Tema 67- Aspectos socioculturales en el currículo de lengua extranjera. Tratamiento e interpretación de los hechos culturales en función de la heterogeneidad de los alumnos: adolescentes y adultos

Tema 67- Aspectos socioculturales en el currículo de lengua extranjera. Tratamiento e interpretación de los hechos culturales en función de la heterogeneidad de los alumnos: adolescentes y adultos

Foreign language learning is comprised of several components, including grammatical competence, communicative competence, language proficiency, as well as a change in attitudes towards one’s own or another culture. For scholars and laymen alike, cultural competence, i.e., the knowledge of the conventions, customs, beliefs, and systems of meaning of another country, is indisputably an integral part of foreign language learning, and many teachers have seen it as their goal to incorporate the teaching of culture into the foreign language curriculum.

In reality, what most teachers and students seem to lose sight of is the fact that ‘knowledge of the grammatical system of a language [grammatical competence] has to be complemented by understanding of culture-specific meanings [communicative or rather cultural competence].

The history of culture teaching:

As will become evident, the role of cultural learning in the foreign language classroom has been the concern of many teachers and scholars and has sparked considerable controversy, yet its validity as an equal complement to language learning has often been overlooked or even impugned. Up to now, two main perspectives have influenced the teaching of culture.

1. One pertains to the transmission of factual, cultural information, which consists in statistical information, that is, institutional structures and other aspects of the target civilisation.

2. The other perspective, drawing upon cross-cultural psychology or anthropology, has been to embed culture within an interpretive framework and establish connections, namely, points of reference or departure, between one’s own and the target country. This approach, however, has certain limitations, since it can only furnish learners with cultural knowledge, while leaving them to their own devices to integrate that knowledge with the assumptions, beliefs, and mindsets already obtaining in their society.

Since the 1960s, a great many educators have concerned themselves with the importance of the cultural aspect in foreign language learning, with Hammerly (1982), Seelye (1984) and Damen (1987) being among those who have considered ways of incorporating culture into language teaching. In the 1970s, an emphasis on sociolinguistics led to greater emphasis on the situational context of the foreign language. It is only in the 1980s that scholars begin to delve into the dynamics of culture and its vital contribution to ‘successful’ language learning.

Language and culture: what is culture and why should it be taught?

Fairly recently, many ethnographers have attempted to show that language and culture are from the start inseparably connected. The reasons are the following ones:

1. Language acquisition does not follow a universal sequence, but differs across cultures.
2. The process of becoming a competent member of society is realized through exchanges of language in particular social situations
3. The primary concern is not with grammatical input, but with the transmission of sociocultural knowledge
4. The native learner, in addition to language, acquires also the paralinguistic patterns and the kinesics of his or her culture.

Incorporating culture into the foreign language classroom:

A question to our discussion is how can we incorporate culture into the foreign language curriculum, with a view to fostering cultural awareness and communicating insight into the target civilisation? In the past, this has been attempted by dint of discoursing upon the geographical environment and historical or political development of the foreign culture, its institutions and customs, its literary achievements, even the minute details of the everyday life of its members. At other times, insights into the target community have taken the form of ‘lecturettes’ or a “homily” on such issues as marriage customs and ceremonies, festivals, Sunday excursions, and so forth, thus rendering the study of the foreign culture a tedious and unrewarding task. Admittedly, we cannot teach culture any more than we can teach anyone how to breathe. What we can do, though, is try to show the way, to teach about culture rather than to posit a specific way of seeing things. By bringing to the fore some elements of the target culture, and focusing on those characteristics and traits that are of importance to the members of the target community-refraining from taking an outsider’s view-teachers can make students aware that there are no such things as superior and inferior cultures and that there are differences among people within the target culture, as well. Teachers are not in the classroom to confirm the prejudices of their students nor to attack their deeply held convictions. Their task is to stimulate students’ interest in the target culture, and to help establish the foreign language classroom ‘not so much as a place where the language is taught, but as one where opportunities for learning of various kinds are provided through the interactions that take place between the participants.
Through exposure to the foreign civilisation, students inescapably draw some comparisons between the home and target culture. Frontiers have opened and never before have nations come closer to one another.
On a practical note, culture teaching should allow learners to increase their knowledge of the target culture in terms of people’s way of life, values, attitudes, and beliefs, and how these manifest themselves or are couched in linguistic categories and forms. More specifically, the teaching of culture should make learners aware of speech acts, connotations, etiquette, that is, appropriate or inappropriate behaviour, as well as provide them with the opportunity to act out being a member of the target culture. Equipped with the knowledge that such notions as “superior” or “inferior” cultures are nothing but sweeping generalisations emanating from lack of knowledge and disrespect to other human beings with different worldviews, learners can delve into the target language and use it as a tool not only to communicate in the country where it is spoken but also to give a second voice to their thoughts, thus flying in the face of cultural conventions and stereotypes.

It goes without saying that foreign language teachers should be foreign culture teachers, having the ability to experience and analyse both the home and target cultures. The onus is on them to convey cultural meaning and introduce students to a kind of learning ‘which challenges and modifies their perspective on the world and their cultural identity as members of a given social and national group.

Sociolinguistics as a relative newcomer in the language sciences has only quite recently become involved in pedagogy. Language teaching theorists state that an important purpose of language learning is to learn about a country and its people.

According to Sapir and Worf, language and culture are not separable. Language can´t be separated completely from the culture in which it is deeply embedded.

In 1960 an American committee on language and culture expressed the relationships between them:

  1. Language is a part of culture and must be approached with the same attitudes that govern our approach to culture as a whole.
  2. Language conveys culture so that the language teacher is also of necessity of a teacher of culture.
  3. Language is itself subject to culturally conditioned attitudes and beliefs, which cannot be ignored in the language classroom.

However, there are some difficulties to incorporate the language aspects into the language teaching.

  1. The comprehensiveness of the anthropological concept of culture itself. If culture embraces all aspects of the life of man, culture is everything and becomes unmanageable. Consequently, the ordering of the life of a society into a scheme and an enumeration of selected aspects of culture become a necessity.

We can divide it into 4 subsystems:

ü Culture: dominant values, habits of thought, assumptions, art forms etc.

ü Society: Social institutions and the regulation of interpersonal and group relations: family, religion, political and judicial system, education, social norms etc.

ü Ecology: the population´s relationship with its subhuman environment: attitudes towards nature, exploitation of nature, use of natural products, technology, travel and transportation.

ü The individual: what a given person does with the shared patterns: conforming, rebelling, exploiting or innovating. The integration of personality, status by age and sex.

  1. Another problem is the interaction between language and culture. In spite of the common assertion that language and culture cannot be separated, the integration of language and culture is confined to a small number of observations. The bulk of teaching is still described in terms which leave it largely unrelated to sociocultural contexts.
  1. The third problem is that that ethnography of the advanced industrialized societies, whose languages are commonly taught, is inadequately developed. Studies on Westerns societies, comparable to the studies on tribal societies are scarce or non-existent. Consequently, language teachers lack the necessary documentation or even an appropriate methodology of enquiry as to what social, cultural or sociolinguistic data to look for and where and how to find them.
  1. It has not always kept sufficiently distinct the different aspects of culture teaching:

ü The observer´s attitudes to a foreign culture.

ü Pedagogical aims in teaching culture.

ü Culture as a motivator in language learning.

ü Literature as an introduction to culture.

ü Cultural background as a means to an understanding of literature.

The treatment of culture in the language programmes largely concentrates on non-linguistic features in the life of the society, but must also include linguistic features, we have to give a social orientation to linguistics (sociolinguistics).

We have to study the following points:

  1. Varieties of language (dialects and sociolects) within a speech community. In the past, the selection of a standard or norm in teaching a foreign language tended to be in absolute terms. There was a prejudice against different varieties. The pedagogical norm must be based on several criteria:

ü The variety of language learnt must be acceptable to language to native speakers as appropriate for a non-native to use.

ü It must facilitate communication between native speakers and he learner.

ü It must be adapted to the probable uses of the language by the learner.

Nevertheless at nay stage in language learning, it should be possible for the language student to study variations in language use.

  1. The learner will also progressively be made aware of those variations in language use that are determined by role relationships, situations, topics or modes of communication (speech or writing).

From the point of view of pedagogical treatment, it is possible to proceed in one of 2 ways so as to place language into a social context:

  1. One is to start out from linguistic features and to differentiate between various social meanings. Thus, in studying a play or a narrative in the language class, the teacher may draw attention to language features which signal these meanings.
  2. The other possibility is to start from social institutions, social structures or a culturally significant event and to examine its manifestations in language use. This second approach is, however, much more difficult to handle because the linguistic manifestations of social facts have not been documented in a sufficiently systematic fashion.


When teaching an international language such as English, teachers must consider the characteristics of such a language, the role culture plays in teaching, and language teaching in specific, the role language plays in the cultural expressions we make, and, the role the teaching materials and methods we use. These materials and methods, as McKay (2003) makes clear both have differing and important impacts of language acquisition.

Three basic types of materials can be used in language textbooks, according to Cortazzi and Jin (1999):

  1. Source culture materials, target culture materials, and international materials. The first is source cultural material. This draws on the learners’ own culture as content.
  2. The second source of materials is from the target culture, drawing on the culture of a country in which English is spoken as an L1. In this case, students would spend most of their time reading and learning about life in native-English speaking countries, such as the United States, Great Britain, and Australia.
  3. The third type is international target culture material, which uses a wide range of materials from a variety of cultures in English- and non-English-speaking countries around the world.

Source culture material is the primary emphasis on many existing English textbooks. However, one of the major goals of teaching English as an international language is to make it easier for learners to communicate their ideas and cultural understandings in the medium of English. That being the case, there are many reasons why source culture materials should be used.

Communicative language teaching (CLT) is one of the most popular teaching methodologies in use today. It was first used largely in English speaking countries to help non-English speaking immigrants learn English and adjust to their new country. As a result, CLT emphasizes the importance of oral skills and group work and assumes the presence of a largely English social and cultural environment.

The Web offers an abundance of materials to help language teachers address culture in their classes. Numerous online articles with many authentic cultural materials are available for classroom use.

Teaching materials and techniques which are based on sociolinguistic principles usually identify learners in a specific role of language use, f.i: as tourists, university students or migrant workers. Often the interactants are specified: shop assistant/ customer, foreign traveller/ policeman, physician/ patient etc.

Situations of language use are indicated and sometimes described in a detailed scenario: f.i: visiting a city, arriving at a hotel, reading academic papers, participating in seminar discussions, asking a neighbour for help, visiting a doctor´s surgery, asking for directions in the street.

Next, speech acts are analysed which regularly occur in the given situation: introducing oneself, inquiring, gathering information, asking permission, asking for help, giving reasons or explanations etc. Learners are usually invited to enter vicariously into the situation so that they become participants. The learning tasks therefore involve problem solving, simulation or roleplaying.

Culture in Official language Schools:

In Official language Schools the cultural content is not an aim in itself in the syllabus. However, it will be dealt as a usual vehicle of acquiring communicative competence in both cycles, elementary and advanced.

The most important fields are the following ones:

ü Geographical aspects

ü Politics and economy

ü Society

ü Social mass media

ü Cultural manifestations

Heterogeneity of students in Official Language Schools:

The great majority of students in Official Language Schools are adults. Adults As learners, compared to teenagers, have special needs and requirements.

For any field, included culture, adult learners have the following characteristics:

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct themselves. Their teachers must actively involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators for them. Specifically, they must get participants’ perspectives about what topics to cover and let them work on projects that reflect their interests. They should allow the participants to assume responsibility for presentations and group leadership. They have to be sure to act as facilitators, guiding participants to their own knowledge rather than supplying them with facts. Finally, they must show participants how the class will help them reach their goals.
  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base. To help them do so, they should draw out participants’ experience and knowledge, which is relevant to the topic. They must relate theories and concepts to the participants and recognize the value of experience in learning. Instructors must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom. Adults should be treated as equals in experience and knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely in class.
  • Adults are goal-oriented. Upon enrolling in a course, they usually know what goal they want to attain. They, therefore, appreciate an educational program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Instructors must show participants how this class will help them attain their goals. This classification of gaols and course objectives must be done early in the course.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Therefore, instructors must identify objectives for adult participants before the course begins. This means, also, that theories and concepts must be related to a setting familiar to participants. This need can be fulfilled by letting participants choose projects that reflect their own interests.
  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Teachers must tell students explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them.