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


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 oromero1 on Thu, 04/16/2015 - 16:46


I love this summary and the comment: "It involves understanding how to use language to accept difference" cannot be more right---I am a fairly new ESL teacher and let me tell you--that is one of the hardest things to teach---How can we make the students look at themselves and say: I need to be more willing to accept other people---when in some cultures that is not the norm and /or have built in barriers in order to do so. Thank you Barry--I will definitely use your article to emphasize this unique point of view.

Submitted by Khuraman Safarova on Tue, 02/11/2014 - 15:03


It is a very interesting article for me. Each culture has its own values and people value their own culture. You consider after listening, speaking, reading,writing CULTURE is the next language skill. I think there will be smth. to change the awareness, understanding.You are right Culture should be taught as other subjects. Thank you for this thought much.

Submitted by ibtissem19 on Fri, 05/24/2013 - 11:48


 Good morning,  

   Well I just wanted to thank you a lot for this interesting article,I found it very helpful since it has just came in the right time when I need these information because I have an exam in few days concerning the teaching of culture as a fifth skill in EFL classrooms.

   So I thank you again sir 


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 Gulshan Huseynli on Wed, 05/25/2011 - 15:40


. I am  a language teacher but for 6 month I worked as a laguage and cultural facilitator for Americans. From my experence i can say that it was even diffucult to teach my own culture. Every region has its own pecularities and traditions .Albeit I live in this country I was challenged a lot by questios coming from foreighners. Sometimes I think that may be it is impossible to teach culture you just need to live in that country preferable travel to different regions in order to form a full picture in your mind.

Submitted by Pete35 on Thu, 01/21/2010 - 16:26


Excellent article and feedback. I would just like to comment that based on my own experience, I have found that it is just as important to have as deep a knowledge as possible about the students' own culture as it is to impart cultural knowledge of my own. It is, perhaps, the only way to provoke easier understanding of the various Englishes as well as spark student motivation.

Submitted by Rania Jabr on Tue, 12/16/2008 - 06:10


Can we teach English without teaching culture? Some teachers believe at the beginner level it is hard to do so. But I have tried it, and it works. Teaching culture is part and parcel of acquiring language. The internet is full of examples. We can use pictures, songs, poems, even blogs to introduce the aspect of culture at all levels. Rania

Submitted by nidiacec on Mon, 10/13/2008 - 00:43


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.




Hi Nidia,

I agree with you but see my reply to Hala Salih lower down. I think we can distinguish between cultural skills per se, applicable to any environment and the understanding of cultural references in the English Language to particular beliefs, customs, events and behaviours. In BLOG 14 I'll list what I think are the key cultural skills we need to teach students in relation to a particular language.

Have a look at those and see if they make sense. By the way, are you Italian, and if so are you teaching CIVILTA?


i am krupanandam from india. i am an assitant professor in english. i am browsing net to check infomation if it is possible to teach culture and values through ELT. 


I came across your research work here which i found interesting and truthful. you are doing a great job. keep posting some more works on this same topic. 

krupananadam yepuri

Submitted by halasalih on Sun, 10/12/2008 - 21:14


 Mr. Barry

I 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.

Submitted by Oxford Di on Sun, 10/12/2008 - 09:15


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.



Submitted by Barry Tomalin on Thu, 10/09/2008 - 07:45


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!






Submitted by halasalih on Wed, 10/08/2008 - 20:04


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.





Submitted by Harsh Kadepurkar on Wed, 10/08/2008 - 17:15


I find the discussion quite interesting. Let me share my own experience in this respect.

A long time ago I was studying at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages at Hyderabad in India. We had a British teacher on staff, called Mr Raymond Tongue, an excellent teacher and a wonderful human being.  One morning I was going to the library and happened to confront him. I said ' Good morning ,Sir '. He looked at me , held my hand firmly and asked,' Am I so old?' I said , ' No you are not old'. (In fact he was getting old, but I knew that most people do not like to be considered old.) ' Then why did you call me Sir?' he asked. I did not know what to say. I just said that he was my teacher and by addressing him as Sir I was just showing my respect to him. I also said that in India all male college teachers are addressed as Sir. Mr Tongue , with a smile on his face, told me that in Britain the word Sir is used with reference to a fairly old erudite. He added that salespersons also use it while talking to customers. And it was also a designation, a title given by the King or Queen.

When I asked him how I should address him, he said that I could address him as Mr Tongue.I said I would  remember this and next time when I would meet him I would  greet him with the words: ' Good morning Mr Tongue Sir '. He laughed, patted me on my back and left.

After twenty years I was in Britain, studying at the University of Bristol as a Hornby Scholar. I went to attend IATEFL Conference held at the University of Keele. I happened to meet Mrs Tongue at the Conference. Mr Tongue, in the meanwhile, had died. We met and talked about him. I told her about the incident, how he had taken me to task and how he had asked me to address him as Mr Tongue , and not as Sir. She said, ' That was a long time ago. Had he been alive now, he would have asked  you to address him as Ray.'

From Sir to Mr Tongue and then to Ray!  Look at the change! During my stay in the U.K. I experienced it again and again.

I returned to India in November 1996. And to my amazement, I noticed that in my college, office assistants ( clerks and typists) were insisting that they be addressed as 'Sir' and students had already started addressing them as 'Sir'. From one cultural shock to another!

In short, culture is very much context bound and very difficult and delicate to deal with. But I agree that it needs to be incorporated in our language course.      

Dear Harsh,

I knew Ray Tongue too and also met his wife through IATEFL. How nice to be reminded of what a charming man Ray was.

The formality of Indian communication, which I think is drummed into them by the education system and a bit by the family is a serious issue in British-Indian communication.  When Indians address the British politely as 'Sir' or 'Madam' in conversation and even stand up when spoken to, it causes first amusement and then embarrassment, as the British nowadays, as you know, are very informal in these matters.

This is something I would want to teach my Indian students, as well as the ability to challenge accepted thinking, which Indian students are perfectly capable of doing in India but often think it is not their place to do so when working in an international environment.

My studies of Indian call centre advisers revealed that over 80% had done all their studies in India and had never left the country (a bit like the US- another large country).   My experience tells me that when young Indians do spend time in the UK or US, they adapt remarkably quickly. So it is really a question of exposure.

Do come back to me on this, especially if you disagree or wish to modify my observations about Indian respect and formality.






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?





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.  

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.

It is correct that culture plays an important role in language and sometimes the difference between cultural and linguistic interpretation is hard to define. For example, it is customary to use "I'm afraid..." in English to transmit bad news, more often than in many cultures/languages (?) In Germany where I teach the use of "müssen" does not have the same hint of impatience which the English use of the word "must" tends to imply.

There is no good reason why culture and language should or could be separated. Languages develop after all in a cultural milieu. Esperanto failed in part at least because of its cultural sterility. Now that English has established itself as a the global lingua franca, the problem arises, as one contributor has already pointed out, to what extent does one "teach" the culture of the language, and if one does, then  which culture? Indian? British? English? Irish? American?

Part of the answer is surely that it depends on what the customer actually needs and wants. Someone learning English in order to conduct an export business with China does not need the same sensitivity to the cultural elements of the English language as someone who will be an insurance rep. in communication with English insurance companies.

 Before I start with a group and as a course progresses I try to be sensitive to the extent to which learners need and want to be aware of the cultural element, which is not just a question of culture as such but also of language. A Chinese person will hardly care if a learner said "to whom should we deliver the goods?" instead of the more usual and more modern "who should we deliver the goods to?" but for native speaker ears the choice of "posher" English with the use of whom and initial preposition carries a deal of cultural baggage with it, whether good or bad is another question.

 Then there is the question of formal and informal English which itself has a cultural history and element to it-the French root words (receive(/enter) being more formal and the German root words more colloquial, more intimate  (get/come in). In terms of learning priorities this affects for example how much time and weight a trainer will give to phrasal verbs, which are the colloquial backbone of the language but distinctly Anglo-Saxon-Germanic.

 Enough said by me for now on a very ("really" interesting not "very" if you want to be culturally sensitive to the way young people speak) interesting subject!



Really interesting points, Yorick. Thank you for these.

1 I agree that, particularly for us as language teachers, culture arises out of language.

2 I also agree that to a degree, the demand for culture arises out of perceived needs (i.e. what the teacher and students feel it is necessary to explain.)

3 I don't think we should separate language and culture but I do believe that there is a dimension of cultural communication which exists above and beyond language and which I would describe as the fifth cultural skill. This involves developing the awareness and skills to recognise culturally signification information and explore it with sensitivity and tolerance. This skill set has its own curriculum and its own methodology and assessment, which is over and above linguistic skills but closely allied to them.

4 I like very much the way you unpacked (another culturally significant term) the cultural resonances of 'to whom' vs 'who to' and the use of anglo-saxonisms vs latinisms.

In  practical terms, Indian English as used in call centres often prefers 'To whom' because they believe the British are much more formal than they actually are and its use can really annoy British customers as it is seen as 'posh' and time wasting.

German speakers of English often understand 'Latinisms' much better than 'Anglo-saxon' rooted phrasal verbs but are often too shy or too proud to ask what they mean. A culturally sensitive communicator would be aware of the possible conflict and would gloss the phrasal verb or choose another expression. This might be thought of as a cultural not a primarily linguistic skill.

Does that make sense? 




Thank you very much for those comments; it was interesting to hear about Indian call centres. (I think "Indian English" is the last stronghold of the otherwise archaic "esteemed sirs".)

Not directly relevant but do you have any idea why "Mesdames" fell out of use as the plural form of Dear Madam? I must have been asked a dozen times what the female equivalent of Dear Sirs is and have to say English used to have a term but not any more. That's not really relevant (or are there cultural reasons for the abandonment of Mesdames?) but I just wondered if you knew.

Re. your last comment that generally German speakers understand 'Latinisms' better than Anglo-Saxon root verbs: perhaps surprisingly I do find this to be the case. I would add though, that in my opinion, being actively familiar with scores of phrasal verbs (not just understanding them because of the context but being able to use them) is a key indicator to show that someone is at B2 level and not B1. For some learners it may be a bad ideas to "protect" them from phrasal verbs when they are at B level, since the use of latinisms can die hard and it can become very difficult for a learner who has relied on latinisms for a long time to be able to use  phrasal verbs sufficiently to ensure that they can speak in a personal and informal way. I have had several learners who found it very difficult to speak an informal or personal English and the difficulty  mostly boiled down ("boils down" there's a typical one) to the fact that they were very weak with phrasal verbs. I taught French people for a year, and as one would expect, it was an even bigger problem for them (as speakers of a Latin root language) than for Germans.

Just to conclude, with globalisation the problem of "what kind of English am I/should I be teaching?" has become much more acute. There are no pat solutions  but I think trainers need to be aware of the complexity of the issue and to have an idea of what their students should usefully become aware of in respect of culture and language and how they interlock.

Oh a last point- you wrote, "I do believe that there is a dimension of cultural communication which exists above and beyond language" and argue that it is a skill which needs to be taught. Yes, there certainly is-it would interest me to know what exactly you have in mind there but I am sure you have laid it out already-so don't feel you have to repeat yourself, but I'd be interested to know where you discuss this in more detail. In one sense it is very important for trainers because those of us in for the long haul can do worse than extend our portfolio so to speak and be cultural advisors as well as just language teachers (maybe by calling ourselves consultants and advisors more often we would have  a better chance of improving average remuneration rates, which can't be a bad thing.)



I've been trying to find a way of using this phrase but you have resolutely denied me an excuse to do so, so I have shoved it into the title just to get it out of my head! Apologies.

 Fascinating comments, thank you.

1 No idea why 'Mesdames' fell out of fashion but a fun website where you can find out about these things is, run by Michael Quinion. It's free and it is a mine (minefield!) of strange etymological questions from all over the world, eruditely and humanely dealt with by Michael.

2 Phrasal verbs as a key differentiator between B1 and B2 proficient learners. That is  a really useful observation. I absolutely approve of teaching phrasal verbs. I am wary of using phrasal verbs without glossing them with foreign users in a  professional environment as even B2 /C1 users may have difficulty with them, as with idioms.  I think we must make a distinction between what we teach and what we as native speakers 'toss off' (use with out thinking) without any explanation.

3 Regarding the 'what kind of English debate' I absolutely agree. It is complex and the discussion is not over yet. However, I think there are practical language requirements at each level and the Council of Europe CEFR (CE Framework of Reference) you alluded to is our most useful current guide. I would like to see a future edition make more specific reference to cultural information, currently embedded in the document.

4  I think much of the cultural skills work we talk about is still implicit. The book we are currently preparing with this title will make both the skills themselves and how to teach them in the context of a language programme, much more explicit. Briefly, we are talking about strategies for identifying cultural information, developing critical thinking about cultural assumptions, developing empathy, developing tolerance and flexibility and so on. At one level these are learning skills but directly apply to language, which is itself an interactional skill. Susan Stempleski and I developed a rudimentary typology  of cultural skills in Cultural Awareness, Tomalin andStempleski (OUP 1995). It might be worth having a  look at that.





Dear Barry,

Thank you for raising this fascinating topic. I am tempted to chip in.

I think Yorick's comment  raises an important challenge in teaching culture (including cultural awareness in ELT).

Yes, in teaching English as an international language, i.e a language to be used by and with people of diverse linguistic and social backgrounds( mind you there is so much diversity even within the same national boundary), which culture do we have to teach (or rather expose) the students? Is it practically possible that they learn all cultures? I think, no.

May be we can just create awareness of the existence of diversity by introducing a few of them and then if students are going to travel (or to meet a person/people from another country ) they should make an effort to find out  more. So can we teach some generic skills or strategies of learning other cultures, being sensitive to cultures other than ours.

Another point is that as much as there is diversity, I feel there could be some universality in cultures in some life contexts. For example, there are some similarities of in the way people interact in business, politics or academics (despite the cultural and national diversity of the people interacting). Knowing these similarities would make teaching culture in ELT a lot easier. But the research has yet to establish these universalities for different life/interaction contexts.





Hi Hilary,

Congratulations on your work. I think you have raised two very important issues.

One is that lecturers are often unaware of the cultural assumptions they make in the terms they use in lectures (apart from the jokes and idioms they throw in and which are often not understood). We tend to assume that if you want to study at a British university then you will be fluent not just in English but in the cultural references implicit in the language we use. As our university student body internatonalised, lecturers need to take more account of the needs of non-native speakers in planning their lecturers and delivering tutorials.

The second is that lecturers may be given pastoral care responsibilities for students and as the university internationalised this may involve students from other countries who may need more help to integrate than UK born and bred students. particularly vis a vis access to academic staff.

There needs to be more and better training for tutors involved in pastoral care in this respect.

Dear Mr Cherry,

Thank you for your interesting comments and my apologies for taking a few days to respond.

1 Your discussion of 'Good morning' is an issue of register conveyed through pitch and intonation. You are right to say that this simple greeting can convey much more than just 'Hello'. The cultural skill is helping students to recognise  what it means and when to use it and what it may say if you don't use it.

2 I think any non-native speaker teacher might be at a disadvantage but even native-speaker teachers who are long term residents overseas freely admit they get out of date. Think how many NRI's are out of touch with developments in metropolitan India. The thing is to do your best to read and learn and keep up to date and to develop in students a critical attitude to what they see on TV, in movies and on the Web.

3 I don't think meeting a native-speaker is the issue any more in international communication. The issue is that we are all affected by international news, information and entertainment. If you watch TV you are bombarded by international stuff, even in Hindi. Our job as teachers is to give our students the cultural skills to appreciate what they hear and see and put it in the right perspective, according to the best of our knowledge. This is why I think culture is important even for students who won't meet native speakers.

4  The which 'English' culture question is interesting. I think you can be prescriptive in the curriculum and in textbooks and there are various ways of thinking about incorporating more than one English speaking culture into the course design. I also think that looking at how other people do things is one of the best ways of observing your own.

So yes,

1 Culture should be introduced when it is relevant.

2 There is more to culture than 'BIG C' cultural information and knowledge.

3 There should definitely exist guidelines that help teachers focus on specific areas of cultural information and more importantly, the development of cultural skills.

4 How prescriptive this should be, is a matter for the educational authorities but  a bit more structure in what should be taught and how could be a good thing.

Do come back to me on this. 


Barry Tomalin




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.            

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?






Submitted by giganick on Sat, 10/04/2008 - 05:38


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


Submitted by Astral on Thu, 10/02/2008 - 18:00


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.





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