FC Culture: Lesson 1


Culture: Lesson 1


Welcome! I’m Tom Garza, an Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, and the Director of the Texas Language Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Besides coordinating the program in Russian here at UT, my research interests are primarily focused on incorporating culture and cultural information into language teaching. While the two seem to be inextricably connected, we somehow forget, as teachers, that language without culture is not communication.

So, what have the last two decades told us about the cultural quotient in our teaching? First, when the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages introduced the first-ever provisional proficiency guidelines in 1984, they included guidelines for cultural competence. And even though these guidelines were eventually scrapped, they left a lasting impression on the subsequent thinking and research that followed on the place of culture in the overall foreign language proficiency.

Now, there now seems to be agreement that culture should be regarded as an essential component of all competency-based language instruction, a kind of “fifth skill,” if you will. Indeed, we know that even with superior knowledge of the grammatical structure of a language, and mastery of a large basic vocabulary, without cultural competence to give relevant meaning and significance to otherwise “correct” utterances, communication does not occur. We all know examples of the cultural faux pas that our students and we blunder into, even when the linguistic content of their speech is correct! How often do we find ourselves wondering why the native speakers are looking at us with disbelief and non-comprehension after we think we’ve made a perfectly correct statement? But there is more to cultural competence than merely talking about it in our classes. We need also to consider how best to integrate cultural information into our already over-committed hours of language instruction.

So second, we need to understand how much time we realistically have for instruction, what our goals are for a given level of instruction, and then, finally, what we can do to maximize each and every minute to get the most benefit in teaching not just the language, and not just the culture, but “linguoculture.” We need to begin to embrace the power that certain educational applications of technology can have on what we can do in the classroom. In this module, I will suggest to you that the incorporation of video, internet, and digital technology may hold a key to getting more out of the precious minutes we have with our students in class, and even transform what they do with the language when they’re not in class. While teaching culture cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” proposition, I will suggest that there are certain guidelines and models that might help us all to bring the languages that we teach closer to the languages that are actually used around the world.

It was culture expert Ned Seeley who said that we teach culture as long as we have students to teach; I suggest a slight amendment: As long as we teach culture, we will have students to teach!




1 Culture? What Culture?

Explores the definition of culture and how it is currently taught in language classrooms.
2 Proficiency and Cultural Literacy

What is cultural competence, as implied by the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (2001)?
3 The Case for Visual Media to Teach Culture

How to use video materials to present authentic information about the target country, and to increase the quantity and quality of time spent on task.
4 Rockin’ Russian: A Web-Based Approach to Language and Culture

How to use a web-based program like Rockin’ Russian to integrate language and cultural content to facilitate proficiency gains.


Culture as a Fifth Skill

Culture. Cultura. Kultur. No matter how you say it, it is an essential part of our languages, our past, our present. Language without cultural relevance is nearly useless. Yet successfully teaching the cultural element in our foreign language classes remains elusive.
In keeping with the convention within the field of Foreign Language Education of referring to language abilities as separate skills (e.g., listening, speaking, reading, and writing), teachers often refer to culture as the “fifth skill.” But what does that mean? While it may generally be accepted in the language-teaching community that culture is an integral part of language instruction, there is little consensus on what, much less how, we should teach it. Unlike vocabulary and grammar, which are concrete in their content, culture is quite fluid and amorphous and therefore difficult to define.
In general, culture as the fifth skill emphasizes the learner’s ability to perceive, to understand, and ultimately, to accept cultural relativity.

To grasp what cultural relativity means, consider a simple social act such as giving flowers. In American culture, who may give flowers to whom? In what situations? For example, is it appropriate to give flowers to the hostess of a dinner party? If so, what kinds of flowers are appropriate? Should you say something when you give your hostess flowers? Now watch the video and discover how your answers about the social act of flower giving are all relative to the American context and may lead to a social faux pas in another country.




Culture as a “fifth skill.”

Duration: 03:54

Culture as a fifth skill refers to a set of abilities:

• The ability to perceive and recognize cultural differences. (“Oh, so that is how you are supposed to give flowers in Russia!”)
• The ability to accept cultural differences. (“From now on, I must remember to give an odd number of flowers.”)
• The ability to appreciate and value cultural differences. (“Isn’t it interesting that the number of flowers holds significance!”)


Definitions of Culture

Over the past several decades, increasing attention has been paid to the place of culture in our classes. As research and practice have progressed over these years, the definition of “culture” and the relationship between language and culture have been defined and redefined. Here we see an overview of this evolution. In particular, note how culture and its role in language learning are designated in each definition.

Seelye’s Definition of Culture
Ned Seelye writes: “Learning a language in isolation of its cultural roots prevents one from becoming socialized into its contextual use. Knowledge of linguistic structure alone does not carry with it any special insight into the political, social, religious, or economic system (1976).”


On Ned Seelye’s definition of culture (1976).

Duration: 01:51

How might you delineate the differences between “linguistic competence” and “cultural competence” in Seelye’s terms?

Rivers’s Definition of Culture

According to Wilga Rivers: “We must focus on both appropriate content and activities that enable students to assimilate that content. Activities should encourage them to go beyond fact, so that they begin to perceive and experience vicariously the deeper levels of the culture of the speakers of the language (1981).”


On Wilga Rivers’s definition of culture (1981).

Duration: 02:32

Do you think that non-native speakers/learners of language should, as Rivers suggests, try to approximate near-native proficiency? Or will they always be perceived as “foreign,” so why bother with all of the cultural details?

Kramsch’s Definition of Culture
Claire Kramsch points out: “At the intersection of multiple native and target cultures, the major task of language learners is to define for themselves what this ‘third place’ that they have engaged in seeking will look like, whether they are conscious of it or not (1993).”


On Claire Kramsch’s definition of culture (1993).

Duration: 01:20

Try to create a model or working definition of what might be included in the “Third Place” for your language. What are the characteristics of linguistic and cultural features that define for us—as learners—what “nativeness” is for speakers of your language?


Which Culture?

Culture can be separated into two general categories: “Big C” culture and “Little c” culture. We all learned at least some “Big C” culture in our language classes: Who are the great writers, artists, and musicians? What are the lasting, famous works of art, music, and literature? What are the great moments in this culture’s history?

What about “Little c” knowledge, things such as the features of daily life, popular culture, and social mores? How much information on the ephemeral “popular” culture is enough? Too much?


On “Big C” and “Little c” culture.

Duration: 03:21

In American/U.S. culture, which of the below would be designated “Big C” culture, and which “Little c”? Why? Which items might be debatable as to their designation? Why?
• Ernest Hemingway

• “Citizen Kane”

• a MacDonald’s menu

• Leonard Bernstein

• a business card • Madonna

• Betsy Ross’ flag

• The Great Gatsby

• iPods

• baseball • The Great Depression

• a bus ticket

• a Coke can

• The White House


“ In the process of learning, the union of language and information relating to the national culture is called ‘linguocultural’ teaching. ”

—Kostomarov and Vereshchagin, Language and Culture, 1983.


On linguocultural teaching.

Duration: 02:44

Choose a sample portion or segment from a textbook that you use frequently in your own language classes. Make an outline of the lexical-grammatical material and the cultural material featured in the unit. Consider what might be done to integrate the two elements more fully in your class.
Linguoculture in FL Contexts


Contexts of linguoculture.

Duration: 03:07

Consider four other “cultural artifacts” from non-US cultures. As in the models provided in the video clip, identify the cultural markers of these items that make them unique “purveyors” of cultural information. How might you integrate this kind of culture-specific information into a more general lesson on language?



[Module Instructor Thomas Jesús Garza]. 2010. [Culture]. In Foreign Language Teaching Methods. Carl Blyth, Editor. Texas Language Technology Center, University of Texas at Austin. http://coerll.utexas.edu

The material is provided free of charge for those that wish to study it.

How ever a no obligation  exam is available at the end of this module.