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Rijalda Dizdarevic

The Role of Culture in English Language Teaching/Learning

We breathe in our first language, and swim in our second.

Adam Gopnik

Learning a foreign language means more than just mastering its grammar, vocabulary and

phonology. 21st century society crosses borders confidently, each new day exploring the most

hidden parts of our planet and bringing changes even into the class. Successful cross-cultural

communication requires culturally aware communicators, those who respond appropriately in

a given social context, show empathy, tolerance and openness towards other communicators.

Teaching a foreign language means preparing your students for real-life situations they are

likely to encounter while visiting London, Tokyo or New York for example in order to avoid

being misunderstood, embarrassed or excluded from communication. The goal of language

education is not native speaker competence in target language. Rather, it is developing

intercultural communicative competence in students through culture incorporation. Culturally-

based teaching practice connects language to its natural counterpart i.e. culture, raises

motivation and develops intercultural competence in learners, enabling them to appropriately

interpret and understand culturally-induced behaviours. According to Arab educators,

however, learners local culture should be given priority in teaching of English language since

wrong translation and transliteration of Islamic concepts cause an intellectual and spiritual

disaster of the highest magnitude (al-Faruqi, 1986).

Language and culture are two sides of the same coin. Culture is needed for better

understanding of a language and vice versa. Mitchell and Myles (2004) argue that language

and culture are not separate but acquired together, with each providing support for the

development of the other (p. 235). For Kramsch (1998: 3) language expresses cultural

reality since it enables speakers to express their beliefs, ideas, attitudes and facts that can

only be understood and appropriately interpreted when shared within specific cultural

community. English Language Learners (ELL) should be acquainted with the fact that

cultures and languages always go together as Limbach (2002: 25) states if I would like to

generate enthusiasm for the culture of my country, then I must encourage people in other

countries to speak my language. The language is always the first tool, as it were, when

introducing others to specific cultural achievements. English language teachers should not

underestimate the importance of cultural teaching, as 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. Moreover, the inextricable nature

of language and culture may be expressed as the person who learns language without

learning culture risks becoming a fluent fool (Bennett, Bennett & Allen, 2003, p. 237).

Metaphors which have been analyzed as providing conceptual schemata through which we

understand the world (Duranti, 1997: 64) also connect these two entities, literary presenting

their inextricable nature. For Jiang (2000), culture and language form a living organism

metaphorically, culture being its blood and language being its flesh i.e. without culture

language would be dead and without language culture would be shapeless. Young generations

should not enter the class and wait for the teacher to write present simple construction on the
blackboard for example so they can elegantly copy it. As those who educate the future

respected members of the society, teachers should stress out the importance of learning a

foreign language together with culture to their learners, with the hope that they will broad

their horizons, get and stay motivated more easily.

Motivation is crucial in teaching a foreign language as well as any other subject. The reason

for the use of cultural content in the class is that it will foster learners motivation (McKay,

2000, p. 7). As Steiner suggests, smart teacher will always have a cultural unit when the eyes

drop, pace legs, or the heat comes (Steiner, 2001). Teaching a foreign language has a

significant impact on the learners social nature since it requires learners to adopt new social

and cultural behaviours (Gardner, 1979; Williams, 1994). The role of culture in language

materials is to arise learners interest towards the target language. Learners are willing to hear

about foreign culture the same as they are willing to explore their own cultural backgrounds,

since dealing with two different local and target cultural worlds enables them to compare and

contrast these. Tavares & Cavalcanti (1996: 19) point out that the aim of teaching culture is to

increase students awareness and to develop their curiosity towards the target culture and

their own, helping them to make comparisons among cultures. According to the experience

of Mavi (1996: 54) teenaged pupils become more motivated when they learn about the life

style of the foreign country whose language they are studying. Also, research in the field of

language motivation has discovered that the positive attitude towards the target culture is

among the most important variables that affect the learners motivation for the target

language. According to Niederhauser (1997: 11) bringing cultural content into the language

classroom is one of the best ways of increasing motivation. In a society in which the conflict

between globalization and nationalism remains unsolved, many members of younger

generation greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn about life in other countries and

exchange ideas with teachers who are sensitive to both the cultures. Culturally matters

generally stimulate students interest (Kitao, op. cit 7): Students like activities based on the

culture, including singing, dancing, role-playing, skits, doing research. The study of culture

increases students curiosity about the target countries, people and language, at the same time

equipping them with intercultural competencies.

Only inter-culturally competent learners are able to use language for effective

communication. Intercultural competence is generally defined as the ability to successfully

communicate with people of other cultures (Zaleskiene, 2006), and more specifically, the

ability to establish and maintain relationships, communicate with minimal loss or distortion,

collaborate in order to accomplish something of mutual interest or need (Fantini, 2006).

Byram and Fleming (1998) claim that someone who has intercultural competence has

knowledge of one, or, preferably, more cultures and social identities and has the capacity to

discover and relate to new people from other contexts for which they have not been prepared

directly (p. 9). Students need to be aware of the fact that learning a language is not just

paying attention to how something is written, translated or pronounced. What they should

acquire is competencies that enable them to mediate/interpret the values, beliefs and

behaviours (the cultures) of themselves and of others and to stand on the bridge or indeed

be the bridge between people of different languages and cultures (Byram, 2006, p. 12).

People exhibit different modes of behavior. If ELLs are to communicate successfully with

speakers from English-speaking countries, they will need to recognize culturally-induced

behaviour of those people as well as their own behavior patterns. If cultural awareness is not

developed, critical incidents are likely to occur. Lets consider this example:
Linda, an American teacher was speaking to Usa, one of her Thai students. She said: Usa, I

am very happy with your work. Your English is really improving. Usa looked down and

said: Oh, no. Im not a good student. My English is not very good. Linda really thought

that Usa was making progress and said: But you are a good student, and youre making

excellent progress. You should be proud of your work. Usa responded: No, no, you are a

very good teacher, but Im not a good student. Linda decided not to give Usa any more

compliments. (Oxford Print)

In Usas culture, looking down is a mark of respect and being singled out is not desirable, so

in this situation, she acted according to learned cultural norms.

Non-verbal communication is culturally influenced as well. What is appropriate in one culture

may be completely inappropriate in another. Effective communication is based on these

finesses. Even the smile, which is considered a universal gesture, may cause certain confusion

since various cultures have various reasons for smiling. For example, Japanese smile when

they are confused or angry. Also, in other parts of Asia, people smile when they are

embarrassed. In some cultures, smile does not always mean a friendly greeting or signal for a

good mood. It is important, therefore, not to judge our students when they smile at

inappropriate times or do not smile at appropriate ones. If they do not return you a

greeting smile, it does not indicate bad manners, it may be because in their culture, smiling is

reserved for informal occasions, and smiling in formal settings would be considered

inappropriate. Although culturally-based language practice fulfills the aim of language

objective to enable the learners to use a language for effective communication, however, there

have been serious objections to introducing culture in ELT classrooms. These approaches

advocate de-culturing of foreign language teaching. Arab educators Al-Abed al Haq and
Smadi (1996) are in favour of this approach. As a result of their experiences, many teachers as

well agree that cultural teaching sometimes leads to a sense of dissatisfaction, especially when

learners have to compare their own local culture with the target one, which is so different and

alien to them. Talking about pictures for example, may appear very awkward to Arab students

since their religion does not allow portraits either of humans or animals to be displayed

anywhere in the house. Following Islamic religious principles and cultural standpoint, the

concept of Islamic English was proposed. Al-Faruqis Islamic English primarily aims to save

Muslim names and Islamic terms from distortion and semantic loss caused by transliteration

and translation. In his book Toward Islamic English (1986) he argues that mutilation of

Muslim names and sacred words is chaotic and constitutes an intellectual and spiritual

disaster of the highest magnitude. Names such as Laila and Zeyneb are often translated as

Lily and Jenny, Alyy is written Ali:the mechanical. Argungu (2002) also suggests that the

elements of Islamic culture should be incorporated in language instruction in order to cherish

Islamic tradition and cultural uniqueness while at the same time avoiding cultural shocks.

Islamic English is seen as an alternative and a safety wall against materialistic and utilitarian

western culture (al-Faruqi, 1986). Teachers should introduce cultural component more

carefully and with reference to the learners local perspective. Frederics (2007) who observed

her Tajik students reported that they were more motivated and had positive attitudes towards

foreign language learning when the teaching material presented to them was nearer to their

culture. Ariza (2007) states that abandoning culture is like forgetting ones own self.

Therefore, foreign language teaching will be inadequate if relying only on the target culture

and excluding learners local cultural background. Evidently, the voices promoting learners

culture are getting louder.

Language is a part of culture and culture is a part of language. The two are strongly dependent

on each other and should be taught that way as well. Since motivation is crucial for learning a

second language, teachers should aim to make their language instruction as much interesting

and contextually relevant as possible. Culturally-based ELT classrooms equip learners with

intercultural competencies to successfully communicate in todays globalized world.

Although there are numerous benefits of introducing the target culture in English language

classes, still some approaches fight for the introduction of learners local cultural specifics.

Islamic English is an example of such tendencies. These trends are not the result of the

rejection of western world and its culture, but an aim to add a new dimension to the cultural

approach in ELT inclusion of the local culture. If Muslim English language learners find it

very difficult to understand certain concepts or feel confused about it, then language

programmes should accommodate their needs. Broad horizons are what we are aiming

towards but not at the cost of ignoring someones needs.

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