I’m delighted to have the opportunity to meet English language teachers on the Internet through Teaching English.

I am also really excited about learning from you and your experience and adding, I hope, a few useful ideas of my own.

I’ve been working in the cross-cultural area for most of my career in secondary, tertiary and professional education and have specialised in it for the last twenty years. Through my experience in the BBC English Department of the BBC World Service and through the British Council, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work with teachers in their own environment.

We talk a lot about culture but I’m not sure we always think seriously about what we are teaching and why as language teachers we should be teaching it. So this is a great opportunity to exchange ideas about culture and how the subject should be taught. There are a number of issues which I think we could usefully discuss, such as curriculum, materials and methodology. However, I think we should start by asking this question. What do we mean by ‘culture’? Then I think we can ask ‘Why do I want to think that culture might be the fifth language skill?'

Barry Tomalin


hello barry

i've been teaching for a few years now, but i'm not sure about including the cultural element. in my case, i'm british and have never travelled outside of europe, so i wouldn't consider myself an expert on the subject - isn't it difficult to inform others about cultures you've never experienced yourself?

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your question.

I think having international experience gives confidence and maybe detailed knowledge of particular markets but it doesn't invalidate you as a cultural trainer.

One, you have experience of a specific market - UK , presumably, and can deliver induction courses in living in or doing business in Britain.

Two, by virtue of working with foreign students you have picked up a lot of experience of how foreigners think and act and what their needs are, which you can pass on to others.

I'm interested that on the Business Cultural Trainer's Certificate that I run, we have two language teachers who want to understand how to provide a better cultural servic e to their language students. Neither has travelled but both have a lot to offer from their knowledge of how other nationalities think and behave.

So, simply by teaching EFL you can equip yourself with the knowledge you need to begin working with culture but you need training in how to turn those skills into a marketable product.

Does that help? Send me a personal mail at barry.tomain@ihlondon.co.uk if I can be of more help.









I like Francis Fukuyama's definition of culture in his book, "Trust." In his book, he looks at culture in terms of behavior at the national level: " . . . inherited ethical habit." In my own experience, this view of culture is very useful but fails to recognize fully that there are many exceptions and sub-cultures. Another useful definition of culture is the one that defines culture as "the way we do things around here." Useful because it can refer to any type of group: a motorcycle club, an Internet forum, a firm, a charity organization, a nation etc. Anyway, people are complex and simple comparisons can be misleading and fraught with dangers. Thanks for reading and I look forward to checking out your book! 

Hi Gordon,

I like this definition too except that 'ethical' may have different meanings in different cultures The second definition you gave is often described as the 'View and do' definition of culture because it defines two of the key principles of culture study - values and attitudes (View) and behaviours (Do).

On your point about subcultures, you are absolutely right and one distinction I teach is the difference between the four levels of cultural experience -

* National experience

* Regional experience

* Specific cultural environment ( e.g. multinational company or small and medium size enterprise)

* Personal experience

So what is perceived as a national cultural feature should be used as a platform for digging down to the unique experience of each individual. Is that helpful? I can say more on this, if you want.




Nick Dawson

The key point about culture is "what is normal for you?" What is the normal size of a cup of coffee? What is the normal way to make it? What is the normal age for girls and boys to get married? What is the normal way to dress when you go to work? Normality defines your culture. The novelist, John Le Carre, was asked why he continued to live (and pay tax) in Britain. In a delightful and telling phrase he said "because I understand the grammar of life in Britain." The phrase says a lot about culture and a lot about grammar.

Hi Nick,

Nice to hear from you.

I like very much what you say about 'culture is about what is normal for you'. And I love the quote from John Le Carre about the 'grammar of life in England'.

What I think is important in the business environment where I mainly work, is to put the stress less on the 'normal cup of tea' and more on what are the client's expectations of the relationship.

In the UK, to some extent, we can understand our client's expectations and  how to meet them as we are working within the same framework. When we work across borders it is much less certain.

The client's expectations are based on their attitudes and values, what is normal for them. It seems these are much harder to understand and adapt to than the protocol and etiquette considerations often taught in cultural programmes, but ultmatimately much more important.

What do you think?







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