Language and culture in an EFL classroom

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This is a great topic for discussion because although all of us teachers are busy teaching our students English, we cannot forget that teaching a language is as much a cultural exchange as it is anything else.

Sometimes we may be so immersed in getting the task of English done that we miss important opportunities to connect with our learners on cultural levels, levels that can enhance students’ learning. This short blog post will discuss the benefits of incorporating students’ native language (L1) and culture in the class, and I will give a personal anecdote or two about how doing so helped me in my teaching context.

Before diving into the crux of this post, I would like to differentiate between ESL and EFL, ESL being English that is taught in primarily English-speaking countries, whereas EFL is where English is primarily taught in foreign contexts and as a foreign language. Incorporating L1 language and culture would probably be easier in EFL contexts than in ESL contexts, and this is for one main reason. Students in ESL contexts generally come from many different L1 backgrounds (i.e. Asian, Middle Eastern, South American countries, etc.), while students in EFL contexts will generally be from the same language and culture. Thus, a teacher in an ESL context would need to have more extensive knowledge of all of his/her students’ languages and cultures in order to incorporate them all equitably and meaningfully in class. In EFL contexts, however, teachers are generally teaching students who share one language and one culture. Thus, this post has been written primarily with EFL contexts in mind, though it is possible to be implemented in ESL contexts albeit with slightly more difficulty.

“Languages have strong, inseparable, and complex ties to culture” (Jenkins, 2010) and learning a language essentially opens a window into the culture and customs of a people. Though English teachers all over the world are focused on making sure their students acquire the linguistic skills needed to advance their nations, L1 language and culture also play an important role in the language classroom. In my opinion, incorporating L1 language and culture has two primary benefits; it builds rapport which eases apprehension and breaks down barriers, and it potentially saves precious class time. In my experience, I have found that students really appreciate when their teacher exhibits interest in their customs and cultural practices. For students, it signifies that not only is the teacher concerned with teaching English, but he/she is also considerate of and interested in learning about the host country’s way of life. For example, in Saudi Arabia going out on family outings and frequently visiting family members makes up a major part of the fabric of society. Thus, whenever there is an opportunity to try to connect lesson content with the students’ lives, I do my best to incorporate things that I know are important to them as well as things that they are very familiar with. In a lesson on cultural perspectives on “time”, for example, I might use family gatherings as an example of determining appropriate protocol in relation to time when Saudi families get together. Linking lesson content to students’ lives and culture goes a long way in building rapport as they grow to appreciate you taking an interest in learning about their culture, it breaks down cultural barriers, and it helps students stay motivated to learn.

The other major benefit of incorporating L1 language in the class is that it can become a precious time saver! With abstract concepts like “patience” and “compassion” or with cultural practices in L2 that are foreign/unknown in L1, sometimes explaining can take a tremendous amount of time. I remember once trying to explain the idiom “it’s raining cats and dogs”, which took about 5-7 minutes because 1) it doesn’t rain much here in Saudi Arabia, 2) they couldn’t quite understand the allusion to cats and dogs, and 3) they don’t have a similar Arabic expression. After painstakingly trying, I had one of my students translate it in class, I understood and approved the translation, and we were able to carry on class without using up more valuable class time. In that instance, by knowing the language I felt comfortable allowing the student to translate because I could assess the accuracy of the translation and we could carry on with the lesson.

There is of course a delicate balance in incorporating L1 in that we do not want to over rely on it such that learners fail to want to experiment with L2; that would certainly not be desirable. But for the sake of building rapport and maximizing class time, incorporating L1 language and culture has tremendous value.

Reference: Jenkins, S. (2010). Monolingualism: an uncongenial policy for Saudi Arabia's low-level learners. ELT Journal, 64(4), 459-461.

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