Why is teaching culture important in the ESL classroom

1. Introduction

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The seminar paper will argue that teaching culture should be a vital part of every English class. It will point put the various benefits that this teaching brings. By learning culture, students will gain practical communicative competences and knowledge of how to behave in a certain social situation. This kind of learning will also have a massive impact on their motivation and overall interest. It will make them grow personally and help them become more tolerant and open-minded. This paper will also point out some of the many different methods of teaching culture and present a few exercises that can be successfully used by teachers in order to familiarize students with foreign customs and traditions. Finally, the importance of teaching students global cultural awareness will be explored. The paper will argue that teaching culture in an English class is essential if we want to educate tolerant, knowledgeable and culturally aware students.

2. Why teach culture

There are many different explanations of what culture really is. The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, for example, says that “culture is the customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organization of a particular country or group”(Oxford University Press). The definition itself tries to encompass the various aspects that build the word culture: customs, art and social conventions. In classes where English is taught as a second or foreign language, some of these elements could be used regularly in the teaching process.

Since text and context are inseparable, as Kramsch states, culture could be easily used as a context in various learning situations (Kramsch 11). That would mean that the students would benefit even more since, for example, expanding vocabulary could be accomplished whilst reading an authentic text which could talk about culture. By doing so, learning language and acquiring knowledge about a foreign culture could be easily intertwined.

Another one of the benefits of learning culture is the acquisition of practical knowledge, says Kramsch (Kramsch 11). Consequently, students will gain indispensable knowledge about social conventions and the rules of oral and written interaction in a certain culture. This is essential if we believe that one of the aims of teaching English is also knowing how to communicate with native and non-native English-speaking people. Students will learn, for example, whether it is appropriate to shake hands or kiss when first meeting someone, or what are the polite manners used at a dinner table. All of these elements are essential if we wish to operate effectively in any given social circumstance. As an example of such a circumstance, Elzbieta Jaszczurowska presented a case where a Norwegian and Japanese businessman met in order to negotiate a deal:

A Japanese businessman is negotiating with a Norwegian partner. The Japanese says that the deal will be very difficult. The Norwegian asks how the company can help to solve the problems. The Japanese is puzzled by the question.

( Elzbieta Jaszczurowska)

We can see that the Norwegian was hoping to solve the problem in order to conclude the deal. The Japanese, on the other hand, told the Norwegian that the deal was off but in a very indirect and polite manner which is typical of Japanese people. This is an example of how knowing a culture can make communication easier, and how we can avoid awkward situations. The particularities of a specific culture, when doing business, can be taught in the class which would be handy especially for students of English in a vocational school or faculty dealing with business.

Learning about another culture can also have an enormous impact on students` personal growth. This point becomes very important if we assume that every school aims to educate a tolerant, fair and knowledgeable student. Tolerance is gained by learning about other cultures, and accepting their different customs and traditions. By doing so, the students not only gain insight into another culture, but also learn to be open-minded and accepting. Students learn to broaden their view which helps them to become citizens of the world. Today globalization has reached its peak. We are connected with the rest of the world like never before. It is important to educate students about different cultures in order to better understand their own.

Kramsch says that learning culture is essential if we want to break stereotypes. She talks about transforming cultural barriers into cultural bridges (Kramsch 223). Encouraging students to think critically about what are considered other nation’s stereotypes, as well as their own, helps to prevent students from being prejudicial. Since they are regularly being bombarded by a large number of information about a certain nation or country, it is important that they learn to be critical, and able to see beyond the typical discriminatory view of a particular group of people.

Students are more motivated and show greater interest in classes where culture is taught. They find learning about how other people live, and what customs they have very entertaining. This is yet another reason why culture should be a regular part of every English class. Motivated students learn better and their knowledge is more durable. Consequently active students, that are interested in the topic and share their thoughts and opinions, participate more which increases the student-talk time.

All of the examples written above clearly illustrate what are the benefits of teaching culture, and that this should be a vital part of every English class.

2. How to teach culture
There are a number of methods that can be used in every English class in order to teach culture effectively. The first one encompasses the use of authentic media from the target culture. If the student are learning about Australia, printed articles from an Australian newspaper could be brought to class and distributed among the students. The article itself could talk about, for example, the struggle of Aboriginal people in claiming back their homeland. The article would then be read and discussed. Students would be asked to share opinions and the teacher would try to present various aspects and points of view. Beside articles, also songs, a podcast or video could be used. That way, the teacher would not only give students a piece of culture, but also take into account various learning styles.

Students could also be asked to read multicultural literature by diverse authors in order to explore perspectives never seen before. In English classes today, students are usually asked to read books from British or American authors like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. Beyond doubt are these books masterpieces and well worth reading, but why not include works from other authors as well. By no means, should students be forced to read a pile of long and complicated books, but they could easily read through a few short stories or poems. They could read a few short stories by the acclaimed Australian author Tim Winton or perhaps some traditional Japanese haiku.

Another great way to establish a contact with another culture is to have the possibility of pen pal friends from another country. Students could experience the different culture in the most pristine way. There are a number of web pages where teachers can go to in order to find a school which would be willing to start a pen pal exchange. Students could be asked to share their traditions and culture (from how they celebrate certain holidays to the typical food eaten in their country) with their pen pal friends. Furthermore, perhaps an actual exchange could be performed where students would be able to travel to the particular school and meet theirncorespondents in person.

Fantini wrote a few examples of exercises that aim to teach culture. One of them is the Turn off the stereotype exercise. Students are given handouts on which statements like Americans/Canadians/Australians/South Africans never/always/love/hate are written, followed by a blank space where students have to provide an answer for each group:

Canadians never __________________.

Americans never __________________.

Australians love ___________________.

South Africans love ________________.

(Fantini 207)
The aim of this exercises is to break various stereotypes about a certain nation and engage students in a discussion (Fantini 207).

Another example that Fantini gives is the Home sweet home exercise. Here students are shown pictures of different houses where families from all around the world are celebrating a birthday party, new year or some other holiday. Students are then asked to pick their favorite one, and describe what the people in the picture are doing (how they are celebrating and how it is different from their own celebrations). Then students report to the class what they have written, and a discussion is held in which the teacher gives detailed information about the different traditions of each country (Fantini 131). The above listed exercises are great to teach culture, break stereotypes and engage students in a classroom activity.

In her classes, where focus was on the culture of Kenya, Levy adopted two methods of teaching culture: using explicit and implicit components. By explicit components, she meant talking and learning about specific themes (music, folk tales, etc) and playing traditional Kenyan games. The implicit components included typical Kenyan songs used as a background and culture specific posters and decorations (Levy). These elements were applied in a kindergarten classroom, but many could also be used in elementary or secondary classes. As an example, a classroom could be decorated with flags from all the countries where English is the native language, or perhaps with flags of countries that are going to be dealt with during the year. Music of a particular country could also be played in the background while students are solving various exercises.

3. Globalization and teaching culture

As stated previously, globalization has reached its peak. We are connected with the rest of the world more than ever before, and our customs and traditions are slowly blending together. Students are being affected by foreign influences on a daily basis, be it through movies, television, books and especially the internet. This is why it is so important to educate them about different cultures in relation to their own. It is paramount that students realize, for example, that many holidays have been imported from different cultures and are, therefore, not rooted in their own. Multiculturalism is good if it means being open and tolerant towards other cultures, but that should not happen on the expense of losing your own.

Kumaravadivelu says that young language learners should be lead to global cultural consciousness (Kumaravadivelu 7). Students should be conscious and respectful towards other cultures by trying to understand their point of view, but also reflecting on their own, which could be a challenging task. It is difficult to become aware of our own culture because it is usually not conscious to us, argue Stephanie Quappe and Giovanna Cantatore. They claim that we see things in a certain way because of our experiences, values and cultural background. That is why it is so important to learn how to step outside of our cultural boundaries and learn to see things in a different way. By doing so we become culturally conscious (Cantatore and Quappe).

4. Conclusion

This seminar paper showed why it is so important that culture becomes a vital part of every English class. It presented some arguments regarding why it is important to teach it. We saw that teaching culture helps students gain practical knowledge when communicating with a native or non-native speaker of English. It also helps students to become more tolerant and accepting. Teaching culture has an essential role in breaking stereotypes about a certain nation and increases motivation and interest. Furthermore, the paper demonstrated some methods of teaching culture using authentic texts, videos or music. It also presented why teaching culture is important for students to become globally culturally conscious.

Overall, culture should definitely be a vital part of English classes because it has enormous benefits for the students and helps them become more fluent and more knowledgeable, not only about the English language, but also about the world in general.

List of references

Fantini, Alvino F. 1997. New Ways in Teaching Culture. TESOL Publications.

Jaszczurowska, Elzbieta. Building Intercultural Awareness – Breaking Stereotypes {On-line}. Available:–breaking-stereotypes.html (23 Feb. 2014)

Oxford University Press. 2010. The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary 8th Edition {CD-ROM}.

Kramsch, Claire. 1993. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.

Kumaravadivelu, B. 2007. Cultural Globalization and Language Education. Yale University Press.

Levy, Alison. Culture in the Classroom {On-line}. Available: (23 Feb. 2014)

Quappe,Stephanie and Giovanna Cantatore. What is Cultural Awareness {On-line}. Available: (23 Feb. 2014)

Webster, Joan Parker. 2003. Teaching Through Culture: Strategies for Reading and Responding to Young Adult Literature. Arte Publico Press.

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