The Role of Culture in Language Teaching

What is culture?

Culture is a learned way of life shared by a group of people. It includes languages, food, celebrations, artistic expression, the arts, sports and media.

It can be divided into three groups:

Products: literature, folklore, art, music, artefacts

Behaviours: customs, habits, dress, foods, leisure

Ideas: beliefs, values, institutions

Beware of stereotypes

We must beware of stereotypes e.g. everyone in England has tea at 4 o’clock, London is foggy; as they tend to be outdated, idealised, represent the middle-class and often quite wrong. For culture if dynamic and also exists on two levels. There is what we can see: surface culture and what lies beneath: deep culture, which includes belief systems and attitudes.

We include culture in education

Because learners should have contact with native speakers and cooperate with them. Learners must be acquainted with the target culture.

Stern, 1992

But what is the ‘target’ culture when learning a global language?

The Scottish Curriculum of Excellence says:

The goal of education is to equip all pupils with the foundation skills, attitudes and expectations necessary to prosper in a changing society

And help understand diverse cultures and beliefs

These are all excellent reasons for studying cultures of other countries and groups, especially in the multicultural world we live in today, where ignorance of cultures and beliefs leads to so much friction and even hate.

BUT: ‘the viewer contains the view’

I would argue that any study of culture should begin with one’s own. Start with the known, then move to the alien. For

·         Culture is a two-way process

·         Students need to have a sense of their own cultural reality

·         We need to appreciate our own culture in order to make comparisons and appreciate similarities



Make a list of food that is traditional in your country.

Think about why this food is common.

What’s your favourite local food?

Is there any local food you don’t like? Why?

What’s your favourite foreign food?


Where do these foods come from and what are they?


Dim sum





Have you tried them? Did you like them?


Have you ever eaten any of these foods?

Frog’s legs




Monkey brains

Chicken feet

Where do you think they are eaten?

Would you try them, if they were offered to you?

We use tasks like this to

·         To explore fascinating aspects of cultures = motivation

·         To understand diverse cultures = become a global citizen

·         Appreciate own culture = represent own realities

·         And we don’t forget we are teaching English = afford opportunities to use language meaningfully


I love using all kinds of texts in the language classroom and literature doesn’t have to mean Shakespeare and Byron, but can be folk stories, comics, simple poems and children’s books.

The haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 3 lines. The lines rarely rhyme.


Ancient pond

Frog Leaps


Haikus can be great to read and discuss in class, but particularly to get learners to respond to them in different ways like drawing the poem and writing their own versions.

There is something about a haiku, to me, that reflects Japanese culture: the seeming simplicity and careful choice of a few words to create a powerful image.

Limericks are humorous five line poems with an AABBA rhyme scheme and strict rhythm.


There was a young lady named Rose

Who had a large wart on her nose

When she had it removed

Her appearance improved

But her glasses slipped down to her toes.

They can be read just for the fun of them and students can try writing their own. They are great for exploring the rhyme ad rhythm of English.

In exploring literature we can learn about different cultures as well as individuals.

Communication is “a process by which two individuals ‘try’ to exchange a set of ideas, feelings, symbols.. meanings”

Pierre Casse, Teaching for the Cross-Cultural Mind, Society of Inter-Cultural Education, 1981

We must learn to understand more than just the words, but also

·         Read between the lines

·         Negotiate meaning

·         Tolerate ambiguity

·         Effectively interpret messages

·         Accept difference


 Nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language, and the element of language that best encapsulates a society's values and beliefs is its proverbs.



Introduce this Arabic proverb to your students.

The son of a duck is a floater.

Ask them to discuss what it means and to find a proverb in their L1 that conveys the same meaning.

In English we say: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Ask students to find proverbs in their L1 that convey the same meaning as the following:

A woman’s work is never done.

Never judge a book by its cover.

You’re never too old to learn.

This could lead to an interesting discussion.

Including culture in language teaching

·         Brings the world into the classroom

·         Broadens students’ knowledge of world

·         Leads to classroom exploration

·         Practises more than just grammar and vocabulary

·         Allows for critical thinking

You can find examples for class room use in the following:



TV  programmes




Students own information




Guest speakers







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