The Role of Culture in efl curriculum Design

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The Role of Culture in EFL Curriculum Design
Renaud J. Davies, Japan
Renaud Davies holds a Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and Curriculum Studies. He is currently working in Japan as a lecturer at the Bunkyo English Communication Center (BECC) at Hiroshima Bunkyo Women’s University.


What is culture?

National culture as an influence

Linguistic imperialism

Micro culture as an influence

Cultural awareness as a teacher



It is commonly agreed among linguists and anthropologists alike that language and culture are inevitably intertwined. As a result, teachers of English as a second language must not only appreciate this chain of language and culture but should be made aware of its immense influence and the numerous implications that it pulls into the world of ESL curriculum. Thus, the following essay will examine culture as an influence on curriculum development in ESL. The purpose is to demonstrate the influence that culture has on ESL curriculum development in an attempt to inspire ESL teachers and curriculum makers to consider such influences in their contributions to the world's increasing ESL curricula.
What is culture?
Before looking at the influences of culture on curriculum development it is important that the term culture be defined. Needless to say, the term ‘culture’ is an elastic term that can conjures up vague notions about whole countries and races. Thus, it is important for teachers not to depend too much on such notions when designing or moulding their curriculum to better complement learners. Rather, it is paramount that teachers delve more profoundly into its implications at the classroom level in order to avoid creating large stereotypes and prejudices that may steer curriculum development in the wrong direction. For the purposes of this essay, we will define culture not in sociological or anthropological terms, which stress history and tradition and thus, connote a sense of permanence, but rather, as a specific activity where individuals come together to share something they have in common. The former will be referred to as national culture and the latter, simply as micro-culture.
Holliday describes culture as being “temporary in the sense that they form when groups in question meet to carry out specific activities….Both learning and teaching can be said to have cultures of their own, as can different approaches and methodologies.”(Holliday, 1994, p.23) In short, the classroom is a culture within a culture connected to various other cultures, a kind of matrix if you will, giving rise to a myriad of influences, in other words, a very complex system that requires examination if one is to design curriculum appropriately.
National culture as an influence
To begin, I would like to examine cultural influence using a whole-to-part approach, beginning with national culture. In simplicity, we can divide national cultures into individualistic or collectivist cultures and even further, into high or low context cultures. For the purposes of this essay we will use East Asia as an example. In the case of Japan, Korea and China, students are influenced by a national culture that is very collectivist and high-context. A high-context culture refers to societies or groups where people have close long-term connections that result in many aspects of cultural behaviour being implicit, innately thinking and acting as a family culture might. The anthropologist, Edward Hall, who in-fact coined the term, noted that people in such cultures tend to be reserved, have inward reactions, and use a lot of nonverbal communication (Neuliep, J.W. 2006). Consequently, students whose communication skills are imbedded in a high-context culture may be difficult to understand. For example, ESL teachers will often design curriculum based on the students’ feedback or reactions to certain methods and materials being used in the class. Such flexibility is wonderful, but will only be effective if students directly express their likes and dislikes. A class full of Japanese learners may cause problems in this area. A teacher must be aware of such manifestations of culture in order to read the often-indirect messages that students send. In the Japanese culture, students do not question the teacher’s methods or voice their opinion on the material or curriculum being used since this is regarded as being disrespectful. Therefore, in such cases, teachers must not expect direct feedback but rather, find ways to elicit feedback, which will appreciate the students' culture.
As for collectivism, students from collectivist cultures tend to shy away from individual praise, not wanting to stand out since these students in general are not as individually competitive as students in cultures such as Britain and the U.S. In America, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” but in Japan, “the tallest nail gets hammered down”. The reason is that China, Japan and Korea all have a long history that is entrenched in Confucianism, which is an age-old philosophy that puts great emphasis on human relationships. These relationships, which Confucius calls the Five Relationships, are part of a fixed hierarchical system in which respect is shown for age, seniority, rank, and family background. This influence is still present in all three countries today and as a result, should be taken into account when developing curriculum for students in these countries. For example, in a recent study conducted in Japan by Hadley (2001), a strong Confucian influence on student learning was revealed. Once the importance of Confucian values were recognized and considered in lesson planning and teaching, the performance level of the students increased and the teacher received much better feedback.
The results showed that students preferred to learn through cooperation and did not like to elevate themselves above others. Also, reflectivity was important as opposed to impulsivity. As a result, lessons designed to give students more time for individual reflection and more opportunity for competitive group-work are much more beneficial to such students. Thus, it is safe to conclude that when teaching students from different cultures it is, of course, necessary to design curriculum that takes all of this into consideration.
Linguistic imperialism
We have been looking at the influences of national culture on curriculum, but it is important to note that such influences are not restricted to only non-English speaking countries. In fact, much of the curriculum used in ESL teaching is strongly influenced by American and British culture. Thus, I would now like to take a look at ESL curriculum and its U.S-UK centricity as an influence on cultures around the world. It is commonly agreed within the world of ESL/EFL that culture should be a part of the curriculum. Peck (2007) argues that “without the study of culture, foreign language instruction is inaccurate and incomplete.” However, globalization of the English language and consequently its shift towards becoming the world’s next lingua franca, is giving birth to new challenges for ESL and EFL culture teaching.
ESL curriculum that includes culture teaching tends to give focal attention to the US and Great Britain (Nault, 2006). However, English is also a first language in other countries such as Australia, Jamaica and Ireland among others. Nault states that such curriculum wrongly implies that “EFL/ESL learners will never need to communicate with native speakers beyond the geographical confines of Great Britain and the US.” (Nault, 2006, p.315) However, it is not uncommon in today’s multi-cultural climate for two non-westerners to share a conversation in English. Honna (1998) gives an example of a Japanese person and a Singaporean communicating in English and states that “if Anglo-American customs were adopted in such situations, conversations would be awkward and difficult to manage.” (Honna, p.1). Since both Asian cultures share similar cultural traits it is illogical to adopt American or British customs.
In my own experience teaching in Japan, many of the textbooks focused on American forms of English and used countless examples that were American in context. When introduced to other forms of English beyond this American-centric curriculum, many students expressed disinterest. When asked why, these students argued that the other forms of English (South-Carolina American, Newfoundland Canadian, and Scottish are some examples.) were not correct forms; a few even stated that they were lower forms of English. In other words, such ethnocentric curriculum can lead students to view other forms of English in a negative way, considering them deficient or of less value. Considering that the US is a world super power and consequently, learning about US culture and business practices would be most beneficial is, of course, undisputable. However, to give too much focus to the US or British culture downplays the equally significant roles that other English speaking nations play in our world. The following quote by Toshiyuki Takagaki brings further light to the above point:
“A basic understanding of sociolinguistics is important for English learners who wish to take full advantage of job opportunities in the new global economy, where they will undoubtedly encounter different varieties of English….. Another benefit is that once students study the topic, they learn that one variety of English is not superior to another variety, and they will develop increased tolerance for speakers of different dialects.” (Takagaki T. 2005, p.4)

Furthermore, linguistic imperialism gives attention to the potential consequences of ESL/EFL teaching when UK and US centric ideologies proliferate (Brown, 2004). Those advocating against linguistic imperialism postulate that English as a medium of education, business, and government “has impeded literacy in mother tongue languages, has thwarted social and economic progress for those who do not learn it, and has not generally been relevant to the needs of ordinary people in their day-to-day or future lives.” (Brown, 2004, p.194). However, it should be noted that non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers of English and further, that these non-native speakers are continuously shaping the English language to better suit their purposes. These new English forms are much like the dialects within a country, only on an international scale. David Crystal argues that the number of speakers involved in some of these new 'Englishes', as he calls them, is tremendous and cannot be ignored. India, for example, is the second most populated country in the world and houses roughly 50 million competent English speakers (Crystal D. 1997). It is important to note that English is not owned by anyone and as Salman Rushdie once stated “the English language ceased to be the sole possession of the English some time ago.” (Rushdie, 1991)).

English and its continuous climb towards an apex of globalization will inevitably result in the dissipation of US-UK centric influences. English educators will, therefore, need to complement this through offering a more culturally diverse curriculum. Students will also be required to give more attention to the diversity of English with its many accents and culture-specific vocabulary. This can already be seen in tests such as TOEFL where students are required to listen to a variety of accents for listening comprehension. In brief, curriculum should include culture but stretch beyond this US-UK centricity to encompass other English speaking nations and cultures in an attempt to increase cultural awareness and allow for greater international competence.
Micro culture as an influence
I would like to now shift our attention to the smaller cultural influences on curriculum, which despite not being national, still carry the same weight of importance in curriculum design. To begin, each and every learner, despite which national culture they belong to, has through the course of their life developed certain learning styles that suit their individual needs. These may be described as cognitive, sensory or personality learning styles (Reid J. 1995). They are independent of national culture and are unknown until a teacher becomes accustomed to the students and discovers each student’s individual learning styles and strategies. These individual learning styles are influenced by a plethora of cultures such as family, community, friends, and school among many others. This brings us to the importance of in-context curriculum development. Once students have come together enough times to build familiarity and thus, form a class culture, a teacher can then mould curriculum to meet the needs of the students and their learning styles and strategies.
Perhaps an example may better suffice in bringing further light to the importance of these micro-cultural influences. Gayle (1995) in “Cultural Differences in Learning Styles” discusses the learning style of the Hawaiian-Americans. He states that the Hawaiian-Americans are field-dependent or hands-on learners as are those in many agrarian societies. He tells a short story about a man who was sent to Hawaii to explain the mechanics of certain machinery that had been purchased from his company. His teaching encompassed many detailed explanations and diagrams but despite all of his preparation and a highly organized presentation coupled with clear and concise directions, his students lacked interest and had difficulty understanding him. The problem was that the teachers learning style, like many Americans, was field-independent. He, therefore, had de-contextualized the learning and had, therefore, not used a hands-on approach. If he had studied the social context of his students prior to lesson planning, he would have realized this and designed his curriculum accordingly. This, of course, also applies to ESL. For students who are field-sensitive or field-dependent, teachers can use what is termed the Natural Approach. This approach focuses on creating a learning environment that is as similar as possible to the culture of the language being learned in order to make lessons more real. This is done through the use of tangible objects during lessons. For example, students learning about clothes would have access to actual clothing and even try on clothing during a lesson. There are, of course, a variety of learning styles, but my purpose is simply to emphasize the importance of recognizing these learning styles in order to deliver a more effective lesson. In brief, teachers venturing into a new culture must pay attention not only to the national culture and its influences on students but also the micro-cultures such as the larger ones of urban vs. rural and the smaller ones of community vs. family.
Cultural awareness as a teacher
It is also important to recognize the influence of the teacher on language learning. A teacher, often unconsciously, constructs curriculum in a fashion complementary to his or her own culture. It is here that I must voice the importance of cultural awareness and its obvious saliency in curriculum development and teaching. If a teacher’s learning style is similar to that of students, teaching and learning will most certainly complement each other. However, if not, it is important for a teacher to make certain adjustments to allow for fluent understanding and comprehension: the earlier example of a teacher in Hawaii being an example. Nault states that “Cultural messages are also relayed through teachers’ choices of instructional methods and educational materials, or what has been termed the ‘hidden curriculum’.” (Nault 2006). Teachers should be aware of which materials they use and how their own culture may act as an influence on the curriculum they choose or create.
Further, it should be stressed that teachers have an influence on students’ attitude towards a culture which effects language learning. Peck aptly states that:
“Most foreign language teachers would agree that positively sensitizing students to cultural phenomena is urgent and crucial. Studies indicate that attitudinal factors are clear predictors of success in second language learning. However, effecting attitudinal changes requires planned programs which integrate cultural and linguistic units as a means to cross-cultural understanding.” (Peck, p.1 ).
Thus, teachers need to focus on fostering positive attitudes and consequently, use curriculum that is designed in a way that will positively effect a student’s perception of the culture or cultures belonging to the language being taught. A positive attitude helps to increase intrinsic-motivation, which can lead to increased success in second language learning.
In conclusion, the significance of national culture as an influence on curriculum development is indisputable. Whole nations with thousands of years of history, in which certain learning styles have been practiced, cannot be ignored and consequently, teachers must be aware of such learning styles when developing curriculum to complement learners. Furthermore, as our world continues to turn in the direction of globalization and the English language grows in international stature, ESL and EFL curriculum must complement these changes through offering a more diverse curriculum that will allow for greater international competence. ESL curriculum must break beyond its US-UK centricity and recognize English as an international language.
Lastly, the above macro-cultural influences tend to dwarf other cultural influences that are equally significant. Teachers must be aware of their own culture and how it influences the students through the curriculum they design and the methods of teaching they use. Further, the micro-cultural influences of family, school, community, and countless others must be taken into account. Further, every individual has his or her own learning strategies and styles that need to be recognized. All of these influences are of paramount importance and must not be ignored when creating curriculum. Through greater cultural awareness on all levels, curriculum makers can better construct a curriculum that takes all of this into account and consequently, build a curriculum for a globalized world.

Brown, H. D. (2004) Sociocultural Factors in Principles of Language Learning and

Teaching. New York, 2004
Crystal D. (1997) English as a Global Language Cambridge University Press

Gayle L. (1995) Nelson, Learning Styles in the ESL/EFL Classroom Ed. Reid Joy.

Hadley G. (2001) Constructions Across a Cultural Gap” Niigata University of

International and Information Studies, from:

Holliday, A. (1994) Appropriate Methodology and Social Context Cambridge University

Honna N. and Takeshita (1998) “On Japans Propensity for Native Speaker English: A

change in Sight”, Asian Englishes, from: []
Nault D. (2006) “Going Global: Rethinking Culture Teaching in ELT Contexts”,

Language, Culture and Curriculum Vol. 19, No. 3

Neuliep, J. W. (2006) Intercultural Communication. 3rd ed.Sage Publications California
Peck D. (2007) Teaching Culture: Beyond Language, Course Website, Yale-New Haven

Teachers Institute, p. 1, from:

[ 1984/3/84.03.06.x.html]
Reid J. (1995) Learning Styles in the ESL/EFL Classroom. Heinle & Heinle
Rushdie, S. (1991) Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York:

Viking and Granta

Takagaki T. (2005) “Raising Students' Awareness of the Varieties of English”, English

Teaching Forum Vol. 43 No. 2

Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the British Life, Language and Culture course at Pilgrims website.

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