Center for Language Studies

Teaching Intercultural Grammar Concepts | May 15, 2015

When I was reading the article “Intercultural Communication” by Claire Kramsch, I suddenly, stopped, totally struck by one paragraph:

In their first book Narrative, Literacy and Face in Interethnic Communication (Scollon and Scollon 1981) they [the authors] document the different nature and value attributed to literacy and orality practices among Anglo-Americans and Athabaskans. In the way they told stories, their own three-year-old daughter, Rachel, and her ten-year-old Athabaskan friend, Big Sister, were differentially literate. Even before she could read and write, Rachel told stories she made up according to a tripartite pattern (orientation–complication–resolution) familiar to her from the English bedtime stories she was read by her parents. By contrast, Big Sister’s spoken and written stories conformed to a four-part, repetitive pattern favoured by members of her culture.

I was instantly intrigued, as I’ve always been when I come across examples of grammatical or linguistic concepts that differ in some radical way from culture to culture. For example, many languages have the grammatical features sentences, dependent and independent clauses, subjects, direct objects and indirect objects. However, there are many other concepts that, while still common, are less readily comparable between languages: multiple noun cases, verb conjugation to varying extents, a wide variety of verb tenses. Obviously this is a fluid spectrum—to the best of my knowledge, it is impossible to say there is any one most “basic” grammatical concept that is common to all languages. Our idea of what is “basic” is totally dependent, as well, on what language or languages we grew up familiar with. For example, I personally have had a good amount of exposure to the Romance languages and to Slavic languages, so I consider the case system and the verb conjugation system “basic,” the fact that nouns have genders “basic,” the idea that there are several different noun declension groups, verb declension groups, and so forth—all of these seem natural and intuitive to me. Yet these concepts don’t exist in English, and they require involved explanations.

For example, explaining the way numbers interact with the case system in Russian requires a longer explanation. Russian has three different noun cases used with different numbers when counting amounts. The number 1, or numbers ending in 1 (such as 21, 31, 141 . . .) take nominative singular; 2-4 or numbers ending in 2-4 (such as 3, 42, 63, 224 . . .) take genitive singular; and numbers ending in 5-15 (such as 8, 13, 55, 607, 716, 3047 . . .) take genitive plural. Other Slavic languages have a special dual form used with the number 2. But English uses at most two different forms of noun, such as “one cat” and “two cats, four cats, eighty-five cats” and Japanese doesn’t use any plural forms of nouns, just the same noun—as if you would say “one cat, three cat,eighty-five cat.” Comparing the overlaps and differences between the grammar systems in different languages could go on practically infinitely.

However, when we think about second language teaching, we come to the question of how to teach these more complicated grammatical concepts—more complicated because they bear less relationship to structures that exist in the students’ first language. Depending on the students’ first language and on other languages they know, certain target language concepts will be more or less difficult to extrapolate and learn. For example, even though English does not have a noun declension system (except to a certain extent with some pronouns), the idea of different case endings for different noun uses is not a huge leap. However, even though English has multiple past tenses, the idea of perfective versus imperfective verbs that exists in Slavic languages (as well as others) might be much more involved. Teaching the concept of an imperfective verb to English-speaking students inevitably requires some kind of involved explanation describing various potential scenarios. For example, looking at the unfinished verb that means “to read,” a teacher might say to students, “Here’s when you might use the imperfective verb chitat’ (to read, imperfective) vs. prochitat’ (to read, perfective)

  •  someone asks you what you were doing yesterday, and you were reading – it’s what you filled your time with
  • You want to say that you spent a lot of time reading the book, but you didn’t finish reading it
  • You want to say that you have read it as opposed to not having read it, emphasizing the book as the direct object rather than emphasizing the act of reading.
  • You’re describing something that took place repeatedly in the past—“when I was on vacation in Hawaii, I would read on the beach.”

There are many other such examples of contexts.

When I was thinking about how to teach this concept, I realized that the explanations all involved very detailed scenarios—almost telling a brief story about the activity, and I began to wonder how culture in and of itself influences the nature of these scenarios. As Scollon and Scollon write in their book, these type of scenarios are actually examples of a fuller discourse; the main thesis of their book is that communication involves a much broader idea of “discourse” than just lexicon. Discourse unites a person’s perspective, status, culture, and background with the setting in which the communication is taking place. This led me to wonder how discourse can be most effectively presented via communicative language teaching. Understanding how a specific setting or scenario contributes meaning to an exchange is necessary to get the full picture of what language is trying to convey.

This is true even in very basic exchanges, such as one might learn in an introductory language class. One example that Scollon and Scollon present is about asking and telling the time. The sentence “Do you have the time?”, phrased as a question, usually indicates that the speaker wants to know what time it is. But on page 28, the authors note that in discourse taking place in a language classroom, when a teacher says “Do you have the time?”, it doesn’t mean the teacher wants to know the time. Instead, the teacher means “I want you to show me that you have learned how to respond correctly to the question ‘Do you have the time?’ with the correct time expression.” And the student’s response doesn’t mean that it’s 2:00 p.m. The student’s response means “I have learned how to respond correctly to the question ‘Do you have the time?’ with the correct time expression.” This is an extremely explicit way of phrasing a classroom interaction, but as the authors point out, many similar expressions have this kind of “secret” meaning. For example, asking a stranger “Excuse me, do you have a watch?” is a very polite way to say “Please tell me what time it is” and it would bizarre to answer “Yes.”

Explaining this kind of scenario, which can vary depending on culture, is different from simply teaching a grammar point using communicative methods. I wanted to compare this type of analysis of discourse to a more straightforward communicative grammar teaching method. In the brief article “Integrating Grammar for Communicative Language Teaching,” Bayram Pekoz outlines examples of a communicative approach to grammar. Pekoz points out that even though direct grammar instruction is still common, communicative techniques can be easily adapted to grammar. Communicative language teachers should emphasize the pre-, while- and post-stages of teaching the point. As an example, Pekoz suggests strategies for teaching the past-tense construction “used to” in English. A teacher could use communicative methods by first, in the pre-stage, providing a meaningful topic that contextualizes the setting for use of the verb form: “changes in people over the years” and discussing this topic with the class – presenting pictures, and describing and discussing the pictures. Then in the while-stage, the teacher primes students to focus on the new verb form by telling them that they are learning a new structure. The teacher would discuss the same topic, but using descriptive phrases including the “used to” past-tense construction. To explicitly articulate the rule, the teacher would ask students to formulate the rule on the board – the students should come up with the rule, Subject + “used to” + verb. In the post-phrase, students would share their own stories about themselves relating to the theme of “changes in people over the years” by using the phrase “used to.” I thought that this article presented a very helpful and clear example of how to use communicative methods for grammatical points. But we can also observe the role of discourse: the examples from input, describing what a person “used to do” at a certain stage of his or her life, involves envisioning a scenario in which the action is taking place—which would presumably vary depending on culture.

Ultimately, what interests me most is how thinking about this type of discourse context for foreign language grammar points varies between cultures. My favorite example of a culturally idiosyncratic grammatical structure has always been the example of languages that don’t use egocentric coordinates such as “left,” “right,” “front” or “behind,” using the cardinal directions instead (these comprise some aboriginal Australian languages and other Pacific languages, among others). People who speak these languages develop what seems like an extremely attuned sense of orientation to speakers of egocentric-coordinate languages, whereas it’s normal rather than impressive to This aspect of grammar – directions—seems that it would be more difficult to teach because it relies so heavily on a very culturally specific context. But on the other hand, it might be easier to teach in a communicative fashion than by direct explanation, because it is so deeply embedded in a particular culture– People who grow up in the cultures using that type of directionality can always tell where they. This type of idea can be learned most fully in the implicit manner. As I continue to explore this topic, I am looking forward to seeing how the communicative approach interacts with cultural variations in language structure.

Phoebe Heyman
Ph.D. Student
Department of Slavic Studies
Brown University


Allen, Kim. “Japanese for the Western Brain: Japanese Numbers.” Accessed May 13, 2015,

Deutscher, Guy. “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” August 26, 2010, Sunday Magazine,

Kramsch, Claire. “Intercultural Communication.” The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001,

Pekoz, Bayram. “Integrating Grammar for Communicative Language Teaching.” The Internet TESL Journal, accessed May 13, 2015,

Scollon, Ronald and Scollon, Suzanne Wong. Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach, second edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

Posted in Uncategorized

No Comments Yet »

Say something? Comments RSS TrackBack URI