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The Importance of Embedding Culture into the Teaching of Foreign Languages

 Dr. Peter B.  Swanson
Georgia State University

For years it has been noted that language teaching and learning are social processes and that the teaching of language is the teaching of culture. Thanasoulas (2001) suggests that culture and communication are inseparable because “culture not only dictates who talks to whom, about what, and how the communication proceeds, it also helps to determine how people encode messages, the meanings they have for messages, and the conditions and circumstances under which various messages may or may not be sent, noticed, or interpreted.”

Language and Culture

Daily language contains unconscious cultural cues and insights. Language and culture cannot be separated; language is one’s means of social understanding. As noted by Kramsch (1993), the learning of culture is not an expendable fifth skill, attached to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Thus, language teachers must progress beyond simply monitoring linguistic production in the classroom and become more aware of the complex and numerous processes of intercultural mediation that any foreign language learner undergoes (Buttjes,1990).

The Five Cs

Historically, prior to the 1960s the lines between language and culture were carefully drawn because the purpose of second language study was to provide “access to the great literary masterpieces of civilization” (Allen, 1985). However in the 1960s, advocates of the audiolingual method of language teaching noted the importance of culture not for the study of literature but for language learning (Brooks, 1968). As emphasis on sociolinguistics resulted in greater emphasis on the context and situation in which the target language would be used, the role of teaching culture began to flourish (Lessard-Clouston, 1997). The National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project (2006) reflects this notion by advancing the idea that foreign language instruction should include more than communicative and grammatical competence. By conceptualizing language learning in terms of five goal areas, Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities, the National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project promotes linguistic and cultural competence. Additionally, National Standards Project has redefined language learning moving from focus on the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) to a more communicative framework, stressing the three modes of communication Interpersonal, Interpretive, and Presentational.

Culture as the Foundation of Communication

By weaving together the five goal areas and structuring learning within a communicative context, foreign language teachers no longer fall short of the mark when it comes to equipping students with the cognitive skills they need in a second-culture environment (Straub, 1999). Culture-specific meanings now become clearer, language learning becomes more significant, and culture is set as the foundation of communication. As a result, grounding language learning in cultural understanding can enhance the social process of language learning for our increasingly diverse student population who enter schools with a wealth of cultural understandings and knowledge—historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well- being (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005).

The FLES Model

The Foreign Languages in the Elementary Schools (FLES) program model is designed to provide a sequential language learning experience to all students. In order to provide a high quality FLES experience, language instruction must be grounded in cultural understanding in order to promote more meaningful and useful language learning. With the emphasis now placed on linguistic and cultural competence, students have the opportunity to explore language in contextual breadth and depth.


Allen, W. (1985). “Toward Cultural Proficiency.” In A.C. Omaggio (Ed.), Proficiency, Curriculum, Articulation: The Ties That Bind (pp. 137-166). Middlebury, VT: Northeast Conference.

Brooks, N. (1968). “Teaching Culture in the Foreign Language Classroom.” Foreign Language Annals, 1, 204-217.

Buttjes, D. (1990). “Teaching Foreign Language and Culture: Social Impact and Political Significance.” Language Learning Journal, 2, 53-57.

González, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Kramsch, C. 1993. Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lessard-Clouston, M. (1997). “Towards an Understanding of Culture in L2/FL Education.” In K.G. Ronko  (Ed.), Studies in English, 25 (pp. 131-150) Japan: Kwansei Gakuin University Press.

National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project. (2006). Standards For Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. Lawrence, KS: Allen Press, Inc.

Straub, H. (1999). “Designing a Cross-Cultural Course.” English Forum, 37 (3), 2-9.

Thanasoulas, D. (2001). “The Importance of Teaching Culture in the Foreign Language Classroom.” Available from:



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