On Target Culture
Teaching about target culture - for teachers; Why Learning The Culture Of Your Target Language Is a Good Idea - for students; Personal experience - Anastasia Libenson.
Should we teach the culture of the target language?
Our students come to class with different goals in mind - some will want to immigrate, some need basic survival skills and some need it for work. We will try to adapt the program to these particular needs and implement necessary vocabulary and grammar topics. But what about the culture? Should we teach our students about holidays and traditions? Should we discuss historical figures and events of the country where the language is spoken? Or should we simply focus on the language void of any social constructs and manifestations? Let’s get to the bottom of things together.
What constitutes “target culture”?
"Culture is a complex system that involves information, ideas, art, legislation, morals, conventions, and any conceivable habits acquired by man as a member of a particular culture," anthropologists say. These are all factors that change from one location to the next and have a significant impact on the language spoken locally. But such global languages as English may encompass more than one culture and even exist outside of it. Every English speaker brings something new into the language depending on what they want to say or express.
If we take Russian speakers of English as a second language, they will use it to describe the experiences they have based on their own culture and country, geographical location and even religion. And these concepts sometimes seep into the language becoming a global phenomenon. Take a look at the word Babushka and what meanings it carries. To a foreigner this word will mean a special way of tying a kerchief around your head; to a Russian - a kindly old woman wearing that kerchief around her head. But a 2019 hit song “Babushka Boy” by A$AP Rocky made the concept known worldwide.
Another question is - do these things have a lasting impact on the language? So much so that we need to address them in class? The answer is yes and no. Since the language is constantly evolving and is often described as alive, it will never fully abide by the very rules that define it. Historically speaking, the language has some fixed phrases and expressions - often idioms, sayings, proverbs and so on, that have carried on even when the concept itself no longer seems relevant. These lexical units are used and should be taught, and sometimes along with the historical background that will explain them. Without the latter, students might find it hard to accept concepts so foreign to them (pun fully intended).
So when is it appropriate?
As we have already explored in the previous part, culture manifests in the language in different ways and may or may not be relevant to your students. The most important thing is to consider your students’ needs, goals and interests.
Immigration. If your student is planning to move to another country, being exposed to and educated about its culture should become an integral part of your syllabus. Without the knowledge of how people communicate, what is considered to be rude and polite, what is expected of them in different social situations, the person may accidentally put their foot in it and embarrass themselves.
Business. If your student has foreign colleagues and partners, attends conferences and calls, or is planning to work for a foreign company, learning about the business culture of the country will completely transform and improve their experience and performance. Although it is true, that globalisation is happening at a breakneck speed, some cultures are so set in their ways and customs, that it may take decades, if not centuries, to unroot them.
General interest. Learning about the culture of your target language can spice up the lessons for your students, bring in an element of wonder and surprise and help occasionally break the routine, otherwise the process can get quite stale at a certain point. If your students show genuine interest and are willing to find out more about the culture, do not deprive them of such opportunity. They don’t even have to be lessons fully dedicated to one particular aspect, rather, bits and pieces in the form of texts, listening or videos, that complement the main topic of your lesson.
Say, for instance, you are studying the topic “Family”. It may be interesting to discuss the different attitudes to older family members and the family hierarchy, how much responsibility siblings assume over each other and how important family ties are in general. In cultures, where families play a crucial role in a person’s life, the language will reflect that with different separate words for various family members, even distant relatives (i.e. Russian). And on the contrary, some languages will have only most basic terms with the rest deriving from them (i.e. English). Knowing this will help your student understand why things work the way they are and come to terms with the differences.
When is it not appropriate?
Teachers have to keep up with the developments in the language and culture so as not to accidentally teach something completely obsolete. Older textbooks may still have the outdated phrase “How do you do” that the English used when meeting or greeting each other (it didn’t even require a reply!), but you will never hear that today.
Apart from teaching something that no longer exists in the culture, a teacher might try forcing the culture on the student, teaching vocabulary that is not only uninteresting, but is highly irrelevant to their immediate language needs. Take “Christmas lessons”, for instance. The most common vocabulary will be “mistletoe”, “sleigh”, “reindeer” which is fine for a B1+ student in terms of the general discussion, but will these words help your student express the way they celebrate the holiday (or the one they have in their culture at that time of the year)? And where might they encounter the words outside the given context?
Finally, if your student doesn’t show any interest in the target culture whatsoever, and is very unlikely to encounter it anywhere, consider toning it down and teaching only the most necessary things.
Culture is a lot more than just holidays and family members - it is music and art, pop culture and memes, literature and movies, social rules and behavioural patterns. You won’t be able to completely shield yourself from the target culture when you learn a language, because it is used to express, describe and categorise the worldview of that particular nation. However, delving too deep or using outdated information will most likely do more harm than good.
Lessons on culture
Of course, we couldn’t but share some wonderful lessons in our community, that are related to the topic of culture. Use them wisely!
Pride Month B1 - learn more about this important time for the LGBTQA+ community
Wedding Dramas B1 - learn about wedding traditions throughout the world and use new vocabulary to describe your own.
Strangest Laws in America B1 - learn to use modal verbs of deduction and read about the weirdest laws in the US.
Being a foreigner in Japan (a personal experience) B1 - Practice reading, learn about Japan and its culture and learn new vocabulary related to describing a country and its culture.
Tattoos and Society B1 - What is the place of a tattoo in American culture? Compare with your own!
American State Stereotypes B1 - learn to talk about stereotypes, find out more about American states and how they are seen by the Americans themselves.
Memes: the changing face of society B1 - talk about pop culture and how it transforms the way we communicate with each other.
Cancel Culture B1 - a most recent phenomenon that has spread globally and affects public figures, companies and even whole countries.
How much target culture do you teach to your students? Do you agree with the ideas in the article or do you have your own? Do share in the comments!
Why Learning The Culture Of Your Target Language Is a Good Idea
Be it English, Italian, Thai, or Arabic – all languages are connected to a certain set of behavioural norms and discovering those norms will give you a much deeper appreciation of both the language and culture. But it is far from the only reason why learning the culture behind your target language is a good idea.
Keeping you motivated
Limiting the study of a language just to grammar rules or a list of words can be boring, much like eating something without salt or the right set of spices. Learning the main aspect of a culture can be amazing. A Czech proverb says: “You live a new life for every new language you speak.”
Seeing how people act or think in a different way can give flavour to your study and make you discover a new way of thinking. If you’re looking for a way to keeping yourself motivated through your language learning process, discovering the culture is at the top of the list.
Helping you interact with native speakers
The main reason why people learn a new language is to interact with people. You will not have an effective approach if you don’t know even the most basic aspects of the culture of people whom you are speaking with. Some gestures or subjects of conversation can be considered acceptable in one culture but disrespectful in another.
As an example, holding out your hand with just your forefinger and pinky raised to make “horns” (or the “I love you” gesture from American Sign Language) can be a friendly gesture in the USA but, in Italy, it will be considered an offensive one. It means that the person has been betrayed by his mate or you. Alternatively, it can mean that you are casting the Evil Eye on someone or warding against it. While this is just a tiny example, these cultural faux pas are easy to do if you don’t learn the set of norms behind the language.
Helping you understand idiomatic expressions
One of the best ways to sound like a native speaker in your target language is to pepper your speech with idioms and colloquialisms. Mastery of those aspects of a language shows your complete understanding of it. And, coincidentally, learning the culture is fundamental to understand the idiomatic expression of a language.
Idiomatic expressions are sentences whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the words that make them up. Knowing the cultural aspect behind these expressions will help you to remember them.
For example, to understand the expression “like the cacio cheese in maccheroni” you should know a bit of Italian cuisine culture. If you’re familiar with the art of cooking pasta perfectly, you’ll know that this expression means that something is perfectly suitable for a situation like the cheese in a plate of pasta.
How you can get started with learning about the culture
You can get started learning about a specific culture by reading some books or on the web, but the best way to understand the culture of your target language is with a trip! Culture is something you should taste, smell, and experience. None of these aspects can be fully understood just by reading a cultural manual. Especially if you spend some time outside the touristy places you will be able to interact with people, see what they speak about, and how do they act in their daily life. There, you will also have the possibility of using what you learned and seeing the result of your efforts.
If you cannot travel, try to find people who speak the language you are learning in your area or online and ask them about their culture. Usually, people are happy to speak about their native culture and will gladly help you discover it.
Conclusion – Culture is the best reason to learn a language
If you are learning a new language, spend some time learning the culture of the people who speak that language. Read about it, travel, and interact with people. This will increase your eagerness to learn and give you a meaningful experience. After all, there’s nothing more motivating than the prospect of discovering something new and exciting thanks to your new language abilities.
Hello! My name is Anastasia. I have been teaching English for 5 years. I have an IELTS certificate and did intensive English courses in the UK and in Ireland.
How do you understand target culture? How much of it should we teach? When is it appropriate and when it is not?
Target culture is the culture of English speaking countries, especially of the UK and the USA. Speaking about the culture I do not only consider national clothes and holidays. For me, culture is a much deeper term that includes the way of thinking, historical background, daily routine, the way of life and of course art.
I believe that culture should be mentioned in every lesson. You don’t need to always spend the whole lesson on it. Sometimes a few comments are enough and sometimes you can create a thematic lesson fully dedicated to a certain aspect of the culture. Isn’t that too much? Do we really have to concentrate on the culture so much? My answer is a strong yes!
The scientists have proved that the way you see the world and your culture influences your language and vice versa. The language you speak changes your perception of the world. For example, people whose language has special names for the shades of one colour identify them easier than others.
Another great example of the connection of our understanding of the world and our language is an excitement performed by Guy Deutscher. He didn’t tell his daughter that the sky is blue. Although he presented to her the blue colour in general, she didn’t see the sky as something blue but described it as something white or transparent. These examples are quite narrow so I’m going to provide a broader one. While in many languages, including Russian and English, if someone accidentally hits a vase and it breaks, we tend to say “He broke the vase” while the Spanish say “The vase broke itself”. We can notice that the Spanish take life easier and tend to be happier than many other nations. Taking all these examples into consideration, we can say that to really understand the language and to start thinking in this language instead of just repeating phrases learnt by heart, we need to understand the culture and to a certain degree become a part of it.
What if a student is not interested in learning culture and tells you they don’t want to have such lessons? I believe that forcing someone to learn something they don’t like can destroy their motivation. That is why in such cases you should start with short comments on culture, not complete lessons. Don’t talk about boring obvious things such as celebrating the New Year. Try to make your comments short and interesting or even intriguing. For example, if you want to mention Saint Patrick’s Day, you can show a picture of the river in Chicago fully dyed green and ask your student “What do you think is going on here?”. I wouldn’t advise you to give up on the culture even if your student doesn’t find it exciting. Just find the right form and the right amount.
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