The Internet TESL Journal

The Place of "Culture" in the Foreign Language Classroom: A Reflection

Ramona Tang
ramonatang [at]
National University of Singapore
In this article, I give a personal reflection of the place of "culture" in the foreign language classroom. Re-examining the notions of integrative and instrumental motivations to language learning, I suggest that language and culture are inextricably linked, and as such we might think about moving away from questions about the inclusion or exclusion of culture in a foreign language curriculum, to issues of deliberate immersion versus non-deliberate exposure to it.

In the field of foreign language teaching, one aspect that occasionally emerges as a topic of discussion is the relationship between knowledge of a foreign language, and knowledge of the culture from which that language "originated". From my (admittedly limited) experience with foreign language education, it would appear that the question of "culture" is often relegated to the end of a language teaching plan. It seems as if it is always something of a bonus if the teacher manages to find time to introduce a bit of the culture of the foreign language into the classroom - some music perhaps, or a traditional dance, in the final lesson of the course. If learners are particularly lucky, they get a chance to spend a month in the foreign country to "immerse" themselves in the "culture" of the country. But is that one class session enough? Is one month enough? Is it necessary?

According to Pica (1994: 70), the question "how necessary to learning a language is the learner's cultural integration?" is something which "troubles teachers, whether they work with students in classrooms far removed from the culture of the language they are learning or with students who are physically immersed in the culture but experientially and psychologically distant from it". Numerous other researchers have tried to address issues along similar lines, including Gardner and Lambert (1972) who postulate that learners may have two basic kinds of motivation. The first is integrative motivation, which refers to the desire of language learners to acquire the language while immersing themselves into the whole culture of the language, in order to "identify themselves with and become part of that society" (Brown 1994: 154). The second is instrumental motivation, which refers to the functional need for learners to acquire the language in order to serve some utilitarian purpose, such as securing a job, or a place at a university. The argument is that such instrumentally motivated learners are neither concerned with the culture from which their target language emerged, nor interested in developing any feelings of affinity with the native speakers of that language.

But questions of this sort and research of this sort appear to me to presuppose that culture can be separated from language, that culture is something that needs to be introduced into the language classroom and to the learner, and that learner and teacher have some sort of a choice as to whether "cultural integration" is to be included in the "syllabus" or not. I would like to suggest that language and culture are inextricably linked, and therefore it may be pointless, and perhaps even impossible, to ask ourselves: "how much of the culture of a country should be taught along with the language?"

Language is culture. When a person decides to learn French, for example, he or she is not merely absorbing the linguistics of the language, but everything to do with French and France. What he or she is taking in includes all the preconceptions about the French language, that it is beautiful, that it is romantic, that it is spoken along the Seine, and so on. I may be accused of stereotyping here, and perhaps I am, but this does not discount my underlying point, which is that most, if not all, languages come with some cultural associations attached. By speaking the language, therefore, one automatically (to a greater or lesser extent) aligns oneself with the culture of the language. To speak a language well, one has to be able to think in that language, and thought is extremely powerful. A person's mind is in a sense the centre of his identity, so if a person thinks in French in order to speak French, one might say that he has, in a way, almost taken on a French identity (see for example Brown 1994, and Littlewood 1984). That is the power and the essence of a language. Language is culture. Language is the soul of the country and people who speak it.

Does this then mean that the "integrative" and "instrumental" motivation which have been discussed for years do not exist? Is that what I am saying? No. I think the person who has "integrative" motivation simply acknowledges that he or she is actively seeking to know about the culture, whereas the person with "instrumental" motivation does not want to add anything on to his or her knowledge of the language. He or she may not want to sample the food, or get to know the night-life, or visit places that have nothing to do with work, or read about the history of the country, or chat with shopkeepers behind the counter of a grocery store to find out whether that high-rise across the road was once a park where children played. But those are frills; those are extras. Language itself is already culture, and therefore it is something of a moot point to talk about the inclusion or exclusion of culture in a foreign language curriculum. We might perhaps want to re-envisage the situation as a contrast between an active and deliberate immersion in culture, and a non-deliberate exposure to it.

To conclude, I expect that some may disagree with my rather "deterministic" view that language is culture. A counterargument could well be that some people who decide to learn French, for instance, have no inkling at all of French culture. Indeed, they may not even know where France is on the map. How then can language be culture for them? To such a counterargument, I would say that while there may in theory be cases of such isolated individuals, I believe that in reality this is rather unlikely. But more than that, even if the learners themselves are not initially aware of the cultural associations attached to the language they are learning, others are, and will perceive them as being aligned with that culture. And if social theories of identity formation are to be believed (e.g. Brooke 1991), a person's identity is a social construct, and is (in part or in whole) the product of societal perception. I would like to add here that I am not in any way suggesting that a person cannot actively and deliberately reject the "cultural baggage" that accompanies a language. I am merely suggesting that it is there, and therefore we might want to consider not treating language and culture as if they were ultimately separable.

I remember that, as a student of German, I wanted to watch all the German television programmes I could find. I fiddled for hours with my radio set, trying to find a German station. I found myself quietly rooting for anything German. This last was not a conscious choice. I see it as language affecting who I was, for ultimately, language is not dead; it is alive, and as such can never be divorced from the culture that produced it and the people who speak it halfway across the world.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 8, August 1999