Teaching Culture

Of all the changes that have affected language teaching theory and method in recent years, the greatest may be the transformation in the role of culture. This change reflects a broader transformation in the way that culture itself is understood.

Traditionally, culture was understood in terms of formal or “high” culture (literature, art, music, and philosophy) and popular or “low” culture. From this perspective, one main reason for studying a language is to be able to understand and appreciate the high culture of the people who speak that language. The pop culture is regarded as inferior and not worthy of study.

In this view, language learning comes first, and culture learning second. Students need to learn the language in order to truly appreciate the culture, but they do not need to learn about the culture in order to truly comprehend the language. This understanding can lead language teachers to avoid teaching culture for several reasons:

  • They may feel that students at lower proficiency levels are not ready for it yet
  • They may feel that it is additional material that they simply do not have time to teach
  • In the case of formal culture, they may feel that they do not know enough about it themselves to teach it adequately
  • In the case of popular culture, they may feel that it is not worth teaching

In contemporary language classrooms, however, teachers are expected to integrate cultural components because language teaching has been influenced by a significantly different perspective on culture itself. This perspective, which comes from the social sciences, defines culture in terms of the knowledge, values, beliefs, and behaviors that a group of people share. It is reflected in the following statement from the National Center for Cultural Competence:

NCCC defines culture as an integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thoughts, communications, languages, practices, beliefs, values, customs, courtesies, rituals, manners of interacting and roles, relationships and expected behaviors of a racial, ethnic, religious or social group; and the ability to transmit the above to succeeding generations. The NCCC embraces the philosophy that culture influences all aspects of human behavior. (Goode et al., 2000, p. 1)

In this understanding of “deep culture,” language and culture are integral to one another. The structure of language and the ways it is used reflect the norms and values that members of a culture share. However, they also determine how those norms and values are shared, because language is the means through which culture is transmitted.