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Teaching culture as an integrative part of EFL

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Kalemegdan Park and Statue of Victory (in Belgrade) at dusk, photo taken by Ljiljana Havran

If we want to provide our students with genuine skills for effective use of English, culture must be incorporated as a vital component of language learning. Teaching culture should be integrated into the second language curriculum in ways that engage learners actively in the acquisition of language and culture.


What do we understand by the word ‘culture’?


  • reflects the values of a society
  • frames our attitudes and experiences
  • provides us with patterns of behavior, thinking, feeling, and interacting
  • influences our expectations of what is appropriate or inappropriate
  • affects every aspect of daily life

Cultural misunderstandings arise mostly out of culturally-shaped perceptions and interpretations of each other’s cultural norms, values, and beliefs.

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, has defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from another”. The “category” can refer to nations, regions within or across nations, ethnicities, religions, occupations, organizations, or the genders.

The importance of teaching culture to the EFL students

Linguists have long recognized that the forms and uses of a language reflect the cultural values of the society in which the language is spoken. Cross-cultural pragmatics, intercultural communication, and intercultural learning are some of the areas of applied linguistics that study the link between language and culture.

Studying culture gives students a motivation to study the target language. It also plays a useful role in general education; studying culture, students could also learn about the geography, history, etc. of the target culture. Furthermore, it aids the growth of tolerance for differences, because communication with and about people from different backgrounds enables students to learn more about their lifestyle, their values, and customs, which in turn increases understanding and empathy, and eliminates ethnic stereotypes.

Linguistic competence alone is not enough for learners of a language to be competent in that language (Krasner, 1999). Language learners have to understand that, in order for communication to be successful, language use must be associated with other culturally appropriate behavior. They should also know that behaviours and intonation patterns that are appropriate in their own speech community may be perceived differently by members of the target language speech community. Language learners need to be aware, for example, of the culturally appropriate ways to address people, express gratitude, make requests, give or receive compliments, agree or disagree with someone, etc.

EFL teachers should identify key cultural items in every aspect of the language that they teach. Cultural information should be presented in a way that does not place value or judgement on distinctions between the students’ native culture and the culture explored in the classroom. Kramsch (1993) describes the “third culture” of the language classroom – a neutral space that learners can create and use to explore and reflect on their own and the target culture and language.

Learning to be intercultural involves much more than just knowing about another culture: it involves learning to understand how one’s own culture shapes perceptions of oneself, of the world, and of our relationship with others. Intercultural communicative competence is an attempt to raise students’ awareness of their own culture, and in so doing, help them to interpret and understand other cultures. Raising intercultural awareness implies the development of skills for successful communication, i.e. competent and peaceful interaction with people who are different from us.

Ways to develop intercultural competence 

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A cafe in the centre of Belgrade, photo taken by Ljiljana Havran

Students are eager to explore the world around them and there are numerous topics and activities related to various cultures that EFL teachers can use in their lessons.

You can:

  • Make your students think about a funny experience they once had related to cultural issues or misunderstandings. You can encourage them to share their funny stories and experiences (for example, by sharing your own experience first). Then they can discuss a few similarities and a few differences between the two cultures.
  • Use photos in class exploring new topics about various cultures and lifestyles and answering questions together. A photo can also expose students to unusual places/customs/food etc. that they might not be familiar with, promoting discussion and engaging students’ interest. It also gives the teacher a chance to learn something new and it enables a lesson to take the form of collaborative discovery.
  • Get your students to make quizzes about their own culture and the culture of the target language – several rounds of general knowledge questions to be answered in teams.
  • Teach students about the different foods, art and songs that have value in different cultures by incorporating important elements of cultural celebrations into an English language classroom. Films and music are often vital and engaging depictions of contemporary culture, as well.
  • Read articles or extracts from books, newspapers, magazines or websites written by people who have visited the students’ town, country or region. For example, there is a good source of articles from the travel sections of newspapers such as The Guardian or The Independent, the guidebooks on the Net such as Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, or extracts from books by travel writers, such as Colin Thubron, Bill Bryson, Jan Morris, etc.
  • Get students to recount their experiences if they have visited the target culture. If there is no such source available, students can do a valuable creative writing activity – imagining a journey into the target culture, predicting the problems and misunderstandings they may encounter and creatively resolving them.
  • Produce a guidebook, poster or webpage for visitors to their town, country or region. This should not only describe famous sites and places to visit, stay or eat, but also give visitors advice about what they may find strange or unusual about their own culture.
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American Culture through Serbian Eyes by my student Maja Gašparović, who created this lovely brochure about her eight month stay in Colorado, USA, in April 27, 2007

For further reading: Culture in Second Language Teaching, Elizabeth Peterson and Bronwyn Coltrane, Center for Applied Linguistics 


About ljiljana havran

English language teacher (General & Aviation English), passionate about learning and teaching. Curious, adventurous, a lifelong learner. Love: good books, music, lots of dance.

11 responses »

  1. Thank you for the post! The part about using the Lonely Planet guide was a good reminder to me – I have never thought about doing so! Also, this brought an older idea into my memory: editing/reading critically the articles on Wikipedia about the places in the students’ native cities, towns, etc. I guess seeing your own culture through the visitors’ eyes is a useful exercise (not necessarily in a language class, I would say 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your lovely comment, Zhenya! 🙂
      I liked the idea you described and I agree that “seeing your own culture through the visitors’ eyes is a useful exercise”. There is also an enjoyable activity I often did with my students: get your students to give some useful tips to foreign tourists who come to your country/city (in order to avoid a miscommunication that is based on cultural differences: e.g. using inappropriate greeting, regarding the physical distance between speakers, gestures, eye contact, etc.). The students can also role play some situations that could arise as a result of cultural misunderstandings.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s nice to read news from different sources, too, like Japanese news in English, German news in English and then in English from a ‘native’ country.

    Lovely post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot for the comment and for the lovely idea, Marc. I think it could be very interesting to read the news from different sources, and then to get the students to reflect and discuss the differences.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting post Ljiljana. I’ve noticed that there quite a lot of articles appearing in the journals these days about intercultural communicative competence. Michael Bryam ( seems to be leading the charge, and the main thrust, as you probably know, is that in ELT we shouldn’t just draw learners’ attention to facts about other cultures; we should teach in such a way as to make it clear that communication is more than the exchange of information & opinions; it depends for success on such factors as empathy, respect and sensitivity. I was slightly surprised to see a good mention of it on the TESOL President’s blog:


    • Thank you very much, Geoff for reading and commenting my post.
      It seems that in recent years have been more discussions and research focusing on the importance of intercultural communicative competence. As you pointed out, effective intercultural communication requires: empathy, respect, sensitivity, flexibility, and openness in communicating with speakers from different culture and linguistic backgrounds. It is, actually, more important for successful intercultural communication than drawing learners’ attention to facts about other cultures, or just imposing the native English speaker’s values and norms. What is important in intercultural communication is one’s competency and willingness to understand what the other has to say. Thus the goal of ELT is to produce language users who can use English as a lingua franca in a way that reflects their local language and culture.

      Thanks for the very useful sites, I’m going to explore them later (there’s a lot of very interesting materials there). Have a great week! 🙂


  4. Thanks so much, Ljilijana! Just what I needed. 🙂

    And thanks Zhenya, Marc and Geoff to adding to the post.

    I’m working on an intercultural project right now, so this is really useful.

    Hugs to you all!


  5. Hi Ljiljana,

    Last night on Facebook I came across this tool (I was able to access the tool itself last night, but today I keep getting the message that the page is unavailable because it uses unsupported protocol or something).

    Anyway, the point is, a Croatian guy shared the link, and one of the first responses was – znači englesko preseravanje. 😦 Luckily, most of the other comments showed far greater intercultural awareness.

    Very interesting post, as always. Enjoy the weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • ljiljana havran

      Hi Vedrana,

      Fox Type Politeness Checker is/could be a very interesting and useful tool (what a shame the link is unavailable!), as it can analyze a text and offer rewrite suggestions so that one can avoid unnecessary rudeness while writing emails.

      I’m not at all surprised at the response on Facebook… I think that our schools should pay much more attention to intercultural sensitivity and awareness (understanding that there are differences among cultures and placing value on this diversity).

      Thanks so much for your comment and kind words. Have a great weekend! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks! I shared the post at my Facebook Page: ESL/EFL Preschool Teachers



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