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This page was a collaborative effort on the part of the graduate students and language instructors from the Universities of Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee. On this page, we have synthesized the main ideas from select articles and books on how and to what degree the target culture should be integrated into foreign language classrooms. In addition to this, we have added our own personal opinions on this topic drawn from our classroom and teaching experience.
Table of Contents
Personal definitions of culture and its role in foreign language teaching
Definition of "culture" according to foreign language acquisition (FLA) scholars and its presence in the FL classroom
History of culture and language teaching pedadogy
The main methods
Grammar translation method
Additional opinions on how culture should be taught
Culture in our classrooms
Culture and social change
Difficulties in including culture in the classroom
Strategies, techniques, and tools for teaching culture in the classroom
A. Personal definitions of "culture" and its role in foreign language teaching
alez (Spanish instructor at UT):
I have always thought of culture as a set of values, customs, and history that distinguish one social group from another. They can exist within a single country or can distinguish countries. In other words, the differences are what define a culture.
Brad Hinton (German M.A. Student at UT):
My definition of culture is all aspects of a society (music,history,science,religion) that mix to give that society its identity and thus character, differentiating one culture from other cultures.
Harris King (German instructor at USC):
For me culture consists of the elements in daily life that give people a unique group identity. When teaching a foreign language, lessons on culture should be a daily part of the scholarship in order for culture to be an integrated part of the learning and not just random asides from the teacher.
Erin McDavitt (Spanish instructor at USC):
Culture is the experience of living in a certain country with all its peculiar practices, products and perspectives which can be most richly experienced through that culture's language. Educators need to bridge the gap between language and culture and make students realize that different is not inherently inferior, they need to see the relativism that makes for social change.
Sharon Ramos (French instructor at UF):
In my experience, culture was always the most interesting part of learning a foreign language. The norms, history, geography, literature, works of art, and the way people think are all factors that intertwine to form a culture. My curiosity for these things is what hooked me at an early on and pushed me to continue learning for the many years it took me to master a foreign language. Grammar will get dry eventually and that is why we as instructors should fuel the interest of our students with something that can make the language appear more meaningful to them. Culture instruction should begin from the first semester of foreign language teaching. When language learning is tied to culture education, the student not only learns how to read, write, listen, and speak in a new language, but also learns how to see with a different perspective. A person is never the same once they have discovered a new way of thinking and living. It is for this reason that I believe that culture education is indespensible in language teaching.
Romana Rouskova (German instructor at UT)
: Teaching a foreign language is teaching another culture. Teaching a foreign culture makes that foreign language more attractive to the students.
Carmen Sales (Spanish instructor at UF):
I have always thought that teaching a foreign language also implies teaching a foreign culture. From my point of view it is very important that students get to understand the target culture. I would define culture as those elements that differentiate a group of people, as for instance, their values, their ideas and their history. I think that it is very positive for students to get to understand a different culture for this will help them broaden their visions and ideas. It will also provide them with the possibility of getting rid of some stereotypes they can have about another culture that is different to their own culture.
B. Definition of "culture" according to FLA scholars and its presence in the FL classroom
Latorre defines “Culture” as the “teaching of unusual, false or trivial aspects of lifestyle chosen mainly because they appear different from North American ways and are thereby assumed, often mistakenly, to be more interesting to the foreign language learner” (673). Another form of Culture is what we associate with famous writers from a country, when they address the values of their society. Finally, the third type of Culture to which Latorre refers is that dimension of the target language that even native speakers of that target language don’t necessarily know or do.
Culture is not only the artifacts, norms, and rituals of a certain people but also the meaning system or hidden significance underlying these.
From the beginning of learning another language, one also learns culture. Thanasoulas, taking ideas from Kramsch, says that culture "is always in the background, right from day one" and serves to deconstruct their stereotypes of the target culture, thereby "challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them" (1993: 1). According to Thanasoufas, teaching culture is not just merely transmitting isolated facts about the native speakers of the target language. Learning another language through its cultures is a way for the students to renegotiate meanings not only in grammar, but also about realities within the target culture.
Byram & Grundy:
According to Byram & Grundy, both Faecke and Holtzer suggest that every student of foreign language comes from a different culture and have their own cultural identity, distinct behavior, and reactions to normal situations. Learning a foreign language eventually adjusts students into accepting the target culture. Byram and Grundy also state that teaching English worldwide as a lingua franca is misleading because there is more than one culture within the English language (i.e. Australian English and culture is different than North American English and culture, British English and culture,and so on), This can affect the teaching and learning of any language because of the multiple cultures that speak that language.
II. History of culture and language teaching pedadogy
A. The main methods
Grammar translation method (GTM)
The main goal of GTM is to learn how to understand foreign language literature. The focus is not on oral production but rather on perfect written translation and reading comprehension. It was the oldest and most common learning method used until the 1960s. The exposure students had to culture was very limited being that their main tool for learning it was through reading books.
Audiolingual method (ALM)
This method, which was very popular in 1960s, focuses on gramatically correct speech. The teacher is the main stimulus/facilitator of language production. ALM was a breakthrough from the traditional Grammar Translation Method: speaking finally became more important than only reading and translating. The main exposure students had to the culture of the target language was through controlled interaction with native speakers in the classroom.
Language & culture are more naturally integrated in this approach. Culture instruction is connected to grammar instruction. Its main goal is to teach students how to use the target language when communicating in a cultural context.
In addition to the methods formerly listed, the following are other common approaches to teaching culture: (from Omaggio)
The Frankenstein Approach
: A taco from here, a flamenco dancer from there, a gaucho from here, a bullfight from there.
The 4-F Approach
: Folk dances, festivals, fairs and food.
The Tour Guide Approach
: The identification of monuments, rivers and cities.
The "By-the-Way" Approach
: Sporadic lectures or bits of behavior selected indiscriminately to emphasize sharp differences.
B. Additional opinions on how culture should be taught
Latorre supports the idea of focusing a little more on similarities, instead of the differences, between cultures. First, he believes that differences between the cultures do not represent the target culture. The differences between the cultures also create false expectations in the learner and can even promote “caricatures” of the target culture. Focusing on differences may emphasize aspects of the target culture that are no longer typical/representative of the culture of interest, for example, bullfighting in Spain, which is argueably more of a tourist attraction in more current times than a representative facet of Spanish life and culture. In short, Latorre believes that focusing on differences instead of on the similarities contributes to people misunderstanding other cultures, often thinking that the foreign cultures are "exotic," perhaps more exotic than they actually are. What Latorre suggests that any teacher of any foreign language should do is focus on the “true differential, the language [itself], rather than enlarging beyond proportion attitudes and activities which are either regional, outdated, or downright non-existent” (672).
According to Lee, one of the most important factors for success in learning a foreign language is the need for students to get involved in the learning process. The use of materials based on internet technologies offers many innovative ways of getting students involved in the process of learning a language. Students can get to know the target culture by means of interacting directly with native speakers via on-line communication, with mail exchanges or chatrooms.
From her point of view, it is crucial that the students can learn not only the language but also the diversity of the target culture. That is why, according to her, internet resources, such as newspapers and magazines, have a great importance, since they provide students with authentic and current information that can help them understand the target culture. Reading on-line newspapers makes students aware of current social phenomena.
According to Lee, recent studies have proved that internet resources can help students improve their language skills in a similar way to full immersion or study abroad, although are based basically on written communication. Besides, this use of on-line resources are more beneficial to students at the advanced level because they require a high level of language proficiency to read, comprehend, and respond to cultural readings, for example, newspapers.
In H.H. Stern's breakthrough 1983 study "Fundamental concepts of language Teaching," there are concepts of day-to-day culture and customs that should be used in the classroom. Stern uses a four component model including a 'cultural syllabus' for culture teaching. Stern expounded on Seeyle's works stating that English as a Second Language and English as a Foreign language are equally important in culture pedagogy. The most important part of Stern's research involves his 3-level framework of foreign culture pedagogy: teaching social sciences, applying theory/research, and their practical applications in the classroom. In the 1990s, Stern's cultural/communication mix evolved from describing sociocultural contexts of second language/foreign language to contexts of competence in second culture acquisition (not just language acquisition). This is the first time that cultural pedagogy and social sciences had been paired.
In order to teach culture, instructors of the mid-1980's used the minimalist approach. They usually gave students facts about a country or countries where the target language is spoken, and these facts were merely the background to the main goal of mastering the grammatical structures of the target language. Oftentimes audio-visual materials substituted face-to-face interaction with the foreign culture. Eventually, however, the very concept of culture tended to overemphasize two opposing, but equally unbalanced, views of culture.” According to Webber, these two views were: (1) surface culture, usually in form of stereotypes, and (2) high culture, meaning non-pop culture literature, art, music,etc. In short, this view negatively defines culture as "that which we teach when we are not teaching what we really should be teaching--language and literature" (282). It instead ended up being something to fill in leftover classtime or for when students need a break from rigourous material.
Seelye: (from Omaggio)
Foreign language (FL) teachers should make culture more of a central role in the class
FL teachers should throw out teaching culture in terms of isolated facts
FL teachers should have an awareness of the past on the present within any culture without focusing too much on the past
FL teachers should be aware of cognitive and affective influences on the students
FL teachers should engage students as active participants
FL teachers should teach culture in such a way that students can be cross-cultural here and abroad
Given that the teacher’s assumptions about how language and lang learning affect how he or she teaches lang and culture, the approach should aim for communicative competence (that is, real communication)
Tang discussed the use of performance-based theory developed by Walker (2000) who suggests that culture could be better taught if done through simulated social interactions in the classroom, for example hosting a guest or accepting a gift. This serves to create a “default memory” within the student's mind that will help him perform in the target culture without drawing conclusions or using as a reference his own base culture which could lead to misunderstandings.
Tang also discourages the pure instruction of behavioral culture in the classroom and says that to perform effectively in a target culture one must not only be able to master it linguistically, be familiar with its artifacts, norms and rituals but also with the meaning system, or the hidden significance underlying these. This is why she believes that Walker's performance-based theory can only work properly if the true meaning system underlying the simulated situations and interations created in the classroom are internalized by the students.
To describe how culture may taught in the classroom, Tang first breaks down using the National Standards model, the Three P's, into three separate categories: cultural perspectives, cultural products, and cultural practices. Cultural perspectives are the values, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions shared within a culture. Cultural products are things such as literature, music, art, or even utensils such as chopsticks; tangible items that are linked to a certain culture. Cultural practices are the acceptable behavioral patterns, forms of discourse, and rites of passage within a specific culture. Although this model creates new distinction and builds upon the older Hammerlian model of the Big Culture (Big C) and the little culture (little c) by creating a new framework that emphasizes the importance of the meaning system in culture, Tang suggests that one of these 3 parts may be superfluous and offers in place of the 3 P model a 2 M model consisting of the Cultural Mind and Cultural Manifestations. The Cultural Mind is equivalent to the cultural perspective segment of the 3 P model. It is the meaning system of a culture. Cultural Manifestations link into one category cultural products and cultural practices. They are similar enough to be joined in that they are both manifestations of the cultural mind. They are the embodiments and the expressions of the underlying beliefs, values, and worldwide views of a specific society.
III. Culture in our classrooms
Culture is not an optional element for the foreign language classroom. According to the national guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), teaching culture is one of the 5 C's (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities) that we need to impress upon our students. More specifically, the goals are that students "demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied," which means that we should encourage the students to understand why other cultures do what they do and what the members of that culture think about the reasons behind what they do. In addition, the students should come to an understanding of "the relationship between the products and perspectives of the culture studied." This means that we should enlighten the students on what members of other cultures do and what these peoples' own opinions are about what they do. Moreover, culture should be starting point for all classroom education. In keeping with the 5 C's,
is used to make
and in doing so students can have meaningful
within those communties. At present, however, text book materials have not caught up with the standards and it is up to the teacher to integrate culture into the classroom. Teachers must be life-long learners in order to stay abreast of cultural developments and become well versed in the use of technology inside and outside of the classroom in order to allow students to come in contact with cultural elements.
Culture and social change
Culture also provides a function of realizing social change. Claire Kramsch has been one of the few voices to emphasize not only the mediating function of language in cultural constructions, but also the importance culture plays in bringing about social change. She points out that learning how to behave accordingly in distinct discourse communities breeds diversification, tolerance and understanding. Nonetheless it is when (as many teachers do) language is presented as a formal structure, independent of mutable cultural shadings, that the potential power of cultural knowledge is lost. By accepting and promoting the diverse, ever-changing character of culture through language, culture is rendered arbitrary (not to be confused with gratuitous). Kramsch rightly asserts that teachers need to explore what could have been, so that students understand that the Other is in them and that stereotypes are also arbitrary. At least this is what educators hope will happen. At any rate, the narrow conceptions of language and culture that are seen in many language classrooms today surely do nothing to dismantle stereotypes nor do they present language in its inherent cultural contexts, the contexts in which cultural difference can be a tool to achieve social change.
A. Difficulties in including culture in the classroom
According to Omaggio:
Culture is complex and elusive and is difficult to include in linear instructional formats.
Culture requires time that many teachers feel that do not have.
Teachers avoid culture because of their own perceived lack of knowledge.
Culture often requires both teacher and learner to move beyond their level of comfort when confronted with deeper, sometimes controversial issues.
When teaching languages that are spoken in many different countries, e.g., Spanish, where are the cultural boundaries?
According to Tang:
Often, the lack of materials at the instructor's disposal that are conducive for culture instruction causes a majour problem when trying to teach culture in the classroom. Tang suggests that to overcome the former problem FL teachers should look into sister disciplines such as history, religion, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology and to pull from these fields pieces of knowledge that can enhance the instruction within your classroom.
B. Strategies, techniques, and tools for teaching culture in the classroom
According to Lafayette the most basic issue in cross-cultural education is the degree to which the study of language and culture are integrated. His suggestions for achieving this type of integration are: (from Omaggio)
Cultural lessons and activities need to be planned as carefully as language activities and integrated into lesson plans.
Present cultural topics in conjunction with related thematic units and closely related grammatical content whenever possible.
Use a variety of techniques for teaching culture that involve speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. Do not limit cultural instruction to lecture or anecdotal formats.
Make a good use of textbook illustrations and photos. Use of realia.
Use cultural information when teaching vocabulary. Teach students about the connotative meaning of new words.
Use small-group techniques, such as discussions, brainstorming, and roleplays, for cultural instruction.
Avoid a "facts only" approach by including experiental and process learning wherever possible.
Use the target language whenever possible.
Test cultural understanding as carefully as language is tested.
Crawford-Lange and Lange offer some suggestions that a teacher should take into account when preparing an activity in order to achieve the integration of language and culture study, such as: (from Omaggio)
Making the learning of culture a requirement.
Integrating language learning and culture learning.
Allowing for the identification of a spectrum of proficiency levels.
Addressing the affective as well as the cognitive domain.
Considering culture as a changing a variable rather than a static entity.
Providing students with with the skill to re-form perceptions of culture.
Providing students with the ability to interact succesfully in novel cultural situations.
Exemplifying that participants in the culture are the authors of the culture.
Relating to the native culture.
Relieving the teacher of the burden of being the cultural authority.
Picture books deal with personal, social, and political topics just as other types of literature do.
A more thorough focus on culture is acheived because students have to deal less with language and grammar issues.
The brevity of the texts allows for dealing with topics in a much shorter time frame.
The texts that accompany the pictures are easier to understand due to simpler grammar and vocabulary.
Plot lines are more straight forward and students can quickly pick up on the underlying moral or didactic theme of the story.
However, more in depth messages can be conveyed because the pictures, in combination with the text, play a large role in this and are easier to understand by the students.
Moreover, the combination of texts and pictures activates both sides of the brain and doesn't ignore the fact that most students are visual learners.
Finally, these seemingly simple stories can become highly addictive, thus exciting the students even more about the study of the target language.
Using popular music in the classroom can be effective because students can be exposed songs in the L2 that they would find entertaining if they were in their L1.
Songs can be used for culture, but they can also be used to reinforce aspects of grammar depending on the situation.
Students will potentially internalize the elements of culture presented in the songs due to the message (lyrics) being combined with a melody that the students hopefully enjoy.
Historical films may be used in a classroom to give the students a glimpse of what was once the reality of the target language culture. History shapes the kind people we are today.
Exposure to authentic materials describing current events in the target language countries, for example: online radio and news broadcasts should be incorporated into the foreign language classroom. Students must be aware of the the current reality in the target language countries. With this knowledge they are better equipped to create a more accurate understanding for themselves of the target language culture.
(on-line newspapers and online-chatrooms) taken from Lina Lee
On-line newspapers and on-line chatrooms create opportunities for students to read authentic materials that could provide them with cultural knowledge.
Students can enhance intercultural exchanges via on-line chatrooms and they receive inmediate responses and feedback.
Reading on-line newspapers makes students aware of current social phenomena.
On-line newspapers and on-line chatrooms improve students' writing and speaking skills and promote collaborative learning.
Students can get to know the target culture by means of interacting directly with native speakers via on-line communication, with mail exchanges or chatrooms.
These are activities involve physical movement of the body in accordance with words of the foreign language. It is part of the Total Physical Response (TPR) method of foreign-language teaching which was widely used several decades ago. Examples of it include dancing, singing, and many other such activities.
Native informants can be very useful for a teacher since they are sources of current information about the target language, as well as linguistic models for students.
The teacher should prepare the students before the native informants come to class by suggesting them to develop a set of questions they would like to ask the informants in the target language.
Reading and Realia
(for instance birth and marriage notices)
Students can compare their culture and the target culture.
Students are encouraged to think about their own culture and customs and how those customs reflect the values of the society in which they live.
Students can see how the values and way of life in other societies are manifested in their customs and behaviors.
The fact that the students can compare and contrast, together with the accompanying analysis activities help students learn to understand and accept different ways of dealing with basic human needs and see them as valid.
Videotaped Interviews/Observational Dialogues
Videotaped interviews and situational role-plays are a very good way to provide natural, authentic linguistic exchanges that include also paralinguistic information.
They can be used to show conventional gestures and other cultural features, for example, appropiate social distance, eye contact, and the like.
They are very useful when prepared without a complete script, although partial scripts might be helpful.
When students watch the videotaped materials, they should note certain behaviors and conventional linguistic expressions.
Byram, M. & Grundy, P. (2003). Context and Culture in Language Teaching and Learning. NY: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Kramsch, C. (1995). The Cultural Component of Language Teaching.
Language, Culture and Curriculum 8
Lange, D., & Paige, M. (2003).
Culture As the Core: Perspectives on Culture in Second Language Education (Research in Second Language Learning).
Information Age Publishing.
Latorre, Guillermo. “Teaching "Culture," Culture and Culture.” Hispania 68.3 (Sep 1985): 671-673.
Lee, Lina, "Going Beyond Classroom Learning: Acquiring Cultural Knowledge via On-line Newspapers and intercultural Exchanges via On-Line Chatrooms." CALICO Journal, Vol. 16, 2, 101-120.
Lessard-Clouston, M. “Towards an Understanding of Culture in L2/FL Education.” Ronko: K.G. Studies in English 25 (1997): 131-150.
Moffit, Gisela. (2003). Beyond "Struwwelpeter": Using German picture books for cultural exploration.
Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German, 36
Omaggio, Alice. (2001).
Teaching Language in Context
. Heinle and Heinle.
Tang, Y. (2006). Beyond Behavior: Goals of Cultural Learning in the Second Language Classroom.
The Modern Language Journal, 90
Thanasoulas, Dimitrios. "The Importance of Teaching Culture in the Foreign Language Classroom." Radical Pegagogy (2001). Available:
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