Developing Teachers.com
A web site for the developing language teacher

Language and Culture - a thesis
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 2

Chapter 1
THE HISTORY OF CULTURE TEACHING

As will become evident, the role of cultural learning in the foreign language classroom has been the concern of many teachers and scholars and has sparked considerable controversy, yet its validity as an equal complement to language learning has often been overlooked or even impugned. Up to now, two main perspectives have influenced the teaching of culture. One pertains to the transmission of factual, cultural information, which consists in statistical information, that is, institutional structures and other aspects of the target civilisation, highbrow information, i.e., immersion in literature and the arts, and lowbrow information, which may focus on the customs, habits, and folklore of everyday life (see Kramsch, 1993: 24). This preoccupation with facts rather than meanings, though, leaves much to be desired as far as an understanding of foreign attitudes and values is concerned, and virtually blindfolds learners to the minute albeit significant aspects of their own as well as the target group's identity that are not easily divined and appropriated (ibid.) All that it offers is 'mere book knowledge learned by rote' (Huebener, 1959: 177).
The other perspective, drawing upon cross-cultural psychology or anthropology, has been to embed culture within an interpretive framework and establish connections, namely, points of reference or departure, between one's own and the target country. This approach, however, has certain limitations, since it can only furnish learners with cultural knowledge, while leaving them to their own devices to integrate that knowledge with the assumptions, beliefs, and mindsets already obtaining in their society. Prior to considering a third perspective, to which the present paper aspires to contribute, it is of consequence to briefly sift through the relevant literature and see what the teaching of culture has come to be associated with.

As Lessard-Clouston (1997) notes, in the past, people learned a foreign language to study its literature, and this was the main medium of culture. '[I]t was through reading that students learned of the civilization associated with the target language' (Flewelling, 1993: 339, cited in Lessard-Clouston, 1997). In the 1960s and 1970s, such eminent scholars as Hall (1959), Nostrand (1974), Seelye ([1974] 1984), and Brooks (1975) made an endeavour to base foreign language learning on a universal ground of emotional and physical needs, so that 'the foreign culture [would appear] less threatening and more accessible to the language learner' (Kramsch, 1993: 224). In the heyday of the audiolingual era in language teaching, Brooks (1968) 'emphasized the importance of culture not for the study of literature but for language learning', as Steele (1989: 155) has observed. Earlier on, Brooks (1960) in his seminal work Language and Language Learning had offered sixty-four topics regarding culture interspersed with questions covering several pages. These 'hors d' oeuvres', as he called them, concerned, inter alia, such crucial aspects of culture as greetings, expletives, personal possessions, cosmetics, tobacco and smoking, verbal taboos, cafes, bars, and restaurants, contrasts in town and country life, patterns of politeness, keeping warm and cool, medicine and doctors […] In a sense, his groundbreaking work was conducive to a shift of focus from teaching geography and history as part of language learning to an anthropological approach to the study of culture. What is important is that, by making the distinction between "Culture with a Capital C"-art, music, literature, politics and so on-and "culture with a small c"-the behavioural patterns and lifestyles of everyday people-he helped dispel the myth that culture (or civilisation or Landeskunde, or what other name it is known by, (see Byram, 1994)) is an intellectual gift bestowed only upon the elite. Admittedly, the main thrust of his work was to make people aware that culture resides in the very fabric of their lives-their modus vivendi, their beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes-rather than in a preoccupation with aesthetic reflections or high-falutin ideas. As Weaver insightfully remarks, the commonly held notion of culture is largely concerned with its insignificant aspects, whereas our actual interaction with it takes place at a subconscious level.

'Many, if not most, people think of culture as what is often called "high culture"-art, literature, music, and the like. This culture is set in the framework of history and of social, political, and economic structures….Actually, the most important part of culture for the sojourner is that which is internal and hidden…, but which governs the behavior they encounter. This dimension of culture can be seen as an iceberg with the tip sticking above the water level of conscious awareness. By far the most significant part, however, is unconscious or below the water level of awareness and includes values and thought patterns.' (Weaver, 1993: 157, cited in Killick & Poveda, 1997: 221)

Following Brooks, Nostrand (1974) developed the Emergent Model scheme, which comprised six main categories. The first, culture, regarded value systems and habits of thought; society included organizations and familial, religious, and other institutions. The third category of conflict was comprised of interpersonal as well as intrapersonal conflict. Ecology and technology included knowledge of plants and animals, health care, travel etc., while the fifth category, individuals, was about intra/interpersonal variation. Finally, cross-cultural environment had to do with attitudes towards other cultures. As Singhal (1998) notes, '[i]t is evident that one would have to be quite knowledgeable in the culture under study to be able to present all of these aspects accurately to second language learners'.

Since the 1960s, a great many educators have concerned themselves with the importance of the cultural aspect in foreign language learning, with Hammerly (1982), Seelye (1984) and Damen (1987) being among those who have considered ways of incorporating culture into language teaching. In the 1970s, an emphasis on sociolinguistics led to greater emphasis on the situational context of the foreign language. Savignon's (1972: 9) study on communicative competence, for example, suggested the 'value of training in communicative skills from the very beginning of the FL program'. As a result, the role of culture in the foreign language curriculum was enhanced, and influential works by Seelye (1974) and Lafayette (1975) appeared. The audiolingual method was replaced by the communicative approach, and Canale and Swain (1980: 31) claimed that 'a more natural integration' of language and culture takes place 'through a more communicative approach than through a more grammatically based approach'. In addition, teacher-oriented texts (Hammerly, 1982; Higgs, 1984; Omaggio, 1986; Rivers, 1981) now included detailed chapters on culture teaching for the foreign language classroom, attesting to the predominant goal: communication within the cultural context of the target language. (see Lessard-Clouston, 1997)

It is only in the 1980s that scholars begin to delve into the dynamics of culture and its vital contribution to 'successful' language learning (Byram, Morgan et al., 1994: 5). For example, Littlewood (cited in Byram, Morgan et al., 1994: 6) advocates the value of cultural learning, although he still 'keeps linguistic proficiency as the overall aim of communicative competence' (ibid.). Also, there are many insightful comparisons made between behavioural conventions in the L1 and L2 societies which are culture-specific and which could be said to impede understanding: the use of silence (Odlin, 1989; La Forge, 1983: 70-81), frequency of turn-taking (Preston, 1989: 128-131, Odlin, 1989: 55), politeness (Odlin, 1989: 49-54), and so forth (see Byram, Morgan et al., 1994: 8) Furthermore, in the 1980s and 1990s, advances in pragmatics and sociolinguistics (Levinson, 1983) laying bare the very essence of language, which is no longer thought of as merely describing or communicating but, rather, as persuading, deceiving, or punishing and controlling (Byram, 1989; Fairclough, 1989; Lakoff, 1990), have rendered people's frames of reference and cultural schemata tentative, and led to attempts at 'bridg[ing] the cultural gap in language teaching' (Valdes, 1986).
On the assumption that communication is not only an exchange of information but also a highly cognitive as well as affective and value-laden activity, Melde (1987) holds that foreign language teaching should foster 'critical awareness' of social life-a view commensurate with Fairclough's (1989 and 1995) critical theory (see also Byram, Morgan et al., 1994). More specifically, when the learner understands the perspectives of others and is offered the opportunity to reflect on his own perspectives, 'through a process of decentering and a level of reciprocity, there arises a moral dimension, a judgmental tendency, which is not defined purely on formal, logical grounds' (Byram, Morgan et al., 1994). To this end, the learner needs to take the role of the foreigner, so that he may gain insights into the values and meanings that the latter has internalised and unconsciously negotiates with the members of the society to which he belongs (ibid.). Beside Melde, Baumgratz-Gangl (1990) asserts that the integration of values and meanings of the foreign culture with those of one's "native culture" can bring about a shift of perspective or the 'recognition of cognitive dissonance' (Byram, Morgan et al.), both conducive to reciprocity and empathy. What is more, Swaffar (1992) acknowledges the contribution of culture when he says that, in order to combat, as it were, 'cultural distance', students must be exposed to foreign literature with a view to developing the ability to put into question and evaluate the cultural elements L2 texts are suffused with. Kramsch (1993, 1987a) also believes that culture should be taught as an interpersonal process and, rather than presenting cultural facts, teachers should assist language learners in coming to grips with the 'other culture' (Singhal, 1998). She maintains that, by virtue of the increasing multiculturality of various societies, learners should be made aware of certain cultural factors at work, such as age, gender, and social class, provided that the former

usually have little or no systematic knowledge about their membership in a given society and culture, nor do they have enough knowledge about the target culture to be able to interpret and synthesize the cultural phenomena presented. (Kramsch, 1988b)

From all the above, it is evident that, much as the element of culture has gained momentum in foreign language learning, most educators have seen it as yet another skill at the disposal of those who aspire to become conversant with the history and life of the target community rather than as an integral part of communicative competence and intercultural awareness at which every "educated individual" should aim. As has been intimated above, the present paper takes a third perspective, in claiming that cultural knowledge is not only an aspect of communicative competence, but an educational objective in its own right. Nevertheless, cultural knowledge is unlike, say, knowledge of mathematics or Ancient Greek, in the sense that it is an all-encompassing kind of knowledge which, to a certain extent, has determined-facilitated or precluded-all other types of "knowledge." Rather than viewing cultural knowledge as a prerequisite for language proficiency, it is more important to view it as 'the community's store of established knowledge' (Fowler, 1986: 19), which comprises 'structures of expectation' (Tannen, 1979: 144) with which everyone belonging to a certain group is expected to unconsciously and unerringly comply. A corollary of this third perspective is to view the teaching of culture as a means of 'developing an awareness of, and sensitivity towards, the values and traditions of the people whose language is being studied' (Tucker & Lambert, 1972: 26). It goes without saying that to foster cultural awareness by dint of teaching culture means to bring to our learners' conscious the latent assumptions and premises underlying their belief and value systems (see Humphrey, 1997: 242) and, most importantly, to show that our own culture predisposes us to a certain worldview by creating a 'cognitive framework….[which] is made up of a number of unquantifiables [my emphasis] ….embrac[ing] …assumptions about how the world is constructed' (ibid.). But this cognitive framework is, to a great extent, maintained and sanctioned through the very use of language, which is arguably 'the most visible and available expression of [a] culture' (Brown, 1986, cited in Valdes, 1986: 33). As will be shown, though, language and culture are so intricately related that their boundaries, if any, are extremely blurred and it is difficult to become aware of-let alone question-the assumptions and expectations that we hold. It should be reiterated that language teaching is culture teaching, and what the next chapter will set out to show is that, 'by teaching a language…one is inevitably already teaching culture implicitly' (McLeod, 1976: 212), and gaining insights into the foreign language should automatically presuppose immersion in the foreign culture, in so far as these two, language and culture, go hand in hand.

To page 3 of 7

Back to the articles index

Back to the top


Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page


Copyright 2000-2016© Developing Teachers.com