Skip navigation

Teaching Culture

Culture-Learning and Cultural Competence

Even though there is a growing tendency to place culture into the focus of English as a foreign and second language, and as Lessard-Clouston claims ‘an understanding of culture in second- and foreign-language education has developed' (1996:197), there is little empirical research in this field.

Approaches to culture  

Defining culture is a complex task, since both its content and nature have to be examined. In this respect culture may be referred to as the complex entirety of the customs, ideas, values, art etc. that are produced and/or shared by one particular group of people, which may change over time but only if the majority of the members accept the changes. From a sociological perspective ‘culture refers to the social heritage of a people - the learned patterns for thinking, feeling and acting that characterize a population or society including the expression of these patterns in material things' (Zanden 1988:57). Further on he claims culture to be essential to our humanness and some social scientists use the term "society" interchangeably with "culture", since culture lacks a life on its own and exists only with the people to enact it. The basic assumption behind the notion of culture, that human behaviour varies from society to society over the globe, is a potentially liberating one (1988:57-59).

Culture in Applied Linguistics has inspired somewhat different definitions. Lado (1957) describes culture generally as the ‘ways of a people' which approach reflects the ‘variety  and inclusive nature of both the word and the concept' (in: Lessard-Clouston 1996:197). Richards, Platt and Platt  (1996:94) define culture as ‘the total set of beliefs, attitudes, customs, behaviour, social habit, etc. of the members of a particular society.' Wardhaugh interprets society as ‘any group of people who are drawn together for a certain purpose or purposes and a language is what the members of a particular society speak' (1994:1). In this last definition we meet the concept of language in a context which suggests that language, society and culture are inter-dependent. Byram (1989:80) takes one step further when he attempts to approach culture as an ‘omnibus term' (also Kaplan and Manners 1972:3). Though

definitions of culture, particularly in anthropology, are notoriously difficult, yet it is as good a label as any for the overall phenomenon or system of meanings within which sub-systems of social structure, technology, art and so on exist and interconnect. (Byram 1989:80)

In their more recently published approach Adaskou, Britten and Fahsi refer to ‘four separate sorts of "culture" that language teaching may involve' (1990:3-4). The first category is an aesthetic sense of culture, including cinema, music and literature, in brief ‘culture with a capital C.' The organization and nature of family, home life, interpersonal relations, customs, institutions, work and leisure, and material conditions of a society - the sociological sense - means ‘culture with a small c'. The ‘conceptual system embodied in language, ... conditioning all our perceptions and our thought system' belongs to the semantic sense. Adaskou et al. (1990:4) classify ‘the background knowledge, social skills, and paralinguistic skills that, in addition to mastery of the language code, make possible successful communication' as the pragmatic (or sociolinguistic) sense. All these different meanings of culture are defined by and therefore centred around language. Therefore, the inter-related nature of language and culture has gained evidence from yet another angle.


In his approach to culture Sarangi finds it necessary to acknowledge in alignment to many scholars ‘that any definition of culture is necessarily reductionist' (Sarangi 1995, in: Holliday 1999:242,). Therefore, he suggests that two paradigms of culture be distinguished instead of what has become the default concept of ‘culture' referring to ‘prescribed ethnic, national and international entities' (Holliday 1999:237-264). In this taxonomy a ‘large culture paradigm' refers to culture that is by its nature vulnerable to a culturist -prone to excessive stereotyping- reduction of foreign students, teachers and their educational contexts. A ‘small culture paradigm', on the other hand, defines culture as small social groupings or activities which display cohesive behaviour. On the basis of these two paradigms our perceptions and interpretations of culture may be characterized as static (large culture) or dynamic (small culture), claiming culture as a means of investigation rather than as an end-product.

To sum up the information these definitions provide us with concerning the nature and content of culture, it obviously displays an enormous potential to be exploited in teacher education programmes. This discipline may be labelled Applied Cultural Studies, including applications of the target language culture through content areas such as anthropology, ethnography, cultural geography, literature and sociology as well as methodological issues on how to research and interpret such cultural materials. 

The relationship between culture and language

The relationship of language and culture has been perceived in rather different ways through time. Vander Zanden finds language the most important set of symbols a human being possesses, which allows him to create culture and perpetuate it from one generation to the next (1988:63).  Earlier it was assumed that learning the language should always precede learning the culture. The ‘linguistic relativity hypothesis', that every language cuts the world into dissimilar pieces, thus drawing our attention to different faces of experience, (Whorf 1956, in: Vander Zanden 1988 and Pinker 1994) served as a breakthrough in judging the relationship between language and culture because it assumed direct link between the two. Many scholars, however, warn of the fallacy of the theory itself (Pinker 1994:60). Doubtless though it influenced much of the way we tend to think about culture and language. By the 1990's the axiom that ‘culture is the context for language use' (Lessard-Clouston 1996:198) has become widely accepted and exploited. Byram notes, for example, that


language pre-eminently embodies the values and meanings of a culture, refers to cultural artefacts and signals people's cultural identity. Because of its symbolic and transparent nature language can stand alone and represent the rest of a culture's phenomena, ... [it] cannot be used without carrying meaning and referring beyond itself, even in the most sterile environment of the foreign language class. The meanings of a particular language point to the culture of a particular social grouping, and the analysis of those meanings - their comprehension by learners and other speakers - involves the analysis and comprehension of that culture.  (Byram 1989:41)

Another noteworthy aspect of the relationship between culture and language is the interdependence of communicative and cultural competencies. According to the findings of Manes and Wolfson (Wolfson 1986:112), ‘a single speech act may vary greatly across speech communities,' that is language exists primarily beyond the classroom where communicative competence, language and culture are all equal parts of successful communication. Buttjes claims that communicative competence has to be regarded as much more ‘than a purely linguistic decoding facility. Since language and culture are so intimately interrelated in the experience of both native and foreign speaker, cultural competence must be involved at all stages of such an encounter' (Buttjes 1990:55 in: Lessard-Clouston 1996:198). This is because familiarity with the background culture is the clue to understanding linguistic behaviour, or else as Saville-Troike (1983:131-132) points out ‘the concept of communicative competence  must ... be embedded in the notion of cultural competence' (In: Lessard-Clouston 1996:198). The content of cultural competence defined here by Manes and Wolfson, Buttjes and Lessard-Clouston is refined and extended in Byram's definition of sociocultural competence. Byram proposes

to define sociocultural competence in terms of a content of which learners should be "aware". Furthermore, some parts of the specified content might appear to be "universal", although in fact they tend to be centred on the developed North, and have a tendency to be ethnocentric. In so far as the common framework is European, this is to be expected, but it is doubtless desirable to establish a potential for links with other developments, for example in North America. (Byram 1997:9)

In order to promote a better understanding of the notion, the author suggests four further sub-competences.

  1. ‘Attitudes and values' refer to the affective capacity to give up ‘ethnocentric attitudes towards and a cognitive ability to establish and maintain a relationship' between native and target cultures.
  2. ‘The ability to learn' is identical with an interpretative system or cultural code (Guerin, Labor, Morgan, Reesman and Willingham 1992:249-250) which helps gain insight into yet unencountered cultural meanings, phenomena, expressions.
  3. ‘Knowledge' is defined as ‘a system of cultural references which structures the implicit and explicit knowledge acquired in the course of linguistic and cultural learning', which also considers the special needs of the students when interacting with native speakers of the target language.
  4. ‘Knowing-how' tends to integrate all the three capacities in ‘specific situations of bicultural contact, i.e. between the culture(s) of the learner and of the target language' (Byram 1997 14-20). Via the development of these four sub-competences the sociolinguistic ability, the knowledge of culture areas and the knowledge of culture analysis are emphasized.

To sum up

[a] learner possessing sociocultural competence will be able to interpret and bring different cultural systems into relations with one another, to interpret socially distinctive variations within a foreign cultural system, and to manage the dysfunctions and resistances peculiar to intercultural communication, which we shall henceforth refer to as "conflict". (Byram 1997:13)

Phillipson in his definition of ‘linguistic imperialism' (1992b) creates a subordinating relationship of language and culture. Imperialism is conceptualized as a structural relationship of one society or collectivity dominating another, in which process the key mechanisms are exploitation, penetration, fragmentation and marginalization. This hypothesis regards linguistic imperialism, along with media, educational and scientific imperialism, as the sub-types of cultural imperialism Therefore, language is subordinated to culture. Holliday, on the other hand, claims that the relationship of language and culture is an area in which one must be cautious. He argues that language should not be considered as part of culture because that approach would deprive language of its reality constructing role. Instead one has to apply a discourse-centred approach in which discourse serves as a concrete manifestation of the language-culture relationship. The function of discourse is to create, recreate, focus, modify and transmit culture, as well as language and their interaction (Holliday 1999; Sarangi 1995).

The above described aspects of the link between culture and language should be the basis of the Cultural Studies courses in teacher education as well. Byram points out that

cultural studies, viewed as the learning and acquisition of a culture, albeit foreign, is a microcosm of the larger education process and needs to be treated with the complexity, ambition and seriousness which we accord to the whole. ... The contribution which the understanding of another culture and civilization should make to the reduction of prejudice and the encouragement of tolerance is one of the unchallenged beliefs of language teachers. (Byram 1989:7,15)

The content of Cultural Studies  

Research as early as the 1980's revealed that background knowledge of the culture is a prerequisite to understanding discourse in the target language. The questions of how many cultural facts and which ones to teach proved to be beyond consensus. When joining the debate over the content of Cultural Studies, Brown discusses the significance of cultural values appearing in discourse. The author suggests that explicit strategies be taught for making inferences from the language used ‘so that knowledge about the cultural background can be gradually constructed in the same way that native speakers of the language gradually construct their knowledge of their own culture' (Brown 1990:11). The attitude encourages teachers of English to be inventive with culture and to do culture rather than accept readily prepared panels of it. Consequently a most profound knowledge of as many subjects in social sciences as possible is required, among them sociology, literature, history, cultural anthropology, philosophy, to foster experimenting with techniques of inferencing. 

Concerning cultural content in English language education Prodromou (1992) finds cross-cultural factors extremely important. There should be a clarified distinction between the ‘cultural background' meaning a greater awareness of and a broader knowledge about the target culture, and the ‘cultural foreground' which is knowledge related to local culture (1992:41). These two notions serve as basis for cross-cultural understanding and multicultural diversity.


Having described some of the approaches and assumptions of cultural content in foreign language education and teacher education, the question still remains which parts of the existing rather cosmopolitan than ethnic-specific cultural kaleidoscope to familiarize our learners and students with. One obstacle to solving the issue may be the fact Holliday notes that ‘late modern societies become notable for their lack of cultural coherence or "loose boundedness", ... [therefore, they are] less likely to appear as large coherent geographical entities' (1999:244, see also Crane 1994:3). In order to avoid the reification of culture and be up-to-date in relation to it, the small culture paradigm has to be reconsidered, which aims to map the linking factors in any cohesive social grouping. According to this approach the content of Cultural Studies is any factual information or primary source which helps to discern sets of behaviours and understandings connected with the dynamic, ongoing group processes (Holliday 1999).

The complexity of the problem opens up when as we cross disciplinary boundaries and look at the issue from yet another angle while honing down on cultural content. A recent criticism of American Studies as an academic discipline, part of Cultural Studies, is that it has become too text-oriented. It is condemned for excommunicating, or at least not giving enough attention to, associated fields of study with an American context and focus such as Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, Media Studies, Performance Arts, Fine Arts, and Applied Arts. One potential cause of backwardness is the lack of access to resources other than printed materials in overseas countries. Relying exclusively on inferences from literary texts though, may result in ‘culturism' (Holliday 1999:245) or else excessive stereotyping. During this process ‘the members of a group to which an ethnic, national or international large cultural label has been attached are perceived as confined and reduced to predefined characteristics' (1999:245).

Such a complex and interdependent relationship of language and culture sounds logical for would-be-teachers as well. Nevertheless, the conceptualization and practice of cultural or sociocultural competence in the classroom have yet to become a much more emphasized part of teacher education. The attitude of teachers and student-teachers towards culture in the classroom,  further supports this necessity. Even though the majority of them have the factual knowledge about the target language cultures, they rarely apply it as a genuine topic for target language use.


Measuring cultural competence and cultural awareness

Testing culture is an ever interesting, debate-stirring area of teaching Cultural Studies. Morgan points out that

assessment of linguistic competence has well-known and well-established practices: listening comprehension, reading comprehension, written composition, translation, dictation, the oral interview, etc. Cultural competence, although recognised by some as a crucial component of language learning (Byram, 1989; Kramsch, 1993) has no such history of assessment, although there have been some successful isolated instances.  (Morgan 1996:226)

Three specific issues are to be discussed under all circumstances and contexts. One is the desired level and criteria against which academic knowledge is to be assessed. In Byram's approach of developing sociocultural competence, students are characterized as intercultural speakers; thus testing amounts to mapping sociocultural skills in the target language.


Assessment deals with the student's ability to take account of new approaches and skills, to relate them to previously acquired knowledge, and to relativise the component parts of his own socialization. Assessment criteria could give prominence to the development of interpretative behaviour and the capacity to recognise and produce an interpretation reflecting the complexity of the foreign culture and its relationship with the learner's culture. (Byram 1997:20)

The second major concern in testing cultural knowledge and awareness is the assessment of factual knowledge, a broader understanding of various aspects of the target culture and cultural awareness. Byram claims that since this is neither an ability nor an attitude, factual knowledge should not be taught for its own sake, whereas the presence and use of references is highly desirable to support analysis and interpretation of specific values, meanings and practices (1997:28). Consequently, the process is referred to as ‘initial diagnostic assessment' (Byram 1997:28). However, it is more difficult to decide which part should be stressed most, what kind of tests to use and how to administer those. Valette writes (1996:181) that the classroom teacher will probably want to convey the complexity of the target culture in its many facets, or focus on one regional variation of the target culture, while discouraging overgeneralization. In teacher education the ability to develop insights into concrete cultural phenomena, including attitudes, customs, ways of thinking etc., and the underlying theoretical principles have to be assessed and evaluated. Therefore, testing cultural knowledge and awareness has to map to what extent students have acquired these competencies, whereas the testing technique applied in a particular course depends on the well defined goals of the course.

The third important consideration related to the assessment of cultural competence, identical to Byram's sociocultural competence (1997), is that testing, both techniques and outcomes, depend significantly on the cultural foreground in which culture learning takes place. Morgan claims that all three components: assessment, the measuring technique, and cultural competence ‘rely as constructs on the cultural frame of the country where the measuring is taking place' (Morgan 1996:227).

According to Valette (1996:182), tests of cultural awareness are mostly built around items measuring cultural knowledge. When the knowledge of discrete cultural facts is at stake tests are easy to prepare and score. Therefore, the average Cultural Studies test in the complex examination presently in use at JPU contains such items as are likely to be learnt out of context with no use from the perspectives of a future career. Because of the complexity of the subject, Valette suggests that ‘multiple-choice interpretation items' or ‘open interpretation' (1996:191-192) be used in cultural awareness tests. She warns though that


multiple-choice interpretation items are extremely difficult to prepare. Either the distractors are so wrong as not to attract the students, or the distractors contain an element of truth and become ambiguous. (Valette 1996:192)

Consequently, ‘free response techniques' (Clark 1972:140), including open interpretation, can probably best evaluate and assess cultural awareness.