and Culture - a thesis
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
what exactly is culture? As Nemni (1992) and Street (1993)
suggest, this is not an easy question to answer, particularly
in an increasingly international world. On a general level,
culture has been referred to as 'the ways of a people' (Lado,
1957). This view incorporates both 'material' manifestations
of culture that are easily seen and 'non-material' ones that
are more difficult to observe, as Saville-Troike (1975: 83)
notes. Anthropologists define culture as 'the whole way of
life of a people or group. In this context, culture (sic)
includes all the social practices that bond a group of people
together and distinguish them from others' (Montgomery and
Reid-Thomas, 1994: 5). According to Peck (1998),
Culture is all the accepted and patterned ways of behavior
of a given people. It is that facet of human life learned
by people as a result of belonging to some particular group;
it is that part of learned behavior shared with others. Not
only does this concept include a group's way of thinking,
feeling, and acting, but also the internalized patterns for
doing certain things in certain ways
.not just the doing
of them. This concept of culture also includes the physical
manifestations of a group as exhibited in their achievements
and contributions to civilization. Culture is our social legacy
as contrasted with our organic heredity. It regulates our
lives at every turn.'
It could be argued that culture never remains static, but
is constantly changing. In this light, Robinson (1988) dismisses
behaviourist, functionalist, and cognitive definitions of
culture and posits a symbolic one which sees culture as a
dynamic 'system of symbols and meanings' whereby 'past experience
influences meaning, which in turn affects future experience,
which in turn affects subsequent meaning, and so on' (ibid.:
11). It is this dynamic nature of culture that has been lost
sight of and underrated in foreign language teaching and ought
to be cast in a new perspective. Learning a foreign language
can be subversive of the assumptions and premises operating
in the 'home culture' (Straub, 1999), which requires that
learners be offered the opportunity for "personal growth,"
in terms of 'personal meanings, pleasures, and power' (Kramsch,
1993: 238). As Kramsch (ibid.: 238) notes, '[f]rom the clash
the native culture and
the target culture,
meanings that were taken for granted are suddenly questioned,
challenged, problematized'. However, in order to question
and reinterpret (Reynolds and Skilbeck, 1976: 6) L2 culture,
"L1 observers" must first become aware of what it
means to participate in their own culture and what the contents
of culture are.
Apart from Brooks, whose work we mentioned earlier on, several
other scholars such as Lado (1964), Goodenough (1981), Kallenbach
& Hodges (1963), Straub (1999), and others have provided
a framework within which to identify the nature of culture,
be it home culture or target culture. For instance, Goodenough
(1981: 62) summarises the contents of culture briefly quoted
1. The ways in which people have organized their experience
of the real world so as to give it structure as a phenomenal
world of forms, their percepts and concepts.
2. The ways in which people have organized their experience
of their phenomenal world so as to give it structure as a
system of cause and effect relationships, that is, the propositions
and beliefs by which they explain events and accomplish their
3. The ways in which people have organized their experiences
so as to structure their world in hierarchies of preferences,
namely, their value or sentiment systems.
4. The ways in which people have organized their experience
of their past efforts to accomplish recurring purposes into
operational procedures for accomplishing these purposes in
the future, that is, a set of "grammatical" principles
of action and a series of recipes for accomplishing particular
Goodenough (1963: 258-259),
consists of standards for deciding what is,
standards for deciding what can be, standards for deciding
how one feels about it, standards for deciding what to do
about it, and standards for deciding how to go about doing
Clearly, culture is a ubiquitous force, forging our identities
and our relationships with other things and individuals. Were
it not for culture, we would be 'little more than
incomprehensible idiot[s], less capable of mere survival than
a member of the very earliest tribe of prehistoric men' (Kallenbach
& Hodges, 1963: 11). To view culture as 'the total life
way of a people [and] the social legacy the individual acquires
from his group' (ibid.) leads to the belief that to be human
ineluctably means to be cultured. What is more, according
to Kallenbach & Hodges (1963: 20),
'culture channels biological processes-vomiting, weeping,
.[while] sensations of pleasure, anger,
and lust may be stimulated by cultural cues that would leave
unmoved someone who has been reared in a different social
Culture creates and solves problems. If, within a specific
culture, cows are looked upon as sacred animals, or breaking
a mirror is assumed to bring bad luck, 'threats are posed
which do not arise out of the inexorable facts of the external
world' (ibid.: 24). Furthermore, such notions as "success,"
"greed," "decorum," or "promiscuity"
can only be assessed against a culture-specific yardstick,
as it were. '[S]uch value judgments are acquired in the culture
in which the individual has grown up and are accepted unquestioningly
by most members of the social group' (Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum,
1957, cited in Rivers, 1968: 266). It goes without saying
that the importance of 'any single element in a culture design
will be seen only when that element is viewed in the total
matrix of its relationship to other elements' (ibid.: 29).
Let us illustrate this by drawing upon De Saussure's semiotic
theory (Barthes, 1973, cited in Leiss et al., 1990: 200-201):
Roses signify passion or love. If we analyse their "meaning,"
we have three elements: the signifier-the roses; the signified-passion
or love; and the sign-the "passionified roses" as
a whole. Obviously, there is nothing inherently "passionate"
or "amorous" about roses; they are viewed as such
within the context of western culture. In another culture,
roses could signify something different, even the opposite
of passion or love. Of course, if we asked an Indian why she
worships cows or a Frenchman why he says un pied de laitue
(literally "a foot of lettuce) whereas English speakers
say "a head of lettuce" and Greek speakers ? ?a?d??
e??? µa??????? (literally "a heart of lettuce"),
chances are that we would get no more satisfactory an answer
than we ourselves would be ready to give regarding our own
language or culture (see Desberg, 1961, cited in Fotitch,
1961: 55). Interestingly, according to Lado (1964: 28), culture
comprises various elementary meaning units (EMUs), such as
the ones touched upon above, which may be at variance with
other EMUs at work in another culture. For him, coming to
grips with these EMUs is 'necessary for full communication
with natives, to understand their reports on great achievements,
and to read their classics'. It is our contention that these
EMUs can pave the way for a 'third place' (Kramsch, 1993),
a third identity, which can draw upon the L1 and L2 cultures
in enunciating personal meanings (this issue will be considered
later in the study).
That '[c]ulture is not a relatively harmonious and stable
pool of significations, but a confrontation between groups
occupying different, sometimes opposing positions in the map
of social relations' (Fiske, 1989b: 58, cited in Kramsch,
1993: 24) is further illustrated below (see Henrichsen, 1998):
A new teacher from the U.S. was teaching English in a Palestinian
school in Israel, working with a fairly advanced group of
students and trying to help them understand and use the present
perfect tense. To this end, she began with the question, "Have
you ever lived in Israel?" Some of the students answered,
"No," while the rest of the class seemed a bit confused,
shaking their heads in lack of comprehension. The teacher
repeated the question, only to receive the same response.
Then, a student said, "Palestine, teacher, Palestine,"
thus shedding light on the misunderstanding. Even though the
students understood the question, they refused to give Israel
recognition as a nation, even by name. 'The students knew
the grammar principle very well; they would simply not acknowledge
the political circumstances it assumed' (ibid.).
In view of this, it is reasonable to assert that cultural
awareness should be viewed as an important component informing,
so to speak, and enriching communicative competence. By communicative
competence, we mean verbal as well as non-verbal communication,
such as gestures, the ability (or lack thereof) to integrate
with a specific group or avoid committing any faux pas, and
so forth. In other words, the kind of communicative competence
posited here is one which can account for the appropriateness
of language as well as behaviour. On the one hand, it can
help us understand why the sentence A cigarette is what I
want is unlikely to be elevated to the status of a possible
utterance in English; on the other, it can suggest why being
careless about chinking glasses in Crete may cause trouble.
It is what Desberg (1961, cited in Fotitch, 1961: 56) dubs
'linguistico-cultural meaning' that has been extirpated from
the foreign language milieu, and led to the false assumption
that culture is a compartmentalised subject amenable to 'educational
interventions', to quote Candy (1991), rather than an educational
goal in itself.
The question arises, however, that if language and culture
are so intricately intertwined, why should we overtly focus
on culture when there are other aspects of the curriculum
that need more attention? To begin with, we should concern
ourselves with culture because, even though it is inherent
in what we teach, to believe that whoever is learning the
foreign language is also learning the cultural knowledge and
skills required to be a competent L2/FL speaker 'denies the
complexity of culture, language learning, and communication'
(Lessard-Clouston, 1997). Second, it is deemed important to
include culture in the foreign language curriculum because
it helps avoid the stereotypes that Nemni (1992) has discussed
and the present study has intimated. The third reason for
expressly teaching culture in the foreign language classroom
is to enable students to take control of their own learning
as well as to achieve autonomy by evaluating and questioning
the wider context within which the learning of the target
language is embedded. Tomalin & Stempleski (1993: 7-8),
modifying Seelye's (1988) 'seven goals of cultural instruction',
may provide an answer pertinent to the question posed. According
to them, the teaching of culture has the following goals and
is of and in itself a means of accomplishing them:
1. To help students to develop an understanding of the fact
that all people exhibit culturally-conditioned behaviours.
2. To help students to develop an understanding that social
variables such as age, sex, social class, and place of residence
influence the ways in which people speak and behave.
3. To help students to become more aware of conventional behaviour
in common situations in the target culture.
4. To help students to increase their awareness of the cultural
connotations of words and phrases in the target language.
5. To help students to develop the ability to evaluate and
refine generalizations about the target culture, in terms
of supporting evidence.
6. To help students to develop the necessary skills to locate
and organize information about the target culture.
7. To stimulate students' intellectual curiosity about the
target culture, and to encourage empathy towards its people.
list of goals is definitely an improvement on Huebener's (1959:
182-183) list of 'desirable outcomes'.
At any rate, the aim of teaching culture is 'to increase students'
awareness and to develop their curiosity towards the target
culture and their own, helping them to make comparisons among
cultures' (Tavares & Cavalcanti, 1996: 19). These comparisons,
of course, are not meant to underestimate foreign cultures
but to enrich students' experience and to sensitise them to
cultural diversity. 'This diversity should then be understood
and respected, and never
over (sic) or underestimated'
(ibid.: 20). In the next chapter, we will consider different
ways of teaching (about) culture. As Kramsch (1993: 245) succinctly
puts it, teachers' and learners' task is 'to understand in
ever more sensitive ways why they talk the way they do, and
why they remain silent: this type of knowledge Clifford Geertz
 calls local knowledge' (emphasis added).
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