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Teaching Culture: Problems & Solutions
 By Nada Salem
 (Based on "Teaching Language in Context" by Alice Omaggio Hadley &
"Teaching Culture Strategies for Intercultural Communication" by H. Ned Seelye)

Foreign language teachers face many problems in teaching culture. I will Present and explicate these problems, then suggest solutions to them.

The Need for the Development of Cultural Understanding

People all over the world have become more aware of the value of second language competence and cross-cultural understanding. As populations have become increasingly diverse, more and more parents, educators, and students have come to recognize the importance of valuing multiculturalism. The need for a strong commitment to the development of cultural understanding within the language program is clear; evidence of "hate crimes" against various ethnic or social groups throughout the world reveals the crying need for understanding and mutual acceptance among the world’s peoples. The valuing of ethnic and cultural diversity must be a high priority in education as our students learn to live in an increasingly interdependent world. Moreover, it has been proven that investment in learning about other languages and cultures can bring significant economic and technological advantages.

Yet, culture is still the weakest component of our curricula; cultural teaching is remaining insubstantial and sporadic in most language classrooms. Why is it so? What are the problems foreign language teachers are facing? Can we find appropriate solutions?
In the following paragraphs I will try to explore as many problems as I can and to suggest solutions to them.

The First problem teachers are facing is: Overcrowded Curriculum.

The study of culture involves time that many teachers feel they cannot spare in an already overcrowded curriculum; they content themselves with the thought that students will be exposed to cultural material later, after they have mastered the basic grammar and vocabulary of the language.

Solution: Teachers should be made aware of the fact that this "later" never seems to come for most students. Therefore, instead of teaching language and culture in a Serial fashion, they should teach them in an integrative fashion, which means that they have to: (Lafayette 1978, 1988*)

  • Plan cultural lessons and activities as carefully as language activities and integrate them into lesson plans.
  • Use cultural contexts for language-practice activities
  • Use a variety of techniques for teaching culture that involves the four skills (from the beginning through the more advanced levels of proficiency).
  • Make good use of textbook illustrations and photos – have students analyze their cultural significance.
  • Teach students about the connotative meaning of new words when teaching vocabulary.
  • Use discussions, brainstorming, and role-plays for cultural instruction.
  • Test cultural understanding as carefully as language is tested.
  • Some of the questions that teachers might ask themselves in determining the value of a given cultural activity are: Does the activity…
  • make the learning of culture a requirement?
  • relate to the native culture?
  • integrate language learning and culture learning?
  • provide students with the ability to interact successfully in novel cultural situations? …
  • The Second problem teachers are facing is: Fear of Not Knowing Enough.

    Teachers are afraid to teach culture because they fear that they don’t know enough about it, thinking that their role is only to impart facts.

    Solution: Even if teachers’ own knowledge is quite limited, their proper role is not to impart facts, but to help students attain the skills that are necessary to make sense out of the facts they themselves discover in their study of the target culture. Then, the objectives that are to be achieved in cross-cultural understanding involve Processes rather than Facts. A "facts only" approach to culture for which the only goal is to amass bits of information is ineffective. Goals and objectives have to be set that relate not only to descriptive or analytical knowledge of facts, but also to procedural knowledge that would enable students to observe and analyze cultural elements and patterns; after all, students should have the ability to react appropriately in any social situation, even those not previously studied.

    The Third problem teachers are facing is: Dealing with Students’ Negative Attitudes.

    Students often approach target-culture phenomena assuming that the new patterns of behavior can be understood within the framework of their own native culture. When cultural phenomena differ from what they expect, students often react negatively, characterizing the target culture as "strange".

    Solution: Just as teachers need to help students revise their "linguistic patterns," they also need to help them revise their "cultural patterns." Students should be aware that it is important to recognize the pervasive influence of culture on our attitudes, emotions, beliefs, and values, and the dangers of projecting our native frame of reference on that of the culture being studied. To understand another culture, we must construct a new frame of reference in terms of the people who created it, which is complicated since cultures have both functions (meanings, purposes, needs) and forms (manifestations, realizations, operations) that vary widely, not only across cultures, but also within the subcultures of a society. As students are introduced to the target culture, they need to learn to expect differences, and eventually to understand and appreciate their logic and meaning. Any assumptions of cross-cultural similarity should be made with caution, as cultures may not share the same form/function relationships.

    In order to help students construct a new frame of reference based on the target culture, one possible solution would be to help them begin with an understanding of their own frame of reference, and then, with teacher guidance, explore the target culture through authentic texts and materials. It is also important for teachers to become aware of their own biases and help students recognize theirs.

    The Fourth problem teachers are facing is: Lack of Adequate Training.

    Teachers may not have been adequately trained in the teaching of culture and, therefore, do not have strategies and clear goals that help them to create a viable framework for organizing instruction around cultural themes. The development of such a framework depends in part on the definition of culture, which has been the source of much of the difficulty in designing quality instruction.


    Let’s start with the Definition that can help clarify things. "Culture" is a broad concept that embraces all aspects of human life. Of its several meanings, two are of major importance to teachers: Culture as everything in human life (Hearthstone or "little-c" culture, also called culture BBV: Beliefs, Behavior, and Values) in addition to Culture as the best in human life restricted to the elitists (Olympian or "big-C" culture also called culture MLA: great Music, Literature, and Art of the country). We should realize that knowing the language, as well as the patterns of everyday life, is a prerequisite to appreciating the fine arts and literature, therefore we need a balanced perspective of culture when designing curricula (e.g. presenting popular culture to the exclusion of "high" culture can shortchange students intellectually).

    As for the main Themes of the culture, they might be: symbolism, value, authority, order, ceremony, love, honor, humor, beauty, and spirit, in addition to intellectuality, individualism, the art of living, realism, common sense, friendship, family, justice, liberty, patriotism, religion, education, conflict, ecology … "Theme" in teaching culture is not just any "topic"; rather it is an "emotionally charged concern, which motivates or strongly influences the culture bearer’s conduct in a wide variety of situations."

    To teach culture for understanding, teachers should achieve the following Goals: (Seelye, 1984)

    Goal 1 = The student should demonstrate an understanding that people generally act the way they do because they are using options society allows for satisfying basic physical and psychological needs.

    Goal 2 = The student should demonstrate an understanding that social variables such as age, sex, social class, and place of residence affect the way people speak and behave.

    Goal 3 = The student should indicate an understanding of the role convention plays in shaping behavior by demonstrating how people in the target culture act in common mundane and crisis situations.

    Goal 4 = The students should indicate an awareness that culturally conditioned images are associated with even the most common target words and phrases.

    Goal 5 = The students should demonstrate the ability to make, evaluate, and refine the generalities concerning the target culture.

    Goal 6 = The students should show that they developed the skills needed to locate and organize information about the target culture from the library, the mass media, people, and personal observation.

    Goal 7 = The students should demonstrate intellectual curiosity about the target culture and empathy toward its people.

    In order to translate these goals into classroom practice, we need to follow specific Strategies and Techniques:


  • The lecture
  • Native informants
  • Audio-taped interviews
  • Video-taped interviews/Observational dialogs
  • Using authentic readings and realia for cross-cultural understanding ( a four-stage approach to a cultural reading of authentic materials is very effective to lead students through the process of guided exploration and discovery : 1- Thinking, 2- Looking, 3- Learning, 4- Integrating
  • Techniques:
  • Culture capsules
  • Culture assimilators
  • Culture clusters
  • Culture mini-dramas
  • Deriving cultural connotations
  • Hypothesis refinement
  • Artifact Study
  • Decreasing stereotypic perceptions
  • Using proverbs in teaching cultural understanding
  • Humor as a component of culture: exploring cross-cultural differences
  • The Fifth problem teachers are facing is: How to Measure Cross-Cultural Awareness and Change in Attitudes.

    It is very difficult for teachers to measure cross-cultural awareness and change in attitudes so that they can see whether the students have profited or not.

    Solution :

    Measuring Cross-Cultural Awareness :

    Hanvey’s (1979) scheme for measuring cross-cultural awareness consists of four stages :

    Level I : Information about the culture may consist of superficial stereotypes.
                   Learners see the culture as bizarre.
                   Culture bearers may be considered rude and ignorant.

    Level II : Learners focus on expanded knowledge about the culture (contrast with their
                   own culture). They find the culture bearers’ behavior irrational.

    Level III : Learners begin to accept the culture at an intellectual level and can see things
                   in terms of the target culture’s frame of reference.

    Level IV : The level of empathy is achieved through living in and through the culture.
                   Learners begin to see the culture as insiders.

    Measuring Change in Attitudes :

    There are four techniques to measure attitudes :

  • Social distance scales : To measure the degree to which one separates oneself socially from members of another culture (e.g. would marry .. , have as close friend, have as next-door neighbor, work with, have as an acquaintance only … ).
  • Semantic differential scales : To judge the defined culture group in terms of a number of bipolar traits (e.g. Good/Bad, Clean/Dirty….)
  • Statements : To put a check in front of the statements with which s/he agrees. (e.g. Envious of others, Tactless, Self-indulgent, Quick to understand…)
  • Self-esteem change : To measure changes in self-esteem in the primary grades (e.g. happy with myself, at home, at school, my teacher/friends like me….)
  • Teaching for Cultural Understanding Leads to Success

    Finally, after having presented the different problems that foreign language teachers face in teaching culture and suggested possible solutions, we hope that in the next century culture will be truly integrated with language study so that it can become a strong component of our curricula.

    There is no question that the successful integration of culture and language teaching can contribute significantly to general humanistic knowledge, that language ability and cultural sensitivity can play a vital role in the security, defense, and economic well-being of this nation, and that global understanding ought to be a mandatory component of basic education.

    * Lafayette, R.C. (1978), Teaching Culture: Strategies and Techniques, Virginia: Arlington.
    * Lafayette, R. (1988). Integrating the teaching of culture into the foreign language classroom. In Allan J. Singerman (Ed.)., Towards a new integration of language and culture. Reports of the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Middlebury, VT: The Northeast Conference.

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    Page created on April 25, 2001 | Last updated on May 10, 2009
    Copyright © 2001-2009 Nada Salem Abisamra

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