The Place of Culture in Language Teaching

Recently, I’ve been reading through a copy of English Language Teaching Today. I had found it lying around our program’s library and decided to thumb through it. There’s been some interesting chapters on topics ranging from vocational English—not something I’ve encountered a lot about—to teaching reading—something I need to know more about because it goes hand in hand with good academic writing. However, there’s been one chapter that I keep coming back to as I think about my teaching writing and my learning Chinese as a second language (CSL). The chapter that I keep returning to was written by Jonathan Newton on the place of culture in teaching English for intercultural communication.

In it, Newton (2016) argues that we cannot divorce language and culture. To meaningfully teach one, we must teach the other. Now, the place of culture in ELT is something that has seen some debate in the field, Atkinson and Sohn (2013) provide a pretty good review of the conversation that’s occurred in recent years. Proponents, such as Newton and Atkinson and Sohn maintain that culture provides valuable contextualizing information for language use. It can prime particular registers and therefore lexical and syntactic choices. It can even lead to the favoring of particular connotative meanings as opposed to denotative ones. That is, cultural context can determine if “Would you like to come up for coffee?” is a legitimate inquiry about desiring to drink a caffeinated beverage, or if it’s a romantic advance. Those that think we should not teach culture typically tie it to the “stickiness” of the topic. They argue that teaching culture is so problematic because it can’t be done in a respectful way that isn’t essentializing or that doesn’t force students to become cultural informants.

While I don’t agree with how Newton (2016) presented his argument—there’s a major tone issue with the piece that sounds more at home on a sales floor than in the pages of a serious scholarly text—I do agree with his message. Culture plays a critical role in communication, and must, therefore, be part of language teaching. Just because it’s messy doesn’t mean that we should avoid it. The messiness of culture and of language mean that we must be flexible communicators. Teaching culture in the language classrooms allows us to equip students with an appreciation for ambiguity and with the skills to respectfully navigate difference.

On a much baser level, there’s so much of daily life and communication in everyday living that is culturally steeped. To help students better fit into regular conversation on topics of importance to them, it’s necessary to teach culture and how it influences language and linguistic choice.

Take getting angry as an example. It’s hard to express how upset we are by bad situations without falling back on culturally-steeped idiomatic expressions. If I order food from e le me (饿了么), a food delivery APP in China and the driver calls to tell me he’s going to be an hour late, the most that I can say is, “That’s not ok.” I can’t express what an idiotic proposition this is, as it would require cultural understanding and idiomatic expressions that are beyond my abilities. Love and romance provide another avenue where culture because important. When I talk to my spouse in Chinese and try to be romantic, they often wrinkle their nose, smack me in the arm, and tell me never to do that again because I sound weird. This is because beyond the standard wo ai ni (我爱你), I lack the cultural script to express myself romantically in my L2.

This may seem beyond the goals of language learning, but I would argue that it’s not. By only providing our students with culturally divorced tools, we are leaving them ill-equipped for their communicative encounters. With the two examples above, anger and love, we see that we are also equipping them to sound foreign—and perpetuating the notion of the polite foreigner. It’s not that I’m necessarily a polite American. It’s just that I can’t express how angry I am when you think it’s ok to deliver my reganmian (热干面) an hour late—after it’s congealed into a mess of starch. I can only imagine the frustration our ESL students must feel when they can’t express their genuine worry over class assignments, or their outrage with predatory landlords.

Source Materials

Atkinson, D., & Sohn, J. (2013). Culture from the bottom up. TESOL Quarterly, 47(4), 669-693.

Newton, J. (2016). Teaching English for intercultural communication. In W.A. Renandya and H.P. Widodo (eds). English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp. 161-170). New York: Springer

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