The Importance of Studying Language in the Context of Culture

“Among the three major components of the curriculum (language, literature and culture), the greatest amount of time is still devoted to grammar and vocabulary aspects of language. Culture remains the weakest component due to its uneven treatment in textbooks and often due to the lack of familiarity among the teachers with the culture itself.” (Lafayette, 1988)

For various reasons, in the past culture played a diminished role in the language classroom. Traditionally, it was considered that throughout the FL learning process, channels of communication with speakers of other languages would automatically open to the learner. It was also thought that culture was not part of language learning. Others found the presentation of culture as a part of language to be too complex, too challenging to present to the learner while he was struggling with the structure and vocabulary of that language. Still others found it difficult to include aspects of culture in their language programs that used traditional instructional formats. Culture was presented in advanced classes through reading literature associated with its language, but most students of Russian never reached the advanced level. They mainly studied grammar and vocabulary, but not “culture.” At present, however, culture and communication are commonly discussed topics, and culture is viewed as part of the content of communication. Authors Shelley Smith, R. Michael Paige and Inge Steglitz in their chapter entitled “Theoretical Foundations of Inter-cultural Training and Applications to the Teaching of Culture” conclude that communication and culture are interdependent. Communicative competence requires cultural competence. Communication emphasizes oral skills, and culture, in its broad definition, encompasses not only geography, history, literature and civilization, but also “patterns for living.” The present view is that language use involves more than finding definitions in a dictionary.

While examining textbooks of the audio-lingual era, one can find some culture-related photographs, but rarely were they linked to the chapter’s content. The seventies brought about a significant increase in cultural information in textbooks in the form of photographs and illustrations. Some of them were integrated into language-based activities. The teaching materials of the eighties were influenced by the concept of functional-notional and communicative competence. Therefore, there was more cultural context and more communicative-based exercises. However, the grammar-based syllabus was still an integral part of second language learning. The nineties brought about a renewed interest in the teaching of culture, and “language awareness,” as well as “cultural experience and awareness” (Byram 1989) became the core of foreign language learning.

The nineties have also been a decade of technology and language standards. The Internet, films and other media, which present culture and the real world of the language being learned, remind us that intercultural communication is still very important. Intercultural communication requires students to become consciously aware not only of their own culture, but also that of speakers of others languages. The Russian textbooks of the nineties reflect the renewed interest in both cultural competence and communicative competence. The appearance of new textbooks relating to business language especially emphasize the need for intercultural awareness, which can lead to more successful communication.

According to anthropologists, diversity is necessary for survival of a species, and in order to be among those surviving species, commercially or politically, we must learn to cross not only linguistic, but cultural boundaries, as well. The approaching twenty-first century demands that our students not be indifferent to the culture of the people whose language they are studying. The newest textbooks will help them in this quest for excellence and success.