September 2014
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Adrian Holliday, Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, England

Alternative Learning Strategies

A social action model of culture, which I derive from the sociology of Max Weber (e.g., 1922/1964), says that we all have significant experience engaging with and constructing culture every day. We can carry this with us to make sense of, engage with, and find ourselves when we travel from one culture to another. This presents a number of possibilities for the learning and teaching of English in its relationship with cultural content. Sometimes language learners get anxious because they think there is a conflict between their own culture and an expression in English. This idea of incompatible cultures in fact restricts creativity and should not be encouraged. Teachers can turn this into a learning opportunity. They can encourage language learners to explore their existing cultural experience and to find potentials for creative negotiation with the new cultural content.

As learning aims, when encountering cultural content in English, language learners should be able to

  • see relationships between their own life and what they find in the textbook,
  • appreciate the complexity and fluidity of their own society and language in order to understand better the nature of English,
  • use their existing experience to take ownership and stamp their identities on English,
  • understand that they can be creative with cultural difference and strangeness without losing identity.

Through this process of connecting the cultural content of English with their own lives, language learners should be able to

  • gain an understanding of the negotiable and creative nature of culture,
  • realise that English also has the capacity to express different cultural realities,
  • realise that they can use English without the specific forms that they find in the textbook.

There are also broader educational aims that might be achieved through this approach. These concern the combating of prejudice in multicultural societies and in a globalised world; understanding the complex and political relationship between English, culture, and the world; being an intercultural global citizen; being able to position oneself in relation to ideologies and discourses; and generally, acquiring a sociological imagination in claiming ownership of English.

When carrying out workshops with teachers on the topic of this article, there have been several useful points of discussion which have served to carry forward the discussion and further develop ideas.

Discussion 1: Does English really belong to one or two national cultures? Is this really how it is?

One way of addressing this question is to look at English used in literature far away from Britain and the United States. One excellent example is the novels of the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her novel Americanah (2013) talks all about English and culture, and also all about blogging. In Half a Yellow Sun (2007, p. 423), we hear the greeting “How did you come out this morning?” This is beautiful, perfectly grammatically correct English. It might never have been heard in the classroom before, but its meaning is clear and indeed poetic. With a group of Egyptian teachers we explored other possible greetings that language learners might bring from their own languages and communities, and to what extent they might be carried successfully into English. The measure of success had something to do with intelligibility and elegance. This led to an interrogation of the place of so-called native speaker models of English and a re-evaluation of authenticity, following Widdowson’s (1979:, p. 165) early definition as meaningful to the language learner rather than the expected “unsimplified” native speaker of English. When considering why so many people take the default position that learning English means learning British or American English, several of the teachers said that this came from the national and international media.

Discussion 2: Exploring our own cultural backgrounds

With a group of Mexican teachers we considered this classroom activity:

Recall an example in your own society when you faced a cultural conflict to do with family, friends, the workplace, neighbours—perhaps also small languages or discourses.

  • How did you, deal with this—constructing Self and Other, constructing discourses?
  • Was there any loss or expansion, or stamping of cultural identity?
  • Was there any cultural innovation?
  • In what sense was there small culture formation on the go?

The teachers had no difficulty with recalling examples from their lives to fit these points. The example of visiting the family next door as children seemed very familiar. The point here is that teachers need to imagine their own experiences which will then enable them to ask similar questions of language learners.

An example of this (Holliday, 2013, p. 19) is when someone, whom we can call Sarah, finds it strange that the children in the family next door call their parents by their given names. Sarah’s first response is that “they are less polite than we are” and that because “the children don’t use a respectful form of address; they don’t value politeness like we do.” However, these are the sorts of easy answers that are produced by and give rise to prejudice, especially where polarised values are referred to. This type of response also mirrors language learners thinking that English represents a culture which is incompatible to theirs. The preferred response, which teachers should encourage, is to look more deeply and see that there are a large variety of ways of showing respect, and that in this particular family the parents may approve of being called by their given names and do see it as respectful. This way of looking more deeply at the behaviour of the family enables Sarah to learn how the small culture of the family operates. At the same time, she is able to appreciate this unfamiliar cultural practice of using given names without having to adopt the practice herself. This also helps Sarah interact with the family positively but on her own terms. This is a positive negotiation of Self and Other which we all carry out on a daily basis. Sarah’s response also involves her forming her own small culture with the family—small culture formation “on the go.” It also places everyday cultural travel into new and unfamiliar settings. All of this can be applied to engaging with new cultural domains in language learning without losing one’s own cultural identity.

Discussion 3: Why some people exaggerate their culture

It is easy for language learners, and also teachers, to say, “In my culture we don’t do this.” So here is another activity to look critically at this:

Recall a time when you exaggerated your own culture to make a point.

  • In what ways did your construction distort the true reality of things?
  • Why did you do it?
  • Do you believe other people (language learners, teachers, textbook authors) when they do it?

The answer to the final question has often been a definite no, which indicates to me that once the question is posed this answer is an almost definite. If the question is never posed, then the dominant essentialist discourse of culture and language will undoubtedly prevail. This raises an important point regarding carrying out research about culture and English (Holliday, 2014a). People need to be asked questions in a certain way to take their attention away from ready-made scripts and easy answers and to consider deeper alternatives.

Discussion 4: Making connections with home life

Something else for teachers to think about, to help students think more creatively about culture, is the following:

Devise an activity which involves language learners collecting data about their home life that helps with the learning of English.

  • How would you help them make the connection?
  • What exactly would you ask them to do?
  • How would they be asked to report?

This activity type is at the core of the nonessentialist social action approach to teaching English related to cultural context. It is important to note that while language learners have rich experience which they can make use of, they might not realise this. This is especially the case because of all the forces from society and the educational establishment which act against this awareness. This task and its related questions emphasise the criticality of how the issue of cultural experience should be approached. If teachers simply ask language learners about how their culture relates to English, they may invite responses similar to those of Beata—that their culture is simply different to that of English. Such responses would be polarised, essentialist, and counterproductive. This is because the essentialist discourse of English and culture is so powerful. Teachers therefore need to think very carefully about how to ask questions about culture which invite language learners to avoid easy answers and enter into a more creative and exhilarating exploration.


Adichie, C. N. (2007). Half of a yellow sun. London, England: HarperCollins.

Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. London, England: HarperCollins.

Holliday, A. R. (2013). Understanding intercultural communication: Negotiating a grammar of culture. London, England: Routledge.

Holliday, A. R. (2014a). Researching English and culture and similar topics in ELT. EFL Journal, 5(1), 1–15.

Holliday, A. R. (2014b). Using existing cultural experience to stamp identity on English. Retrieved from

Weber, M. (1964). The theory of social and economic organisation. New York, NY: Free Press. (Original work published 1922)

Widdowson, H. G. (1979). Explorations in applied linguistics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Dr. Adrian Holliday is professor of applied linguistics at Canterbury Christ Church University, in England. He specialises in intercultural communication, qualitative research methods, and the sociology of TESOL.
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