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Culture in foreign language Teaching and Learning

1. Introduction

It is believed that language and culture are undividable. Without cultural setting, Language itself is nonsensical. They are complicatedly interconnected with each other. People believe that the cultural knowledge is as important as proficiency in their language uses. Cultural teaching in foreign language classrooms should be as important as linguistic knowledge teaching. Culture introduction should be integrated with language teaching in many aspects and at multiple levels so that learners' intercultural communicative skills can be improved.

Byram (1989) states that when people learn a new language, they also learn its culture and when they learn to use the language, they are learning to make conversations with other people from a new cultural situation. The knowledge of culture has a great impact on learners' language use and sometimes directly influences the result of communication with native speakers. Most language teachers would agree that in order to apply language skills successfully and efficiently, the knowledge of cultural environment is crucial. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why the culture component is so important in foreign language teaching.

First, successful intercultural communication entails a great deal that is more crucial than language skills, understanding a second language does not ensure understanding the speaker's purposes. Thus, the ability to communicate successfully with native speakers depends not only on language skills but also on comprehension of cultural habits and expectations.

Second, another principal reason for the inclusion of culture in the second language curriculum is cross-cultural understanding. International understanding is seen as one of the basic goals of language education. It is equally important to understand the differences among the various subcultures within which people of different races, religions, and political beliefs live together peacefully. Peace and progress in a world of diverse elements no doubt depend upon understanding, tolerance, exchange and cooperation. Foreign language study is one of the key instructive parts for achieving this widely recognized purpose. Whether or not the foreign language learning and teaching are successful counts on how much cultural and linguistic information the students can get. The third reason deals with the students themselves. On one hand, curious students may be extremely interested in the people who speak English, they want to know about these people-what they are like, how they live and how they are different from themselves. On the other hand, students' knowledge of the basic aspects of target culture tends to be inexplicit and incomprehensive if they have not been provided with systematic knowledge in schools. And language teachers have to admit that many students are not gaining a basic familiarity with the English culture, because even though language and culture together in a classroom, some teachers choose to neglect culture and students scarcely pay due attention to it since they do not have to take a test of culture.

Overall, foreign language teaching should help students place a hard base of language, grasp good learning techniques, and nurture their cultural awareness so as to meet the needs of social development and economic construction. English as the foremost medium of international communication at present, is called upon to mediate a whole range of cultural, cross-cultural concepts thus make English language teaching a potentially more and more significant role than ever before and English culture teaching is coming or will come to the foreground.

2. Definition of Culture

Many definitions have been suggested for culture. Different scholars from different fields perceive culture differently. Even within the same field of foreign language teaching, culture has been approached from a number of perspectives in relation to language teaching. It is no wonder that Eli Hinkle (2001: 17) says: "It may not be an exaggeration to say that there are nearly as many definitions of culture as there are fields of inquiry into human societies, groups, systems, behavior, and activities" . Duranti (1997:24) defined as "something learned, transmitted, passed down from one generation to the next, through human actions, often in the form of face-to-face interaction and, of course, through linguistic communication". There are several definitions about culture as it is defined as the deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, actions, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and artifacts acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving

Language and Culture

A language is a system of verbal and in many cases, written symbols, with standardized meanings. Language is the outer appearance of people's soul: their soul is their language, and their language is their soul; it is hard to imagine either of them more equal. It enables people to store meanings and experiences and to pass this heritage on to new generations. Through words, we are able to learn about and from the experiences of others. In addition, language enables us to transcend the here and now, preserving the past and imaging the future; to communicate with others and formulate complex plans; to integrate different kinds of experiences; and to develop abstract ideas. However, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of language in the development, elaboration, and transmission of culture.

3. The Relationship between Culture and Language

It is generally accepted that language and culture are related to each other. Language is not only for communication between people who have their own cultural norms, but as a mirror to reflect the world and people's view of the world. Because of the need of international communication for economic technological development among various countries, English is more and more used in different countries and cultures for exchanging information.

Culture and language are related to each other, which is strongly advocated by Byram, who has contended that cultural learning and language learning cannot take place independent of each other (Byram, 1994). Culture is a complex concept that includes language. Many theorists have expressed this point of view from various perspectives. For example, Kramsch has made the point that the purpose for learning a foreign language is "a way of making cultural statement" as well as learning "a new way of making communication" (Kramsch, 1993) while other theorists have attached great importance to culture for language understanding. For instance, Byram has argued that only when the cultural context is understood can the language rooted in the context be thoroughly comprehensible (Byram 1994).This point has found an echo with Brown:

Misunderstandings are likely to occur between members of different cultures; differences are real and we must learn to deal with them in any situation in which two cultures come into contact.

Language is an important part of culture as well. Byram has elaborated this idea in one of his books: "Cultural studies in foreign language education as language preeminently embodies the values and meanings of a culture, refers to cultural artifacts and signal people's cultural identity." (Byram, 1989) Other theorists have defined culture in such a way that language is put at the center of an account of a particular culture. Brown has provided another such definition in which he describes language as the most visible and available expression of a particular culture. (Brown, 1987)

In sum, culture is related to language and vice versa. Culture would be difficult to be transmitted from place to place and from generation to generation if there were no languages, the principal carrier of values and meanings of a culture. Language would be impossible to be understood without constant reference to the cultural context, which has produced it. It may, therefore, be argued that culture and language cannot be treated exclusive of each other in language teaching program. In other words, it is necessary and more proper to teach both language and culture in an integrated way. It is worthy of noting here that one of the practices of integrating the two is to use the target language as the medium of instruction in culture teaching. Goodenough states the relationship between language and culture in his book Culture and Linguistic. He argued language in a society is one aspect of the society's culture. The relationship between them is the part and the whole. As a component part of culture, the particularities of language show that it is a main tool of learning culture during the process of learning and using (Goodenough, 1981).

4. The Relationship between Language Learning and Culture

Just as there is not a single thing in the world without a dual nature, so is language teaching. Language teaching and culture teaching have a dual nature. In order to conduct language teaching well, one must take up the teaching of culture and the teaching of language at the same time. When we learn a foreign language, we do more than learn a linguistic system. We acquire some degree of familiarity with the foreign cultural system.

It is now broadly accepted in most parts of the world that learning a foreign language is not simply mastering the grammar, the vocabulary, etc, but more appropriately focuses on learning a means of communication. Communication in real situations is never out of context, and because culture is part of most contexts, communication is rarely culture-free. The same word, if used in different culture, would get different psychological response. When reading the sentence "It's morally hard to turn her away as it is a lost dog", most students put "a lost dog" into literal meaning which totally shows our feeling of disgust and dislike for the dog. But it is not the case in western countries. In the western culture, dogs are regarded as faithful friends and companions. So the actual meaning of "the lost dog" here means something precious, valuable and adorable is lost. If you know the actual implication of it, your sympathy can be aroused. It's obvious that neglecting the cultural difference results in the misunderstanding. Therefore, it is necessary to learn how to understand and create language that is in accordance with the sociocultural parameters of the specific situation, because the main points of being communicated will be missed if fails to do so in discourse and messages may be misunderstood.

5. Language Teaching and Intercultural Communication

Samovar, Porter & Jain(1981: 24) observe: "Culture and communication are inseparable because culture not only dictates who talks to whom, about what and how the communication proceeds, it also helps to determine how people encode messages, the meanings they have for messages, and the conditions and circumstances under which various messages may or may not be sent, noticed, or interpreted... Culture is the foundation of communication". The term intercultural is generally used to describe comparative data and studies of a large number of cultures, or studies that try to identify dimensions that are not culture specific. Intercultural is also used to describe interactional data from members of different cultural backgrounds (normally more than two). Then what's the meaning of intercultural communication?

Maureen Guirdham (1999) points out that intercultural communication is communication across cultures, it describes cultural dimensions applicable for all cultures. She believes that "Intercultural Communication skills may well hold the key to solving many of the current global conflicts". In a speech at the Luton Intercultural Forum, she outlined her views as to how people trained in Intercultural Communication could help to resolve current conflicts such as the Balkan conflict, the Middle East crisis and many more. In her speech, she outlined that most modem conflicts--such as Israel--Palestine conflict, the conflict between Pakistan and India and others--are essentially intercultural conflicts and that conflict resolution mainly is a communication activity.

7. Intercultural Communication

A simple way to define the term intercultural communication is to use the definition of communication that was provided in the previous section and insert the phrase "from different cultures". This addition would yield the following definition: Intercultural communication is a symbolic process in which people from different cultures create shared meanings. This definition, although accurate, is difficult to apply. To foreground the importance of interpersonal communication in intercultural exchanges, we prefer the following definition: Intercultural communication is concerned with unmediated communication between people from different cultural backgrounds. Differences in interpersonal perception and attitudes to social involvement are also important factors in intercultural communication. Intercultural communication: Face-to-face communication between people from different cultural backgrounds.

As inhabitants of the 21st century, we no longer have a choice about whether to live and communicate in a world of many cultures. The forces that bring other cultures into our life are dynamic, potent, and ever present. What does this great cultural mixing mean to EFL teaching? What competence should foreign language learners have to meet the need of communicating appropriately and effectively in such a world? The answer is that EFL teaching should cultivate learners' intercultural communicative competence.

8. Intercultural Communicative Competence

Intercultural communicative competence (ICC) is defined in a great number of studies as the competence to obtain effective outcomes in intercultural communication situations. In the past few decades, ICC has become an important research area in intercultural communication studies, and produced a considerable amount of literature. ICC is related to such competence as distinguishing the cultural factors, because these things will surely have their reflections in a practical communicative situation and thereby exert much influence upon the understandings. With the gradual awareness of the importance of the communicative competence, we are sure that in EFL, more and more teachers will place their emphasis upon the improvement of ICC, and develop their students' intercultural communicative competence as well as the linguistic competence at the same time,

In the paragraphs above, we have introduced the definition of Intercultural Communicative Competence. Quite often, we know that studies on ICC are driven by practical needs such as sending personnel abroad to perform political and commercial tasks. Thus ICC is defined by the outcomes, or the effectiveness of achieving these goals, the main purpose of ICC studies, therefore, is to identify components of "effectiveness" on the one hand, and its "predictors" on the other, Two major effectiveness components are "task performance" and appropriateness" of behavior in the target culture. The predictors of effectiveness identified include ambiguity tolerance, cognitive complexity, good conversation skills, intercultural training, etc.

In sum, the current ICC studies are characterized by the centrality of effectiveness. goal-attainment, and individual control. Underlying this package of practice is the assumption that communication is underthe control of the individual; if he or she has the necessary personal dispositions and skills, then the pre-determined goals of communication will be achieved. The above view holds the idea that ICC is within the individual. Competence will develop or occur in relational contexts, yet without the internal potential of the individual, there is no "relationship". But this view has perhaps to some extent overlooked the internal qualities of the communicators. Maybe "task-performance" takes the essential position in most models. Other factors such as appropriateness or individual cultural adjustment all pave the way for task performance. As a matter of fact, the primacy of task performance is evident in the very definition of ICC.

Intercultural communicative competence deals with questions related to an issue often characterized by the terms culture-specific, context-specific, and culture-general, which are the various approaches to the study of intercultural communicative competence. 1) The culture-specific, method assumes that the most effective way to improve intercultural communication is to study that culture. For example, if you were going to Japan, you might benefit from advice about gift giving, the use of first names, greeting behavior, indirect speech, politeness, the use of business cards, the importance of group harmony, social stability, and the like. 2) In a practical intercultural communication, the only way of culture-specific is not enough, people should know what to do and how to do in a real situation, then context-specific is also needed. In recent years scholars have begun to talk about not only the specific cultures, but also the context or setting of the intercultural encounters. Studies have been made to explore the business, educational, and health care settings as a way of assessing the impact of the environment on communication in a broad way. 3) The third approach is culture-general. What has been suggested here is that regardless of the culture you are encountering, it is important to have knowledge of the person's culture and try to adapt whenever possible. What we have discussed can be found in most intercultural experiences. This is what we mean by culture-general. That is to say, look at universal skills that can be used in all cultures.

How to improve intercultural communicative competence? According to Samovar & Porter (1988), that is to know yourself. Although the idea of knowing yourself is common. while knowing yourself is crucial to improve intercultural communication. We know we can write the words "know yourself" with ease, but it will take a great deal of effort to translate this assignment into practice. The application of knowing yourself covers three directions: first, know your culture_ because everyone is the product of their culture, people are "cultural beings" and must be ever vigilant to the impact of one's own cultural. Second, know your perceptions. Knowing your likes and dislikes, the degrees of personal ethnocentrism enables you to detect the ways in which these attitudes influence communication. And third, know how you act on those perceptions. The third step in knowing yourself is to know your communication style, which is somewhat more difficult, because it involves discovering the kind of image you portray to the rest of the world. If you are to improve your communication, you must, therefore, have some idea of how you present yourself, since it will take a hard time understanding why people respond as they do, and people's most take-for-granted behaviors are often hidden behind their consciousness. (Samovar & Porter, 1988)

9. Cultural Knowledge and Cultural Competence

Knowing the contents of cultivating ICC, we need to discuss the concept of cultural knowledge. It includes two parts: cultural competence (belonging to the category of proficiency objectives) and conceptual knowledge (belonging to the category of cognitive objectives) about the target culture. The conceptual knowledge about the target culture refers to the systematic conceptual knowledge about the target culture and society and it should include the target society's geography, history, institutions, religions, economy, education and arts and so on. This conceptual knowledge about the target culture is often referred to as the general knowledge of the target culture.

Cultural competence refers to implicit mastery of the norms of a society, the unspoken rules of conduct, values, and orientation that make up the cultural fabric of a society. It also includes the ability to recognize culturally significant facts, and knowledge of the parameters within which behavior is acceptable or unacceptable. Cultural competence does not necessarily mean conformity to these norms and rules.

Cultural competence is the same as communicative competence in many aspects. Communicative competence (the term discussed before) also implies knowledge of many aspects of society and culture: forms of address, choices of register and style, differences between social and regional dialects, and the social values attached to these differences. These items refer to characteristic features of the culture. In language teaching, for instance, communicative competence includes certain aspects of sociocultural information. To a certain extent, however, cultural competence is different from communicative competence in that it refers mainly to social and cultural behavior and facts, and less to their linguistic manifestations.

To be successful in the intercultural communication, both linguistic competence and cultural competence are needed. The appearance of disharmony, misunderstandings and even conflicts in communication is largely due to a lack of cultural competence. In the century of the global intercultural communication, the goal of foreign language teaching has to be changed. A shift should be made to the cultivation of intercultural communication competence.

10. Arousing Students' Cultural Awareness

Cultural awareness is the term used to explain sensitivity to the impact of culturally induced behavior on language use and communication. It refers to an understanding of one's own and other's cultures that affect how people think and behave. It deals with the knowledge of geography, the knowledge of the world civilization, the understanding about the target culture, the knowledge about different ways of life as well as the knowledge of standards and point of view in the second language community. Cultural awareness includes understanding commonalities of human behavior and differences in cultural patterns. It must be viewed both as enabling language proficiency and as being the outcome of reflection on language proficiency.

Intercultural communicative awareness means the sensibility to the impact of culturally induced behavior in communications across cultures. It involves the ability to identify cultural diversity and develop empathy (to see things from the point of view of others). On a less transparent level, intercultural awareness might be as simple as becoming aware of cultural differences as they apply to the use of "yes" or "no". For instance,, knowing that in the American culture, people tend to be more direct and avoid roundabout answers, we would not make a reply like "Please don't bother", to the host's question "Do you like some more potato soup?" instead, we would respond by saying "Yes, please." if we really want some, or "No, thank. you." if we think we have had enough of it. A person's socio-cultural knowledge restricts how he exploits his linguistic potential. It is generally believed that if a person lacks socio-cultural knowledge relevant to the target language, a person can hardly use a language accurately and appropriately and be an effective intercultural communicator.

Cultural awareness teaching should be involved with viewpoints, and with allowing students to gain a perspective through comparison which is neither entirely one nor the other. In the process of comparison from two viewpoints there lies the possibility of attaining leverage on both cultures, and thereby acquiring an intercultural communicative competence. With the coming of more chance for Chinese to interact with English native-speakers, a fund of knowledge about target culture can to a large extent, guarantee an effective intercultural communication. Therefore, arousing cultural awareness becomes an indispensable part in foreign language teaching and learning.

In assimilating English culture awareness into teaching, there are two problems we need to consider, the first problem to be tackled is how to provide the cultural information needed. The point regarding this problem is that second-language teachers may attempt to teach culture when they are not equipped to do so through no fault of their own. The other point is that even if they know how to teach (through various techniques of presenting culture), without a definite knowledge of what to teach (the culture content), they can hardly incorporate various activities geared toward the culture objectives into their classes. For one thing, teachers need assistance in overcoming their lack of knowledge about the second culture; for another, in the preparation and selection of teaching materials, the culture content selected may sometimes be concentrated on the unusual, the bizarre and the exotic characteristics of the culture. In order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding, the teacher is advised to describe all aspects of the situation instead of treating the cultural phenomenon in isolation, and present culture content at a level or in a manner to which the students can attach some relationship between the information and their own background experiences. Even if teachers know what to teach and how to teach, there is still a problem concerning finding time in the class period to include culture. The class time is limited, so how much time should be spent teaching culture? Dwelling too much on culture is not only a waste of time but also of no help to the students.

The second problem is that though most foreign language teachers do not deny the importance of teaching culture, few teachers actively test whether students are attaining their cultural goals. Teachers may incidentally attend to culture by inserting ideas during the class period and subsequently fail to check students comprehension of the context. Often students do not realize that the teacher is attempting to teach aspects of the second language culture. One of the reasons for this lack of awareness is that culture usually is not considered a fundamental component of the class content. If culture is to be an important goal in the second language class, it must be taught and tested systematically. Currently, the most practical approach to testing culture is to test the facts. Objective tests and essay tests may be used to test knowledge of facts and insight into cultural behavior.

The problems mentioned above mean a lot to second language teachers and learners. Undertaking the teaching of culture is far from being simple. In accomplishing this task, the teacher has to be a generous knowledge imparter, an efficient time finder, an amiable activity designer, a protean actor and an assiduous learner as well. As for students, in the long run, they will benefit a lot from the culture learning experience that helps them become successful cross-cultural communicators.

Undoubtedly, being a successful cross-cultural communicator is an exciting, enjoyable and enriching experience that will open the doors to both personal development and satisfaction. Therefore, the integration of English culture awareness into teaching in China means a demanding and challenging task both for English teachers and learners.

11. Developing Intercultural Understanding

Cultural understanding is the main part of cultural studies. It demands a detailed analysis of cultures. The teaching of culture should lead students to experience directly through contact with native speakers and through developing some sorts of personal relationship with the target language community. In other words, culture understanding involves, besides the cognitive, a social and affective component. The main content of cultural understanding covers:

1. Awareness of daily routine, as well as unknown principles such as writing a check or reading a timetable.

2. Knowledge of cultural association of using words and phrases. The students should indicate understanding that racially accustomed pictures are related with the most general aim words and phrases.

3. Evaluating statements about culture, demanding the explanation of the target culture and the students' own culture. The learners should display the capability to make, assess and process generalities involving the target culture.

4. The development of interest in understanding is toward the second culture. The students should show their rational interest about the target culture.

12. Culture Shock

While mentioning developing intercultural understanding, we should also say something about culture shock, which stands in the way of hindering our intercultural understanding. Culture shock is a common experience for a person learning a second language in a second culture.

Culture shock is caused by the nervousness that effect from losing all our common signals and figures or social contacts. Those cues or signs include various ways: what to say when we want to get someone's attention, and what to say when we accidentally hurt someone, who to give tips, how to give presents, when to accept or refuse invitations, when to talk statements seriously and when not. In this way, culture shock is considered to be a kind of anxiety. The person experiencing culture shock reveals his anxiety and sadness with culture distinctions through any defensive behaviors such as oppression, failure, separation and negative response. These behaviors may express that someone is in anger, disappointment, loneliness, etc.

We have known the fact that the main cause of culture shock is displacement from our "home" culture. This lack of common experiences and familiar surroundings creates varying degrees of consequences, all of these consequences would obviously hamper intercultural communication, thus, coping with the problems and anxieties associated with culture shock is quite useful in cultivating intercultural communicative competence.

13. Overcoming Intercultural Communicative Barriers

Why is it that contacting with persons from other cultures is so often 'frustrating? Sometimes rejection occurs just because the group to which a person belongs is "different". In the international scene, it's appropriate at this time of major changes to take a hard look at some of the reasons for the disappointing results of attempts at communication. They are actually stumbling blocks in intercultural communication. According to Barna (1992), there are several factors that can easily cause misunderstandings. 1) Misunderstandings occur because of the assumption of similarities Many people natively suppose there are adequate resemblances among people of the world to make communication easy. They expect simply that being human and having common requirements of food, shelter, security, and so on makes everyone alike. Unfortunately, they overlook the fact that the forms of adaptation to the common biological and social needs and the values, beliefs, and attitudes surrounding them are vastly different from culture to culture, 2) Misunderstandings occur because of language differences such as grammar, words, expressions, slangs, dialects, etc. all cause difficulties. There are other language problems, including the different styles of using language such as direct, indirect; expansive, succinct; argumentative, conciliatory; instrumental, harmonizing; and so on. These different styles can lead to wrong interpretations of intent and evaluations among others. 3) Learning the language, which is considered by most visitors to foreign countries because of the only fence to understanding, in fact, is only the opening. Since the nonverbal misinterpretations of observable nonverbal. signs and symbols are a definite communication barrier. 4) Another cause of misunderstandings is the presence of preconceptions and stereotypes_ Stereotypes are stumbling blocks for communicators because they interfere with objective viewing of other people. They are not easy to overcome because they are firmly established as myths by one's own national culture. 5) Tendency to evaluate is another factor to arouse misunderstandings. Rather than try to comprehend thoughts and feelings from the worldview of the others, we assume our own culture or way of life is the most natural. This bias prevents the open-mindedness needed to examine attitudes and behaviors from the others' points of view.

Being aware of the above misunderstandings is certainly the first step in avoiding them, but it isn't easy. It usually takes time to change long-term habits and some need to be trained to adapt with sudden changes.


With the rapid globalization and science advances, the communication between various cultures has become closer and more frequent. The intercultural communication has become one of the themes of modern society, which calls for the emergence of culture teaching. Peck (1998) states " Culture should be our message to students and language our medium". Culture teaching takes a vital role in language learning as the world seems to be getting smaller and people have more opportunities to communicate with other people from different cultures. In order to avoid cultural misunderstanding, miscommunication, students must be given the real picture of the target language and culture.

In addition, English teachers must be capable of mastering the knowledge contained in the teaching material completely and deeply. Mastering the knowledge contained in the teaching material and the supplementary knowledge was the minimum requirement of a good teacher. Besides, he must be good at supplying the theory of education and teaching, give consideration to the student's psychological characteristic and receptivity, choose the most appropriate teaching method and make students master knowledge. Teachers should also train students' internal motive of study. When students' curiosity and interest are activated, the internal motive produced and the students will take the initiative in study. If they are interested in the culture, media, customs and habits of foreign countries, their internal motive will be stimulated. Therefore, an English teacher should try to motivate them by all means.

In order to get good intercultural communicative competence, students should possess cultural background information in their language learning process. They can learn and practice the patterns of daily life in the target culture by participating in the information-oriented activities in order to know about the current lifestyle in the target culture and compare this lifestyle with that of their own to find the similarities and differences. In this way, students can better prepare themselves for the everyday communication they are likely to encounter, improve the skills needed for effective communication, and enhance the cultural awareness and sensitivity.


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