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The elephant in the classroom

It is huge, unmissable and unmistakable. Each learner brings their own, as does every teacher. It is everywhere, in every classroom in every language school in every country in the world. All thoughts and acts are a product of it and how these are interpreted is informed by it. It pervades the curriculum. Why is it, then, that culture receives so little attention in the language classroom?

Classroom material may contain cultural references, what Kramsch terms the four Fs, ‘foods, fairs, folklore and statistical facts’ (cited in Hinkel, 1999, p. 5), but these simplify the complexity of the relationship between language and culture. There are also many books that aim to address culture in the language classroom but, all too often, they suggest individual activities without providing a clear rationale that teachers can take and apply consistently to their classes.

Pre-service courses rarely have an input session on culture. While they might have one or two criterion that refer to it, it is not often addressed explicitly. For example, the Cambridge ESOL CELTA criteria mention culture by name once (1b teaching a class with an awareness of learning styles and cultural factors that may affect learning1). Most time and attention is spent on the areas represented by the other 41 criteria, such as language analysis and awareness. This is understandable, but it could also be argued that the importance of culture is not sufficiently emphasized on teacher training courses.

The nature of culture makes it difficult to define and teach, which perhaps explains its conspicuous absence. There are no written rules and it is only when you transgress the unwritten ones that you become aware of your false step, usually by behaving in a manner that is perfectly acceptable in your own culture. The embarrassment, feeling of stupidity and loss of face is only increased by the public nature of the slip. These occur in social situations, in the real world outside the classroom. Sensitising our learners to cultural issues, allowing them to develop expectations about social interactions and providing them with strategies for dealing with them are essential if they are to use language effectively outside the classroom.

One way of dealing with culture is by creating a tolerant classroom environment created by the caring teacher. While no teacher wants to make their learners feel awkward, self-conscious or ashamed, by avoiding these issues as and when they occur in class we might actually be doing our learners a disservice. Learners need to know what is culturally appropriate and avoiding this only set them up for a fall.

A list of rules or dos and don’ts is ineffective, especially if the reader is from a different culture than the writer. For example, advice to visitors to Australia to avoid blowing your nose in public is usually meet with disbelief by Australians. Yet for someone from a culture where blowing your nose does not involve a tissue this might be appropriate advice. If this is difficult to picture, think direct from nose to floor. The image usually results in looks of shock and disbelief from tissue-using cultures and this reaction and the judgment it indicates is the real issue for the language classroom.

An unaware language teacher is likely to misread their learners’ actions and misinterpret their learners’ culture, seeing bad attitude or idleness where there is none. It also means that the language teacher is unaware that they are viewing, and judging, learners’ behaviour from their own culturally bound position. Rosaldo notes that ‘the cultural world, with its social order and constraints, serves as a background against which a people’s subjectivities are formed and expressed’ (cited in Hinkel 1999 p2). This lack of awareness can manifest itself in inappropriate stereotyping and comments like ‘learners from X country have no imagination’. It also provides some teachers with a get out clause, an insurmountable wall that cannot be breached, clearly not conducive to learning. A teacher that critiques another culture without realizing their comments come from their position in their own culture will never be able to use these differences to enhance learning.

To deal with these issues we cannot sidestep them, either by being so tolerant that the learners are unaware of the cultural slips they make, or by declaring the issue too difficult. If our learners are to use language effectively and appropriately in the real world, we need to address cultural issues explicitly and systematically.

I saw an example of this recently in the film Gran Torino. Walt Kowalski, the anti-hero played by Clint Eastwood, teaches Thao, his Hmong teenager neighbour, how to ‘talk like a man’. Not all of us will be able to take our learners to a barber shop and I am not suggesting swearing and ethnic slurs are good idea but after the scene Thao has a much clearer idea of how to behave. He does not pick this up simply by living in the culture but needs it to be addressed clearly. It goes beyond simply the mechanics of the language and involves using language in conjunction with our behaviour. As Gee states, ‘language is always spoken (and written, for that matter) out of a particular social identity (or social role), an identity that is a composite of words, actions and (implied) beliefs, values and attitudes (1990, p. 140). The same is true for our learners. Of course, how they wish to be or appear to be ‘in English’ and the identity we need to help them develop is an issue for another editorial.

Writing about culture in research and second language pedagogy, Eli Hinkel notes that ‘Applied linguists and language teachers have become increasingly aware that a second or foreign language can rarely be learned or taught without addressing the culture of the community in which it is used’ (1999, p.2). We very much hope to include more articles on this in future issues of the IHJ and welcome article submissions from interested readers. By engaging with these issues we can begin to recognise and discuss the elephant in the classroom.

1 The example of CELTA is given as it is a widely recognized pre-service course. No criticism of the award is meant by this reference and the CELTA Syllabus and Assessment Guidelines makes clear reference to both cultural backgrounds (p6 & p8) and cultural factors (p21).


Cambridge ESOL. CELTA Syllabus and Assessment Guidelines. Retrieved October 20, 2009, from www.cambridgeesol.org/assets/pdf/celta8_251103.pdf

Gee, J. P. (1990). Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses.

London: The Falmer Press.

Hinkel, E. (1999) Introduction: Culture in research and second language pedagogy. In Hinkel, E. (Ed.) Culture in second language teaching and learning (pp 1 – 7). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press

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