Understanding Culture and Helping Students Understand Culture

The past three chapters have looked at the basic components which go into the linguistic competence portion of communicative competence––vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. This chapter will look at the basic component which makes up the social appropriateness component of communicative competence––culture.

  1. What culture is
  2. Culture has been defined in a variety of ways in a variety of disciplines. Persons working in the humanities and fine arts use the term to apply to enlightenment or excellence in taste which has been acquired by exposure to and/or training in the arts. The term is generally applied as an adjective form, and we may thus speak of a person being "cultured" if he or she appreciates opera, ballet, and "good" art, literature, and music. Ned Seelye (1984), one of the better known leaders in the teaching of culture, calls this kind of culture "big C" (p. 19).

    Anthropologists and sociologists have defined culture somewhat more broadly and differently. In a general sense, they use the word to apply to behavior and beliefs which seem typical of a group or class. This definition may include typical food, clothing, values, activities, manners, practices, etc. of a group. Seelye (1984) refers to this type of culture as "little c" (p. 19).

    Another definition of culture is sometimes held by lay persons, persons not particularly ZZ specifically dedicated to the study of the arts or of groups of people. These people think culture refers to the things that people from other places do which seem unusual and curious. Thus, if these people say they would like to get acquainted with another country's culture, they may just mean that they want to see the tulips and windmills in Holland or someone sleeping under a cactus with a sombrero covering his face in Mexico. This definition is based on stereotypes, most of which are quite exaggerated and not very true. It has sometimes been referred to as "K culture" with the "K" standing for the "kooky" or "kwaint."*

    If one were to ask which of these three types of culture should be taught in ESL classes, most people would answer, "Little c," very rapidly. However, if you think about what communicative competence is and how social appropriateness contributes to communicative competence, it becomes more apparent that teachers really must deal with all three types of culture in some way. If one is to act in a socially appropriate way among the "cultured" stratum of any society or understand that point of view sufficiently to read about the people in it with understanding, some knowledge of "Big C" culture is imperative. Furthermore, one cannot maintain "K culture" ideas for long and achieve desirable results in receptive skills (listening and reading) nor in productive skills (speaking and writing). It is obvious that the teacher of ESL must, in some way, deal with all three of these ideas about culture.

  3. Why teachers themselves should be aware of culture and cultural differences
  4. Many teachers of ESL must deal with these aspects of culture, but particularly "little c" culture for other very important reasons as well. These teachers are those who teach cross–culturally, that is, teachers who have students from a cultural group different from their own. These teachers need to know and understand what the reactions of their students from various cultural groups are likely to be, or they will not be effective teachers. This may be true whether one is in an ESL or and environment.

    Two cases in point illustrate. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, one U. S. school district found itself with a large number of Russian and eastern European immigrant children in the ESL classes. Because administrators did not acknowledge the cultural differences in expectations which this group had about education and what was appropriate in classrooms, these children were placed in on–going ESL classes which, at the time, were composed principally of Hispanics and South–east Asians. The teachers in the ESL classes continued to teach in their accustomed manner, using lots of games and activities to involve the children and to get them to interact. Within a very short period of time, the Russian and eastern European parents were coming to the classroom complaining to the teachers about their incompetence and the "total disarray" of the classes. The teachers tried to explain what they were doing and why, but the parents did not understand and were not convinced of the need for more activity. They wanted their children in their seats listening, reading, and writing, and they considered any teacher who could not deliver this kind of class incompetent. Not finding satisfaction at this level, the parents moved on to the principal of the school. Here, once again, the principal tried to explain the philosophy of the school and of the ESL teachers. Once again, the parents were not satisfied. Before the school district was able to find a solution to this problem, it had grown into a very large one. Although there undoubtedly would have been some minor problems regardless, teachers more aware from the very beginning of cultural differences in expectations could have taken steps to defuse the problem and ease both children and parents into the new system more easily.

    The second case occurred in an environment, in Israel, where a new teacher from the U.S. was teaching English in a Palestinian school. She was working with a fairly advanced group of students, trying to help them understand and use the present perfect tense. In her first exercise she wanted to use activities and experiences which she was sure her students had, so she began with the question, "Have you ever lived in Israel?" The usually bright students nodded, "No," or seemed to shake their heads in lack of comprehension. The teacher repeated the question, this time a little more slowly, but the response was the same. When the teacher repeated the question the third time, perplexed that such an obvious question could be so little understood, one of her students took pity and helped out. "Palestine, teacher, Palestine," the student said. The teacher, although somewhat familiar with the political situation at the time, was not familiar enough with the culture to know that the Palestinians would not give Israel recognition as a nation, even by name. What would have been a very effective example if that one cultural point had been considered became a very confusing and upsetting one. The students knew the grammar principle very well; they would simply not acknowledge the political circumstances it assumed.

    Work done by Lily Wong–Fillmore in the area of cultural expectations from children are also enlightening for persons who teach cross–culturally. Her work examined the activities and success of children from various ethnic groups in ESL programs in the U. S., and tried to find the reasons behind any differences. She found that Chinese children were very task and work oriented. If told to write something on a page, they would stay at the task, sometimes even having to be pushed to go outside for the recreational break or recess. They would fill the paper from edge to edge and from top to bottom with the writing even if they had to write the same thing over and over.

    Hispanic children, on the other hand, were generally lackadaisical in completing their written assignments, stopping often in the middle to chat with their neighbors or to do other social things. They were, however, absolutely outstanding whenever it came to communicating with others in a group or working together.

    American Indian children were very quiet in the classrooms, generally choosing to sit at the back, seldom speaking and/or participating until an activity had been on–going for quite a while. Sometimes they would not speak with anyone, including the teacher even if they were addressed �� directly by name and with a specific question.

    When Dr. Wong–Fillmore researched further into the homes and cultures of the children, she found information which helped explain what the children were doing at school. She found, for example, that at home Chinese children are given very small tasks without much responsibility and are expected to do them perfectly. Youth is not considered of particular worth; age is considered to be what gives one wisdom.

    The responsibilities of Hispanic children at home are very different. They are given very responsible tasks, such as completely caring for younger brothers and sisters at a very early age (sometimes as young as six or eight). The children are not expected to do the jobs perfectly, but are expected to do them well. Also, they are not expected to do them alone; other brothers and sisters as well as cousins, friends, and neighbors all help. The tasks are the responsibility of the entire group.

    The American Indian children were seldom if ever taught directly in their homes and they were not assigned any particular tasks by adults. Rather, the adults would perform the tasks in front of the children. When the children had observed the performance of the tasks and practiced them very quietly and privately enough to feel confident, they would join in the task without necessarily being assigned or asked. Dr. Wong–Fillmore's findings help explain why learners from different cultures may perform so differently. ESL teachers should be very sensitive to this fact and should look for ways to help students learn as much as possible in their own mode as they become accustomed to new ways and expectations of learning.

  5. What should be taught about culture
  6. There are millions of little pieces of information about any culture which could be taught. The question ESL teachers must ask themselves is "What of all the things I could teach, should I teach?" Seelye (1983) suggested seven general goals which teachers should have. While all of these goals are good ones, learning in three areas would seem to impact the communicative competence of learners most: 1) conventional behavior in common situations; 2) the ways language and social variables interact; and 3) the cultural connotations of words.

    A brief discussion of what is meant and what could be taught under each of these areas follows.

    What is taught as conventional behavior in common situations should depend on the kind of common situations students may encounter either in person or in their reading. If the ESL students are going to be participating in school in an English–speaking environment, there are many things which can be taught about conventional behavior. For example, in the U. S., if a student is late for class, it is not common for him or her to knock on the classroom door or to apologize to the teacher upon entering the class. In fact, this is considered very disruptive by most U. S. teachers and would have the opposite effect from what most students would desire even though knocking and apologizing is precisely what is common behavior in the culture from which many students come. Other behavior in the classroom which might be different in the U. S. would be how the teacher is addressed; when a lecture may be interrupted with a comment or a question; how and when one raises one's hand or otherwise gets the opportunity to speak; how and when to consult with a teacher outside of class; when, how, and why one may appropriately leave one's seat or the classroom; what expectations are with regard to homework assignments; when and how students may cooperate without it being regarded as cheating; what constitutes plagiarism and what are the consequences of it, etc.

    If students are going to be involved in the workplace, conventional behavior for that workplace can be taught. Topics which might be taught include how to address one's boss, what is considered late and what one should do if he or she must be late, what are acceptable and (l unacceptable reasons for missing work, how to find out how one is doing on the job, how to advance in pay and in position, what might be expected in terms of socializing (or not socializing) with one's fellow employees, etc.

    Other general kinds of common situations should probably be taught if there is any possibility that students will ever be required to function in an English–speaking environment, things such as how to order or get food in various kinds of eating establishments and/or stores; how to find public restroom facilities; how to get directions to needed locations and services; how to get assistance with various problems which visitors or strangers might have, etc.

    If students are not expecting to come to an English–speaking country, their needs in understanding conventional behavior in common situations might be different. If they are reading literature, they will need to understand the conventional behavior which would be expected in the situations described in the literature, what clues the actions of characters give to their overall character and the judgement their society is likely to make of them.

    The way language and social variables interact is a very important aspect to teach in the ESL classroom. It, in many ways, helps students integrate linguistic and social knowledge. The idea here is that language varies according to social variables, such as sex, age, location, social class, and circumstances. In many ways this is just teaching students about register, but it demands some specific looks at register differences. For example, students can examine what ways language use is different for males and females. They can be taught that there are certain words which are used more by women than by men (such as the word lovely) and vice versa (such as the word buck as a term for a dollar). They can also be taught that certain terms are used more often when referring to men than women (such as handsome) or more often when referring to women than men (such as lovely). There are other differences besides vocabulary as well. For example, women in the U. S. are likely to have a wider swing in pitch from their lowest to their highest levels than men in the U. S. If ESL students use the wider swing, they will sound more "feminine." If they use the narrower swing, they will sound more "masculine."

    Likewise students can be taught that different terms are used by people of different generations. Thus, a person with the characteristics to be called the cat's meow by one generation, might be called cool or hip by the next generation, and awesome or totally rad by the generation after that.

    Locational differences also have linguistic reflections. Regional dialectical dictionaries can point out many of these differences, such as the use of frappe to refer in Boston to what is referred to in other parts of the U. S. as a milkshake, or the use of bubbler in Wisconsin to refer to what is referred to as a drinking fountain in other parts of the same country. British and American English differences can be particularly important for learners to be aware of as there are many drastic differences in terms used in the two locations.

    Educational differences are also evident. He don't and I seen are considered marks of lack of education, for example. Depending on other social variables, educated persons will also avoid the use of double negatives in a sentence (He isn't hardly ever here) and other questionable constructions (such as ending a sentence with a preposition).

    The entire social situation dictates what linguistic features or choices will be made. One would not address one's teacher in quite the same way one would address one's best friend, and even some adjustments might be made in how you address the teacher in class and how you would address him or her at a social activity.

    The third area which teachers should help students become aware of is the cultural connotations of words. Even though the students' native languages may have exact translational equivalents for some words (such as mother, for instance), all of the associations which go with the word will not be the same. Several authors (Szalay, Jiang, Jiang and Brown, for example) have shown that even simple words conjure up very different pictures for persons from different cultures. For I example, the word family produces a picture of the extended family including aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents for persons from most cultures, but for people from the United States, it produces a picture of the nuclear family––mother, father, and children (and occasionally the family pet). Aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents are not part of the picture. More research needs to be done about cultural connotations, but teachers need to do what they can to help students be aware that all words bv will come with some connotations and that misunderstandings can result when persons have different connotations.

    The objectives for cultural lessons will vary not only in what is being taught, but in what is expected and desired as affective outcome. Sometimes knowledge of the behavior pattern or cultural item is all that is necessary for students to have. Other times they need at least an intellectual understanding of the meaning of the pattern. Still other times, teachers will want the students to actually experience empathy and/or the emotions which are tied to the pattern. For example, sometimes it may be fine if students have only a knowledge of how the grading system works at an American university. They do not have to have a deep understanding of the system's origins or development.

    However, if the students are going to participate in an American university, they probably need to have at least an intellectual understanding of the system so that they recognize when they are doing well and when they are not. They need to develop more than just knowledge. With other patterns, such as classroom behavior, students may need to develop empathy and/or emotions that persons within the culture feel or they may offend. They need to feel what other students will feel if they interrupt teachers or need to feel what the teacher will feel. If the students do not develop these feelings, they are likely to cause problems for themselves in dealing with others.

  7. How to teach culture
  8. Several methods have been developed for teaching culture. They vary in the affective outcomes they produce as well as in amount of student participation, class time necessary for their use, and in effectiveness in ESL and environments. This textbook will look at seven methods here and will discuss one further method in the chapter about teaching reading.

    1. Culture Capsules and/or Clusters
    2. Culture capsules are one of the best–established and best–known methods for teaching culture. They have been tried mostly in classes for foreign languages other than English. Essentially a culture capsule is a brief description of some aspect of the target language culture (e.g., what is customarily eaten for meals and when those meals are eaten, marriage customs, etc.) followed by, or incorporated with contrasting information from the students' native language culture. The contrasting information can be provided by the teacher, but it is usually more effective to have the students themselves point out the contrasts.

      Culture capsules are usually done orally with the teacher giving a brief lecture on the chosen cultural point and then leading a discussion about the differences between cultures. For example, the information which a teacher might use about the grading system at U. S. universities is included in the appendix to this chapter. The teacher could provide all of the information at once or could pause after the information in each paragraph and ask students about the contrasts they see. Some visual information, such as in handouts or overhead transparencies or pictures, supporting the lecture can also be used. Examples of supporting information for the lecture on the grading system are included.

      A culture cluster is simply a group of two or more culture capsules on related themes. For example, a culture cluster about grades and their significance to university students could contain the capsule given in the appendix to this chapter, plus another capsule about how a grade point average is figured plus another about what kind of decisions (such as being accepted in graduate study, receiving scholarships, getting a better job, etc.) are affected by a person's grade point average.

      Culture capsules and clusters are good methods for giving students knowledge and some intellectual knowledge about the cultural aspects being explained, but they generally do not cause much emotional empathy.

    3. Culture Assimilators
    4. Culture assimilators consist of short (usually written) descriptions of an incident or situation where interaction takes place between at least one person from the target culture and persons from other cultures (usually the native culture of the students being taught). The description is followed by four possible choices about the meaning of the behavior, action, or words of the participants in the interaction with emphasis on the behavior, actions, or words of the target language individual(s).

      Students read the description in the assimilator and then choose which of the four options they feel is the correct interpretation of the interaction. Once all students have made their individual choices, the teacher leads a discussion about why particular options are correct or incorrect in interpretation. Written copies of the discussion issues can be handed out to students although they do not have to be. It is imperative that the teacher plan what would issues the discussion of each option should cover. The appendix to this chapter contains a dealing with the issue of arriving late at class.

      Culture assimilators are good methods of giving students understanding about cultural information and they may even promote emotional empathy or affect if students have strong feelings about one or more of the options.

    5. Critical Incidents/Problem Solving
    6. Critical incidents are another method for teaching culture. Some people confuse them with culture assimilators, but there are a couple of differences between the two methods. Critical incidents are descriptions of incidents or situations which demand that a participant in the interaction make some kind of decision. Most of the situations could happen to any individual; they do not require that there be intercultural interaction as there is with culture assimilators.

      Individual critical incidents do not require as much time as individual culture capsules or individual culture assimilators, so generally when this method is used, more than one critical incident is presented. It is probably most effective to have all the critical incidents presented at one time be about the same cultural issue. For example, the critical incidents listed in the appendix to this chapter all deal with the issue of time, promptness, and scheduling.

      Generally, the procedure with a critical incident is to have students read the incident independently and make individual decisions about what they would do. Then the students are grouped into small groups to discuss their decisions and why they made them they way they did. Then all the groups discuss their decisions and the reasons behind them. Finally, students have to be given the opportunity to see how their decision and reasoning compare and contrast with the decisions and reasoning of native members of the target culture. If the ESL class is occurring in an English–speaking environment, students can be assigned to go out and survey native English speakers about how and why they would solve the problem or make the decision required by the critical incident. Reports on the reasoning and the differences can be made in a following class session. If the class takes place in an EFL environment, the native speaker information would have to be gathered by the teacher from reading or from contact with expatriates. Sometimes advice columns like the "Dear Abby" or "Ann Landers" columns, can provide teachers both with critical incidents or problems to be solved and with information about what native speakers would do and why.

      Critical incidents are very good for arousing affect (emotional feelings) about the cultural issue. Discussion or surveys about what native English speakers would do also promote intellectual understanding of the issues and give learners basic knowledge about the target culture.

    7. Mini–Dramas
    8. Mini–dramas are two– to three–act mini–plays in which misunderstandings are portrayed. They are generally written to foster sympathy for the non–native of the culture the "wrong" that is done to him or her by a member of the target culture. At the end of the mini–drama, some "knowing" figure explains what is really happening and why the target culture member was really not doing wrong.

      With mini–dramas, scripts are handed out and people are assigned to act out the parts. After each act, the teacher asks students (not necessarily the ones performing in the drama) what the actions and words of the characters in the drama mean and leads them to make judgements about the characters in the play. After all of the scenes have been portrayed and the "knowing" figure has made his or her speech, students are asked to re–interpret what they have seen in view of the information which the knowing figure provided. A sample of a mini–drama about student status in the U. S. university classroom can be found in the appendix to this chapter.

      The first time mini–drama is used in an ESL classroom, it should promote quite a lot of emotional feeling of the kind that really happens in intercultural misunderstandings. Mini–dramas always promote knowledge and understanding, but the great emotional impact usually only happens the first time. Mini–dramas work best if they deal, therefore, with highly charged emotional issues.

    9. Audio–motor Units
    10. Audio–motor units consist of verbal instructions for actions by students which the students then carry out. They work very well for any cultural routine which requires physical actions (e. g., eating with a knife and fork, shaking hands, listening actively, standing in line to buy a ticket, etc.).

      With an audio–motor unit, the classroom is set up as the required setting and with the required props. Individual students are then directed orally by the teacher to carry out appropriate actions. The process can be repeated several times with different students carrying out the instructions. Once appropriate behavior is established, minor but relevant changes can be made and students can see what factors require adjustment (e.g., Is it proper to shake hands with adults and children in the same way? If two come in together and have to pass in front of people, does it alter what anyone says or does?, etc.) An example of such adjustments can be seen with the sample audio–motor unit about getting to a seat in a crowded classroom which is found in the appendix to this chapter.

      Audio–motor units give knowledge and practice with correct behavior. They do not necessarily promote understanding nor empathy.

    11. Cultoons
    12. Cultoons are like visual culture assimilators. Students are given a series of (usually) four pictures depicting points of surprise or possible misunderstanding for persons coming into the target culture. The situations are also described verbally by the teacher or by the students who read the accompanying written descriptions. Students may be asked if they think the reactions of the characters in the cultoons seem appropriate or not.

      After the misunderstandings or surprises are clearly in mind, the students read explanations of what was happening and why there was misunderstanding.

      Cultoons generally promote understanding of cultural facts and some understanding, but they do not usually give real understanding of emotions involved in cultural misunderstandings. The cultoon in the appendix to this chapter deals with surprises which a student from Hong Kong encounters as she lives with U. S. students.

    13. Media/Visuals
    14. Magazine pictures, slide presentations, and/or videos are among the kinds of media/visual presentations which can be used to teach culture. Usually with this method, the teacher presents a series of pictures or slides or a video with explanation of what is going on and what it means in terms of the target culture. Many aspects of culture, such as appropriate dress for activities, kinds of activities students participate in or the weekend, public transportation, etc., can be effectively presented with such visuals. The appendix for this chapter contains the script which might be used for a slide presentation about the importance of the automobile and the independence it allows in the U. S.

      Media/visuals are usually very good at giving information and intellectual understanding, but, like several other methods of teaching culture, they do not cause students to understand the emotion which is involved with so many cultural issues.

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1998 © Dr. Lynn E. Henrichsen
Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Saturday, November 22, 1997