Culture: The Hidden Truth in English Language Teaching


Nhem Davut
Norton University
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
September 06, 2020


Drawn on the author’s experience in conducting research on the interplay between language and culture in the field of English Language Teaching (ELT), this article aims to provide readers, particularly English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers, with knowledge about an important but rather neglected phenomenon regarding the role of culture in ELT. During this era of globalization in which information is pervasive and learners of English need to communicate with people from diverse cultural contexts, culture plays a pivotal role both in and outside the classroom. This article, drawing upon the literature, focuses on two aspects: the role of culture in ELT and strategies EFL teachers might adapt to teach culture in their English classrooms. This article focuses on the what, why, and how of culture in ELT.


In retrospect, the typical aspiration in English language teaching had centered on the development of English language proficiency until the 1970s when Hymes (1972), looking from sociolinguistic perspective, proposed the notion of “communicative competence.” This notion has leaded to the development of a well-known language teaching approach, called “Communicative Language Teaching.” In this approach, the triumph of English language learning is not only about the construct of correct sentence structures (i.e. grammar) but also about the achievement of communication skills through various means. For instance, a teacher might introduce new language items through reading, listening or conversations, followed by discussion, lessons or controlled practices about grammatical structures. The class may then end with free or less controlled practice activities to allow students more opportunities to engage with the target language or lesson (see Nhem, 2019).

Between the 1970s and 1990s, researchers developed other concepts such as “cultural competence or intercultural competence,” and by the end of the 20th century, Byram (1997) introduced the term “intercultural communicative competence” to extend the communicative competence proposed by Hymes in the 1970s. Obviously, the notion of “cultural competence, intercultural competence, or intercultural communicative competence” have focused on the vitality of culture in ELT and aim to develop students’ ability to understand not only their own culture but also the culture of other people. The evolution of language learning outcomes during that period has been a wake-up call on the essentiality and the appreciation of multiculturalism in ELT. This means that ELT has become a window opening up students’ worldviews on the diversity of culture. However, in the early 2000s, Moran (2001) argued that “personal competence” is at the core of ELT. This personal competence refers to students’ ability to use the English language not only to appropriately interact with other people or understand cultural differences but also to understand their own culture, identity or worldview.       

Unfortunately, researchers have focused mostly on the aspect of “intercultural competence or intercultural communicative competence” while personal competence has been relatively left underexplored. A plethora of research (see Sercu et al., 2004) has revealed that the role of culture has, to some extent, gone unnoticed by EFL teachers in diverse contexts as they tend to focus more on teaching other language aspects such as grammar or vocabulary. Concurrently, a lot of studies have also pinpointed teachers’ limited understanding of cultural aspects that appear in ELT textbooks and their limited ability to incorporate cultural activities in their classrooms (see Lim & Keuk, 2018; Luk, 2012; Nhem, 2020). This issue has probably resulted from teachers’ limited engagement with research (e.g. reading recent articles or books) while teacher training seems to have exceedingly focused on teaching language skills, leaving no direction or discussion on how to teach culture and what role it plays in the classroom.


Why does culture matters in ELT and beyond? First, a large amount of cultural knowledge or information is transmitted through textbooks, some of which might present cultural information with an appreciation about certain cultures, ideological assumptions or political influences. In fact, a number of studies (see Hilliard, 2014; Song, 2013; Xiang & Yenika-Agbaw, 2019) have indicated concerns about the presentation of culture in both internationally and locally published ELT textbooks. Many of these textbooks may have been developed in a rather biased manner, embedding ideological orientation toward certain cultural values, power or political influences. If teachers are not aware of how to deal with such issues, their students might absorb cultural information unconsciously. This might lead students to develop prejudice and become less critical. Conversely, textbooks users (i.e. teachers and students) need to know that cultural information presented in EFL textbooks should be regarded as something that needs to be critically examined, debated, compared and reflected on rather than to be learned uncritically. In fact, engaging students in comparing and reflecting on cultural diversity can develops their critical thinking which is one of the 21st century skills.    


The previous sections have provided an overview of the role of culture in the ELT. Yet, how can EFL teachers and students address these concerns? Moran (2001) suggests four stages of cultural activities that teachers can adapt and incorporate into their classroom.

  1. Gathering information: Students are given activities that allow them to obtain different types of information. For example, students read a text about “Greetings” and answer some questions related to the topic. At this stage, students will learn different types of greetings in different cultural contexts. The questions about this topic can be: How do American people greet each other? Is there a difference in their greetings between young and old people? How do Korean people greet each other? Simply put, all the activities are about gathering information.
  2. Developing skills: Students are provided with activities that allow them to perform and experience the cultural information that they have learned. For instance, students can do a role-play about American or Korean greeting style. Some questions related to this topic can be: How can you describe American greetings? How do you do them? What is appropriate during greetings?
  3. Discovering explanations: Students are provided with activities that allow them to interpret or explain the cultural information that they have learned. For instance, students can explain why American people shake hands. What is the value behind that? Is it possible to shake hands in other countries? What can be considered as polite in American greetings?
  4. Reflection: At this stage, students are required to compare the cultural information they have learned with their own culture. They should reflect on their feelings, thoughts or attitudes. For example, how do you feel about American greetings? How would you greet American people and Cambodian people?     

These four stages of cultural learning activities aim to develop different learning outcomes of “cultural knowings” (Moran, 2001, p. 139). In the gathering information stage, students are expected to develop “knowing about: description” while in the developing skill stage, students should develop “knowing how: participation.” Next, the discovering explanation stage aims to develop “knowing why: interpretation” whereas the reflection stage is to develop “knowing oneself: self-awareness.” It should be noted that some ELT textbooks might fail to cover the reflection activities, so teachers need to be aware of this issue.

Finally, this overview regarding the role of culture in ELT is written to provide readers with some essential information to stimulate their interest and awareness of the topic. I argue that the role of culture should not be excluded in any form of teaching, both in the classroom and in teacher training programs. To enhance their knowledge and skills about teaching culture and English in general, EFL teachers should read not only teaching methodology books or materials but also latest research articles that address the current concerns or developments in ELT.


Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Hilliard, A. D. (2014). A critical examination of representation and culture in four English language textbooks. Language Education in Asia, 5(2), 238-252.

Hymes, D. (1972). On communicative competence. In J. B. Pride, & J. Holmes, Sociolinguistics: Selected readings (pp. 269-293). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Lim, S., & Keuk, C. N. (2018). A socialcultural analysis of Cambodian teachers’ congitions about cultural contents in an ‘internationally imported’ textbook in a teriary English learning context. In H. P. Widodo, M. R. Perfecto, L. V. Canh, & A. Buripakdi, Situating moral and cultural values in ELT materials. Springer, Cham.

Luk, J. (2012). Teachers’ ambivalence in integrating culture with EFL teaching in Hong Kong. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 25(3), 249-264.

Moran, P. R. (2001). Teaching culture: Perspective in practice. Boston: Heinel, Cengage Learning.

Nhem, D. (2019). Cambodian EFL teachers’ and learners’ beliefs about communicative language teaching. The Asian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 6(2), 238-251.

Nhem, D. (2020). Culture and ELT: Cambodian teachers’ perception and practice of textbook adaptation to realize intercultural awareness. ELT Forum: Journal of English Language Teaching, 9(1), 65-74.

Sercu, L., Garcia, M. C., & Prieto, P. C. (2004). Culture teaching in foreign language education EFL teachers in Spain as cultural mediators. PORTA LINGUARUM(1), 85-102.

Song, H. (2013). Deconstruction of cultural dominance in Korean EFL textbooks. Intercultural Education, 24(4), 382-390.

Xiang, R., & Yenika-Agbaw, V. (2019). EFL textbooks, culture and power: A critical content analysis of EFL textbooks for ethnic Mongols in China. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1-15.

Young, T. J., & Sachdev, I. (2011). Intercultural communicative competence: exploring English language teachers’ beliefs and practices. Language Awareness, 20(2), 81-98.

The Author

NHEM Davut is a lecturer of English at Norton University and an ESL instructor at Paññasastra University of Cambodia’s Institute of Foreign Languages (PUC-IFL). He holds a Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA in TESOL) and a Bachelor of Education (BA in TEFL) from the Institute of Foreign Languages, Royal University of Phnom Penh. He has conducted research on student inquiry, student motivation, Communicative Language Teaching, task-based language teaching, language learning strategies, and language and culture. His research articles have appeared in Asian Journal of Applied Linguistics; ELT Forum: Journal of English Language Teaching; International Journal of Literary and Studies; and Cambodian Review of EFL Research (forthcoming). Davut has served as an Editorial Board Member of International Journal of Indonesian Education and Teaching and has been a peer reviewer for LLT: Journal on Language and Language Teaching.

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