Center for Language Studies

Significance of culture in language teaching | May 25, 2015

There has always been a lot of debate about whether culture is an essential component of language teaching or not. The four components that have always been focused upon in language teaching are; Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. However, recently there has been a lot of interest in integrating culture as a necessary component of language teaching. Dr. Thomas Garza, Director of the Texas Language Center at the University of Texas, Austin, also refers to culture as the fifth skill for learning a language after Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. He also brings to attention the fact that without the component of culture, language learning process would not be complete in true sense. Having said all that, it is apparent that cultural competence is emerging as an important skill of language learning. Cross et al, 1989 define cultural competence as “…a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency or those professions to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.” The term culture that has been used here implies the integrated patterns of human behavior that includes thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values and institutions of a racial, ethnic, religious or social group. The term competence refers to having the capacity to function effectively. Thus learning a language should not only restricted to the communicative ability but also the ability to communicate without offending any set of thoughts or beliefs of the particular people whose language is involved.

Nostrand, H.L talks about related issues in “Culture in Language Teaching: The Next Phase” and opines that to develop cultural competence in the learners, one needs to teach them to recognize the values, habits of thought, and presuppositions they can expect to encounter and then to act accordingly.  A big question that often haunts language teachers is how much time should be devoted to impart the cultural knowledge to students?  According to the ACTFL guidelines, the languages have been divided into four different groups for learners with English as the native language. They also prescribe the number of hours required to reach each stage in the inverted pyramid of proficiency. After a careful observation it becomes very clear that the gap between the number of required hours and the actual time devoted to teaching is huge. This means that in practice, no intensive teaching programme is capable of exposing its students to so many hours as prescribed by the ACTFL.

This situation makes it even more difficult for the language teachers to allocate time for cultural component. However there are certain ways through which we can communicate such knowledge to students. The first thing that comes to my mind is because one does not have sufficient time, it is necessary that cultural competence is not considered as a different and isolated part of language learning process and that it should take place simultaneously. Facts related to the art, history are very important parts of culture but they probably can easily be found out by the learners themselves and therefore the stress should be on things which you cannot find written anywhere and most of the times, that is what reflects the true culture. Reflecting on such issues, I think I can relate this to a few experiences I have had in my classes at Brown.

When I came to the U.S, there were a lot of things that almost gave me a shock during my initial days. The teacher-student equation is very different in the U.S as compared to India. While in India it is still very formal, it is very casual in the U.S. A student would never address a teacher by her/his first name in India and students still stick to the last name with proper salutations however it is the opposite in the U.S. I discussed this thing with my students as they should know that if they do this in India, the teacher might be surprised initially which braces the students for such behavior. Another big difference in American and Indian classroom is related to the eating habits. It is highly unacceptable for someone to eat something while the class is going on and so my job here was to make them aware of it so that they do not carry the same habit in India because it would be unacceptable. Even if they get through with it in some cases, they should know that it would not be the most desirable thing to do.

Postures of the students in American classrooms have never failed to baffle me. While it is good that they make themselves as comfortable as possible, that is not something that would be acceptable in India. A very liberal teacher might even overlook these things but sometimes I even saw the students putting their feet on the desk beside their notebooks which is bound to invite ire, if done in an Indian classroom. While I was making my students aware of all these things, my idea was not to direct them to change because that would have made no sense to them as these things were perfectly acceptable in their culture but I was making them aware of the differences in both cultures so that they know how to react appropriately when the situation demands.

Another incident took place while assisting my supervisor during one of the classes. A student dropped a page from her folder and it flew to the other side of the table. The student seated on the other side tried to get hold of the page with the help of his foot. As soon as he did it, the girl seated next to him, took the sheet of paper and touched it with her forehead. All the others were baffled as they did not understand what had just happened. This is when I told them that everything related to education like books, notebooks, pen and similar stuff is considered to be sacred and so people never touch it with their feet. I also explained to them that that people assume that disrespecting these things would be considered disrespectful to the goddess of knowledge. Apparently this had nothing to do with the language or communicative skills but the students were really glad to know the whole background. They surely would not require this knowledge in the west but at least they would not offend a native speaker or even if do so unintentionally, would realise their mistake. This was one situation and I got lucky that the situation led me to talk about all the background but such situations may not arise further and we would need to create them in the limited framework and time allocated for our language classes.

Another important cultural thing is related to a whole range of cultural paradigms about the usage of pronouns in India. Unlike English, where ‘you’ is used regardless of any age differences, Hindi has a well-defined set of pronouns to use according to people of different age groups. We use a different pronoun for the elderly in most of the cases. Friends and peers address each-other with a different pronoun. Failing to use the proper pronoun can lead to serious misunderstandings as it would be disrespectful if the pronoun ‘tum’ is used for elders instead of the suitable pronoun ‘aap’. I discussed these details while teaching them about pronouns.

I also told my students a few general things that they should certainly know about the cultural backdrop of India. Many people smoke and drink alcohol in India, but smoking and drinking in front of the elderly is still a taboo there. Besides it is also considered rude to pollute the surroundings with smoke especially when there are aging people around.  These are little things which seem very trivial but actually have great importance in the cultural set-up of a place and interestingly the students also enjoy getting to know about these things as they feel they are learning concrete things.

Use of authentic materials also helps the students to have a correct picture of the cultural background. So for my classes, I always preferred a video clip in which people were wearing clothes that are worn in India rather than clothes that do not fit in the cultural context. Similarly I gave them reading exercises which would correspond to the actual conversations of people and not some form of language that is never spoken. While showing them images of certain food items, I would make sure they see what those things actually look like in India and not something that is the famous version. These are very little bits and pieces of information but have a great collective impact on the language learner. They do not require an extra effort and makes learners culturally competent to a fair extent.



Riya Raj

Fulbright FLTA  for Hindi

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