Monday, November 19, 2012

Academic Series - Multiculturalism in the EFL class

We language teachers know that learning a foreign language involves many different aspects. Besides mastering the structure of the language and acquiring the necessary vocabulary to be able to communicate, learners have to be exposed to other features of the language in order to assimilate it in a more holistic manner.

Among the various issues a language program should deal with, the study of culture is a very important one. As Harmer points out,

By the end of the twentieth century, English was already well on its way to becoming a genuine lingua franca, that is a language used widely for communication between people who do not share the same first (or even second) language. (HARMER, 2007, p. 13)

Therefore, teachers should keep in mind that culture and language teaching are intertwined and should not be taught separately, for twenty-first century students need to develop their international communication skills.

Nevertheless, although most teachers know the importance of addressing this topic, they tend to overlook the cultural facets a lesson may bring, and many are the reasons they encounter to justify their choice for not doing so. The most common ones are the lack of time due to the complex school syllabus and their own lack of knowledge of the topic. 

Having identified that, we two, as teacher trainers, felt motivated to conduct research on this topic in order to help other teachers become aware of their tasks as purveyors of multiculturalism and also to motivate and encourage them to explore the various cultural aspects present in their lessons.
We then realized that an important question surrounds teachers as they plan their lessons – whose culture should we address? Snow ponders that

As you consider the issue of culture in English language courses, you may tend to think first and foremost of U.S. and British culture, but with a little reflection it is clear that neither of these terms is fully satisfactory as a label for the kind of culture most closely associated with English. (SNOW, 2007, p. 205)

In the globalized culture era, taking multiculturalism into account when planning lessons is imperative. Snow also highlights that

In today’s world, the growing global role of English means that students may need to use English not only for communicating with people from English-speaking countries but also for communicating with people from many other nations and cultures. (SNOW, 2007, p. 211)

With that in mind, the first step to be followed is to spot the cultural themes a lesson may bring. Some lessons present topics in a very overt way, making it easier for teachers to explore them. Moran states that:

… explicit forms of cultural expression, such as perceptions, beliefs, values, and attitudes can be explicitly stated in oral or written form. Therefore, being able to identify any of these themes within a lesson may be the gateway to incorporate cultural subjects into the learning environment. (MORAN, 2001, p. 75)

However, some lessons don’t present evident cultural spots to be explored. That’s when the teacher should analyze them more carefully in order to set a link between the core of the lesson and the globalized world, stressing the importance of addressing and respecting cultural diversity. For instance, any grammar topic can be worked on through examples that contain multicultural information; most listening and reading comprehension tasks can be linked to the students’ personal experiences, as well as to the students’ cultural background; speaking activities can be used as opportunities to demystify stereotypes.

The use of realia

As you can see, various activities can be developed for that purpose. The use of realia, for example, is a great option, for students truly enjoy novelty. A discussion about where such an object comes from, what it’s used for, and how people from different countries would take advantage of it can be a simple but involving activity. Also, as Snow (2007, p. 209) mentions, magazines, newspapers, travel guides, maps, souvenirs are valuable resources that can be used in a variety of ways as a vehicle for allowing students to learn about the cultures of other nations.

Research projects

Another form of tackling culture is through the encouragement of research projects. Having set a link between the lesson topic and culture, the teacher can inspire students to find out more about other countries and their cultures. Students should visit the library, surf the net, and even try to meet foreigners that could share ideas with them. After conducting some research, students should present the results to their classmates or write a report about it. This experience will undoubtedly raise students’ cultural awareness, broadening their understanding of diversity and polishing their international communication skills.

Authentic materials

The printed and visual media are also of a great help when it comes to incorporating culture into the EFL lesson. Besides helping build the reading and listening skills, books, films, and radio broadcasts provide a great deal of cultural knowledge input. Thus, teachers should make use of this rich material to explore both historical and contemporary cultural and social issues.  Pairwork and groupwork activities can be designed to generate discussion about the material studied, always emphasizing the need of respecting diversity.

Critical-incident exercises

The integration of cultural themes into the lesson also plays an important role in the development of intercultural competence. Some activities are proposed by Snow (2007, p. 213) to serve that purpose. He names one of them as critical-incident exercises, which are “useful for encouraging students to be more careful and think more broadly as they interpret the behavior of people from unfamiliar cultural backgrounds.”  Critical-incident exercises consist of two basic parts:

11)    a story in which people of different cultural backgrounds have a communication problem;
22)    a discussion question that invites students to analyze the incident and attempt to arrive at a better understanding of why the problem occurred.

Snow states that

these exercises are a good springboard for discussion of cultural differences, especially differences in beliefs and values. They also help students develop a number of very basic but important intercultural communication skills and habits:
-       They help students become more consciously aware of the processes by which they interpret the behavior of foreigners;
-       They encourage students to pause and think rather than jumping rapidly to conclusions;
-       They help students build the habit of considering a broad variety of possible explanations of behavior that seems strange or problematic rather than stopping with obvious, kneejerk interpretations. (SNOW, 2007, p.213)

These are only a few suggestions on how to make culture themes present in EFL classes. As Brown (2007, p. 133) states, “a language is part of a culture, and a culture is part of a language.”  Once teachers are aware of how much culture surrounds their day-to-day classroom routines, they will be able to come up with a number of ideas on how to culturally enrich their lessons through the use of practical and straightforward activities.


BROWN, H. D. Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2007.

HARMER, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. 4th ed. Cambridge: Pearson Longman, 2007.

MORAN, P. R. Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice. Boston: Heinle Cengage Learning, 2001.

SNOW, D. From Language Learner to Language Teacher: An introduction to teaching English as a foreign language. 1st ed. Alexandria: TESOL, 2007.


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