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



Hi! It is very interesting the article I read from you. It is true that English language has been necessary to communicate in a society that it's been changed in many ways by globalization. It implies to understand different points of view about how we perceive life. We have to adapt and tolerate other behaviour styles. And language is the mean to manage it. I'm an English teacher and I agree about teaching the language in a funny way and everything is ok, but it's our responsibility to update our knowledge as a part of our preparation as teachers. We need to be informed about what is going on in the world. To know as much as possible about other behaviours and traditions so we can teach students to receive and give the infirmation just as they want. If we manage to do that, we and they will be able to use English language in an objective way, with no misunderstandings. We could communicate without disrespecting in any way people from other cultures.

Thanks a lot !!

I am a Language trainer. I have always found this forum very useful. I am very interested in this topic mainly because I am expected to train participants on Cultural Sensitivity. Born and raised in india and never having stepped out of my country, I find it very difficult to authenticate what I say at times. I understand the need for cultural sensitization. Is it just etiquette for the globe?

Ms Daniel,

I really respect your appreciation of the difficulty of the task expected of you. In Japan, many, many teachers voice the same opinion. Unfortunately, it is the ones without sensitivity to their own limitations, that seem to be having the most influence on the knowledge (or falsities) being taught.

There is also the sad case of people believing what they want to believe, or believing what requires little effort to use. There is no need to authenticate what an audience wants to believe.

I have a hard time authenticating my instruction, even though I was raised in the UK. I have to admit, I have reduced complicated cultural systems to easily memorable one-liners. Usually, this is to counter-balance other people's simplifications. It's like a game of contradictory sayings: should it be "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" or "be wary of Greeks baring gifts" ; should you "look before you leap" or "strike while the iron's hot" ? There's a degree of truth behind everything, but we have to be very careful to discourage the learner from making false conclusions on what are basically very unreliable precepts. We can explain why a certain behaviour occurs, but we should not deduce from the explanation that other behaviour will occur. Life is far too contradictory for that.

I doubt this is a very helpful reply, but I hope it is sympathetic,

best regards,


high school teacher, Japan

Hi Angela,

Sorry not to reply sooner. i didn't see your blog.

I think the cultural sensitisation works in two ways. language and cultural empathy. I have worked with call centres and am aware that because most Indian advisers have not had the opportunity tp travel internationally (India is  big country, after all) they are not always aware of the difference between the variety of English used in the Indian subcontinent and the varieties of English used in the UK and US.

I think it's really important to help Indian students understand the differences in vocabulary, grammar and especially word stress.

the key thing that i have noticed in dealing with call centre advisers in India and with young Indians coming to Britain is their belief that the British are formal (when in fact we aren't) and their respect for authority. This means that, out of politeness, they tend not to point out where things are wrong or can be improved (although they are perfectly aware of it.) This causes frustration in British colleagues who are expecting exactly that kind of dialogue and complain that they don't get it.

If you can sensitise your students to issues like these they will find it much easier to communicate on the international stage when the time comes.





Context based, meaningful, language learning is likely to contain a lot of cultural instruction. From novels to nature discussions, cultural items will continuously come through. I worry purposeful cultural instruction could be a new breed of grammar based translation, over focusing in L2 on skills which in L1 are not purposefully studied.

Of course, my perspective is that of a British teacher teaching Japanese 15 to 18 year olds English in Japan, and the big question for me would be which culture to teach? International cultural awareness is taught by parents, media (analytical and entertainment, from Japanese and foreign sources), teachers of any subject, and just about anyone with a voice. By age 15, the students have been buried in parochial, distorted, unreliable and out dated cultural knowledge and their language skills are certainly inadequate to study the misunderstandings through English. I teach "culture" as it comes up, and I am very careful to point out this is my perspective; that I have never been to America; that within Britain, there is great variety; and that I advise them not to have expectations, but to develop flexibility and perception, instead*.

Indeed, the school had me lecture the 200 students who are about to go to Australia, to prepare them. First, the lecture was in their L1. Secondly, rather than telling them what to expect, I tried to dispel their false beliefs and prepare them to be flexible and open minded. Well, having never been to the area they are visiting, I couldn't really tell them that much about the cultural norms there.

Extra-curricular, if I have time, I produce and print cultural worksheets for distribution to the whole school, usually in a mix of Japanese and English. In lessons, occasionally I'll do a halloween or christmas special, but usually I restrict cultural exposition and discussion to what arises and I deem necessary for the students knowledge, and their motivation.

Basically, I believe cultural teaching should be restricted to what naturally arises in the lesson - an inductive approach.

However, my attitude has been coloured by the results of unconsidered or overly-deductive cultural teaching. I am very interested in Mr Tomalin's investigation and cannot wait to hear advice on teaching "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."

Thank you very much for introducing this topic.


*The four skills are part of a two by two matrix, oral production, oral interpretation, written production, and written interpretation. Surely Culture would have to be two skills: Cultural production (flexibility) and Cultural interpretation (perception)? (And hopefully not four: Written cultural production, Oral cultural interpretation, etc??)



high school teacher, Japan

Excuse me for not responding sooner to your very perceptive observations, most of which I agree with. Let me take your points, as I understand them, one by one.

1 Culture exists in all instruction materials and yes, it is possible that foreign language instruction may introduce in L2 concepts and behavioural guidelines that are not taught in L1. In a sense, teaching a foreign language can be seen as teaching internationalism as well and I think introducing the importance of sensitivity to and acceptance of cultural differences really matters. I also understand that this may itself be a sensitive subject in Japanese schools. 

2 Which culture to teach?  In the school system, where the textbooks are, as I remember, US English oriented, presumably the first foreign culture is the US rather than the UK or Australia or India. Therefore I assume you are making your students aware first of their own culture, secondly of US culture and thirdly building in the ability to discriminate between culturally significant and culturally peripheral information. I imagine also that you are teaching your students to take a more investigative attitude to the stuff they may be fed through the media and on the Net. Learning as a teenager which sites can be relied on and which are for entertainment only is a valuable skill.

3 Your Australian experience was interesting. I've been in a similar situation in other countries and I agree with you that you are basically telling people to be open and receptive but I also believe you can take some of the Japanese social expectations and show how Australian behaviour might be different - e.g. egalitarianism and informality, as well as the outdoors culture.

4 I think worksheets are vital in Japan. My experience with Japanese executives in the UK is that they rely on the spoken word to assess the quality and character of their interlocutor and on the written word for information. In training UK execs dealing with their Japanese counterparts, I emphasise the importance of having written backup.

5 I agree with you. Cultural learning is inductive. It arises from and around the language but contains additional skills that may be introduced as supplementary to the main language instruction. So the fifth language skill is 'language plus' rather than a completely separate topic.

6 I think we agree on this, and I liked your distinction between cultural perception and production. I would argue that because English is a lingua franca, we need to help our students develop skills of tolerance, flexibility, empathy and curiosity, as well as the ability to identify cuturally significant signals or information and respond appropriately. In this way the international mindset will grow without sacrificing the equally important  valuing one's own national identity.

I lok forward to continuing the discussion.


Barry Tomalin


Under normal circumstances I agree that when you learn a language you should also learn the culture.  There is a direct correlation between these 2.  However in the case of the English language I am not sure.  Firstly the English language is an anglo-saxon language.  Secondly it is spoken as the native language in many countries.  Whose culture are you going to learn?  Who is going to claim ownership.  

The Canadians, Americans, Australians, Scottish, Irish and the English claim ownership of the English language. 

To me the English language is a global language.  It is recognized as the language of progress, development, science & technology, and being infomed of what is happening in the world.            

Hi Ajit,

Thank you for your comments and apologies for taking a few days to reply. I'm not quite sure why you suggest that because English is an Anglo-Saxon language it throws into question the relationship between language and culture. 

However, I agree  that English has  two roles. First, it is the language of a number of English speaking countries using English either as their national language of communication or as a lingua franca. Secondly, it has the role of international lingua franca in trade, academic communication and diplomacy. 

I think that the more formal culture you teach will be set out in the state curriculum and in the approved textbooks.

However, I think more important cultural skills might be to use language texts to help students identify and respond to culturally significant information, to teach tolerance, curiosity and empathy and to help students think about being part of an international environment. I think this is happening to us all whether we like it or not through exposure to media.

I think it is probably fair to say that the two English speaking cultures that English language teaching focuses on are US and British culture. One of the common misconceptions among indian students is that the US is informal and the UK is formal. In fact, as I am sure you know, this is no longer the case.  In some respects the British are more informal than Americans and formality and informality is a big issue in UK/US - Indian communication. This is one thing I would want my students to learn as part of their ELT instruction as well as the skill of how to achieve the right degree of informality. 

Would you agree with this?






The issue of "culture awareness raising" is a very interesting one. I was made to think about the issues involved in this case. A "good morning" mean nothing much to a foreign user of the language other than that it's a form of greeting. But the moment s/he understands that there is lot more to it like the vagaries of the European weather and an English person's sense of relief in finding a sunny morning can bring in a new level of meaning to the language. Suddenly the greeting becomes personal. A teacher who can bring out these fine details of the language does a big service to the students.

But the question is, "How many teachers are aware of these details?". In India there existed a time where people learned English directly from a native speaker. The standard of English learning, many old-block learners recollect, was quite different at that time. But now that luxury is limited to some international schools. Rest of the learners are at the mercy of the local teachers who may or may not know about the culture of the target language. This points at the need to train teachers first. 

Moreover there is this question of owning English. It's no more "the English"; but Englishes. Users of English across the spectrum have adopted and adapted it in more than many ways. I agree that wherever there are points of intersection the language and its culture need to go hand in hand. But think about the possibility of a learner remaining in his/her country without an opportunity of meeting native speakers. I'm not so sure how relevant will the issue of teaching culture for such type of learners. 

All languages do have their cultural roots. The range of words for snow in an Eskimo's language can be many. An Eskimo can make out the different types of snow and can use a separate word for each. But for a learner from the rest of the world "snow means snow". That's all.

Thus, my points are:

  1. Teachers ought to be prepared in order to talk or bring in culture wherever it's relevant.
  2. Also, such teachers should decide whether their learners require cultural input or not and if required to what extent and how to impart such knowledge.

Prescriptive methods won't work here.  

This is a very interesting debate, and particularly interesting to me as a (very) mature, third year English undergraduate completing a final year project about second language acquisition.  My focus is international post-graduate students, studying for masters degrees, particularly in Business, at an English university, and the difficulties they face in moving from learning English to learning in English.In the course of my research I have noted that cultural issues add an extra dimension to the challenge that some international students face when studying in English.  For example, I have observed Business lectures where students have to discuss, present and are tasked to write about such things as 'family-friendly policies, 'empowerment' and 'work-life balance' - not just vocabulary items but also heavily culturally-laden terms that take some unpacking! In my opinion, therefore, especially for those students intending to study at English speaking universities, culture must be taught as the fifth language skill.  Outisde the lecture room too, cultural awareness should improve integration into university life.


Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments