August 2014
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Douglas Magrath, Seminole State College, Oviedo, Florida, USA

Why Study Culture?

Classrooms reflect great diversity with students from a wealth of backgrounds and experiences. This presents challenges and opportunities to us as educators and as individuals. Diversity is an asset that provides opportunities to facilitate relationships based on respect and appreciation of our unique differences. Equipping teachers and other staff to build effective relationships with students, parents, and staff from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds is key for improving student learning and the success of schools in a diverse community. Placing value on our cultural and linguistic diversity and understanding cultural sensitivities is vital to success in education.

How Is Culture Learned?

An essential feature of culture is that it is learned along with language. Cultural concepts are transmitted by language, and they mediate between the speakers of the language and their environment. People sharing the same cultural framework organize their experiences in the same way (Pfister & Poser, 1987, p. 41).

One of the greatest challenges we encounter when studying concepts related to culture and the learning of culture is agreeing on what it is we are talking about. Cultural concepts are transmitted by language, and they mediate between the speakers of the language and their environment. Culture is an integral part of any communicative language course; culture involves the interaction of words, function, and reality. For example, the dictionary meaning may not communicate the cultural load of a given word. The psychological meanings and the subjective content of the entire communicative system—lexicon, stress, intonation, body language, eye contact, distance—must all be taken into account. In order to understand other cultures, “we first need to recognize that our habits, mannerisms, attitudes, preferences, and values are shaped by our own culture.  Culture is created by people and exists in an environment where human beings interact with each other and with the environment.

Culture and Language Learning

Sociolinguistic competence has been added to communicative competence as a key element in successful language learning. Intercultural competence allows people to broaden their world view. Those who have never experienced another culture or learned a second language are often unaware of their own cultural milieu. ESL learners need to understand the underlying L2 culture. Otherwise, the language becomes a dry series of symbols with no practical application. The knowledge of culture is essential for communication with native speakers. Language is more than a system of sending and receiving information. Language and culture are interrelated:

We don’t have to downgrade or change our culture or methods, nor do we have to erase our students’ cultures. Rather, we need to realize that cultures are different. We should be ready and willing to help students make the transition to the dominant culture, so the learning process can continue as we learn from each other.

How Is Culture Tied to Language Acquisition?

Studies show that language and culture are inseparable. In a study of advanced ESL students, researchers found that the cultural component enhanced L2 learning (Troyan, 2012).

We don’t have to downgrade or change our culture or methods, nor do we have to erase our students’ cultures. Rather, we need to realize that cultures are different. We should be ready and willing to help students make the transition to the dominant culture here in the United States so the learning process can continue as students and teachers learn from each other (Magrath, 2014).

Loaded Vocabulary

The cultural significance of certain words may change over time. Some adjectives, such as slim, skinny, scrawny, and thin, are similar yet different. Note that the value of skinny has changed. It used to be an insult, but now people are rushing to get skinny. Someone may be fat, overweight, or heavy-set. Language learners may see these as meaning the same (Magrath, 2010).

Classroom Factors

Students may seem shy or aloof when they are just showing respect. Some, coming from very rigid forms of education, may find the American system bewildering and react by withdrawing or, conversely, by imitating this new-found freedom and becoming disruptive. Some may smile when they are confused; they may say "yes" even if they do not understand, just to save face.

Culture and home language also influence learning styles and reaction to classroom activities. Some cultures encourage group work while others are more individualistic. Some students expect more error correction but not direct criticism, which they regard as immoral and to which they will not respond positively. Some international students are more accustomed to the lecture technique and memorizing of details rather than the American system of researching information and reporting to the class. Middle Easterners, for example, rely heavily on memorization of the work of scholars and experts. They may feel shy or awkward if asked to stand and deliver in front of a group. This technique of “spotlighting” should be introduced gradually, and the instructor should understand if a student does not seem eager to report right away.

Internationals may feel uncomfortable with question and answer sessions and fear that giving an opinion different from that of the teacher may result in a bad grade. A wrong answer, rather than being part of the learning process, would bring shame upon the student’s family. U.S. teaching techniques are often based on student-centered instruction, learning by doing, grouping, peer review, and teacher as a facilitator. Marking systems vary from country to country. A check mark may mean “wrong” in one country while it means “correct” in another. Response time to questions varies across cultures; in American classrooms, a lack of response generally indicates that students don’t know the answer, while Asians may remain silent and even avoid eye contact, out of respect for the teacher. Conversely, Arabic students see a quick answer as a sign of strength and interest, not aggression, and interruptions are common. People in a conversation will all be talking at once rather than taking turns. The teacher in this case will become a moderator and allow each person to have the floor and make sure the others wait their turns.

Another difference is if a U.S. teacher does not know the answer, he or she will often say that he or she will find out and inform the students later, but in Asia “you are supposed to be perfect in your field” (Polio & Wilson-Duffy, 1998, p. 25).

Knowing these cultural differences will help ESL instructors in teaching international students as well as in preparing lesson plans and writing materials.


Heusinkveld, P. (1989). Cross-cultural activities in the foreign language classroom. In T. B. Fryer, F. W. Medley, & Southern Conference on Language Teaching (Eds.). Language in action: Theory and practice. Dimension: Languages '88. Selected papers from the Annual Meeting of the Southern Conference on Language Teaching (24th, Charleston, South Carolina, October 13–16, 1988) (pp. 77–88). Washington, DC: Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.

Magrath, D. (2010, Spring). Reading skills and culture. AZ-TESOL News, 31(1), 3–5.

Magrath D. (2014, Spring). Culture and ESL teaching. AZ-TESOL News, 35(1), 10–12.

Pfister, G., & Poser, Y. (1987). Culture, proficiency and control in FL teaching. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Polio, C., & Wilson-Duffy, C. (1998, Summer). Teaching ESL in an unfamiliar context: International students in a North American MA TESOL practicum.TESOL Journal, 7(4), 24–29.

Troyan, F. (2012). Standards for foreign language learning: Defining the constructs and researching learner outcomes. Foreign Language Annals, 45(S1), S118–S140.

Douglas Magrath teaches ESL at Seminole State College. He has published in TESOL’s New Ways series and Perspectives on Community College ESL series.

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