The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

How important is culture in language teaching?

Question:

submitted by Mut Vitou, Cambodia

How important is culture in language teaching?

Dr Richards Responds:

This really depends on what you understand by “culture”. A number of different conceptions of culture have influenced English language teaching:

  • 1. Culture as aesthetics: information about art, literature, theatre, music, architecture etc. in English-speaking countries
  • 2. Culture as social customs: information about the family, home life, customs, leisure activities, interpersonal relations
  • 3. Culture as culturally-laden words and concepts: bank holiday, middle-class, gay, high-tea, afternoon-tea
  • 4. Culture as appropriate forms of interaction: greetings and leave-taking, norms of politeness, strategies for complaints and apologies

Our view of the role of culture in language teaching has changed considerably in recent years. In the past English was often regarded as the property of “native-speakers of English” and of countries where it has the status of a mother tongue or first language for the majority of the population. It was these varieties of English, particularly their standard varieties, that were considered legitimate models to teach to second or foreign language learners. And it was also assumed that English had to be taught in relation to the culture(s) of English speaking countries. Culture as aesthetics and social customs often received an emphasis. This picture has changed somewhat today. Now that English is the language of globalization, international communication, commerce and trade, the media and pop culture, different motivations for learning it come into play. English is no longer viewed as the property of the English-speaking world but is an international commodity. New goals for the learning of English have emerged which include interest in foreign or international affairs, willingness to go overseas to study or work, readiness to interact with intercultural partners, as well other goals such as friendship, travel, and knowledge orientations. The cultural values of Britain and the US are often seen as irrelevant to language teaching, except in situations where the learner has a pragmatic need for such information as might be the case for an international student living in the US, Britain, Australia etc.  who might need to become familiar with culture 2, 3, and 4 above. For a learner using English as a lingua franca (e.g. a person from Japan interacting in English with a person from China) however, none of the definitions of culture described above would be particularly relevant.