Culture and Foreign Language Teaching

时间:2022-10-23 03:18:46

【Abstract】 Culture teaching has been considered to be a very important element in foreign language teaching. Since English has become an international language, this paper mainly talks about the relationship between culture and English teaching. There are three parts in this paper: I. The role of culture in English teaching; II. Culture teaching methods in the English classroom; III. A danger in teaching cultures in English class.

【Key words】 foreign language teaching; English teaching; culture; culture teaching

There is a close relationship between language and culture. Every language is part of a culture. There is neither a kind of culture without its corresponding language nor a kind of language without its corresponding culture. Language is the carrier of culture as well as the depiction of culture. So culture introduction is not only inseparable from foreign language teaching (FLT) but also extremely important in FLT. The highest purpose of language teaching is to learn about the culture of another country. But in fact it was not until recent years that teaching culture in language courses has been widely emphasized. More and more foreign language teachers came to realize that they have to teach culture, because without culture, they were just teaching meaningless symbols or symbols to which students attached the wrong meanings. Just as Sapir (1970) stated that it is not possible to understand even a simple poem without understanding culture-the whole life of the community and its overtones. Language teachers also have to recognize that without understanding cultural meanings, it is not possible to understand language as its native speakers do, no matter how well they can manipulate the vocabulary and grammatical forms of the language.

Since English has become an international language and now is most widely used in the world, most of Chinese students select it as the first foreign language. So in this paper, I will mainly discuss the relationship between culture and English Teaching and how culture teaching can be conducted in English classroom to help Chinese students learn English more effectively.

First, I would like to talk about the role of culture in English teaching. By doing so, the reason culture learning is useful for language learning will be made clear.

Then, I will talk about how to incorporate culture teaching in English class, which can help students perceive differences between English and Chinese cultures and also provide them with opportunities to try to accept and adjust themselves to the differences.

Finally, I must warn the English teachers to teach with care. This is because there is a danger in teaching cultures in English class. I will also discuss how teachers should avoid this danger in teaching English culture.

I. The Role of Culture in English Teaching

Culture plays a role in language teaching in two important ways.

First, culture is significant in the linguistic dimension of the language itself, affecting the semantic, pragmatic, and discourse levels of the language.

On a semantic level, culture is embedded in many of the lexical phrases of English, for example, in well-known U.S. English phrases such as big stick diplomacy, yellow journalism, and Uncle Tom. In terms of teaching English as an international language (EIL), if there is no need for L2 speakers to internalize the cultural norms of native speakers, then the teaching of such phrases in an English class needs to be questioned. Thus, one important choice that teachers of EIL need to make is what lexical phrases should be included in an EIL curriculum.

In reference to the pragmatic level, many current English textbooks devote attention to teaching appropriateness in language use. Some texts, for example, point out that, when receiving a compliment, learners of English should acknowledge and accept the compliment with a simple response, such as “thank you”. However, research in cross-cultural pragmatics has clearly demonstrated that there are vast differences in how various cultures enact a particular speech act so that, in some cultures, it is typical to downplay a compliment, leading one to react with responses such as: “I could have done better.” If learners of an international language do not need to internalize the cultural norms of native speakers, then there is no reason why L2 speakers of EIL need to conform to the pragmatic rules of native speakers of English.

A similar situation occurs at the discourse level of language teaching. Research in contrastive rhetoric has demonstrated that there are differences in how various cultures develop particular genres, such as that used in a business letter or an argumentative essay. Again, the question arises as to what extent learners of EIL need to internalize the discourse rules of native speakers of English. In this instance, the rhetorical goals of the L2 speakers of English, as well as the intended audience of the text, need to be considered when making curriculum choices in EIL teaching.

Second, culture is operative in a pedagogical sense in that choices need to be made regarding the cultural content of language materials and the cultural basis of the teaching methodology.

Culture also plays an important role in teaching materials and methods. Cortazzi and Jin (1999) distinguish three types of cultural information that can be used in language textbooks and materials:

1.Source culture materials, which draw on the learners’ own culture as content

2.Target culture materials, which use the culture of a country where English is spoken as an L1

3.International target culture materials, which use a great variety of cultures inEnglish-and non-English-speaking countries around the world

Many existing English textbooks place a heavy emphasis on target culture materials, including native-English-speaker names and places. However, if one of the main purposes of teaching an international language is to facilitate the communication of learners‘ ideas and culture in an English medium, then there are many reasons why source culture materials should be used in the teaching of EIL.

Teaching methodology is another area of language teaching that reflects a particular cultural perspective. One of the most popular methods in English language teaching today is communicative language teaching (CLT), with its emphasis on oral skills and group work. Although the method developed largely in English-speaking countries for use with immigrants, it has spread to many non-English-speaking countries, often promoted by so-called teaching experts from native-English-speaking countries. But in fact in many countries, such as China, Japan, and Korea, the appropriateness of this method in light of the local context and learners’ needs has been challenged. So it is important when selecting a methodology for a particular context for teachers to consider the local needs of the students rather than assume that a method that is effective in one context is effective in all contexts.

II. Culture Teaching Methods in the English Classroom

Since the role of culture is so important in English teaching, culture should be definitely taught in English class. But how culture teaching can be conducted in English classroom to help students learn English more effectively is still a question. Damen (1987) , who regards the knowledge of culture as the fifth skill for language learners in addition to listening, speaking, reading and writing skills, states that learners need both information about culture and exercises which demand learners‘ participation in order to develop intercultural awareness. In her book, she presents eighteen successful methods to teach culture. As some of them overlap and some are combined with other methods in the classroom, these eighteen methods are classified into six groups as below:

1.Providing information

Contrast, culture capsules and culture clusters, culture quizzes, language and culture connection, media units


Case studies, critical incidents, cultural assimilator

3.Behavioral and affective approach

Dialogues, simulation, situational exercises

4.Cognitive approach

Area-specific studies, culture discovery techniques, culture self-awareness techniques, discussions

5.Literature and the humanities

Reading literature, newspaper articles, magazines and history books

6.Real-life exposure to the target culture

Informant interviewing, guest speakers

Now let me give you a detailed explanation of these methods.

1.Providing cultural information: Students will receive a lot of information through various activities, which enables learners to be aware of specific characteristics of their native culture and other cultures.

*Contrast: This is for developing cultural awareness, involving systematic examination of the contrastive qualities of the target culture and students’ native culture through reading materials or videos. Understanding one‘s own culture is important for appreciating different cultures.

*Culture capsules and culture clusters: There are short explanations of differences between two cultures. In this exercise, students are required to answer questions relating to the material, which is about a typical incident or event in the target culture.

*Culture quizzes: This exercise is used for introduction or evaluation.

*Language and culture connection: This supplies brief explanations or guidance of cultural implications. For example, one Chinese proverb goes: “Silence is gold” meaning that silence is better or useful than eloquence. On the other hand, English proverb says: “Squeaking wheels get oil” which means if you are quiet, you can not receive anything. As we have seen earlier, silence has different connotations in China and the U.S.

*Media Units: This includes films, TV programs and advertisements. Films and TV programs are useful to introduce non-verbal behaviors. Advertisements are good examples to present values and how they are employed.

2. Problem-solving: This is a means of involving students in the development of skills in presenting ideas, explaining positions and arriving at solutions. Problem-solving exercises provide students with opportunities to find a solution when encountering cultural problems.

*Case studies: Case studies is defined as “analogues of actual situations written as close to reality as possible.” Students analyze the cases and develop their skills to cope with different ways of behavior.

*Critical incidents: This exercise focuses on a critical difference among cultures. According to Damen, critical incidents should be short and describe a problematic cross-cultural situation. Students are required to comment on it and talk about it so as to reach an agreement.

*Culture assimilator: This exercise is composed of a series of short descriptions of stories of cross-cultural conflicts. It is designed to expose students to the different cultural values, attitudes and beliefs. Cultural assimilator is similar to critical incidents. The difference between them is that students are required to choose the appropriate explanation of the reason why the conflicts happen from four or five alternatives. The multiple-choice format helps learners pay attention to the differences between the cultures.

3. Behavioral and affective approach: This is for learning conventional behavior and developing unbiased attitudes towards other cultures.

*Dialogues: Dialogues have been used at times in English class. That is because one of the approaches in teaching /learning English is the Audio-lingual Method. This method is effective in introducing new sentence patterns and it is also helpful so that students memorize a lot of important sentences in the target language. However, teachers must take cultural factors/differences into consideration. Dialogues can be excellent means of providing practice in their use. Not only repeating and memorizing the sentence, but also understanding the explanation behind the conversation is important. Therefore, teachers must prepare sufficiently for each class.

*Simulation: Simulation can be a powerful learning method. It is a model of a physical and social situation and mediates culture shock which students will experience in the future.

*Situational exercises: This is similar to problem-solving practice but closer to real-life situations. Students are presented with a situation and asked to deal with it and conclude the scene. This exercise demands students not only knowledge of and skills for dealing with different culture, but also spontaneous proper reaction and English proficiency.

4. Cognitive approach: Some learners want to undertake an academic study of the target culture through readings, lectures, discussions and debates.

*Area-specific studies: This is for studying a specific country or cultural area. Videos can be also useful materials for introducing the target culture to students. Students can indirectly experience everyday life in the U.S. through the video.

*Culture discovery techniques: This includes community research projects, field trips, surveys and polls.

*Culture self-awareness techniques: This includes sensitivity exercises, self-assessment questionnaires and problem solving. This is supposed to be for experienced or advanced students.

*Discussions: Discussion is a very important activity because it is common in Western countries. Students should learn and practice how to discuss in Chinese first then shift from Chinese to English. For better communication and understanding, Chinese students should acquire discussion skills by all means.

5.Literature and the humanities: Readings can provide students with background information about the target culture. Readings include novels, magazines, newspapers and history books.

6. Real-life exposure to the target culture: Learners get in touch with the target culture directly by interviewing or lectures of people from that culture.

*Informant interviewing/guest speakers: This is a good opportunity for students to have contact with members of the target culture. In case of interviewing an informant, students need to prepare for it. They can read some materials about the country, culture and history. Through this preparation students will find out the similarities and differences between the informant’s culture and their own and they will be able to find interesting questions to ask.

Through combination of these six kinds of methods, students can learn about cultures holistically.

III. A Danger in Teaching Cultures in English Class

The methods above will help Chinese students to be aware of different cultures and realize the importance of adjustment to them. If Chinese students appreciate cultural differences and acquire the skills to fill the gaps between English speaking people and Chinese, they will make themselves understood more efficiently and smoothly. This seems an ideal solution in order to reduce conflicts and frustration between English speakers and Chinese people. But I must warn the English teachers to teach with care. This is because there is a danger in teaching cultures in English class.

The most troubling English influence on Chinese people, which is an effect on the formation of people‘s view of language, culture, race, ethnicity and their identity. If teachers tell students to follow English cultural values, English norms and ways of thinking and acting blindly, there is a possibility that students think that English culture is superior to their own culture. As a result, Chinese identity is split: although they are Asian, they regard Asians as inferior. Therefore, teachers should emphasize that the differences are just differences and learners should not judge which norms are better or superior. Teachers must inform students of English culture as objectively and neutrally as they can. At the same time, they should provide clear unbiased description about Chinese culture. By doing so, teachers can prevent learners form conceiving prejudiced ideas towards both cultures.


From above analyses, we can see that studying culture is useful as part of FLT because of its influence on language and communication. As the world is getting smaller, the more communicative skills are required. Therefore, the skills and knowledge for better communication which teachers learned in their past may be old-fashioned. Teachers should study and try to acquire new knowledge and skills even after they become full-fledged teachers. Their attitudes, updated knowledge and skills will help them teach students more effectively.


[1] Bochner, S. Cultures in Contact: Studies in Cross-Cultural Interaction. Pergamon Press, 1982

[2] Byram, M., Morgan, Teaching-and Learning Language-and-culture. Multilingual Matters Ltd, 1994

[3] Cortazzi, M., & Jin, L. Cultural mirrors: Materials and Methods in the EFL Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999

[4] Damen, L. Culture Learning: the Fifth Dimension in the Language Classroom. Addison-Wesley Publisher Company, 1987

[4] Stern, H. H., Issues and Options in Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, 1992

[5] 胡壮麟,语言学教程 北京大学出版社,1988

Received date:2008-3-11

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