Culture in our Classrooms: Teaching Language through Cultural Content

Book Review: ETAS Journal Volume 33 No. 1 Winter 2015

Gill Johnson and Mario Rinvolucri

Delta Publishing (2010)

ISBN 978-1-90508-521-7

104 pages

How many of your students’ reason for learning English is because they want to go abroad, or communicate with someone who has a culture different from their own? The answer is probably, ‘every one’. So, they need language skills, but they also need cultural competence. Cultural competence is the ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures. It is a skill that is of growing importance in the context of business, since globalisation has opened borders and expanded the reach of business activities. It is also deeply relevant to learners in the ELT classroom. We teach our students the lexis and grammar, but language learners also need to be able to understand and navigate the complex intertwining of attitudes and beliefs, ways of behaving, and spoken and unspoken rules that govern everyday living. We need to be able to give students the ability to understand and adjust their behaviour – the way they communicate, not just what words or grammar structures they use.

This book is about using cultural content as a means to teach language. Cultural content, as opposed to language content, aims at teaching students something about culture and not just target lexis or grammar. This makes sense in an anthropology or sociology course but also, perhaps paradoxically, in a language course. In other subjects we are teaching the what. In language we are teaching the how. Yes, of course, grammar structures and lexical items need to be transferred. But training the skills of language, I would posit, are what truly brings language acquisition. And this is what the authors of Culture in our Classrooms put forward. Especially, they show that to learn language, you must also learn the cultural context in which language lives.

When I read the title, I thought Culture in our Classrooms would be a book heavily based on theory and history. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that the heftiest section of the book holds practical class activities and lesson scenarios that encourage readers to put the book to use right away.

The book is organized into three parts. Part A, only 11 pages, is the theoretical and historical background, including useful anecdotes from the authors. Throughout part A, there are links on the sidebar to activities and scenarios that are in parts B and C. The activities in part B are meant to be used in group classes with students. The exercises in part C are professional development exercises for teachers. They are meant to train teachers in cultural competence skills and can be used in teachers’ groups, professional development workshops, or staffroom sessions. The exercises build strategic skills for personal and professional development like observing, listening, rapport building, and empathising.

What I like about this book is that the activities and exercises in parts B and C each have well defined objectives, preparation, and procedure, and include a postscript for further thought. Part B is organized into four chapters which provide a quick reference for use in class. There are thought-provoking texts which can be used as the beginning for activities. One example is The Ideal Student, which is from an Iranian textbook. After reading the text, students compare the qualities of this extreme example to their own and are led through activities to describe what their own expectations of themselves and of the teacher are. This is a perfect exercise for the beginning of a new class and can be woven into the needs-analysis of a language course.

But even if not directly usable in class, the lesson plans very effectively illustrate the need for teaching culture in the language classroom. One lesson plan called Four Ways of Complaining is not one I would use, but it shows how the simple language function of complaining has different levels and underlying meanings depending on one's culture. It therefore urges teachers to build awareness of these cultural complexities and teach the skills required to use language functions, like complaining, in a more dynamic way. The authors present this challenge for teachers: “Language teaching has been getting nearer and nearer to the idea that linguistic competence involves student being able to function appropriately in their chosen foreign language. The problem for teachers is how to tackle the appropriate aspect appropriately!” [authors’ emphasis] (Johnson & Rinvolucri, 2010, p. 16).

The strength of Culture in our Classrooms is that it presents a brief, easy-to-understand overview of some perspectives on culture and cross cultural competence. It is well organized and ties in practical ways of understanding the theory. There are several activities that, after having read the book, I want to use in my classes. My favourite is one called, Beliefs behind Behaviors. In it, students are presented with five behaviours typical to British or Italian culture. They’re asked to role play some of them and build awareness of how differences in behaviour underlie cultural factors. In discussions, students compare the behaviors in the examples to those in their own culture, and try to identify the beliefs behind the behaviours. Two other activities I would use are more applicable for teaching language points directly. During lessons on modal verbs, I would use Rules for Life and Identikits – they provide excellent, engaging context for practicing the language needed to show the difference between obligation, strong recommendation, casual suggestion, and other modalities.

On the other hand, there are many activities I wouldn’t use in class. Some are too ethereal for me. For example, A Lesson I Learned, in which students are asked to tell stories of warm, positive lessons they learned from other cultures, in order to build awareness of the good we can find in them. Some are too academic. For example, Icebergs, in which students identify the range of visible-to-hidden aspects of culture. In my view, this might require too much pre-teaching of intercultural theory, and students might lack knowledge or intellectual capacity to do the task. And it should be said, that almost all the tasks would require significant language scaffolding if they were to be used with lower-level learners, who need basic skills of expression and description, and a broad enough range of vocabulary to participate in these activities.

In the end, what English teachers can learn from this book is very valuable. I feel that it gives our work more depth, makes it more satisfying, and offers students more of what they need. As with all intercultural training, it involves a more meaningful use of language, and therefore makes learning more complex, and in the end, more rewarding as well. It seems that what most English teachers in Switzerland want in workshops and conferences is something they can use. If this describes you, then with Culture in our Classrooms you won’t be disappointed. Just like going to an ETAS event, this book provides interesting new theories, new perspectives, and marvellous new activities that you can use in class next week.

David Kaufher