Raising Cultural Awareness in FL Classrooms

by Barbara Waldern

Living and teaching in a foreign culture has its frustrations and anxieties. Rather than succumbing to such negative feelings, one can use the opportunity to develop more cultural awareness. Moreover, one can assume some responsibility in educating herself and students about cultural difference. Who better than a foreign FL teacher to teach cultural awareness?

As more societies become more and more multicultural in this day and age, and people generally must travel farther and more frequently, intercultural contact is a fact of life. Appreciating cultural difference and adjusting to different cultural milieus is a necessity. Lack of appreciation and failure to adjust can lead to acute conflict.

If you are a speaker of another language yourself, you know that language learning is an education in cultural awareness above all else. If you learn a language because you are attracted to it and enjoy the challenge, you know the joy of exploring a culture as much as a land and all the revelations it holds, despite the initial inconveniences and problems with communication. Indeed, cultural competence may be more important than linguistic competence when it comes to actually communicating effectively.

Cultural encounters, however, are not bowls of cherries if you must be immersed and learn to navigate through unfamiliar social situations over the long term. It can be a painful struggle that makes you confused and uncertain. Actually, the teacher teaching abroad may experience culture shock as much as the foreign student studying abroad. After the so-called “honeymoon” phase, when everything seems wonderful, intriguing and exciting because it is new, they can quickly sink into the negative feeling of the next stage. In the throes of culture shock, they can typically experience the following symptoms: difficulty sleeping, sadness, homesickness, exhaustion, increased worry, a desire to withdraw, unexplained crying, and overeating. They can fall into a habit of blaming the host people and country, and even associate with compatriots to grouse about them. The negative discussion and feelings can develop into hostility and stereotyping. If they do not take steps to understand the process they are experiencing and learn about the new culture, they can remain alienated and may become stuck in a negative and hostile mindset. There are many websites with pages that describe this mental health process in detail and recommend recourse. In writing this piece, I recently read an article (Oberg, undated) on the World Wide Classroom, a Consortium for International Education and Multiculturalism that offer resources for employees and students abroad (http://www.worldwide.edu/students/). Colleges often offer similar help, for example the following site: http://www.northeastern.edu/nuin/pdf/aus_stages_culture_shock.pdf .

The FL educator can and should help. Not only can she educate herself to deepen her own awareness, she can weave cultural awareness into classroom language lessons. First of all, though, she should take care of herself and take measures to become more familiar with the language and culture of the new setting if she is a recently arrived foreign teacher. If she teaches in her home culture and has foreign students, on the other hand, she and her institution should make efforts to ease the students’ situation.

Starting from the assumption that language and culture learning are one and the same process, classroom language lessons can be put into specific contexts and language tasks appropriate to the contexts learned and practiced. Comparisons between the cultural contexts and practices of the target language and that of the students can be made and discussed. Positive examples of intercultural situations, such as traveling and so on, can be made without glossing over the difficulties of adjustment. Humour can be used to shed light.

This approach to teaching language is supported by the proponents of activity theory. Activity theory (Leontiev, 1978 in Lantolf, 2000) starts from the premise that language and culture are learned together in a process that builds communication, cooperation because human have needs and are motivated to solve problems.

Needs > motives > actions towards specific goals > concept

People in one group learn to share concepts, which are symbolized by words. A specific culture along with its particular language thus grow together.

Applied to teaching FL, classrooms should provide as many opportunities for social interaction as possible, and lessons and content should be designed to make students aware of the particular contexts of the the interactions (Lantolf, 2000). That way, students will learn more nuances of the foreign culture and be able to communicate more effectively. To teach merely linguistics out of context is to miss a lot, and leave students in the lurch when it comes to using the new language.

Resources for culture and language learning can be found on the Barry Tomlinson page of the Britich Council’s website, among others: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/barry-tomalin/barry-tomalin-cult.... A book by Tomalin and Stempleski (1993) called Cultural Awareness provides some 50 pages of classroom activities. A summary of these activities is provided in the Contents section of the book. I have configured it here.

Cultural Awareness Table of Activities


The FL educator can lend the privilege, insight and knowledge of her situation to raise cultural awareness in the classroom. The understanding gained and discussions accomplished will be valuable for the language learner over time. Also, potential conflicts that students or graduates might otherwise get into can be avoided or mitigated because of the lessons learned in the FL classroom.



Lantolf, J. P. (2000) “Introducing Sociocultural Theory” in Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning, James P. Lantolf, Editor, 2000, Oxford University Press.

Northeastern University, student resources document entitled “The 4 Stages of Culture Shock” http://www.northeastern.edu/nuin/pdf/aus_stages_culture_shock.pdf

Oberg, Dr. L. (undated) “Culture Shock and the Problem of Adjustment to New Cultural Environments” on the Worldwide Classroom website, http://www.worldwide.edu/students/

Tomalin, B (2008) “Barry Tomalin cultural Activity-15 Resouces,” on the British Council’s website, www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/barry-tomalin/barry-tomalin-cultural-ac...

Tomalin and Stempleski (1993) Cultural Awareness, Oxford University Press

Waldern, B. (2015) “Methods Workshop” presentation notes for the Busan-Gyeongnam KOTESOL Spring Symposium on Cultural Awareness in the Language Classroom, Pusan National University, April 18, 2015.

Waldern, B. (2011) “Activity Theory in Review”, presentation notes for the Cambodia TESOL International Conference in Pnomh Penh, February 28, 2011