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



Dear Barry ( yes, not Sir or Mr Barry)

I agree with you on your observations of formal English used by Indians. Yes, our education system is responsible for this. In addition to this, however, most Indians still look at English as the language of the rulers! And when you are addressing your 'Sahib' ( master) it's obvious that they feel that they must use formal forms! The Britishers left the country a long time ago, giving us freedom. But our own rulers, who have taken over, at times insist they be respected the same way. I may share with you all an interesting experience of my own in this respect. The head of one educational institution in my own town insists that he be addressed as 'Sir Dr XYZ Sir'. And when people ask him ( of course, not many would dare to) about this title, he says that he got this title from one organisation in India. May be, tomorrow he would manage to get the title 'King' or 'Emperor'. Of course, there aren't many such crazy people in India and we are also changing the way the world is changing. Around 25 or 30 years ago, we used to address our  colleagues with their surnames. Now in corporate world and also in colleges, it is becoming common to use the first names. But the seniors continue to address each other the same way, that is with surnames. 

I may share one more interesting experience of mine in this respect. When I joined the University of Bristol for my M.Phil. in 1995, in the first week for some reason I wanted to meet the head of the School of Education. I asked the porters: ' Could I have an appointment with Professor Dr Patricia Boadfoot, please?' The porters looked at me and I could see from their faces that they had understood nothing. I thought it was because of my Indian accent! When I repeated, one of them said, ' Oh. you mean Tricia?' That was the way she was addressed by one and all at the School and I did not see any kind of disrespect in his words. So I had my first lessons from the porters, who immediately became my close friends!


Thanks Harsh (if I may),

Sorry for not replying immediately. My experience is that formality and respect are intertwined and that informal communicators may be perceived as disrespectful and formal people may be perceived as stiff, self-important and arrogant.

My perception is that formality and informality is simply a matter of cultural style but that it may vary according to:

* nationality

* generation

* social position

France and Germany, for example have quite formal cultures and the UK and Spain have relatively informal cultures, as do Australia, the US and Canada. However, even in formula cultures, the young tend to be less formal and although in Britain you can address almost anyone by their first name from the start, there are still certain social and professional positions where you would be careful.

I had a wonderful example in a bank yesterday where the second in command liked to be addressed by his first name, even by his diminutive (Johnnie - name changed) but for his boss there was no question. It was Mr Governor! Similarly a member of the royal family will be addressed as 'Sir' or 'Ma'am' and an ambassador as 'Sir'. I'm not sure how you address a female ambassador. However, even that can go wrong. One ambassador insistes on being called 'Steve', not 'Stephen' and definitely not 'Sir.'

So I teach students always to ask someone they meet or talk to on the phone or email 'How do you like to be called?' or 'How should I address you'. Or even 'Dear (first name), If I may', although that sounds SOOOO old-fashioned.

Please post any other examples of misused formality/ informality. For example, Hala, why do people in Arabic speaking countries like to use 'Mr' and the 'first name'? Is it a linguistic transfer from Arabic or a cultural way of showing respect?





Your article is quiet interesting because for sometime now I though that teaching the culture of the English language is no longer important as English language is no longer the language of Britain or America it is a lingua franc. I thought that learning English as lingua franca doesn't pertain that we must teach the culture of English language. To teach culture as a separate skill is quiet important and I think  teaching our students to be aware, sensitive and respectful to other cultures will lead to greater world peace. But to teach culture as part of ELT is no longer plausible as English has become an international language, it has become the property of the whole world.

Hala Salih

Thank you Hala,

The debate between English as a culture free and as a culture-ful language is still very much alive. In the BBC we used to argue that English is might be used by A Norwegian, in communication with a  Japanese and an Iranian, none of whom deal with the US or UK. So the country culture is irrelevant.

I now think this was too black and white a view.

First, the US is still the world's leading economy and even when/if China takes over, it will be the world's second largest economy and it is a leading influence in international culture in movies, entertainment and on the Net. It is also the leading influence on management and marketing methods and therefore the English language we use internationally is still strongly influenced by cultural assumptions we need to understand.


Secondly, there are cultural skills of sensitivity, recognition of culturally significant or culturally biased information and empathy that can be taught through language.


Thirdly, there is a need for and interest in information about the English speaking world that is probably best introduced through the study of language.

For these reasons I would suggest that language and culture have a symbiotic relationship and therefore should not be separate subjects. However, I also feel the need to teach cultural skills as a special subset, which is why I propose it as the fifth language skill.

There is lots to discuss. Do come back to me on this.





Hi Astral,

Thank you for your comments. I agree that teachers should keep up to date on cultural changes. That raises for me two questions.

1 Where do I find the information?

2 How do I classify the information I find?

1 One of the best sources of information for me is the BBC website at

Here you can listen to BBC programmes, read articles and read articles from the news.

And it's free.

Depending on who you are teaching there are the resources of cultural information for business etc.

2 Even more important for me is, when you find a piece of useful knowledge, how do you classify it?

When I find a piece of cultural knowledge that interests me I classify it under one of three headings.

HEADING 1 Knowledge

Does it tell me facts about Britain I didn't know or does it update information I already have? For example, I know about the British Education System but do I know about the new academies programme or the new Diplomas, which may eventually replace A Level examinations?

HEADING 2 Values

Does it tell me how the British psyche is changing? For example, does it suggest that the British are much more informal than they used to be or that they have become more demonstrative and emotional? There has been an interesting debate about citizenship. What does that tell us about how the sense of how British identity is changing in response to immigration?

HEADING 3 Behaviour

Does the information tell me about how British daily life is changing? In this area I will look for facts and statistics that demonstrate changing trends.

I collect information partly for my own interest but also for my class. it is very important not to give your class irrelevant information but to think about what  they need to know.

By the way, sorry not to reply earlier. I have only just found your blog!






Well, Barry, you're echoing what I think myself, although I couldn't have put it in such sophisticated language, not being a paid-up language expert.

Just a couple more examples:

a) Having lived in a small German town since my marriage to a German, I was quite unable to decode the message I received in response to an invitation to our Silver Wedding from a British lady, which was "I'll put it in my diary". Did that mean she was coming or even considering coming? Would she be sending us a telegramme or flowers instead? Anyway, I asked all the people I could think of what they thought it meant and the only one who said "She's coming" was not an ex-pat like me, but a NS with close links to the U.K.  But he was right, she turned up!

b) I was teaching my group of German employees of a car parts supplier (at B2 level) Discourse Markers recently and was proud to include some really idiomatic and up-to-date ones like whatever, awesome and so on. However, I was pulled up short when a young IT engineer said to me, "It's all very well your teaching us these expressions. But if I say to my opposite member in Tunisia on the phone "That's toast!" or " Spot on!" he won't understand me." Reluctantly I have had to go back to teaching BSE  - or almost. It's sometimes actually a liability to be a native speaker, or at any rate one who speaks RP and has a large vocabulary...



I love the 'I've put it in my diary' example. I think the issue is not teaching the idioms but teaching students culturally appropriate ways of asking for clarification. I've offered a lesson plan on this in CULTURAL ACTIVITY 12. See what you think.



 Mr. BarryI would like to make the following points;1. I think a native English language teacher must and need to teach culture in the ELT classroom, but does the second language teacher need to do the same with his students?2. In Sudan, a policy of Arabization was widely enforced in higher education institutes early in 1990. English as a medium of instruction was replaced with Arabic. English language teaching was very much harmed by these policies. These policies were mainly a political reaction against the US influence in Sudan. Why was this? because at the time decision makers saw English language as very much related to the culture of the United States. They never saw it as the first language in the 21th century. They never saw the future. So is it logical to relate English to a certain culture?Isn’t it more logical  to see English language as a global language rather than a language of a certain country?3. Now everyone after 18 years realize the great harm that was done in the teaching of English language in Sudan. Who are the victims? Graduates who are unable to get employed or pursuit higher studies because they do not master a very important 21 century skill which is English Language.4. With the signing of the peace treaty between south and north in 2004, English became the first language of south and a second language in the north. Suddenly English became a very important language in Sudan. Decision makers now see English as a global language, a must for any future advancement. 4. I think we one day will have two brands of English language one as a lingua franca and the other an English closely related to a certain culture.5. I saw a video on You Tube called “Shift happens”. The predications say that within the few coming years China will be number one English language speaking country. So are we going to teach Chinese culture?6. Now with the financial crises facing the US and Europe is it logical to say who is the leader of the world now?7. As an English language teacher I do want to see English language suffering due to politics. So it is safer to teach English without culture and to teach culture, tolerance and peace as  separate subjects.

Dear Sala,

Thank you for your comments and also the reference to 'Shift Happens' - very interesting. Sorry, not to respond immediately. Deep in thought!

My point is not that we should teach culture as part of ELT. That is a different debate.

My point is that teaching English as a foreign or second language is a perfect entry point for teaching students the cultural skills they need to work in an international environment -whatever the language.

So ELT becomes the vehicle for what is effectively a CLIL (content and language integrated learning) subject - cultural awareness, which is the skill of appreciating and adapting to others' cultural expectations.

My argument is that there is a syllabus and methodology we can use to teach these skills through English language classes at primary, secondary and tertiary levels and that applies to any culture (including Sudan) not just to Britain.

In this way, teaching cultural skills supports the teaching of English as an international language. This is why I call it the 5th language skill.

So we can teach English as an international language, decoupled from British culture, and still teach cultural awareness and cultural appreciation skills.

Does that make sense?

Thanks for your very interesting and searching points. Anything that forces us to clarify our thinking on the teaching of cultural skills is immensely helpful.

Hi, Barry!

Thanks for your contribution. It is really wonderful to read your articles, and think about them. f

Culture is definitely the fifth language skill. When we learn a language we learn not only to interpret signs and to decode them, we learn  certain patterns of behaviour  as well.

Language conveys culture and language ifs itself subject to culturally conditioned attitudes and ways of behaviours, which cannot be ignored in the classroom. It is important to  relate language to society, because languages are taught and learnt to establish contact and communication across language boundaries.

English is Lingua Franca. We live in the global village and to be a citizen of the world and to be makers of the world, it is vital to learn the language which the inhabitants of the world use. Learning languages let us read the world critically enriching our points of views.

I think that teaching a language should be understood from an intercultural perspective, that is to say, the learner of a language should acquire the target language with all the implications, this means that when  learners learn a foreign or a second language, they have to be able to understand their own culture, conserve their identity,and incorporate the culture that comes with the new language.

Undoubtedly, it is crucial to carry out culturally sensitive teaching practices.We, teachers, have to teach from a  intercultural perspective, respecting culture diversity. We have the opportunity to help our students consolidate their identity and at the same time give them the tools so that they can inhabit the globalised world.





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