The Importance of Teaching Culture to EFL Students

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Piccadilly, Photo taken from ELTpics by Christina Martidou used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

I am very happy to share this guest post from Ljiljana Havran, an English language teacher and librarian from Serbia.  Ljiljana has an MA in English language and has been teaching general English and English for Specific Purposes (Aviation English) at the Aviation technical school in Belgrade for eighteen years. She blogs at and is @LjiljanaHavran on Twitter. I will turn it over to Ljiljana with thanks for sharing this excellent and informative post.

It was my great pleasure to write this guest post. The post was inspired by Mike’s posts and his reflections about teaching English to students in South Korea.

Cultures have widely differing characteristics and misunderstandings are likely to occur between members of different cultures. Intercultural communicative competence is the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other language and cultural backgrounds. My main aim in the post was to explain how we can develop a culturally competent attitude, why we must avoid cultural stereotypes, and also, to point out the importance of teaching culture as an integrative part of EFL. I hope this post is interesting and useful to EFL teachers, and teacher trainers who are preparing people for cross-cultural encounters.

My first cross-cultural experience

After leaving my secondary school I spent a month in Brighton in an English home with an English family. My journey to England was a fascinating experience; the appeal of the exotic and different was not only about distant geographic places but also because of cultural distance. I was very curious about the differences, and so I was eager to experience all aspects of the English culture. I attended a summer course in a private language school for exchange students. I visited some fabulous castles, colleges, theatres, museums, and pubs. I enjoyed listening to melodious English language (which to my great surprise was a lot different from the English language I had been taught at school in Serbia). I met some nice and friendly people who did not match at all a well-known cultural stereotype of the English as reserved, unfriendly and cold. My journey to England was an experience of a lifetime; it was as if I had lived a completely different reality.

What is culture, and how can we develop a culturally competent attitude?

Culture is a way of life. It is the context within which we exist, think, feel, and relate to others. We tend to perceive reality strictly within the context of our own culture, and there is still a tendency to believe that our own reality is the correct perception. Using the norms of our own culture as standards when we judge the behavior of people from other cultures is called ethnocentrism.

In the bias of our own culture-bound world view, we tend to picture other cultures in an oversimplified manner, and we view every person in these cultures as possessing corresponding stereotypical traits. The thing is that stereotype may be accurate in depicting the typical member of a culture, but it is inaccurate for describing a particular person, simply because every person is a unique individual and all of person’s characteristics cannot be predicted on the basis of cultural norms.

If we say, for example, that the Swiss are very punctual, this could be seen as a cultural characteristic. This is because it is a pattern of behaviour which is very typical in Switzerland: from their transport system to their business meetings.

In this way, generalisations can have some value and be useful as long as they are not considered absolute. However, it is crucial to view all people as unique individuals and realize that their experiences, beliefs, values and language affect their ways of interacting with others. If people recognize and understand differing world views, they will usually adopt a positive and open-minded attitude toward cross-cultural difference. A close-minded view of such differences often results in the maintenance of a stereotype.

Milton J. Bennett coined the term “ethnorelativism” to mean the opposite of “ethnocentrism” – the experience of one’s own beliefs and behaviors as just one organization of reality among many viable possibilities. According to Bennett (2009), intercultural learning is “acquiring increased awareness of subjective cultural context (worldview), including one’s own, and developing greater ability to interact sensitively and competently across cultural contexts as both an immediate and long-term effect of change.” Bennett describes six distinct kinds of experience that spread across the continuum from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism.

“In general, the more ethnocentric orientations can be seen as ways of avoiding cultural difference, either by denying its existence, by raising defenses against it, or by minimizing its importance. The more ethnorelative worldviews are ways of seeking cultural difference, either by accepting its importance, by adapting perspective to take it into account, or by integrating the whole concept into a definition of identity.”

Ethnorelativism supposes that “cultures can only be understood relative to one another, and that particular behavior can only be understood within a cultural context” (Bennett, 2009). By recognising differences among cultures, and by constructing a kind of self-reflexive perspective, people are able to experience others as different from themselves, but equally human. Adaptation to cultural difference is not assimilation; adaptation is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture.

Bennett points out that It is naive to think that intercultural sensitivity and competence is always associated with liking other cultures or agreeing with their values or ways of life. Some cultural differences may be judged negatively – but the judgment is not ethnocentric unless it is associated with simplification, or withholding equal humanity.” (Bennett, 2009).  For more information please see “Becoming Interculturally Competent.”

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My favourite Lancaster pub, and home to excellent blues, folk, and jazz. Photo taken from ELTpics by Martin Eayrs used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

What does it mean to develop intercultural awareness in the EFL classroom?

The role of English as an international language of communication in the modern technological world in the 21st century poses special demands on EFL teachers. ELT researchers have recognized the dialectical connection between language and culture since mid-1980s. Krasner (1999) for instance, recognized the necessity for language learners to develop not only linguistic competence but also an awareness of the culturally-appropriate features of the language.

In recent years there have been more discussions and research focusing on the importance of intercultural sensitivity and intercultural communicative competence. EFL teachers should not just draw learners’ attention to facts about other cultures, but they should teach in such a way as to make it clear that communication is more than the exchange of information and opinions. Effective intercultural communication requires empathy, respect, openness and sensitivity.

It is very important first to raise students’ awareness of their own culture, and in so doing to interpret and understand the other cultures. Raising intercultural awareness implies the development of skills for successful communication, i.e. competent and peaceful interaction with people who are different from us. Such an approach assigns another important role to the foreign language teacher/learner: that of “intercultural mediator”, i.e. someone who is capable of critically reflecting on the relationship between two cultures.

EFL teachers will be challenged to exploit this situation by creating opportunities for communication based on the values, cultural norms, and needs of learners, rather than on the syllabi and texts/textbooks developed in native-speakers communities. Most importantly, an intercultural language learning programme should help the learners to develop an “intercultural awareness” in order to “translate” culture in their own context (Guilherme, 2002).

How could culture be fully integrated in EFL learning?

Cultural activities should be carefully organized and incorporated into the EFL syllabus to enrich and inform the teaching content. These are some useful ideas for presenting culture in the classroom:

  • Students read articles or extracts from books, newspapers, magazines or websites written by travel writers or people who have visited the students’ town, country or region. Discussion topics can include the norms and values of the culture, nonverbal behaviours (e.g. the physical distance between speakers, eye contact, gestures, societal roles).
  • Students discuss funny stories and experience they once had related to cultural issues, or misunderstandings. They can role play a situation based on cultural differences (e.g.  a situation in which an inappropriate greeting is used).
  • Using photos in class to explore various cultures and lifestyles and answering questions together can be interesting for your students; these activities enable lessons to take the form of collaborative discovery.
  • Students are usually curious about the different foods, art and songs that have value in different cultures, and you can teach that by incorporating important elements of cultural celebrations into English language classroom. 
  • Using proverbs in class as a way to explore culture, its values, and analyze the stereotypes of the culture. Discussions can focus on how the proverbs are different from or similar to the proverbs in the students’ native language.
  • Students create a brochure, guidebook, poster or webpage for visitors to their town, country or region. This should not only describe famous sites and places to visit, stay or eat, but also give visitors some useful tips about what they may find strange or unusual about their own culture.
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Burning dried oak branches on Christmas Eve in Serbia Photo taken from ELTpics by Jelena Mihajlov

Here on Mike’s blog you can find a lot of very interesting posts that can be used for discussions about culture and the role of the teacher. Also, you can find some ideas for teaching culture to EFL students. Some of my favourite posts on the blog are:

Couldn’t teach today because Confucianism

Korean Culture Tips

18 things about Korean Students

They gave me a fork



  1. anthonyteacher

    Thanks for the post, Ljiljana. When I was an EFL teacher in Korea, it was often expected to “teach culture”. What was excpted of me was really to teach about holidays and food. That’s not culture, or at least its only a superficial understanding of it. I like how you started your post about stereotypes, because a lot of cultural teaching can be done by exploring and breaking stereotypes.

    I also like your ideas about reading articles written by travel writers and others who can offer a more interested and less superficial perspective. If the teacher has the same language as the students, they can read and discuss it in L1 before moving to L2 work.

    One thing I’d like to say is teaching culture is not only important for EFL students but ESL as well. Although they may be living in the host culture, they may not necessarily understand the what, why, and how of what is happening right in front of them. This is especially true if they stay within their own language community and do not make friends of the host culture, or to a certain extent, if they only make international friends.

    For example, I have a group of close-knit Japanese students who still think all Americans eat hamburgers despite the fact that they have been here for more than three months. So, if they have this stereotypical view of surface culture, their understanding of the deeper culture must be even more shallow.

    I remember reading an article on CRT – culturally-responsive teaching – during my master’s program that addressed this quite well, but I can’t find it. I did, however, find this interesting resource:–__a_guide_for_teachers.pdf

    Thanks for the post and I hope it generates a lot of discussion.

    • ljiljana havran

      Thanks so much for your comment, Anthony. In most ELT syllabuses nowadays teaching culture means focusing on holidays, food, folk songs etc. While these topics may be useful, without a broader context and carefully organized language activities, they give a superficial understanding of culture. As you pointed out “a lot of cultural teaching can be done by exploring and breaking stereotypes”, and in my opinion it is crucial, because stereotypes present an obstacle to intercultural communication.

      While exploring such a contentious topic as teaching culture to EFL/ESL students, I’ve been trying to find out what kind of stance the teacher should adopt with regard to national stereotypes. The most frequently recommended attitude to stereotyping in ELT is avoidance of the issue, and it probably stems from the fear that classrooms will become uncontrollable and unsafe. However, the students are bound to come across stereotypes for the simple reason that they are part of the lexical inventory of the language they are learning, and teachers do not have control over the input their students get exposed to. Even if stereotypes are successfully avoided in the classroom, they can be encountered in everyday conversation, in jokes targeting ethnic groups, travel brochures, literature, and, in the mass media. The other option of teaching cultural stereotypes is by supplementing language classes with culture related topics, and, occasionally, topic-related courses (e.g. British/American Studies in Serbia), but it seems that some research results questioned its efficacy. The third option advocated recently by Byram, Kramsh, and some other linguists is: tackling stereotypes in ELT as barriers to communication. In other words, what is advocated is searching for an understanding of cultural boundaries, not just registering that they exist, and attempting to come to terms with them.

      In my view, the teacher must constantly keep in mind that her task is to create conditions conducive to learning and provide guidance, and it is the learners who discover things by themselves (through interaction, project work, dialogues/discussions/ debates). The teacher should balance between accepting and appreciating on the one hand (i.e. encouraging her students to find their own voice), and challenging and criticizing their (or generally accepted) modes of thinking, on the other hand.
      (I’ve found the resource recently and think it can be very useful: )

      Thanks again for your very interesting comment and the link on CRT.

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  5. Meshulam Howitt


    I really enjoyed reading this insightful article which gave me a lot of thing to think about concerning my EFL teaching. As I was reading I kept asking myself questions which were answered as I kept going.

    What does interest me and I would be happy if you could answer this for me is:
    1. At which age group would you start emphasizing this cultural awareness?
    2. Beside teaching about the general awareness to the differences between cultures, do you think there is a place to go into more specific details about some cultures (English, American, Japanese?). There might not be an end to it.

    B.T.W another idea could be an e-pal program in which our pupils would correspond with other kids from around the world. There are special sites which help you form these connections and seem to be great. At the last Edmodo conference I heard a great talk by this teacher who had her pupils actually write a book together with pupils from a entire different culture.

    Thanks again!
    Meshulam Howitt

    • ljiljana havran

      Hi Meshulam,

      I’m really glad you enjoyed reading the post and found it thought-provoking.

      Claire Kramsch points out: “If language is seen as social practice, culture becomes the very core of language teaching. ….Culture in language teaching is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing”. (Context and Culture in Language Teaching, OUP, 1993). Intercultural awareness is not really therefore a skill, but a collection of skills, knowledge and attitudes enabling language proficiency.

      In my opinion, as a fundamental feature of language learning/teaching, intercultural awareness is important at all levels. The intercultural approach is certainly easiest to implement with adult, advanced learners, and teaching younger age groups is a bigger challenge for an EFL teacher. However, the lessons can be easily made learner-centered, interesting, and enjoyable, and therefore they may be successful with all age groups (for example: making quizzes about Ss’ own culture and other cultures, or, a Culture Capsule – a brief oral or written explanation, prepared by a teacher or a student, of one minimal difference between two cultures, usually accompanied by photos or other realia, etc.). There are so many sites/blogs where language teachers can find a lot of materials and lesson ideas they can try with the students in order to help them to better understand their own culture and other cultures around the world.

      Thanks so much for your comment and for the very interesting ideas.


    • ljiljana havran

      Hi Geoff, I’m really glad you liked the post. Thanks very much for your kind words and your support. 🙂

  6. Heidi

    I found this article very helpful and insightful. I teach children EFL and I find that there is too much translation, as opposed to trying to understand the words and what cultural aspect is behind them. I am always unsure as to how to go about introducing this idea to students that some things simply cannot be translated in a meaningful way. For example, in the country where I live and teach in, it is standard cultural norm to call a teacher, “teacher”. This term in English is not accepted and frankly felt almost rude to me when someone first called me that. One of the other English teachers told the children to calll her “Teacher” in English and I felt that this was a complete abandonment of the essence of what English is. It is inappropriate in English to go about calling people by their profession, as is done in their native language, and this fact should certainly be conveyed to the students. Wondering how this might be done in a sensitive and competent manner.

  7. Am

    I found your post really informative and helpful. I try as much as possible to incorporate culture into my lesson plans to show my students how things really work in the US. Fortunately, we have many Americans and other Anglos in the country where I teach so my students have the opportunity to interact with these people and see firsthand the cultural differences.They always make sure to tell me when they manage to successfully communicate with a native English speaker. It’s a sense of real pride for them to know that they can give someone directions or answer questions in English about their own culture. My students also spend a lot of time watching American TV and films and develop a certain cultural view from that. Many times they will come and ask me about things they’ve seen, especially when it comes to high schools in the US. One funny example, “is it true that in America you have to be a cheerleader to be popular?” I try my best to explain that not everything being portrayed in the movies is necessarily true
    and tell them about my personal experiences growing up in the US to give them a real life perspective.

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