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

A teacher sitting in front of a class with a globe

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


Submitted by Daliamirela28 on Wed, 06/20/2018 - 18:19

I utterly agree with this article. Leaning the language is far beyond learning the structure, the vocabulary, it is actually to learn the ways of thinking, the costumes, the slang, the expressions, etc. But the question is how? For example, I am teaching kindergarten right now and how come I am going to introduce my students the culture if I have to make some examples according to our reality? In this case is Peru and furthermore, I am in a public school and many parents don't know even the English spoken countries. So that is challenge for me, but I tried to introduce the holidays and special days but It is a bit difficult. On the other hand, I also teach in an institute with adults, and yes, I use with them more vocabulary, we talk about the culture, maybe some readings related to ir and they are willing to learn and also, to travel there. In a nutshell, I would say that CULTURE is relevant but it depends on the level and how you teach them and also, as teachers, we should know about it because some students want to know more.

Submitted by Butterfly Princess on Sun, 11/04/2012 - 22:58

It is really important to have this culture awareness after all learning language is not only learning grammar, phonetics, the lexical, it is learning the culture of the countries too and also to become a whole different person as a consequence as we also absorb this culture.

Submitted by cherrymp on Mon, 10/06/2008 - 13:38

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.  

Submitted by Ajit Singh Nagpal on Mon, 10/06/2008 - 13:32

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.            

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight