In this first post of a three part series, I’d like to talk about something which in my experience brings language to life … and that is culture. It’s a big one isn’t it? I think we all agree that it would be near impossible to teach a language (any language for that matter) without making cultural references to the country of origin or other geographical contexts where the language is used. As the novelist Khaled Hosseini once said, “If culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door and all the rooms inside.”

Try as we may, we can’t get away from it. Culture is everywhere. So what is it exactly? In the words of Richard Brislin (Brislin in Johnson & Rinvolucri, 2010) “culture refers to widely shared ideals, values, formation and uses of categories, assumptions about life and goal-directed activities that become unconsciously or subconsciously accepted as ‘right’ and ‘correct’ by people who identify themselves as members of a society.”

But let’s start on a more tangible level. The most visible manifestations of culture are those that can be seen by outsiders, like buildings, transport, money and clothes. Closely linked to this ‘outer layer’ of culture are cultural products such as art, music, folklore, literature and artefacts. I make reference to these cultural manifestations in my classes whenever possible or appropriate – they bring out the curious side of students who are genuinely interested in learning about accessible cultural experiences. And it keeps them engaged!

Another cultural element that is regularly integrated into language courses regards behaviours, as mentioned in the quote above. In this category we discuss customs, habits, dress, food and leisure activities of a society – it is also a category that is often prone to stereotyping but that’s whole different kettle of fish! Still, anyone with a sense of cultural awareness living within a home culture will at some level instinctively see the difference between what is and what is not acceptable behaviour in any given context.

Having grown up partly in South Africa and partly in the UK in a very Anglo-Saxon environment, I remember the looks of disappointment at my first birthday party here in Brazil when upon receiving presents from widespread and distant members of my wife`s family, I promptly said ‘Thank you!’ and put them away – little did I know that you are supposed to unwrap them on the spot and gush with appreciation! But more on cultural awareness later…

A final category regarding cultural elements is that of ideas. Here we find such deeply ingrained phenomena like beliefs, values and institutions. Having had the privilege to teach in a number of countries – in most cases for a number of years – has helped me tremendously in understanding these core beliefs. As opposed to products which are clearly visible, these core beliefs and values are at the very heart of any society and are not always easily accessible or visible. Indeed, they may take longer for students to understand and it is something I shall return to in the third post in this series.

So there you go. Products, ideas and behaviours are all aspects of culture which we need to think about when considering the teaching of culture. In the next part of this blog post I will be looking at what it means to be culturally competent and what guidelines we can follow in order to help our students become more culturally aware. Hope you enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear more about your cultural experiences in the classroom so please do share by commenting below. See you next time.