In my last post, I talked about the different cultural aspects we can teach in our classrooms. Today I’d like to focus on the notion of cultural competence. As teachers, we are very aware of what it means to be linguistically competent. In fact I would go as far as to say that back in the day it is what we almost exclusively focused on.

Times have changed however. We live in a globalized world in which our students interact, work and play. Navigating these different spaces, be it online or through travel requires much more than just knowledge of the language. Although teaching cultural aspects is not new, students need to know how to decode cultural norms and practices probably more than ever before…and not just of foreign cultures, they need to be able to explain their own norms and practices to foreigners too!

In a recent lesson I taught to an advanced group of learners, I asked them to put together a ‘survival guide’ of important cultural practices that they thought foreigners would need to be aware of when travelling to Brazil for work or holiday purposes. One of the points that came up was punctuality and that foreigners should become accustomed to waiting for their Brazilian counterparts. Another important consideration that was mentioned was greetings, and how in Brazil they tend to be very effusive, complete with handshakes, hugs and kisses. Brazilians…got to love them!

Of course cultural practices do not only relate to behavior, but also to language, specifically the connotations of specific words and phrases. Over my 6 odd years in Brazil, I have come to learn that Brazilians tend to use the diminutive form –inho not only to indicate that something is small, but also cute or dear (as with the names of close friends for e.g. Rubinho). Nevertheless, used in a different context, it can also be offensive or derogatory.

It goes without saying that these cultural displays exist all over the world. So how can we better prepare our students to interact in the 21st century? In an attempt to give students a real insight into national character, beliefs and behaviours, Ned Seelye (1988) provides a framework to develop appropriate cross-cultural communication skills. The following are a modification of his ‘seven goals of cultural instruction’:


  1. To help students to develop an understanding of the fact that all people exhibit culturally-conditioned behaviours.

2.To help students to develop an understanding that social variables such as age, sex, social class and place of residence influence the ways in which people speak and behave.

  1. to help students to become more aware of conventional behavior in common situations in the target culture.
  2. To help students to increase their awareness of the cultural connotations of words and phrases in the target language.
  3. To help students to develop the ability to evaluate and refine generalizations about the target culture, in terms of supporting evidence.
  4. To help students to develop the necessary skills to locate and organize information about the target culture.
  5. To stimulate students’ intellectual curiosity about the target culture, and to encourage empathy towards its people

adapted from Tomalin, B. & Stempleski, S. (2003)


Language teaching in this respect has been getting nearer and nearer to the idea that linguistic and cultural competences involve students being able to function appropriately in their chosen foreign language. The challenge lies in getting teachers to teach it appropriately too. Well, that’s it for part 2. Feel free to share your cultural experiences in the classroom! See you next time…