Classroom

Studying a language is unlike any other subject.  In addition to reading, writing, listening and speaking students need to be aware of how to interact using the language within a new culture that is often very different from their own.   Many curricula, including those of Alberta, include culture as something that students need to learn when studying a language.  How can something as abstract as culture be taught?  What parts of our everyday life do we consider part of our culture?  In this section we will explore these questions and more in order to better understand how culture fits into the language classroom.
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What is culture?

“The National Center for Cultural Competence defines culture as an ‘integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thoughts, communications, languages, practices, beliefs, values, customs, courtesies, rituals, manners of interacting and roles, relationships and expected behaviors of a racial, ethnic, religious or social group; and the ability to transmit the above to succeeding generations’”

(Goode, Sockalingam, Brown, & Jones, 2000). http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/0309peterson.html

Why is culture important to language learning?

Culture is an absolutely essential part of the second language class. Without incorporating culture regularly, students lack an important component of the language learning process. Culture is indispensable in order to fully understand a language, its nuances and appropriate uses. Aside from understanding the linguistic side of language, culture is a key component in giving the student a well-rounded education in the chosen language and provides a context for understanding one's own culture.

What are the different types of culture?

In languages, we talk about “big C” and “little c” culture.

What is “big C” culture?
Big C culture refers to that culture which is most visible. Some visible forms of culture include holidays, art, popular culture, literature, and food. When learning about a new culture, the big C cultural elements would be discovered first; they are the most overt forms of culture.
What is “little c” culture?
Little c culture, in contrast, in the more invisible type of culture associated with a region, group of people, language, etc. Some examples of little c culture include communication styles, verbal and non-verbal language symbols, cultural norms (what is proper and improper in social interactions), how to behave, myths and legends, etc.

Recent views of culture include the three p’s of culture: products, practices and perspectives. Products are the ‘big C’ cultural elements such as architecture, literature, etc. Practices are ‘little c” cultural elements like bowing, shaking hands, etc. Perspectives are the underlying values and beliefs of a people; this is the riskiest thing in terms of stereotyping.

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How is culture learned?

People can gain information about culture by way of cultural knowledge and cultural experience. Cultural knowledge can be gained without ever leaving the language classroom. Through a variety a tools and resources (i.e. guest speakers, videos, internet clips, radio reports/shows, literature, etc.) students can be exposed to a large variety of culturally significant elements. While it’s true that there is no substitute for personal cultural experiences, the previously mentioned approaches, techniques and tools can be used to facilitate students’ cultural learning. By providing them with as many real-life, authentic experiences as possible, a SL teacher can widen the students’ cultural awareness and competence. For more information about the effectiveness and impact of these real-life experiences, see Dale’s Cone of Experience. Cultural experience, on the other hand, requires personal, tangible experience with the culture. Cultural experience can occur through one-on-one contact with native speakers and trips to regions where the language is spoken.

What is “intercultural competence”?

As Mike Byram (1997) writes, “…[intercultural communicative competence] requires that students acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and critical cultural awareness necessary to communicate interculturally.” Intercultural knowledge means knowing about one’s own culture and the culture of the second language. This means that students need to gain knowledge of many countries that speak the language and their associated cultures. Along with knowledge of the culture, students need to gain knowledge and understanding of societal and cultural norms, values and interactions associated with the culture(s) of the second language.

For examples of how different dimensions of culture compare in western and non-western cultures, click here. For more information about cultural competence and cultural norms, click here.

Teaching intercultural competence means engaging students in a guided self-reflective process. Learners need to be challenged to examine themselves and the commonly held attitudes, values, beliefs and practices in their everyday world. By comparing similarities and differences between their milieu and that of others, and reflecting on how their society can include all, learners can develop an ethic of caring. Moral philosopher Nel Noddings (1984) puts it this way:

“We are both free – that which I do, I do – and bound – I might do far better if you reach out to help me and far, far worse if you abuse, taunt, or ignore me. As we build an ethic of caring and as we examine education under its guidance, we shall see that the greatest obligation of educators, inside and outside formal schooling, is to nurture ideals of those with whom they come in contact.” (p.49)

How is culture understood?

We go through a process of stages to understand culture.

Stage 1
We begin the process by comparing the new culture (C2) to our own culture (C1). At this early stage and with a lack of experience and knowledge about C2, the two cultures are seen as completely equal, with no differences between them. We don’t know that C2 is any different from C1; we assume they are the same, except for the words.
Stage 2
Over time, we begin to discover little differences between C1 and C2.
Stage 3
We then see even more differences; at this stage C1 and C2 appear to have some commonalities, but have more differences.
Stage 4
With time, we accept that C1 isn’t C2. In short, we are finally able to see that although there might be some commonalities between the two cultures, they are separate.

What can be used to introduce culture in the language classroom?

  • Art work
  • Commercials
  • Videos/movies (made in the original country)
  • Music videos
  • News casts
  • Pod casts
  • Radio
  • Field trips
  • Festivals
  • Maps
  • Songs
  • Newspapers
  • Anecdotes
  • Illustrations
  • Photographs
  • Literature
  • Stories
  • Authentic materials (Materials used by native speakers)

How can these materials be used in the language classroom?

In order for students to understand the culture of the TL (C2) as separate and distinct from their own culture (C1), they need to be able to engage with authentic materials, like those listed above, and not simply be exposed to them. In other words, playing a song from the C2 as students enter is a good way to set the mood for a class, but it isn’t exposing the students to the culture in a meaningful way. In order for the experience and exposure to be meaningful, there must be some discussion or additional activities used on conjunction with the authentic material in order to push students towards a deeper understanding of the C2.

Providing students with the opportunity to learn from and engage with the material is easier with some of the above mentioned materials than with others. For example, commercials, films, music videos, and news casts (i.e. material that is both visual and active) present elements of the C2 in a relatively overt and obvious way that could more easily allow students to discuss how the culture is being represented and what differences exist between C1 and C2. Other materials, like pictures and photographs, are more difficult to use in an effective way that demonstrates the C2 in action.

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How can pictures and photographs be used effectively to teach culture?

Watch the video below. How could this language activity incorporate cultural elements? (time 6:48)

Many language classrooms are overflowing with visuals. Students are exposed to images related to a great variety of topics; there are images of vocabulary terms, picture prompts to help students express themselves orally, photographs from regions where the TL is spoken, and text books dotted with colourful images. Having these images available to students is important, but often the cultural significance of them is not made clear. Text book pictures are a good example of this; often images are included in language textbooks as a tool for student to practice a new concept or to reinforce what is being discussed in a particular section. As Allford (2000) states, the problem is that illustrations in course books often provide no more than occasions for language exercises, to which the images themselves are largely incidental. If illustrations are routinely used for this purpose, it would not be surprising if students came to view them in a narrowly functionalist way, merely as the means to answering linguistic puzzles. The effect could be to induce in students a form of blindness to other aspects of such images, thereby negating their value in providing vivid insights into the TL society and culture.

In order to combat this, students need to be asked to interpret the illustrations and photographs they see and to realize what elements of culture are being portrayed. This could be achieved by asking students simple questions such as “What do you think is happening in the illustration?” In this way, we move beyond simply looking at the physical elements of the picture- the people, the colour of their clothing, their geographical location- and move towards a deeper understanding of what elements of the C2 are being represented.

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 Culture in Second Language Teaching

The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom


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Copyright © Olenka Bilash May 2009 ~ Last Modified January 2011