Debate on Culture in English as a foreign language classrooms

Summary: What role does culture play in the foreign or second language classroom

Aiming toward better language acquisition

Learning about a place’s culture is as much a part of the process of language acquisition as learning the language itself; this is because there is a correlation between language and culture and an understanding of one is necessary for an understanding of the other. I assume that the relationship between language and culture is like that between “the chicken and the egg,” that is, we are not sure which precedes the other. One example pertains to the argument about the use of polite forms of address in the Japanese language. Does the fact that the Japanese are a polite people cause them to use many polite forms, or are they a polite people because the Japanese language has many polite forms? I also believe that acquiring a language entails understanding how the language is used within its host culture. We often see cases in which learners of English as a second/foreign language speak or write with correct pronunciation and grammar, but cannot express themselves precisely in English. This might be because they use language in ways that are inappropriate in the content of a particular situation or in English vernacular. For better language acquisition, learners must master the “communicative competence” proposed by Dell Hymes (1974). Communicative competence was further categorized into four components by Canel and Swain (1980): knowledge of linguistic features, knowledge of discourse rules, knowledge of language functions, and knowledge of sociolinguistic factors. The last component involves knowledge of appropriateness, which enables a speaker to know whether the language being used is suitable for a particular situation. As Silberstein (2001: 103) argues, “Grammatical knowledge alone does not guarantee communication.”

Therefore, learning a language also entails learning about its culture. In addition to teaching the language itself, teachers might need to inform their students when, where, and how the discourse should be used in English-speaking contexts.

However, teachers must select texts carefully since some texts contain stereotyped images of a particular culture. Many English texts in Japan contain only positive images of the United States and do not allow for students to critically analyze the ideas they present. These texts might mislead the students by suggesting that all English-speaking people think and act in the same manner as the Americans in the textbooks. Therefore, teachers should avoid providing stereotyped images and instead introduce texts with which students are able to negotiate and whose contents they are able to critically evaluate. As Brown (2000) states, teachers are able to exclude myths about other cultures through their instruction.

Some texts are also written from a single viewpoint and might differ from the beliefs of a student’s culture. Some students might feel uncomfortable with these texts if they think that their own beliefs or cultures are being denied in the new cultural context. As a result, introducing such texts might discourage the learners from studying a new language. In order to avoid this, teachers should accept the students’ ideas, recognize the concepts that are believed in their cultures, and implement activities accordingly, such as those that involve comparing and discussing the ideas in the texts and the students’ cultures. This can also provide an excellent opportunity for intercultural communication, if the teachers makes this connection explicitly.

However, the students might be displeased if their teachers consider their opinions as beliefs typical of their culture. The students might instead draw ideas from many of the concepts surrounding them when they approach texts. Thus, teachers should consider the students’ ideas and attitudes on an individual level and not categorize them as being solely products of their culture.


Brown, H. D. (2000) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

Canel, M. and M. Swain (1980) Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics 1 (1), 1-47.

Hymes, D. (1974) Foundations in Sociolinguistics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Silberstein, S. (2001) Sociolinguistics, In R. Carter and D. Nunan (eds) The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to speakers of Other Languages.: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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