Language through Culture

Christina Kitson

An insight on the role of culture in language teaching and learning

Culture is usually defined as including attitudes, customs and beliefs that make one group different from other groups of people ( Language is one representation of culture.  Our language puts us into a group or a few groups based on where we are from. I am an English speaker from the United States of America. So, I speak American English, more specifically I speak Midwestern American English. So, I can identify as a member of the English-speaking world, the American English-speaking world, and the Midwestern American English-speaking world. These are groups that overlap but each has its own unique traditions and culture. Culture is not a simple concept, and we do not fit into just one cultural group. We have many different identities represented by our cultures. This is part of what makes culture so important in language teaching and learning. In the words of Claire Kramsch, U.C. Berkeley professor and scholar who has published extensively on the interrelationship between language and culture,

Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing.  It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them (Kramsch, 1993 p. 1)

When teaching language, we cannot separate it from the culture of its speakers. Culture is ingrained in the language that we use. It is part of our thought process that forms our ideas and thoughts into meaning to be shared. This does not mean that culture should be taught as a part of the process; rather, it should be taught through the learning process. Culture needs to be understood to understand the reason the language exists as it does. It is not a matter of judging the quality or “rightness” of the culture, but understanding differences and making sense of them. This is an opportunity for comparison to occur to broaden our understanding of ourselves as well as the target culture we are learning about. Many people approach learning about culture from the perspective that their culture is the default or “right” culture. They learn about another culture through noticing and discussing the differences between it and their own. A better approach would be to acknowledge that we all enter into language learning with our own culture and language background, and then view the learning process as an expansion rather than a comparison. It is not about looking at details and noticing differences; it is about seeing why those differences exist and what impact they have on the language used. This is a process and the more time spent learning about and engaging with different cultures the better we will get at seeing these cultural elements as neither “right” or “wrong” but just different means for representing the same ideas.

One component of cultural understanding is the concept of intercultural communication (ICC).  ICC is the blending of linguistics and culture through sociolinguistics. I want to argue that ICC is a critical component for language learning. This is an area that does not have a clear meaning, but is often interpreted as having a clear meaning that has been manipulated in the past (Dervin, 2010).  Deardorff (2006) suggests that intercultural competence is “the ability to develop targeted knowledge, skills, and attitudes that lead to visible behavior and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions” (pp. 247-248). Byram, Bribkova, and Starkey (2002) state that “intercultural competence is their ability to ensure a shared understanding by people of different social identities, and their ability to interact with people as complex human beings with multiple identities and their own individuality” (p. 10).  Spitzberg and Chagnon (2009) state that ICC is “the appropriate and effective management of interaction between people who, to some degree or another, represent different or divergent affective, cognitive, and behavioral orientations to the world” (p. 9). These are three different definitions but there are many other definitions out there. No matter what definition of intercultural communication we use, the following parts usually appear in a definition: attitudes, knowledge, and skills.

The part of “attitudes” in ICC refers to how open and curious a person is about the other culture. It is also about having mutual respect for other cultures. This is critical in language learning: when we think about cultural choices in language it is important to value them as equally valid options. The final component of attitudes is the discovery and willingness to discover. The learner has to be willing to learn new information and be interested in learning new information.

The part of “knowledge” in ICC refers to the general knowledge of culture and awareness of global influence. This includes understanding your own culture, which is critical and often overlooked in language education. Many people do not understand their own culture and identity. Once you know your own culture you need to have knowledge of the other culture (the target culture). This also means having a sociolinguistic awareness or a basic understanding of local language and cues. The last major element of knowledge within ICC is the idea of globalization and how it influences understanding. We cannot ignore globalization when we talk about language learning, especially if the language being learned is a language of colonization and it appears in many different forms.

The part of “skills” in ICC refers to all the aspects of learning and analysis. There are internal skills like listening, observing, and evaluating that are critical to understanding. This includes an attempt to minimize ethnocentrism. There are a lot of analysis skills like interpreting and relating, which involve making connections and using comparative techniques. It is important to be able to compare aspects of language and culture and see the similarities and differences. The last major part of skills is critical thinking. This involves critical thinking by viewing the world from a different viewpoint and examining one’s own more closely.

There are two major outcomes of ICC, the internal and external outcomes. Internal outcomes focus on being more flexible, understanding, adaptable, and moving away from an ethnocentric view. These are difficult to observe but can be self-reported. This is a critical step in understanding what you know about yourself and your approach to other cultures. The external outcomes focus on observable behavior and communication. These can be identified by an outside observer and can indicate the move to being an interculturally competent individual. This is more than thinking about the process but focuses on behavior changes. When we think about language this can be moving past the thought process of your native language to starting to formulate thoughts as you would in your target language. When communicating with people it would be a noticeable difference to use the target language’s nuance to communication.

ICC is not a knowledge bank to be memorized and learned. This means that it is a skill that needs to be constantly developed in individuals. For teachers this can be providing many resources to your students—scaffold and build their knowledge through the learning process and teach them how to learn on their own. It also means acknowledging that ICC is “not permanent, ‘for life,’ and its practice and learning never end” (Dervin, 2010 p. 15). ICC is something that we build and develop over time and with continued exposure. Teachers can make sure to provide opportunities to engage in discussion, interactive talk, and questioning. It is necessary to provide feedback and explanation of concepts and systems that may be unfamiliar but let the students guide the discussion. Teachers can create tools that allow students to show their ability to understand the concept and analyze information. The most important part of ICC is to acknowledge that this is a process that requires input, noticing, reflection, experimentation, and some form of output; it also works as a cycle. All of these elements are part of the language learning process as well.

As we discuss learning a language it is important to note the idea of learning versus acquisition. Historically, the idea of learning versus acquisition appears as an interesting discussion topic for many linguists. Made popular by Stephen Krashen, this idea draws attention to a major difference between acquisition and learning: acquisition is something done without conscience effort—it is how we pick up our first language; learning is what we do when we consciously try to learn a concept—we put effort and work into that process and it is called learning. This distinction has been called into question many times. Currently a lot of research in Second Language Acquisition would indicate that these two terms are synonymous (Ortega).


In this context of the discussion, I would like to present a slightly different spin on this idea. I do not think these terms are synonymous but I would like to propose that they are not as simple as Krashen suggested. I think there are times when we “learn” our first language, and times when we acquire our additional languages. I distinctly remember learning aspects of my first language as I struggled with English in school. I had to be explicitly taught a few sounds in English and repeatedly taught aspects of reading and writing that most native speakers do not struggle with in their first language. With my students I have also seen those that work hard to learn a language, spending a lot of time in classes and on homework, but I have also seen them pick things up without trying, such as learning new vocabulary from their friends and TV shows. This feels much more like acquisition than learning as they do not “intend” to learn, that is, they do not make a conscience effort to learn, and they are not being explicitly taught. So, I think it is logical to assume that we can both learn and acquire our first language as well as any additional languages that we learn. Most people do not “acquire” the writing system of their language, although they do “acquire” the spoken system. I think this difference is important because it puts emphasis on the question of whether the learning is intentional or incidental.

Language learning is not an easy task. Learning about culture is also not an easy task. Both ask the learners to put what they already know and believe to be “right” in the back of their mind while they focus on something that might be very different from their existing ideas. The key to learning is to have an open mind, which is part of the idea presented in Intercultural Communication (ICC). We have to be able to look beyond ourselves and our culture and see what different cultures and languages have to offer.


Arasaratnam, L. (2016). Intercultural Competence. Oxford Research Encylopedia of Communcation. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.68.

Byram, M., Gribkova, B., & Starkey, H. (2002). Developing the Intercultural Dimension in Language Teaching: A Practical Introduction for Teachers. Language Policy Division, Directorate of School, Out-of-School and Higher Education, Council of Europe: Strasbourg.

Deardorff, D.K. (2006). The identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization at Institutions of Higher Education in the United States, Journal of Studies in International Education, 10:241-266.

Dervin, F. (2010). Assessing intercultural competence in language learning and teaching: A critical review of current efforts in higher education. In F. Dervin & E. Suomela-Salmi, (Eds.). New approaches to assessment in higher education (pp. 157-174). Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.

Kramsch, C., (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Spitzberg, B.H., & Chagnon, G. (2009). Conceptualizing intercultural competence. In D. K. Deardordd (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (pp.2-52). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

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