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Culture in EFL Teaching: Issues and Solutions

Sherene Ariffin

Introduction One of the key components in language teaching is culture. Culture helps guide an individual how to use the language. Culture, however, varies from one country to another, and from one community within that country to another. Due to the diversity of culture, it is imperative for teachers to know which culture to teach in the language learning classroom. This is especially important for teachers who have the responsibility of helping to prepare EFL students to travel to a native English-speaking country for a language immersion opportunity or to study English for academic purposes. In order to help EFL teachers, several authors have suggested the use of either home-language’s culture (i.e., students’ first language’s culture) or target-language culture (i.e., the culture of the target language). However, another school of thought suggests using neither home-language culture nor target-language culture. Instead, the use of both home-language as well as target-language cultures is encouraged as it does not only address the limitations of both home-language and target-language culture teaching, but more importantly, it is the best way to help prepare EFL students who are going to become ESL students.

Home-language Culture Teaching According to Widdowson, when non-native English speaking students first learn how to speak their native language (L1), they learn their L1 syntax or vocabulary together with the culture of how the language is being spoken and used within their community (1990, as cited in Alptekin, 1993). Alptekin (1993) refers to the latter as the “schematic knowledge” of a language (p. 136). Widdowson added that these students apply the schematic knowledge from their L1 while learning their second language (L2), English (as cited in Alptekin). This means that these non-English speaking students are at risk of being confused due to the lack of cultural

parallelism between their L1 and L2. On the other hand, the use of home-language culture, such as using culturally friendly reading materials and topics, is advantageous to non- English speaking students, especially EFL students, because it helps them to apply their background knowledge in reading comprehension, express their feelings and ideas when writing essays, and overcome the problem of students having to write in a genre that is absent from their culture. In reading textbooks, storybooks, or comprehension passages that are heavily laced with strong American culture and values, EFL students are unable to use their background knowledge. For instance, in a reading passage about pets, Alptekin (1993) illustrated that Middle Eastern students, especially the Muslims, would feel utterly confused about the American ideology of “a dog as ‘man’s’ best friend” (p. 137). This is because Muslims are brought up to regard them as animals that should not be touched because they are considered “unclean.” Therefore, in reading the passage, the students not only have to overcome unfamiliar words, but they would also have to figure out the context of the culture that the passage is referring to. This could lead to a serious impediment in their understanding of the passage. Marckwardt (1978) also argued against the use of American literature in teaching EFL. This is because American literature presents predominantly America culture and values— positive and negative—and does not take into consideration learners’ backgrounds. As a result, certain values that are present in the American culture may either be different in another culture or have no parallels. Therefore, the dangers of not using home- language culture is that it might make it difficult for non-native English speaking students to comprehend the reading passage, as they have to not only battle vocabulary or syntactic patterns, but also devote time to decipher the meaning of the passage because it is


written about an unfamiliar culture (Alptekin,


Apart from using the non-English speaking students’ background knowledge, the use of home-culture can also help non- English speaking students to express feelings and ideas. For instance, when students are given topics to write related to their L1 and L1’s culture, Friedlander discovered that non- English speaking students tend to find it easier to write and also produce better quality writing (as cited in Alptekin, 1993). Similarly, while evaluating the writing of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers, Ball (1999) discovered that the AAVE students write more easily when they are writing about topics based on where they come from or about general African- American culture such as R&B, rap and many others. This is because students are able to use their cultural background to generate ideas (Ball, 1999). As a result, many ESL/ EFL teachers allow students to choose home culture topics. When non-native English speaking students are able to come up with relevant content that is related to the L1 culture, the teachers can then help them to better organize their ideas into the target language pattern. Another reason that supports the use of home-culture content is that certain cultures lack the genre that is present in the target- culture’s language. Kachru (1999) pointed out that some essay writing genres are not predominant in certain cultures. For example, since argumentative essays are not frequently found in Hindi, Indian students tend to have difficulties producing this genre. Therefore, asking Indian EFL students to write an argumentative essay without any support from the teacher and teaching materials would frustrate the students because they lack the knowledge about this type of essay. However, Kachru (1999) also pointed out that Indian students are familiar with several other essay genres present in their L1, including descriptive, narrative, imaginative, deliberative, and explanatory.Since argumentative essays are similar to the deliberative as well as explanatory essays, ESL teachers can gradually introduce how to write argumentative essays to Indian ESL

students by building on the type of writing that they are culturally familiar with already. Despite the advantages that using the home-culture content brings, it does have its problems in implementation. One problem that Alptekin (1993) noted was the lack of books featuring and focusing on home- language culture readily available because not many publishers are willing to undertake such a costly job when the market is limited to a single country. The publishers feel that by publishing the target language’s culture books, they are able to market it to countries where English is taught as ESL as well as EFL, regardless of the L1. In addition, Alptekin pointed out that most of the authors, who are native speakers of the target language, live in the target language’s country, e.g., the United States. This means that unless these authors live in the students’ home-language country, they would find it almost impossible to be familiar with or to find information about the students’ L1 culture. Therefore, instead of writing superficially about a culture or a language that they are not familiar with, these authors prefer writing about a language and its culture that they are completely comfortable with and know a great deal about, that is, their own culture, or the students’ target culture. Another problem of using home-language culture is that it does not help to prepare EFL students who plan to travel and live in the target-language’s country. Having been using the L2 only in their L1 cultural context with L1 cultural content, they might risk experiencing greater culture shock. Further, some EFL students may have already formed opinions about the target-language’s culture, which in most cases are not accurate, and it is therefore the teachers’ responsibility to broaden these EFL students’ minds to be more accepting of other people’s culture. Due to these problems, many researchers have advocated the use of target-language culture in second language teaching.

Target-language Culture Teaching To avoid the issues that EFL teachers face when using home-language culture, several researchers believe that using target-language culture would be an excellent solution. For instance, Robinson (1985) proposed that one

way to help these potential ESL students view the differences in cultures is to expose them to reading materials that emphasize the target- language culture. Reading about the target- language’s culture could help these students come to terms with what they experience in the target-language country, and therefore, be better prepared for it. In addition to just reading, Kramsch suggested that teachers make use of pre-reading as well as post- reading activities to help these soon-to-be- ESL students to come to terms with cultural differences (as cited in Thanasoulas, 2001). Another reason why authors are strongly advocating the teaching of target-language culture is so that teachers can create a sense of awareness for soon-to-be ESL students when they write their papers. For example, ESL students risk committing plagiarism in American style of writing, whereas in their cultures, quoting famous writers’ words without citing is common and in fact encouraged. According to Kachru (1990), it is normal for Indian students to quote from Indian religious epics and tales. Therefore, when writing in English, these students have a tendency to copy texts without giving credits to the authors. The same can be noted about Chinese students who would normally make references to Confucius without citing the source. Moreover, Leki (1992) reported that she had encountered a group of Malaysian students who had memorized their entire textbook and regurgitated it during an exam. Those students knew the meaning of plagiarism and earnestly felt that they did not commit it because they did not memorize the textbook word for word. In order to prevent such a thing from happening in ESL classrooms, students should be taught to be aware of how to properly cite their references in American academic writing to avoid committing plagiarism. Additionally, these authors feel that teaching the target-language culture to EFL students who would later become ESL students in the country of the target language would help them succeed because ESL teachers cannot be expected to know the diverse styles of writing that their culturally mixed students come from. Connor et al. suggested that ESL learners should be aware


of the target-language’s style of writing and learn how to write in that style (as cited in Kachru, 1999). By being informed, ESL learners can reduce the chance of becoming penalized by the native teachers who are not familiar with the styles of the ESL students’ L1 language. To sum up, it is recommended that EFL students who will later become ESL students learn the target-language’s culture in order to prevent culture shock, and to create awareness of the style of American writing so that they will not be accused of plagiarism or incoherence. However, just as it is with using the students’ home language culture exclusively, teachers must also understand and be familiar with the shortcomings of using only the target-language culture. For this reason, a more effective approach is to use both cultures in ESL or EFL teaching.

Using Both Cultures English has gained a prominent position in the world’s languages, and as a result, it has brought forth a love-hate relationship between ESL/ EFL learners and the English language. Hence it is important for EFL teachers to be aware of this ambivalent relationship. Students comprehend that they will be able to benefit from learning English since they now are able to gain access to a wealth of knowledge. However, there are EFL students who resent the target language as well as its culture because of the political agenda that is associated with the target- language, for example, in the U.S. As a matter of fact, these EFL students feel as if they have no choice but to learn the imperialists’ language and of course, their culture, if they want to keep up with the rest of the world. Hence, it is importance that teachers bridge the two opposing views. To bridge the gap, several authors have proposed combining both home-language and target-language cultures. By incorporating these two language cultures, teachers minimize the limitations of exclusively using host-language or target- language culture. More importantly, using home-language and target-language culture helps to point out that differences between native and non- native styles of writing or even of cultures are


plainly just differences, and that there is nothing good or bad about either one (Thanasoulas, 2001). As a matter of fact, Baumgratz-Gangl said that it is helpful to teach EFL students both cultures so that they can analyze the differences and find some common thread between the two cultures (as cited in Thanasoulas, 2001). This is excellent because instead of just focusing on the differences and feeling that their identities are being compromised, EFL students are encouraged to discover similarities between their culture and the target-language culture, which could bring about common understanding and tolerance. In order to facilitate this, Tomalin and Stempleski (1953) have collected various lesson plan activities that focus on the cultural aspect of teaching. For example, teachers could adapt one of the activities called “Cultural Assimilators,” to help EFL students to assess the similarities as well as differences about their culture and the target-language culture. EFL students have the liberty to choose topics that can range from differences about their culture’s food and American food to the way each culture eats—what is tolerable and what is not. To supplement this activity, teachers can provide

References Alptekin, C. (1993). Target-language culture in EFL materials. ELT Journal, 47(2), 136- 143. London: Oxford University Press. Ball, A. F. (1999). Evaluating the writing of culturally and linguistically diverse students: The case of the African American vernacular English speaker. In C. R. Cooper & L. Odell (Eds.), Evaluating writing: The role of teacher’s knowledge about text, learning and culture (pp. 225-248). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. Kachru, Y. (1999). Culture, context, and writing. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Culture in second language teaching and learning (pp. 75- 89). UK: Cambridge University Press. Leiki, I. (1992). Writing behaviors. In Understanding ESL writers: A guide for teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook.

reading materials that address certain myths that EFL students believe about the target- language culture, which can be followed by writing activities, such as compare and contrast essays. Also, when grading the papers, teachers can provide positive feedback to encourage those EFL students who have written the essay from an objective point of view. On the other hand, for those students who are still feel that their culture is somewhat superior to the target-language culture; teachers can pen comments to persuade them to think outside the box.

Conclusion From this review, I conclude that it is best to use both home and target-language culture. This is especially true for EFL students who plan to either travel or study in the target- language country because the use of both cultures helps to provide a broader view of the differences between their culture and the target-language culture. With students under- standing the differences, their transitions, both in academics as well as daily life, would not be as difficult since they have already been exposed to the target-language culture.

Marckwardt, A. H. (1978). The place of literature in the teaching of English as a second or foreign language. Honolulu, HI: University Pres of Hawai‘i. Tomalin, B., & Stempleski, S. (1993). Cultural awareness. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thanasoulas, D. (2001). The importance of teaching culture in the foreign language classroom. Racial Pedagogy, 3(3), 1-24. Retrieved October 25, 2005, from