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Language and Culture - a thesis
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 1


This thesis is concerned with the contribution and incorporation of the teaching of culture into the foreign language classroom. More specifically, some consideration will be given to the why and how of teaching culture. It will be demonstrated that teaching a foreign language is not tantamount to giving a homily on syntactic structures or learning new vocabulary and expressions, but mainly incorporates, or should incorporate, some cultural elements, which are intertwined with language itself. Furthermore, an attempt will be made to incorporate culture into the classroom by means of considering some techniques and methods currently used. The main premise of the paper is that effective communication is more than a matter of language proficiency and that, apart from enhancing and enriching communicative competence, cultural competence can also lead to empathy and respect toward different cultures as well as promote objectivity and cultural perspicacity.


I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Dr. Doreen Du Boulay for her assistance and insightful ideas, and record my thanks to my friends Joshua Jackson and Eleni Vassilakis, who were unstinting in their support, reading drafts of the paper and making thought-provoking suggestions. Nevertheless, any shortcomings or problems regarding the present thesis remain my responsibility. Finally, I would like to thank my family, Theodoros and Eugenia Thanasoulas, for their emotional and financial support, and my sister Penny, who, though she does not know it, has helped me in many ways. "She's The One."


Foreign language learning is comprised of several components, including grammatical competence, communicative competence, language proficiency, as well as a change in attitudes towards one's own or another culture. For scholars and laymen alike, cultural competence, i.e., the knowledge of the conventions, customs, beliefs, and systems of meaning of another country, is indisputably an integral part of foreign language learning, and many teachers have seen it as their goal to incorporate the teaching of culture into the foreign language curriculum. It could be maintained that the notion of communicative competence, which, in the past decade or so, has blazed a trail, so to speak, in foreign language teaching, emphasising the role of context and the circumstances under which language can be used accurately and appropriately, 'fall[s] short of the mark when it comes to actually equipping students with the cognitive skills they need in a second-culture environment' (Straub, 1999: 2). In other words, since the wider context of language, that is, society and culture, has been reduced to a variable elusive of any definition-as many teachers and students incessantly talk about it without knowing what its exact meaning is-it stands to reason that the term communicative competence should become nothing more than an empty and meretricious word, resorted to if for no other reason than to make an "educational point." In reality, what most teachers and students seem to lose sight of is the fact that 'knowledge of the grammatical system of a language [grammatical competence] has to be complemented by understanding (sic) of culture-specific meanings [communicative or rather cultural competence]' (Byram, Morgan et al., 1994: 4). Of course, we are long past an era when first language acquisition and second or foreign language learning were cast in a "behaviouristic mould," being the products of imitation and language "drills," and language was thought of as a compendium of rules and strings of words and sentences used to form propositions about a state of affairs. In the last two decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in the study of language in relation to society, which has led to a shift of focus from behaviourism and positivism to constructivism to critical theory (see Benson & Voller, 1997: 19-25). Yet, there are still some deeply ingrained beliefs as to the nature of language learning and teaching-beliefs that determine methodology as well as the content of the foreign language curriculum-which have, gradually and insidiously, contrived to undermine the teaching of culture.

One of the misconceptions that have permeated foreign language teaching is the conviction that language is merely a code and, once mastered-mainly by dint of steeping oneself into grammatical rules and some aspects of the social context in which it is embedded-'one language is essentially (albeit not easily) translatable into another' (Kramsch, 1993: 1). To a certain extent, this belief has been instrumental in promoting various approaches to foreign language teaching-pragmatic, sociolinguistic, and communicative-which have certainly endowed the study of language with a social "hue"; nevertheless, paying lip service to the social dynamics that undergird language without trying to identify and gain insights into the very fabric of society and culture that have come to charge language in many and varied ways can only cause misunderstanding and lead to cross-cultural miscommunication.

At any rate, foreign language learning is foreign culture learning, and, in one form or another, culture has, even implicitly, been taught in the foreign language classroom-if for different reasons. What is debatable, though, is what is meant by the term "culture" and how the latter is integrated into language learning and teaching. Kramsch's keen observation should not go unnoticed:

Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them. (Kramsch, 1993: 1)

The teaching of culture is not akin to the transmission of information regarding the people of the target community or country-even though knowledge about (let alone experience of) the "target group" is an important ingredient (see Nostrand, 1967: 118). It would be nothing short of ludicrous to assert that culture is merely a repository of facts and experiences to which one can have recourse, if need be. Furthermore, what Kramsch herself seems to insinuate is that to learn a foreign language is not merely to learn how to communicate but also to discover how much leeway the target language allows learners to manipulate grammatical forms, sounds, and meanings, and to reflect upon, or even flout, socially accepted norms at work both in their own or the target culture.

There is definitely more than meets the eye, and the present paper has the aim of unravelling the "mystery," shedding some light on the role of teaching culture in fostering cross-cultural understanding which transcends the boundaries of linguistic forms-while enriching and giving far deeper meaning to what is dubbed "communicative competence"-and runs counter to a solipsistic world view. I would like to show that the teaching of culture has enjoyed far less "adulation" than it merits, and consider ways of incorporating it not only into the foreign language curriculum but also into learners' repertoire and outlook on life. The main premise of this paper is that we cannot go about teaching a foreign language without at least offering some insights into its speakers' culture. By the same token, we cannot go about fostering "communicative competence" without taking into account the different views and perspectives of people in different cultures which may enhance or even inhibit communication. After all, communication requires understanding, and understanding requires stepping into the shoes of the foreigner and sifting her cultural baggage, while always 'putting [the target] culture in relation with one's own' (Kramsch, 1993: 205). Moreover, we should be cognisant of the fact that '[i]f we teach language without teaching at the same time the culture in which it operates, we are teaching meaningless symbols or symbols to which the student attaches the wrong meaning…' (Politzer, 1959: 100-101).

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