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К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2010

Автор: Шахматова Ольга Юрьевна

Teaching culture and developing intercultural skills have become fashionable phrases in foreign and second language pedagogy in the last ten years. However, this is hopefully not only a superficial and quickly passing fad since many language teachers and researchers have established that the primary aim of second and foreign language acquisition is to enable learners to communicate with people coming from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds in a multicultural world. Since there is an increasing need to be able to deal with cultural diversity effectively and appropriately, students also need to acquire intercultural communicative competence. Therefore, we can see that while teaching linguistic skills, second and foreign language instructors should also integrate a variety of cultural elements in their language lessons.

It is extremely difficult to define what culture is. ‘Culture’ is believed to be one of the most complicated words in the English language. A lot of time can be spent on trying to give a precise definition of the word.

Byram refers to culture as:

‘the whole way of life of the foreign country, including but not limited to its

production in the arts, philosophy and “high culture” in general’.


Valette, however, highlights the two major components of culture in the following broad sense:

‘One is anthropological or sociological culture: the attitudes, customs, and daily activities of a people, their way of thinking, their values, their frames of reference.

Since language is a direct manifestation of this phase of culture, a society cannot be totally understood or appreciated without a knowledge of its language. The other component of culture is the history of civilisation. Traditionally representing the “culture” element in foreign language teaching, it includes geography, history, and achievements in the sciences, the social sciences and the arts.’

(Vallette inValdes)

Hofstede sees culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another”. In his pyramid model, he differentiates three levels of “the software of the mind”: universal, cultural and personal. The iceberg analogy of culture compares the notion of culture to an iceberg only the tip of which is visible (literature, food, architecture, landmarks, etc.), whereas a very large part of the iceberg is difficult to see or grasp (beliefs, values, attitudes, perceptions, etc.). The items in the invisible body of the iceberg could include an endless list of notions from definitions of beauty or respect to patterns of group decision-making, ideals governing child-raising, as well as values relating to leadership, prestige, health, love, death and so on.

Clearly, culture covers a wide territory. Its broadness is certainly an attraction but can also be considered as a problem. However, it is worth making a list of the areas it includes: literature, the arts in general, customs, habits and traditions, humans’ behavior, history, music, folklore, gestures, social relationship etc. These are ingredients and it is difficult to give a whole picture of them. This can be considered a problem deriving from the complicated nature of culture. Extending the image of culture leads us to the view that culture is ‘unbounded’ and ‘not static’ (Nelson), which opens the scope even wider.

About Intercultural Communicative Competence

Contact with other languages and cultures provides an excellent opportunity to foster the development of intercultural communicative competence (ICC, or intercultural competence, for short). Once intercultural contact has begun, ICC development generally evolves as an on-going and lengthy process, occasionally with periods of regression or stagnation, but more commonly with positive results and no end point. Different individuals bring differing goals and motivations to the intercultural experience that result in varying levels of competence. Some wish to achieve native-like behavior in the host culture; others may be content simply to gain acceptance; and for still others, mere survival may be adequate.

Generally, the more deeply one enters into a second language-culture (LC2), or "linguaculture", the greater the effects on one's native linguaculture (LC1). As a result, individuals often modify their initial perspectives of the world (or "worldview"). A willingness to truly engage in the new culture during a cross-cultural sojourn, promotes both transcendence and transformation of one's original mode of perceiving, knowing, and expressing about the world and interacting within it. Developing intercultural competencies aids this process.

But what exactly is intercultural competence? Although this term is in wide use today, there is no clear consensus about what it is. Some researchers stress global knowledge, others emphasize sensitivity, and still others point to certain skills.

One definition of ICC is that it is the complex of abilities needed to perform effectively and appropriately when interacting with others who are linguistically and culturally different from oneself.

The Importance of Culture in Language Teaching

Linguists and anthropologists have long recognized that the forms and uses of a given language reflect the cultural values of the society in which the language is spoken. Linguistic competence alone is not enough for learners of a language to be competent in that language (Krasner). Language learners need to be aware, for example, of the culturally appropriate ways to address people, express gratitude, make requests, and agree or disagree with someone. They should know that behaviors and intonation patterns that are appropriate in their own speech community may be perceived differently by members of the target language speech community. They have to understand that, in order for communication to be successful, language use must be associated with other culturally appropriate behavior.

In many regards, culture is taught implicitly, imbedded in the linguistic forms that students are learning. To make students aware of the cultural features reflected in the language, teachers can make those cultural features an explicit topic of discussion in relation to the linguistic forms being studied. For example, when teaching subject pronouns and verbal inflections in French, a teacher could help students understand when in French it is appropriate to use an informal form of address (tu) rather than a formal form of address (vous)—a distinction that English does not have. An English as a second language teacher could help students understand socially appropriate communication, such as making requests that show respect; for example, “Hey you, come here” may be a linguistically correct request, but it is not a culturally appropriate way for a student to address a teacher. Students will master a language only when they learn both its linguistic and cultural norms.


Teaching Culture Without Preconceptions

Cultural information should be presented in a nonjudgmental fashion, in a way that does not place value or judgment on distinctions between the students’ native culture and the culture explored in the classroom. Kramsch describes the “third culture” of the language classroom—a neutral space that learners can create and use to explore and reflect on their own and the target culture and language.

Some teachers and researchers have found it effective to present students with objects or ideas that are specific to the culture of study but are unfamiliar to the students. The students are given clues or background information about the objects and ideas so that they can incorporate the new information into their own worldview. An example might be a cooking utensil. Students would be told that the object is somehow used for cooking, then they would either research or be informed about how the utensil is used. This could lead into related discussion about foods eaten in the target culture, the geography, growing seasons, and so forth. The students act as anthropologists, exploring and understanding the target culture in relation to their own. In this manner, students achieve a level of empathy, appreciating that the way people do things in their culture has its own coherence.

It is also important to help students understand that cultures are not monolithic. A variety of successful behaviors are possible for any type of interaction in any particular culture. Teachers must allow students to observe and explore cultural interactions from their own perspectives to enable them to find their own voices in the second language speech community.

Intercultural competence and the teacher. Finally, for many teachers, culture teaching and learning is a relatively new and unfamiliar venture, especially in the framework of our model of culture learning. The problem is compounded by a lack of concrete examples of how to teach for intercultural competence and by teachers’ mistaken belief that they need to be culture experts. Rather, we hope teachers will come to share the view so perceptively expressed by Kane that, “By being the one invested with the knowledge and authority, the teacher’s responsibility is to invite - and join - the students in challenging unexamined beliefs and stereotypes. Teachers can become guides and partners in a process of culture learning and discovery with their students, rather than culture expert upon whom their students exclusively rely for cultural knowledge.

How to go about incorporating intercultural communication?

Some very simple general guidelines for language teachers and teacher trainers:

- If you do have first-hand experiences from other cultures, take every opportunity to tell your students about these and elicit their reactions as well as their own similar experiences;

- If the course book you use contains culturally-loaded texts (most of them do by definition), make sure you do not only exploit these texts for grammatical analysis and vocabulary building;

- Even grammar practice and vocabulary activities can be sources of cultural knowledge, means of intercultural skills development or ways to form open and accepting attitudes if you do not fail to add those two or three sentences that will help students understand the cultural dimension better;

- When you give writing tasks and tests, do not only assess your students’ knowledge of grammar rules and vocabulary items but sometimes ask them to write (guided) reflective compositions about their experiences in other countries or in their home town with people from other cultures;

- Encourage your students to look things up, be open, curious and non-judgmental, establish e-mail partnerships with students in other countries, participate in simulations, role-plays and ethnographic projects during language lessons (see concrete ideas below), and go on study trips if possible.

The role of culture in foreign language teaching materials: an evaluation from an intercultural perspective

Textbooks used in foreign language (FL) instruction are primarily designed to facilitate language learning, but they cannot simply do that since language learning is inseparable from its cultural context. As Cunningsworth states, “A study of language solely as an abstract system would not equip learners to use it in the real world” (Cunningsworth). For that reason, it is usually expected that FL teaching materials (TM) should include elements of the target language culture. Moreover, many documents analysed by Byram highlight three general goals of FL instruction:

- the development of communicative competence for use in situations the learners might expect to encounter;

- the development of an awareness of the target language;

- the development of insight into the foreign culture and positive attitudes toward foreign people.

But as Byram stresses, these three aims should be integrated. The extent and ways of incorporating cultural aspects in FL instruction vary in different TM, and therefore it is important for the FL teacher to know what to look for in a particular language textbook in order to decide if it is suitable for attaining the aforementioned goals.

Defining the cultural content for FL classes

One of the most difficult problems confronting FL teachers is the choice of adequate instructional materials. What should students learn about a foreign culture to be able to function in that culture? Different academics offer various suggestions concerning the cultural content of FL TM. In order to answer the abovementioned question, it is essential to examine some ways in which culture is reflected in FL textbooks.

Patrick Moran offers four categories where culture is identified as:

- knowing about, relating to cultural information – facts about products, practices and perspectives of the target culture as well as students’ own;

- knowing how, referring to cultural practices in the everyday life of the people of the target culture;

- knowing why, constituting an understanding of fundamental cultural perspectives – beliefs, values and attitudes;

- knowing oneself, concerning the individual learners’ self-awareness. In other words, students need to understand themselves and their own culture as a means to comprehending the target language culture.

Whereas the categorisation of culture concentrates mainly on description, the treatment of the cultural content in FL materials should also include analysis, comparison and contrast, which is more in keeping with the comparative method suggested by many scholars (Pulverness).

One of the aims of the FL classroom is the development of the learners’ awareness of intercultural issues and their ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in a variety of situations and contexts, given the increasingly international nature of contemporary life. In order for this to happen, learners need first to acquire knowledge about the target language community and then they need to reflect on their own culture in relation to other cultures (McKay). That is, in acquiring knowledge about and reflecting on the target language culture, students need to be encouraged not simply to observe similarities and differences between the two cultures, but they should also analyse them from the viewpoint of the others and try to establish a relationship between their own and other systems (Byram; McKay).

Intercultural awareness, described as “sensitivity to the impact of culturally induced behaviour on language use and communication” (Stempleski and Tomalin), comprises awareness of students’ own culturally induced behavior, awareness of the culturally induced behavior of the target language community, and ability to explain their own cultural standpoint.

ICC, according to Byram, requires certain attitudes, knowledge, and skills to be promoted, in addition to linguistic, sociolinguistic and discourse competence. The attitudes refer to curiosity and openness as well as “readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and belief about one’s own (Byram). The acquired knowledge is of two kinds: on the one hand, knowledge of social groups and their products and practices in one’s own and in the foreign country, and, on the other hand, knowledge of the general processes of individual and societal interaction (Byram). Finally, the skills comprise those of interpreting and relating, discovery and interaction as well as critical awareness/political education (Byram). Byram also maintains that the FL classroom provides ample opportunities for the acquisition of the abovementioned skills, knowledge and attitudes, provided it proceeds under the guidance of a teacher.



The idea of teaching culture is nothing new to second language teachers. In many cases, teaching culture has meant focusing a few lessons on holidays, customary clothing, folk songs, and food. While these topics may be useful, without a broader context or frame they offer little in the way of enriching linguistic or social insight - especially if a goal of language instruction is to enable students to function effectively in another language and society. Understanding the cultural context of day-to-day conversational conventions such as greetings, farewells, forms of address, thanking, making requests, and giving or receiving compliments means more than just being able to produce grammatical sentences. It means knowing what is appropriate to say to whom, and in what situations, and it means understanding the beliefs and values represented by the various forms and usages of the language.

Culture must be fully incorporated as a vital component of language learning. Second language teachers should identify key cultural items in every aspect of the language that they teach. Students can be successful in speaking a second language only if cultural issues are an inherent part of the curriculum.


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К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2010

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