Towards an Understanding of Culture in L2/FL Education

Michael Lessard-Clouston
z95014 [at]
Associate Professor of English at the School of Economics
Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan

First published in Ronko: K.G. Studies in English, 25, 131-150 (March 1997 at Kwansei Gakuin University)


The title of Valdes’ (1990) paper, “The inevitability of teaching and learning culture in a foreign language course,” may now reflect an axiom in second-and foreign-language (L2 and FL) pedagogy, but it remains unclear to many L2 and FL educators just how this has come to be the case and what impact this has on their classroom practice. This article addresses these issues by working towards an understanding of culture in L2 and FL education. In doing so, we will examine how L2 and FL culture teaching has developed, where it currently stands, and what directions to take for future research on this topic.

Culture Teaching in L2/FL Education: Background

Although some L2/FL teachers seem to think that the presence of culture in current writings is relatively recent, a review of the L2/FL literature shows that this is clearly not the case. The early pattern is evident: people learned a second or foreign language in order to read and study its literature. Allen (1985) has summarized it: “…prior to the 1960s, the lines between language and culture were carefully drawn. The primary reason for second language study in the earlier part of this century was access to the great literary masterpieces of civilization” (p. 138). As Flewelling (1993, p. 339) notes, “it was through reading that students learned of the civilization associated with the target language”. Thus Nostrand’s (1966) paper on “describing and teaching the sociocultural context of a foreign language and literature” presented something of a challenge by suggesting two educational purposes of FL teaching: ‘crosscultural communication and understanding’ (p. 4). Concurrently, the development of the social sciences resulted in an increased focus on the disciplines of anthropology and sociology, and a more widespread understanding of culture. The sixties were also the height of the audiolingual era in language teaching, and the time when Brooks (1968) “emphasized the importance of culture not for the study of literature but for language learning,” as Steele (1989, p. 155) has observed. Communication began to take centre stage, along with spoken rather than written language, and what is often termed ‘small c culture’ (Steele, 1989; p. 155).

In the 1970s, an emphasis on sociolinguistics resulted in greater emphasis on the context and situation where the L2 or FL would be used. Savignon’s (1972) early study on communicative competence, for example, suggested the “value of training in communicative skills from the very beginning of the FL program” (p. 9). Culture’s role in the FL and L2 curriculum grew, and influential works by Seelye (1974) and Lafayette (1975) appeared. ‘The communicative approach’ eventually replaced the audiolingual method in many areas of the world, and in describing their framework for communicative competence, Canale and Swain (1980) claimed that “a more natural integration” of language and culture takes place “through a more communicative approach than through a more grammatically based approach” (p. 31). Teacher-oriented texts (Hammerly, 1982; Higgs, 1984; Omaggio, 1986; Rivers, 1981) now also included detailed chapters on culture teaching for the L2 and FL class, reflecting the prevailing goal: communication within the cultural context of the target language.

During the 1980s, Stern’s (1983a) major work recognized the ‘concepts of society’ in language teaching, and his (1983b) paper on the multidimensional FL curriculum recommended a four component model that included a cultural syllabus. Seelye’s original work was revised (1984), and other major works appeared concerning culture learning in L2 and FL contexts, particularly for ESL and EFL, including Damen (1987), Robinson (1981, 1988) and Valdes (1986). In Europe, a focus on ‘cultural studies’ developed in FL teaching, as described by Byram (1986, 1988, 1989) and Murphy (1988).

In the 1990s, the cultural syllabus has been supported by research in the National Core French Study (Flewelling, 1994; LeBlanc, 1990; LeBlanc & Courtel, 1990), and its importance was reaffirmed in Stern’s (1992) last book. The European emphasis on cultural studies has developed further (Buttjes, 1990; Byram, 1994; Shotton, 1991) and has also been supported by empirical research (Buttjes & Byram, 1990; Byram & Esarte-Sarries, 1991; Byram, Esarte-Sarries & Taylor, 1991). In short, ‘culture’ in L2 and FL education today is clearly much more than great literature. As our understanding of language and communication has evolved, the importance of culture in L2 and FL education has increased. This reality is reflected in current methods of language learning and teaching, including the recent Tapestry approach (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992).

While, as Nemni (1992) makes clear, there are still some ‘fuzzy’ aspects to our approach to culture both in the L2/FL class and the literature, we have moved from simply describing the sociocultural context of the L2/FL (Nostrand, 1966) to speaking of contexts of competence (Berns, 1990), considering second culture acquisition (Robinson, 1991), working to prepare students for meaningful culture learning (Mantle-Bromley, 1992), recognizing context and culture in language teaching (Kramsch, 1993), developing a new philosophy of teaching culture (Oxford, 1994), and teaching and learning language and culture (Byram, Morgan & Colleagues, 1994). That culture teaching and learning is a developing area in applied linguistics is further reflected in the growing list of recent publications (including Cargill, 1987, and Harrison, 1990) that deal specifically with this aspect of our work. As Higgs (1990) stated, it is the recognition of an “unbreakable bond between language and culture that motivates our profession’s implicit commandment that ‘thou shalt not teach language without also teaching culture'” (p. 74).

Language Teaching is Culture Teaching

As L2 and FL educators, we teach and our students learn about the culture of the L2/FL whether or not we include it overtly in the curriculum. This point was made by McLeod (1976, p. 212) some years ago: “by teaching a language…one is inevitably already teaching culture implicitly”. Sociolinguistics reveals why. In an article on discourse, for example, Brown (1990) questions whether or not language may be value-free or independent of cultural background. She concludes: “there are values, presuppositions, about the nature of life and what is good and bad in it, to be found in any normal use of language” (p. 13). Such normal language use is exactly what most L2 and FL instructors aim to teach.

Beyond this perspective, Buttjes (1990, p. 55) refers to ethnographic language studies (Ochs & Schieffelin, 1984; Poyatos, 1985; Peters and Boggs, 1986) and summarizes several reasons why “language and culture are from the start inseparably connected”:

  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. every society orchestrates the ways in which children participate in particular situations, and this, in turn, affects the form, the function and the content of children’s utterances;
  4. caregivers’ primary concern is not with grammatical input, but with the transmission of sociocultural knowledge;
  5. the native learner, in addition to language, acquires also the paralinguistic patterns and the kinesics of his or her culture. (Buttjes, 1990, p. 55)

Having outlined these findings, Buttjes cautions readers that “as in the case of first vs. second language acquisition research, first and second culture acquisition differ in many respects” (1990, p. 55). Two of his further observations also explain just how language teaching is culture teaching:

  1. language codes cannot be taught in isolation because processes of sociocultural transmission are bound to be at work on many levels, e.g. the contents of language exercises, the cultural discourse of textbooks (Kramsch, 1988), and the teacher’s attitudes towards the target culture;
  2. in their role of “secondary care givers” language teachers need to go beyond monitoring linguistic production in the classroom and become aware of the complex and numerous processes of intercultural mediation that any foreign language learner undergoes… (Buttjes, 1990, pp. 55-56)

Thus, from this evidence and that provided by Valdes (1990) in the paper referred to above, it is clear that language teaching is indeed culture teaching. Such a perspective is evident outside of the fields of applied linguistics and second language education as well, in writings on intercultural communication (Luce and Smith [1987]). Consider this view from outside of the L2 and FL education literature:

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. (Samovar, Porter, & Jain, 1981, p. 24)

We should and do teach our students the L2 or FL culture in our classes when our goal is communicative competence. Not only is culture part and parcel of the process, but the educational value of it within L2/FL education is great, as Byram (1988) argues.

The question arises, however, that if language and culture are so intricately intertwined, why bother overtly focussing on culture when there are so many other aspects of the curriculum that need more attention? As Kramsch, Cain, and Murphy-Lejeune (1996) have answered this very question by outlining historical reasons for a discourse-based “culture as language and language as culture” pedagogy, the short answer here includes several points. First, though culture is implicit is what we teach, to assume that those who are ‘learning the language’ in our classes are also learning the cultural knowledge and skills required to be competent L2/FL speakers denies the complexity of culture, language learning, and communication. Second, we should include culture in our curriculum in an intentional manner in order to avoid the stereotyping and pitfalls Nemni (1992) has outlined. The third reason for expressly including culture in our L2/FL curriculum is to enable teachers to do a better job teaching culture and to be more accountable to students for the culture learning that takes place in our L2/FL classes.

Culture Defined for L2/FL Education

To this point, I have skirted around an important issue: just what is culture? As Nemni (1992) and Street (1993) suggest, this is not an easy question to answer, particularly in an increasingly international world. Some time ago, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1954) found over three hundred definitions of culture in their study, which underlines the difficulty and scope of the issues involved in communicating and teaching about culture. Nonetheless, the development of culture teaching in L2/FL education has led to a current understanding of culture, which I will briefly summarize here.

On a general level, culture has been referred to as “the ways of a people” (Lado, 1957). This perspective incorporates both ‘material’ manifestations of culture that are easily seen and ‘non-material’ ones that are more difficult to observe, as Saville-Troike (1975, p. 83) has noted. This global view of culture is reflected in Nemni’s (1992, p. 19) comment that the “American way of life” is conquering areas across the planet. EFL educators in Japan may well echo this point. Somewhat similarly, L2/FL teachers or students may refer to ‘Canadian culture’ or ‘Chinese culture’ in speaking of the way of life in Canada or China when refering to the people, societies and communication in these countries. Nemni (1992, pp. 13-17) has rightly noted some problems in speaking of a national culture. However, to demand one pure national culture for linguistic or ethnic groups denies the pluralism which Nemni also describes as inherent in all societies (p. 31). Reality shows us that while there are distinctions between national cultures, they may be harder to describe than other differences. Accordingly, we also speak of culture in a more specific manner in our L2/FL classes.

Adaskou, Britten & Fahsi (1990, pp. 3-4) help us define culture on a more specific level by outlining four meanings of culture. Their aesthetic sense includes cinema, literature, music, and media, while their sociological one refers to the organization and nature of family, interpersonal relations, customs, material conditions, and so on. Their semantic sense encompasses the whole conceptualization system which conditions perceptions and thought processes, and their pragmatic or sociolinguistic sense refers to the background knowledge, social and paralinguistic skills, and language code which are necessary for successful communication. While not necessarily all-inclusive or mutually exclusive, these aspects of culture provide more substance to the general definition above and reflect culture’s many dimensions. These four senses of culture outline the substance of our culture teaching as we discuss, model, and teach the L2 or FL culture in our classes.

While it is natural for us to speak of and define culture at both a general and a specific level because of the inherent complexity of the concept, another aspect of our definition reflects the dynamic nature of culture. It never remains static, but is constantly changing. As a result, Robinson (1988) rejects behaviourist, functionalist, and cognitive definitions of culture and recommends a symbolic one which sees culture as a dynamic “system of symbols and meanings” where “past experience influences meaning, which in turn affects future experience, which in turn affects subsequent meaning, and so on” (p. 11).

The different levels and aspects of culture briefly outlined here clearly show that our understanding of what culture means in L2 and FL education is varied. In L2 and FL teaching and learning, the issue of defining culture is best viewed as a continuum. This provides the ability to stress various dimensions of culture at different points, and allows for major differences between L2 and FL contexts. For L2 or FL teachers and learners in varied contexts, different aspects of culture may well be more or less important at various levels of language proficiency.

L2/FL Education Theory: Stern’s Framework

In defining culture in L2 and FL education in this fashion, I recognize Stern’s (1983a, 1992) theoretical framework, which has greatly influenced current L2 and FL pedagogy — in both theory and practice. Essentially, Stern’s three-level framework for L2/FL teaching theory includes a foundational level (one) based in the social sciences (including linguistics and educational theory), an interlevel (two) where theory and research come together in applied or educational linguistics, and a practical level (three) where the methodology and organization of L2/FL learning and teaching meet in the educational context.

In discussing concepts of society, Stern (1983a, p. 255) relates his model to the cultural aspect of L2 and FL teaching. With anthropology, sociology, and sociolinguistics providing the foundations at level one, studies and ethnographic description of the L2 or FL culture lead into the language teaching context at level two, which is supported by the sociocultural component of the L2 or FL curriculum at level three. The Stern (1983b) multidimensional curriculum was used successfully in the National Core French Study, and the cultural syllabus component has been detailed in LeBlanc, Courtel & Trescases (1990).

Perhaps most important about the Stern conceptual framework is that it recognizes that the context for language, culture, and communication is society, and thus emphasizes the social sciences as a foundation. In addition, it also states a clear frame of reference — a region, a country or a number of countries — for the society represented in the sociocultural component of the L2 or FL curriculum. Whether, as LeBlanc, Courtel & Trescases (1990) recommend, we start with the closest local L2 or FL presence and move on to L2 and FL groups farther afield, we do and need to focus on a clear society, all the while remembering the pluralism inherent within both groups and nations. My French as a second language (FSL) teachers in Toronto therefore rightly stressed Franco-Ontarian culture in my French classes, in addition to Quebec culture, and the cultures of France and Francophone Africa. In Canadian ESL, we also stress the local culture first while noting that “other people [and cultures] may have different views” (Brown, 1990, p. 15). This is just one of the many aspects of Stern’s framework, and current L2 and FL culture teaching in particular.

Guidelines for the L2/FL Classroom

With this background, it is helpful to review present guidelines for culture teaching within L2 and FL education.

First, our goals for L2/FL culture teaching must reflect the general, specific, and dynamic aspects of culture. Since Seelye (1993), Hammerly (1982, pp. 522-524), and Stern (1992, pp. 212- 215) have dealt elsewhere with cultural goals in the L2/FL class, I will summarize three. Students will indeed need to develop knowledge of and about the L2 or FL culture, but this receptive aspect of cultural competence is not sufficient. Learners will also need to master some skills in culturally appropriate communication and behaviour for the target culture. Finally, cultural awareness is necessary if students are to develop an understanding of the dynamic nature of the target culture, as well as their own culture. Certainly, the goals for culture teaching and learning may vary between L2 and FL contexts.

Second, in terms of the methodology of culture teaching, a laissez-faire approach is not adequate. Just as we are intentional in terms of what grammatical structures we teach and how, we must also be systematic about our culture teaching. A whole range of techniques exists (see Damen, 1987; Fantini, forthcoming; Rivers, 1981; Seelye, 1993; Stern, 1992; Tomalin & Stempelski, 1993; Valdes, 1986; and other resources outlined in Lessard-Clouston, 1994), but our learners benefit most when our culture lessons and the cultural aspects of our language teaching are well planned and developed. One notable method, called the ‘interactive language/culture process’, covers the above goals and is described in detail in Crawford-Lange & Lange (1984).

Third, just as we evaluate our students’ language learning, evaluation of their culture learning provides them with important feedback and keeps us accountable in our teaching. Culture learning assessment has been neglected in L2/FL education, and this is something that must be addressed if we are to enable students to truly understand and profit from this aspect of their L2/FL classes. Byram, Morgan & Colleagues (1994), Lafayette & Schultz (1975), Lessard-Clouston (1992), Valette (1986), and Zarate (1991) have dealt elsewhere with the evaluation of culture learning in L2 and FL teaching.

Fourth, the growing multicultural nature of both L2 and FL classes in North America and elsewhere is unfortunately an often untapped resource. One only needs to step into a current ESL or FSL classroom in a major centre in Canada, for example, to know that intercultural communication exists among students even before the language or culture lesson begins. Bennett (1996) challenges TESOL educators to move “beyond tolerance” in order to develop real intercultural communication in our multicultural classes. As the writers in Murray (1992) affirm, the linguistic and cultural diversity of our classes is indeed a resource. Incorporating students’ experience and awareness of and knowledge about various languages and cultures will only enhance our L2/FL culture teaching. The readings in Richard-Amato and Snow (1992) provide some foundations on the nature of the multicultural classroom, and Clarke (1996) helpfully discusses the teaching of language and culture from within a framework which recognizes the global implications of both English and TESOL.

Issues for Research

Beyond current practice, several areas need to be investigated in order to further develop our understanding of culture in L2 and FL education.

One area that needs to be addressed from the start concerns both teacher and student perceptions of the importance of culture learning in various L2 and FL programs and contexts. Are certain types of teachers or learners more open to or motivated about L2/FL culture learning? How important do they think culture is in learning a L2 or FL? What do they consider important in a cultural syllabus? While initial work has been done in EFL, by Lessard-Clouston (1996) and Prodromou (1992), more such information about other languages and contexts is needed.

A second major area for research involves studying the current culture teaching practice of L2 and FL teachers. Just what are EFL teachers doing in Japan, for example, in terms of the cultural component of their classes? What methods do teachers use, and how successful are they? How do students respond to such lessons? What aspects of their culture teaching do they want to improve? Which areas are most difficult? What resources do teachers need to teach more effectively? Morgan (1993) has examined how culture is evident in course syllabuses, but more also needs to be known about actual classroom practice.

Beyond what is currently being taught is the issue of research on how to best teach culture. As mentioned earlier, numerous techniques have been suggested, but just what methods work best, with whom, and in what contexts? How integrated are these techniques into the L2/FL curriculum? In addition, what assessment techniques are most effective for culture learning and teaching? Do such evaluation methods transfer easily to other classes or language learning contexts?

Once the above issues are investigated, research on content and materials design for cultural syllabuses is the natural next step. What cultural topics or points should be included? Is there a ‘natural order’ in L2/FL culture acquisition? Despite the debate about Hirsch’s (1987) work on ‘cultural literacy’, his interesting lists of ‘what every American needs to know’ and ‘what literate Americans know’ beg the question of whether there are similar lists for our L2 and FL students. Just how helpful would such lists be? What cultural information do students of English in Japan really need to know? What do culturally literate Spanish students in Canada know about Mexico and Spain? How might lists for first language and L2 or FL learners differ? Could the updating of such lists reflect the dynamic nature of culture?

Longitudinal studies will need to be carried out to address the performance aspects of cultural competence. What cultural patterns and behaviours do FL and L2 students need to learn, at what levels? Are acquired L2/FL cultural patterns easily maintained? Are they best learnt in immersion or other L2/FL cultural contexts? A related issue is motivation. Over time, do students learn better if they have a greater interest in or aptitude for culture learning? Do students who have spent a summer or extended periods in the L2 or FL culture obtain significantly greater motivation or cultural competence?

Clearly, a final issue is the continued development of a theoretical framework for culture learning in the future L2 or FL class, particularly based on research in L2/FL education in the areas outlined above. While Stern’s (1983a) model is of major importance and assistance, are there aspects of L2/FL culture and culture learning missing? Is a continuum definition of culture really valid? How does one’s view of culture in L2/FL education impact his or her learning and/or teaching? These issues and questions require future research in order to guide us towards a deeper understanding of culture in L2 and FL education.


This article has centred on culture in L2 and FL teaching and learning in an effort to provide an understanding of culture in L2 and FL education. After providing background on culture in the classroom and the pedagogical literature, it was argued that current L2 and FL teaching is indeed culture teaching. Beyond outlining present L2/FL culture teaching guidelines, issues for future research were summarized. In the end, it is clear that we need not be wary of culture in the L2 and FL context, even though it is also evident that there are still aspects of culture in L2 and FL education that do need further research and understanding.


The author is grateful for and recognizes the insightful comments of Sharon Lapkin, Wendy Lessard-Clouston, and Merrill Swain on an earlier version of this article.


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The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 5, May 1997

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