Can Language Be Taught Without a Cultural Context?

I had wrongly assumed that all my virtual students shared my view about the relationship between language and culture. I believe that when you learn a language, you also learn a culture. Furthermore, when you teach a language, whether you are a native or non-native speaker, you serve as a cultural guide, if not an ambassador of sorts. However, a YouTube viewer was recently puzzled over an exchange I had with another viewer regarding cultural differences. The second learner asked why the discussion was even relevant since I am teaching a language, not a culture.

Is it really possible to teach without a cultural context? I think not, and I’ve addressed this question before in another post. From my point of view, most of the choices we make as teachers integrate language with culture. We choose photos, songs, and other media to prompt discussion and illustrate target words and structures.  Our explanations include jokes, examples from current events, and references to our personal lives. Even a choice of topic, such as a holiday theme, reflects the target culture.

Of course, teaching through video is different from teaching students face-to-face in a classroom, but nevertheless the authentic language models in a video reflect the culture they live in. For example, when I participated in YouTube’s “On the Rise” contest back in December 2011, I suggested they use an old video on New Year’s resolutions to represent my channel. I liked the various contributions I was able to include in that lesson, and in particular I was pleased that my key guest speakers represented Americans well. They spoke with mix of optimism, honesty, humor, and goodwill. They were easy-going and willing to share information. All that is a reflection of the American character. In fact, you can look at any other lesson in that playlist of “Mini Lessons,” and you’ll see that each video tries to convey information about American culture as well as teach the language.

In my most recent lesson with Natasha, my beginner student, there’s a moment when she pulls out a large sum of money from her wallet, and I’m genuinely suprised. It’s not that I’m easily impressed by someone who has more money than me, but rather I don’t see the point of carrying around cash when you can use plastic. I respond to her display by showing her my credit card. This whole exchange reflects a bit of the American lifestyle. It sparks thought about amounts of money, forms of money, and attitudes toward money. To me, the exchange makes no sense unless you put it in a culture context. Do you agree?

What are your feelings about the relationship between language and culture? I’d love to hear from you.

19 Comments Add yours

  1. Harvey says:

    Even more frustrating for me as a teacher is the triadic relationship between language, culture, and education (or, simply put, language and the culture OF education). Depending on the demographics of my classroom, I feel that I have to respond and address different students’ expectations of me as a teacher. With one group, they might expect me, being the teacher, to be more direct, offer more explicit correction, stricter, and all the other qualities that come to mind when one thinks of Catholic school teachers. However, with another group of students, I feel like I have to be more entertaining, provide more comic relief, and possibly yielding more of the conversational floor to the students during times of deep, cerebral discussion on controversial topics.

    Perhaps this has more to do with the philosophy of teaching than with language and culture but what I DO feel is that my PERSONALITY as an American, and as an American educator, is somehow comprimised. Most training programs in the field of ESL/EFL encourage teachers to use the communicative approach and abandon traditional, archaic forms of teaching (e.g., dictation, listen and repeat, and so forth). Well, what if our students are slightly resistant to this Americanized teaching style in the classroom?

    1. You bring up a very relevant topic. Teaching itself is cultural. Attitudes toward education are brought into the classroom, and it becomes quite complicated when very different expectations are held. To what degree should we modify our teaching style to accommodate those expectations and learners’ preferences?

      I think we can hold on to what makes us who we are as educators and as people, but we should be sensitive to how we’re being perceived by our students. We can always be American, but not always so boldly American, if you know what I mean. For example, I prefer to be on a first-name basis with adult learners, but I realize some are used to demonstrating a high level of respect for their teachers, so they feel uncomfortable with such familiarity. I respond to Miss Jennifer, Mrs. Lebedev, ma’am, and Teacher, but I also give gentle reminders that it’s okay to call me by my first name.

      As for my methodology, I support the communicative approach, but I can also be very “old school” at times, as seen in my recent YouTube series for beginners. (Maybe that “old school” tendency exists because I’m a product of those parochial schools you mentioned!) I can shift back and forth between a bottom-up and top-down presentation, although my preference is for bottom-up. However, despite the versatility that an experienced teacher has, I think there is a point when a teacher can be pushed too far out of his or her comfort zone, and while we want to grow as teachers, we don’t want to try to be someone we’re not or deviate from our values. I’ve been called boring by the occasional YouTube viewer, and well, I’m okay with that. At least I’ve never been told that my lessons are useless. I do try to be engaging and I think learning should be fun, but I refuse to make being entertaining a primary goal. I’ve experimented with “edutainment” projects, and I know how far I can push it before the lesson is no longer what I believe in or what I’m proud of.

      Part of the learner’s challenge, I think, is to be able to work with information from difference sources, delivered in different manners. Asking students to readjust their expectations (of us and themselves) and sometimes step just a bit out of their comfort zone is part of the language learning experience, isn’t it?

      Thanks for starting this great discussion!

  2. I work for a design studio that specialises in the production of English Language Teaching materials. We recently wrote an article in response to a FutureBook post about the changing demographic of readers – ie now that digital elements of resources can be made global via electronic materials and the internet there is a sense that a lot of the cultural aspects of the design (photos, images, illustrations) are being lost in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And equally as you point out in this great article not referencing cultural aspects of a culture where the language exists in will dilute so much of the essence of language!

    Here is the article we wrote: http://emcdesignltd.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/design-considerations-for-publishing-to-a-global-market-our-article-for-thefuturebook/

    1. Makes me recall the time I unknowingly offended some people by showing a photo of me sitting on a stack of books. To me and the people who set up the shot, it spoke of an easy-going nature. I edited the photo as soon as I realized my pose was a sign of disrespect in at least one culture.

  3. rebecaurora says:

    Hi Jennifer…
    Loved reading this and I think language + culture go together…
    You love the culture and that helps you learn the language, or you love the language and it helps you understand the culture.
    I dont think we can separate them.

    Rebeca

    1. Well said! I also think it can be beneficial to share the learning experience in a group setting. You partly process the cultural differences through discussion and observation of others’ attitudes.

  4. sultan23c says:

    Your post is very insightful, very eye-opening, language is related to culture because it conveys the ideas in the culture.
    Use of words it helps to identify person as well as their culture!
    Culture and language are linked and the more culture activities are carried out the more use of the language. Language is a method of expressing ideas. Cultures come up with new ideas and they develop language components to express those ideas. We can guess people’s background through their use of language.
    Thank you Jennifer!

    1. You so wonderfully explore the relationship even further, Sultan. Culture generates language, doesn’t it?
      And I do agree that we understand a person not just through what he or she says, but also through how the person says it.

      Thank you for joining the discussion.

  5. Bekah Palmer says:

    Great post! I struggle with the same dilemma! My personal views on language, as well as all my teacher training, point to the idea that you cannot teach language without teaching culture, unless you want your students to be translation-robots (i.e., they will never develop an L2 cultural identity, but will always speak their L2 as if it was code for their L1).

    However, when I was writing my Thesis, I came across a lot of support for teaching English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and English as an International Language (EIL). The idea is that, since English is now an international means of communication, many learners will never (or rarely) use it with native speakers. In these cases, teaching native speaker norms and cultural tid-bits is irrelevant. Instead, they argue that the focus should be on intercultural communication and communication strategies.

    So, I’m not sure which direction to go. Many of my students here in Germany want English to communicate with their Danish, Portuguese, and other Northern European colleagues who don’t speak German. I don’t know if it’s best to teach NS culture so that they are prepared if they get the chance to interact with them, or if I should just try to broaden the students’ understanding of cross-cultural communication strategies.

    1. This is such an important perspective that you are sharing! Thank you. Indeed, it could be wrong to assume that students need to learn a specific cultural context for the language they are studying so that they could then apply that background knowledge to all communication in the L2.

      We can talk about L1 and L2, and there exists the idea of C1 (native culture) and C2 (target culture in which the L2 is spoken as a native language), but with globalization C2 is not a constant, is it? A Japanese business man speaking with a German businesswoman would benefit more from understanding differences between Japanese and German cultures, right? Is their knowledge of American (British, Irish, Australian, etc.) culture relevant?

      Then again, if those two people have learned English from American teachers or teachers whose English follows standard North American English, then they’ll be able to incorporate certain idioms (e.g., ballpark figure, drop the ball) and references (e.g., to literary figures in English literature) in their communication. Not having the same background knowledge becomes a potential obstacle, doesn’t it?

      1. Julie Frank says:

        And it also begs the question, how does one assess English competency/proficiency, if we are to delineate between contexts? I’ve had this discussion with my classes, too — and I stand by my Western teaching methodologies and NAE nuances. Can one ever be called proficient in a second language, if they are unaware or unable to function linguistically with native speakers?

      2. Yes, how important it is to consider assessment! Thank you for bringing this up. I suppose it would depend on the purpose of assessing someone’s proficiency, wouldn’t it? For example, assessing a learner’s readiness for entrance into a U.S. university could differ greatly from how an international employer might determine if a job candidate could function in a workplace where English is the common language. Nevertheless, you make a strong argument: “Can one ever be called proficient in a second language, if they are unaware or unable to function linguistically with native speakers?”

        I think a common thread I’m seeing in our comments is the idea that a teacher has two obligations. We must be true to ourselves and not deny who we are and what we believe in as educators, and yet we must always teach with sensitivity to cultural contexts.

        I wonder how many ESL/ EFL programs include some kind of orientation to address cultural differences. Also, while I’m sure all good teacher training programs include a component on international awareness, I’d be curious to know how much the curriculum varies from school to school.

    2. Francis says:

      I think you should consider the Zambian situation in relation to language teaching. You may realize that the best you can do is to “arouse language in the learner by providing the necessary threads and it will develop itself in various cultures.

      1. Hello. That is an interesting concept and analogy. Indeed, the idea of language teaching is to send the learners out with enough to take root in other places or at least make connections in other places. There must be in today’s world, however, some flexibility or openness so that the learner can handle communication various cultural contexts.

        Thank you for adding to the discussion.

  6. Julie Frank says:

    I’d say that any good teacher education program should include cultural sensitivity throughout the curriculum… in any discipline.

    1. Love the way you stressed “throughout” as opposed to an add-on.

  7. Hi Jennifer,
    I really want to give a thoughtful reply, but am just so busy at work right now, so I apologize ahead of time.

    I want to say that I love your new video series for beginners. I thank you and Natasha for your time and willingness to share with the rest of us.

    And my opinion to this particular topic is that there is no way you can teach a language outside of cultural context. I am currently in a situation where I am informally teaching my nanny. She and I share the fact that we lived our first 25 years in the same culture. Then I moved to North America and 15 years later, there are so many differences in the way each of us thinks and approaches everyday issues. As I work with her on improving her English I inevitably find myself explaining cultural context way before we can tackle specific vocabulary, or a grammar structure, or a piece of authentic language such as an ad for a job. It is so fascinating.

    Thanks again, to both you and Natasha.

    спасибо

    ~Branka

    1. Hello Branka,

      It’s wonderful to hear your voice in this discussion thread!

      There have been some very interesting perspectives shared here. I think we’re all in agreement that language and culture are connected, but the remaining question centers around which context(s) should be applied to our teaching.

      You and I, Branka, are in a special situation. Both you and I are teaching women in the U.S. who are making a life here, have spent time here, but also come from a culture that we know intimately (you more so than me). In my case, I’m teaching American English to a Russian, and I’m very aware of cultural differences and perceptions involved. I also know her linguistic needs as a suburban mother of school-aged children in New England.

      In contrast, what’s an ESL teacher to do with a very diverse group of students coming in with varied expectations of the learning experience? What about the teacher working abroad in an EFL setting where students might be less familiar with and less comfortable in a classroom with a relaxed, playful atmosphere and a communicative approach? Do you tone down your style to accommodate certain expectations? Do you gently coax students to accept a different methodology? These are questions I’m asking of all of us.

      Thank you for keeping the discussion going, Branka.🙂
      I’m very happy to know you support Natasha’s efforts to learn English and my efforts to teach her in front of a large audience!
      (BTW – Between lessons I recommend certain materials from Real-English.com and USALearns.org.)

      Jennifer

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