This is the first in a series of articles by our third Guest Contributor Barry Tomalin.

Culture - the fifth language skill - culture article - guest writers

What do we mean by 'culture'?
Many teachers quote the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede’s maxim ‘Software of the Mind’, the subtitle of his 2005 book ‘Cultures and Organisations’. What culture covers is the commonly held traditions, values and ways of behaving of a particular community. It includes what we used to call ‘British and American life and institutions’, ‘daily life’ and also cultural artefacts, such as the arts or sports. This is all interesting and sometimes useful knowledge and it is often included in textbooks.

However, there is also another level of understanding, of culture. This is how you develop cultural sensitivity and cultural skill. This covers how you build cultural awareness, what qualities you need to deal successfully with other cultures, and how to operate successfully with people from other cultures. This is often considered to be a business skill for adults, such as international sales managers or explorers. But if you think about it there is a set of skills also needed by refugee kids, ‘third culture kids’ following their parents as they are posted around the world, and students going abroad on gap years before university or overseas study grants. Therefore we could argue that the teaching of culture in ELT should include these things:

  • Cultural knowledge
    The knowledge of the culture’s institutions, the Big C, as it’s described by Tomalin and Stempleski in their 1995 book ‘Cultural Awareness’.
  • Cultural values
    The ‘psyche’ of the country, what people think is important, it includes things like family, hospitality, patriotism, fairness etc.
  • Cultural behaviour
    The knowledge of daily routines and behaviour, the little c, as Tomalin and Stempleski describe it.
  • Cultural skills
    The development of intercultural sensitivity and awareness, using the English language as the medium of interaction.

Culture – the fifth language skill

Why should we consider the teaching of a cultural skills set as part of language teaching and why should we consider it a fifth language skill, in addition to listening, speaking, reading and writing? I think there are two reasons. One is the international role of the English language and the other is globalisation.

Many now argue that the role of the English language in the curriculum is a life skill and should be taught as a core curriculum subject like maths, and the mother tongue. The reason for this is globalisation and the fact that to operate internationally people will need to be able to use a lingua franca. For the next twenty to thirty years at least, that language is likely to be English. That means that English will be a core communicative skill and will need to be taught early in the school curriculum. Many countries now introduce English at eight years old and many parents introduce their children to English at an even younger age, using ‘early advantage’ programmes.

The second argument is globalisation itself. You could say, ‘We are all internationalists now’. We are or will be dealing with foreigners in our community, going abroad more, dealing at a distance with foreigners through outsourcing or email, phone and video-conferencing. And this isn’t just for adults. Kids are interchanging experience and information through travel, keypal schemes and networks like Facebook. This is the time to develop the intercultural skills that will serve them in adult life.

Up until recently, I assumed that if you learned the language, you learned the culture but actually it isn’t true. You can learn a lot of cultural features but it doesn’t teach you sensitivity and awareness or even how to behave in certain situations. What the fifth language skill teaches you is the mindset and techniques to adapt your use of English to learn about, understand and appreciate the values, ways of doing things and unique qualities of other cultures. It involves understanding how to use language to accept difference, to be flexible and tolerant of ways of doing things which might be different to yours.  It is an attitudinal change that is expressed through the use of language.

These are some of the big picture issues I would be delighted to exchange ideas on with you. In the next article we can look in more detail at some of the ‘nitty gritty’ operational issues that teachers and materials developers have to deal with in their daily lives.

I look forward to meeting you on the Net.

Next article > Making culture happen in the English classroom



It is correct that culture plays an important role in language and sometimes the difference between cultural and linguistic interpretation is hard to define. For example, it is customary to use "I'm afraid..." in English to transmit bad news, more often than in many cultures/languages (?) In Germany where I teach the use of "müssen" does not have the same hint of impatience which the English use of the word "must" tends to imply.

There is no good reason why culture and language should or could be separated. Languages develop after all in a cultural milieu. Esperanto failed in part at least because of its cultural sterility. Now that English has established itself as a the global lingua franca, the problem arises, as one contributor has already pointed out, to what extent does one "teach" the culture of the language, and if one does, then  which culture? Indian? British? English? Irish? American?

Part of the answer is surely that it depends on what the customer actually needs and wants. Someone learning English in order to conduct an export business with China does not need the same sensitivity to the cultural elements of the English language as someone who will be an insurance rep. in communication with English insurance companies.

 Before I start with a group and as a course progresses I try to be sensitive to the extent to which learners need and want to be aware of the cultural element, which is not just a question of culture as such but also of language. A Chinese person will hardly care if a learner said "to whom should we deliver the goods?" instead of the more usual and more modern "who should we deliver the goods to?" but for native speaker ears the choice of "posher" English with the use of whom and initial preposition carries a deal of cultural baggage with it, whether good or bad is another question.

 Then there is the question of formal and informal English which itself has a cultural history and element to it-the French root words (receive(/enter) being more formal and the German root words more colloquial, more intimate  (get/come in). In terms of learning priorities this affects for example how much time and weight a trainer will give to phrasal verbs, which are the colloquial backbone of the language but distinctly Anglo-Saxon-Germanic.

 Enough said by me for now on a very ("really" interesting not "very" if you want to be culturally sensitive to the way young people speak) interesting subject!



Really interesting points, Yorick. Thank you for these.

1 I agree that, particularly for us as language teachers, culture arises out of language.

2 I also agree that to a degree, the demand for culture arises out of perceived needs (i.e. what the teacher and students feel it is necessary to explain.)

3 I don't think we should separate language and culture but I do believe that there is a dimension of cultural communication which exists above and beyond language and which I would describe as the fifth cultural skill. This involves developing the awareness and skills to recognise culturally signification information and explore it with sensitivity and tolerance. This skill set has its own curriculum and its own methodology and assessment, which is over and above linguistic skills but closely allied to them.

4 I like very much the way you unpacked (another culturally significant term) the cultural resonances of 'to whom' vs 'who to' and the use of anglo-saxonisms vs latinisms.

In  practical terms, Indian English as used in call centres often prefers 'To whom' because they believe the British are much more formal than they actually are and its use can really annoy British customers as it is seen as 'posh' and time wasting.

German speakers of English often understand 'Latinisms' much better than 'Anglo-saxon' rooted phrasal verbs but are often too shy or too proud to ask what they mean. A culturally sensitive communicator would be aware of the possible conflict and would gloss the phrasal verb or choose another expression. This might be thought of as a cultural not a primarily linguistic skill.

Does that make sense? 




Thank you very much for those comments; it was interesting to hear about Indian call centres. (I think "Indian English" is the last stronghold of the otherwise archaic "esteemed sirs".)

Not directly relevant but do you have any idea why "Mesdames" fell out of use as the plural form of Dear Madam? I must have been asked a dozen times what the female equivalent of Dear Sirs is and have to say English used to have a term but not any more. That's not really relevant (or are there cultural reasons for the abandonment of Mesdames?) but I just wondered if you knew.

Re. your last comment that generally German speakers understand 'Latinisms' better than Anglo-Saxon root verbs: perhaps surprisingly I do find this to be the case. I would add though, that in my opinion, being actively familiar with scores of phrasal verbs (not just understanding them because of the context but being able to use them) is a key indicator to show that someone is at B2 level and not B1. For some learners it may be a bad ideas to "protect" them from phrasal verbs when they are at B level, since the use of latinisms can die hard and it can become very difficult for a learner who has relied on latinisms for a long time to be able to use  phrasal verbs sufficiently to ensure that they can speak in a personal and informal way. I have had several learners who found it very difficult to speak an informal or personal English and the difficulty  mostly boiled down ("boils down" there's a typical one) to the fact that they were very weak with phrasal verbs. I taught French people for a year, and as one would expect, it was an even bigger problem for them (as speakers of a Latin root language) than for Germans.

Just to conclude, with globalisation the problem of "what kind of English am I/should I be teaching?" has become much more acute. There are no pat solutions  but I think trainers need to be aware of the complexity of the issue and to have an idea of what their students should usefully become aware of in respect of culture and language and how they interlock.

Oh a last point- you wrote, "I do believe that there is a dimension of cultural communication which exists above and beyond language" and argue that it is a skill which needs to be taught. Yes, there certainly is-it would interest me to know what exactly you have in mind there but I am sure you have laid it out already-so don't feel you have to repeat yourself, but I'd be interested to know where you discuss this in more detail. In one sense it is very important for trainers because those of us in for the long haul can do worse than extend our portfolio so to speak and be cultural advisors as well as just language teachers (maybe by calling ourselves consultants and advisors more often we would have  a better chance of improving average remuneration rates, which can't be a bad thing.)



I've been trying to find a way of using this phrase but you have resolutely denied me an excuse to do so, so I have shoved it into the title just to get it out of my head! Apologies.

 Fascinating comments, thank you.

1 No idea why 'Mesdames' fell out of fashion but a fun website where you can find out about these things is, run by Michael Quinion. It's free and it is a mine (minefield!) of strange etymological questions from all over the world, eruditely and humanely dealt with by Michael.

2 Phrasal verbs as a key differentiator between B1 and B2 proficient learners. That is  a really useful observation. I absolutely approve of teaching phrasal verbs. I am wary of using phrasal verbs without glossing them with foreign users in a  professional environment as even B2 /C1 users may have difficulty with them, as with idioms.  I think we must make a distinction between what we teach and what we as native speakers 'toss off' (use with out thinking) without any explanation.

3 Regarding the 'what kind of English debate' I absolutely agree. It is complex and the discussion is not over yet. However, I think there are practical language requirements at each level and the Council of Europe CEFR (CE Framework of Reference) you alluded to is our most useful current guide. I would like to see a future edition make more specific reference to cultural information, currently embedded in the document.

4  I think much of the cultural skills work we talk about is still implicit. The book we are currently preparing with this title will make both the skills themselves and how to teach them in the context of a language programme, much more explicit. Briefly, we are talking about strategies for identifying cultural information, developing critical thinking about cultural assumptions, developing empathy, developing tolerance and flexibility and so on. At one level these are learning skills but directly apply to language, which is itself an interactional skill. Susan Stempleski and I developed a rudimentary typology  of cultural skills in Cultural Awareness, Tomalin andStempleski (OUP 1995). It might be worth having a  look at that.





Dear Barry,Thank you for raising this fascinating topic. I am tempted to chip in.I think Yorick's comment  raises an important challenge in teaching culture (including cultural awareness in ELT).Yes, in teaching English as an international language, i.e a language to be used by and with people of diverse linguistic and social backgrounds( mind you there is so much diversity even within the same national boundary), which culture do we have to teach (or rather expose) the students? Is it practically possible that they learn all cultures? I think, no.May be we can just create awareness of the existence of diversity by introducing a few of them and then if students are going to travel (or to meet a person/people from another country ) they should make an effort to find out  more. So can we teach some generic skills or strategies of learning other cultures, being sensitive to cultures other than ours.Another point is that as much as there is diversity, I feel there could be some universality in cultures in some life contexts. For example, there are some similarities of in the way people interact in business, politics or academics (despite the cultural and national diversity of the people interacting). Knowing these similarities would make teaching culture in ELT a lot easier. But the research has yet to establish these universalities for different life/interaction contexts.Nigussie   

Hi Hilary,

Congratulations on your work. I think you have raised two very important issues.

One is that lecturers are often unaware of the cultural assumptions they make in the terms they use in lectures (apart from the jokes and idioms they throw in and which are often not understood). We tend to assume that if you want to study at a British university then you will be fluent not just in English but in the cultural references implicit in the language we use. As our university student body internatonalised, lecturers need to take more account of the needs of non-native speakers in planning their lecturers and delivering tutorials.

The second is that lecturers may be given pastoral care responsibilities for students and as the university internationalised this may involve students from other countries who may need more help to integrate than UK born and bred students. particularly vis a vis access to academic staff.

There needs to be more and better training for tutors involved in pastoral care in this respect.

Dear Mr Cherry,

Thank you for your interesting comments and my apologies for taking a few days to respond.

1 Your discussion of 'Good morning' is an issue of register conveyed through pitch and intonation. You are right to say that this simple greeting can convey much more than just 'Hello'. The cultural skill is helping students to recognise  what it means and when to use it and what it may say if you don't use it.

2 I think any non-native speaker teacher might be at a disadvantage but even native-speaker teachers who are long term residents overseas freely admit they get out of date. Think how many NRI's are out of touch with developments in metropolitan India. The thing is to do your best to read and learn and keep up to date and to develop in students a critical attitude to what they see on TV, in movies and on the Web.

3 I don't think meeting a native-speaker is the issue any more in international communication. The issue is that we are all affected by international news, information and entertainment. If you watch TV you are bombarded by international stuff, even in Hindi. Our job as teachers is to give our students the cultural skills to appreciate what they hear and see and put it in the right perspective, according to the best of our knowledge. This is why I think culture is important even for students who won't meet native speakers.

4  The which 'English' culture question is interesting. I think you can be prescriptive in the curriculum and in textbooks and there are various ways of thinking about incorporating more than one English speaking culture into the course design. I also think that looking at how other people do things is one of the best ways of observing your own.

So yes,

1 Culture should be introduced when it is relevant.

2 There is more to culture than 'BIG C' cultural information and knowledge.

3 There should definitely exist guidelines that help teachers focus on specific areas of cultural information and more importantly, the development of cultural skills.

4 How prescriptive this should be, is a matter for the educational authorities but  a bit more structure in what should be taught and how could be a good thing.

Do come back to me on this. 


Barry Tomalin




I find the discussion quite interesting. Let me share my own experience in this respect.

A long time ago I was studying at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages at Hyderabad in India. We had a British teacher on staff, called Mr Raymond Tongue, an excellent teacher and a wonderful human being.  One morning I was going to the library and happened to confront him. I said ' Good morning ,Sir '. He looked at me , held my hand firmly and asked,' Am I so old?' I said , ' No you are not old'. (In fact he was getting old, but I knew that most people do not like to be considered old.) ' Then why did you call me Sir?' he asked. I did not know what to say. I just said that he was my teacher and by addressing him as Sir I was just showing my respect to him. I also said that in India all male college teachers are addressed as Sir. Mr Tongue , with a smile on his face, told me that in Britain the word Sir is used with reference to a fairly old erudite. He added that salespersons also use it while talking to customers. And it was also a designation, a title given by the King or Queen.

When I asked him how I should address him, he said that I could address him as Mr Tongue.I said I would  remember this and next time when I would meet him I would  greet him with the words: ' Good morning Mr Tongue Sir '. He laughed, patted me on my back and left.

After twenty years I was in Britain, studying at the University of Bristol as a Hornby Scholar. I went to attend IATEFL Conference held at the University of Keele. I happened to meet Mrs Tongue at the Conference. Mr Tongue, in the meanwhile, had died. We met and talked about him. I told her about the incident, how he had taken me to task and how he had asked me to address him as Mr Tongue , and not as Sir. She said, ' That was a long time ago. Had he been alive now, he would have asked  you to address him as Ray.'

From Sir to Mr Tongue and then to Ray!  Look at the change! During my stay in the U.K. I experienced it again and again.

I returned to India in November 1996. And to my amazement, I noticed that in my college, office assistants ( clerks and typists) were insisting that they be addressed as 'Sir' and students had already started addressing them as 'Sir'. From one cultural shock to another!

In short, culture is very much context bound and very difficult and delicate to deal with. But I agree that it needs to be incorporated in our language course.      

Dear Harsh,

I knew Ray Tongue too and also met his wife through IATEFL. How nice to be reminded of what a charming man Ray was.

The formality of Indian communication, which I think is drummed into them by the education system and a bit by the family is a serious issue in British-Indian communication.  When Indians address the British politely as 'Sir' or 'Madam' in conversation and even stand up when spoken to, it causes first amusement and then embarrassment, as the British nowadays, as you know, are very informal in these matters.

This is something I would want to teach my Indian students, as well as the ability to challenge accepted thinking, which Indian students are perfectly capable of doing in India but often think it is not their place to do so when working in an international environment.

My studies of Indian call centre advisers revealed that over 80% had done all their studies in India and had never left the country (a bit like the US- another large country).   My experience tells me that when young Indians do spend time in the UK or US, they adapt remarkably quickly. So it is really a question of exposure.

Do come back to me on this, especially if you disagree or wish to modify my observations about Indian respect and formality.







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