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Reconceptualizing textbooks in culture teaching.


This article offers an overview of mainstream approaches to culture in language teaching and proposes an alternative approach which conceptualizes the language textbook as a key participant in classroom conversations about culture. A case study illustrates the points made, showing how young learners challenged naturalized aspects of their culture through interaction with their language textbook.


That language learning and culture learning are strongly related is not a new idea. However, much is yet to be discussed regarding both the configuration of this relationship and the implications of particular approaches to language and culture in the second language (L2) classroom. This article explores these latter issues through an initial discussion of the scope of the term culture followed by an examination of the extent to which L2 pedagogy can promote learners' intercultural communicative competence by moving beyond the mainstream focus of culture learning as information about the other. The main argument of this article, to be illustrated with a case study, is that L2 textbooks can--and should--become key participants in classroom conversations about culture as they offer great potential for fostering learners' reflections about the components of their cultural identities.


According to Williams (1983:87), "culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language" and he goes on to argue that this complication relates to the history of the term and to its multiple meanings. Arguably, the difficulty in understanding culture is also linked with often taken-for-granted and vague uses of the word describing groups of people's behavior, norms and values. Prototypically, everyday uses of the term will equate it with background which in turn will tend to be associated with generalizations about a particular group of people such as 'Those who come from X culture do Y'. This view is endorsed by a lot of work done on intercultural communication and cross-cultural training (e.g. Hofstede, 1991), yet it does not offer a solid theoretical justification for intra-group differences or changes over time within the same group. Moreover, this perspective is reductionist in that it does not allow for a rich account of an individual's multiple cultures (as a member of a generation, a professional group, a gender, a family, and so on).

In applied linguistics, critiques to this naturalized approach to culture include Hall's (2002) view that culture should be perceived as sociocultural practice and not as pre-defined descriptors about a group of people. From this standpoint, culture emerges in people's social lives and consequently particular cultural groups should not be seen as well-defined, homogenous and static entities whose members share fixed meanings. Along the same lines, Street (1993) has claimed that culture is a verb (i.e., it "is an active process of meaning making", ibid:25) and consequently research should focus not on what culture is, but on what it does as regards people's ways of making sense of the world (including their perceptions of the self and others).

Holliday (1999) also rejects an essentialist orientation towards culture by showing that different approaches to culture will lead to important differences in the ways individuals conceptualize human interaction. Specifically, he argues that a mainstream large culture paradigm (which associates a culture with ethnic, national and international groups) has dominated applied linguistic research and that this tendency has generated often prescriptive ideas about how certain groups of people (such as the Japanese or the Indians) behave, what they find polite and impolite, how they use language, and so on. Alternatively, Holliday advocates a small culture paradigm which looks at cultures as dynamic, complex and ever-changing processes. As described in Holliday, Hyde, & Kullman (2004), a small-culture approach moves away from the culturist focus on pseudo-homogenous national groups often described in stereotypical terms; moreover, it allows us to question the often tacit and unarticulated ideological issues at stake in people's meaning-makings processes.

This study endorses the views expressed in these critiques. Moreover, it supports the notions that language textbooks are important participants in classroom meaning-making processes, and that through interactions with their textbooks learners can gain better understanding of the complexity of their cultural identities. Before providing details of this study it is important to examine the most influential approaches to culture as well as the role of textbooks in culture teaching in the realm of L2 pedagogy. These are the topics of the next two sections.

Culture in second language pedagogy

There has always been a more or less direct interest in culture in L2 pedagogy but a more systematic focus on cultural aspects of language learning came to exist in the second half of the 20th century, particularly after the proposal of Canale and Swain's (1980) model of communicative competence. According to this model, communicative competence includes a component of sociocultural competence, which is in turn defined as knowledge of sociocultural rules of language use in relation to its non-linguistic context. The emphasis on knowledge (rather than on "ability for use" to quote Widdowson, 1983) present in this model has been tremendously influential on the ways the relationship between language learning and culture learning has been conceptualized to this day. Specifically, a focus on knowledge about the other has been the main interpretation of the interplay between language and culture in L2 teaching (Kramsch, 1993:205).

This focus has been challenged by some through the proposal of alternative approaches (e.g. Byram, 1997; Moran, 2001; Seelye, 1997). Byram's (ibid:7) definition of intercultural communicative competence as "an individual's ability to communicate and interact across cultural boundaries" is relevant for the purposes of this paper as its emphasis on communication and interaction expands a narrower focus on knowledge, only. Also, the prefix inter- (in interact) suggests that intercultural competence is not a one-way process; rather, it involves a more complex relationship among people who make sense of what is going on through communication with others. One's own cultural identities, from this perspective, are open to negotiation and redefinitions in these intercultural encounters. But to what extent have L2 textbooks been conceptualized as participants in these interactions?

Textbooks and culture

The movement towards culture teaching from the 1980's onwards (as described in the previous section) has led to the incorporation of (socio)cultural elements in most language textbooks, and this concern has been typically manifested through one or more of these alternatives: the addition of 'cultural facts' to the text, the discussion of expected norms of behavior and language use in particular social events, and the inclusion of characters representing various ethnic backgrounds or (more rarely) challenging stereotypical gender roles. In other words, the focus has tended to be on the other, and not on the self.

Teacher's editions also started to highlight the importance of culture in L2 teaching and so did methods books. Not surprisingly, the profession also welcomed publications offering more practical applications of these ideas (e.g. Tomalin and Stemplenski, 1993). Culture became a buzz word and possibly a selling factor for language textbooks. Nevertheless, few of these publications attempted to offer an in-depth discussion of the breadth and scope of culture, or of the implications of particular choices regarding culture teaching in the classroom (exceptions include Hinkel,1999 and Kramsch, 1993). In other words, the fact that how we perceive ourselves and others is dependent upon our cultural milieu (Kramsch, 1998:67) has tended to be overlooked (or at best minimized) in language textbooks for teachers and learners. From a research perspective Cortazzi and Jin (1999) argued that L2 English materials reflect culture in one of these three ways: as cultural mirrors of the source culture, of the target culture, or of an international target culture in which English is not spoken as a first language. These images, they argue, are not enough to develop learners' intercultural competence. Rather, they call for a pedagogy which encourages students to reflect on cultural processes involved in L2 learning.

In what follows I describe and discuss an approach which follows these latter premises. This approach conceptualizes the textbook as a key participant in classroom conversations about culture. Specifically, from this perspective, the primary function of the language textbook is not to provide information about (nor to reflect) particular cultural understandings but to provide other participants in classroom conversations (i.e. teachers and students) with opportunities to reflect on their cultural identities.

A case study

This study took place in a Brazilian language school undergoing innovation whose main aim was to devise alternatives to narrow interpretations of the communicative approach which had tended to generate uninterested and uninteresting speakers of foreign languages in previous years. The innovation programme was inspired by national policies (Secretaria de Educao Fundamental, 1998) and had its theoretical roots in sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978) and interactional sociolinguistics (Goffman, 1981; Gumperz, 1982). Orienting the new guidelines at both micro and macro levels was a sociocultural approach to language and culture according to which language is perceived as the primary means through which interactants negotiate and co-construct their understandings not only of disciplinary knowledge, but also of sociocultural practices. It was therefore assumed that, in and through communication with others, "we manage and articulate our individual identities, our interpersonal relationships, and memberships in our social groups and communities." (Hall, 2002:8-9)

The children participating in this study were in their first year of L2 English learning and their ages ranged from 9 to 10. In their twice-a-week classes, they often sat in circles and were given a lot of time to reflect on and share ideas about L2 use, but these discussions tended to revolve around grammatical and strategic dimensions underlying the use of the target language. For this study an attempt was made to incorporate sociocultural issues in these discussions as well. Also guiding the rationale of this study was the assumption that by describing oneself in more complex ways individuals should be more likely to perceive the complexity of others as well.

It was decided to use sections of an English-as-a-foreign language textbook written for young Brazilians (Marques, A., Fabricio, B., & Santos, D., 2000) which offered images of source, target and international cultures (to apply Cortazzi and Jin's 1999 taxonomy) Specifically, this study involved an activity entitled "What do you think?" (Marques et al., 2000:28) aiming at triggering reflection about naturalized meanings in the learners' social groups. The activity in focus proposed a final discussion for a unit which revolved, on more conventional terms, around ways of expressing likes, dislikes, and favorite sports. For the purposes of this discussion, the textbook displayed one of the characters from the book (a seven-year-old Japanese-American girl) holding a picture of a boy of approximately the same age playing beach soccer. The girl's reaction to the picture, expressed in the form of a balloon, was: Brazilians love soccer! In order to help the students to answer the broader question What do you think? and, at the same time, to aim at the de-stabilization of essentialist representations of these learners' culture along the lines outlined earlier in this paper, these objectives were established:

* Describe characteristics of one aspect of their own culture

* Develop the habit of observation

* Develop the ability to distinguish facts from opinion

* Recognize cultural diversity within domains often perceived as monocultural

* Establish connections between knowledge and reality

On more practical grounds, the pedagogical procedures below were outlined to address the objectives above:

* Encourage students to take a stand towards a commonsensical idea

* Observe the social world, interview friends and family members, become familiar with different versions of reality

* Reflect upon the commonsensical idea, trying to make the familiar unfamiliar and to identify exceptions to broad generalizations

* Re-assess their original positioning towards the statement through the incorporation of the ideas generated throughout the process

These procedures draw on Santos and Fabricio's (2006) model for the development of critical thinking in the L2 class, but they provide a simplified framework focusing on the development of young learners' intercultural communicative competence. In this particular study, these learners' reflective process took them from a unanimous uncommitted agreement with the comment made by the character in the textbook towards significant re-descriptions of an aspect of their ethnic identity which had become naturalized (i.e., the fact that Brazilians love soccer). When asked to re-write (if they wanted to do so) the character's words in the balloon, students produced statements like the following:

* Soccer is an important sport in Brazil

* Some boys and girls like to play football

* Many Brazilians like soccer

* Some Brazilians like soccer

These re-descriptions followed some ethnographic work in which students interviewed friends and family members about their attitudes towards soccer. This procedure was inspired by Heath's (1983) orientation to make the familiar unfamiliar and it led to these children's identification not only of agreements and disagreements to the original statement, but also of different degrees of agreement to it. In class, the students shared their conclusions and discussed alternative statements which could, in their views, express Brazilian attitudes to soccer more accurately. In order to develop this reflective process, these young learners had therefore to engage in dialogue with various individuals, including the character in the textbook.

These are important steps in these young learners' construction of cultural identity which are likely to challenge generalized stereotyped self-images of a particular national group. Also, from an educational perspective, this dialogue with the textbook has enabled these children to problematize the mainstream, monolithic and essentialist view of culture-as-national background and to perceive at least two other cultural domains involved in similar generalizations about members of a nation, namely gender and age. In addition, the distinction made by one of the students between the country (as in the first revised statement) and the citizens from the country (as in the original statement) cannot be underestimated. Moreover, these rearticulations of voices from the textbook challenge another often taken-for-granted cultural norm in schools: that textbooks are not to be questioned, and that the versions of culture they offer are to be accepted as facts. In other words, by engaging in conversation with others, in and out of the classroom, as well as with their language textbook, these young learners were able to take initial yet fundamental steps for reflecting upon their identities as Brazilians and as learners.

Concluding remarks

According to Hinkel (1999:5),
 one of the prominent qualities of cultural values, assumptions,
 and norms acquired in the socialization process is that they are
 presupposed and not readily available for intellectual scrutiny.

In this article I have shown how these cultural presuppositions can be intellectually scrutinized from early stages of L2 learning. I have also argued that the L2 textbook is an important participant in these reflections in that it may offer alternative voices and viewpoints to be responded to and hence promote learners" reflections about their cultural identities as members of complex social groups.

The challenges involved in these reflective processes cannot be underestimated (from time and assessment constraints to the mainstream emphasis on conversational fanfare in the L2 classroom), but the potential gains outweigh the difficulties: by bringing these reflections into the language classroom naturalized perceptions of the self can be challenged and new discourses can be generated. These richer descriptions of one's cultural identities are bound to have important implications in intercultural communication: by problematizing essentialist and generalized perceptions of particular cultures learners are likely to perceive themselves--and others--in less reductionist and objectified ways as well.


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Secretaria de Educacao Fundamental (1998). Lingua Estrangeira: Parametros Curriculares Nacionais [Foreign Language: National Curricular Parameters]. Brasilia, DF: Ministerio da Educacao.

Seelye, H. (1997). The cultural mazeway: Six organizing goals. In P. Heusinkveld (Ed.), Pathways to Culture (pp. 97-105). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press

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Denise Santos, University of Reading, UK

Denise Santos, Ph.D., is Lecturer in Applied Linguistics
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Author:Santos, Denise
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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