Target-language culture in EFL

Culture, apart from any other connotations to do with the artefacts of a given community, involves, and is mainly comprised of, socially acquired knowledge.

This knowledge is organised in culture-specific ways which, to a greater or lesser extent, frame and determine our perception of reality. In effect, we largely define the world through the filtre of our world view. As has been argued elsewhere, schemas, which are cognitive structures through which we organise and interpret information, evolve as part of a society’s cultural imposition (i.e., the imposition of its distinct view of reality) on its individual members.

 Widdowson (1990) refers to socially acquired knowledge as ‘schematic knowledge’, which he juxtaposes with ‘systemic knowledge’, which is the knowledge of the formal properties of language, involving both its schematic and syntactic systems. In native language learning, the speaker’s schematic and systemic knowledge go hand in hand, as they are said to develop concurrently. EFL learning, however, is a completely different state of affairs: EFL learners have already been socialised into the schematic knowledge of their mother tongue, which means they are initiated into their culture by dint of their language learning. For example, while Orthodox people will have certain preconceptions as far as Easter is concerned (they may be familiar with the Orthodox Easter rites etc.), Catholic believers or Muslims may be totally ignorant. By the same token, while a child from the Anglo-American world will normally think of a dog as ‘man’s best friend’, Middle Eastern children are likely to perceive it as dangerous and dirty. Similarly, in a learning context, while a secondary-school teacher in Japan is supposed to be an intelligent, high-status, authoritarian (not necessarily authoritative!), and humble male, the typical Anglo-American teacher does not necessarily answer to this description.

 When students begin to learn a foreign language, they undergo a substantive degree of conflict, a misfit between the culture-specific aspects of cognition and the native language system (systemic knowledge). FL learning causes learners’ schemas (or schemata) to be subjected to novel cultural data whose organisation becomes difficult or next to impossible to achieve. So, a learner of English who has never lived in the target-language culture will most likely be confronted with problems as far as the English language system is concerned, if the English systemic data are presented through such unfamiliar contexts as, say, Halloween or English pubs. Even if these are explained in their proper light, the learner may still fail to perceive Halloween or the pub in the same way as they are normally evoked (and, consequently, invoked) in the mind of the native speaker of English. Our natural tendency is to assess a novel stimulus with respect to our own cultural system (schematic knowledge). According to Widdowson and others, if one cannot access the schematic data, one cannot be expected to learn the systemic data with any ease.

 One area where the mismatch between the culture-specific aspects of mother tongue and the schematic and systemic structures of the foreign language is shown to influence FL learning negatively is that of reading comprehension. It is well-established that readers read what they expect to read, making use of culture-specific schemas in relating input to what they already know and, consequently, construct the writer’s intended meaning. When the relevant cultural background assumptions are missing or do not tally with the ones already obtaining in the learner’s mind, reading tends to turn into a time-consuming and frustrating experience. What is more, familiarity with the dictionary definition of the lexical items and knowledge of the sentence structures in a text are not enough for learners to comprehend new information. A cultural misfit can only be “rectified” by means of immersion in the target-language culture.

 Given that culture plays a major role in cognition, which in turn significantly impedes comprehension and interpretation, one of the salient issues in FL pedagogy is the determination of the type of schematic input to be presented to FL learners.


Writing hinges on the operation of schemas moulded by the social context in which the writer lives. Writers not only construct mental representations of their socially acquired knowledge, but such schematic knowledge also influences their writing in terms of the rhetorical organisation of a text, audience awareness, topical priorities etc. As a case in point, we could adduce the fundamental differences between English rhetorical patterns—which are generally characterised by linearity in the presentation of ideas—and German rhetorical patterns—which are marked not only by digressions, but also digressions from digressions. In the same vein, speaking of audience awareness skills, studies have shown that while American letters are reader-oriented, the French ones are writer-oriented, and the Japanese ones are oriented to the space between the writer and the reader. Finally, apropos of topical priorities, it should be noted that they differ from culture to culture. For instance, while the White House seems to be a favourite topic with American EFL textbook writers, the British Royal Family appears to be a popular topic with British EFL writers. EFL textbook writers, in general, like everyone else, think and compose mainly through culture-specific schemata, thus consciously or unconsciously transmitting the views, values, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings of their own English-speaking society.

 One reason why EFL textbooks focus on elements about the American or British culture is that it is generally not cost-effective for publishers to set materials in the learner’s society, as such a decision would bar other learners from other societies from making use of the materials in question on account of their irrelevance to their own cultures. 

 Another reason is that native-speaker textbook writers, who usually reside in their own Anglo-American culture, find it hard to design materials that transcend their ‘fit’. By contrast, the presentation of this ‘fit’ through sets of discourse particular to the target language culture is relatively easy and practical. They live in their own society and they feel “at home” writing about it. 

 Apart from all this, there are some theoretical claims about the necessity of teaching the target language in relation to its own culture. According to Stewart (1982), the target language culture is an essential feature of every stage of FL learning, and asserts that teaching the formal aspects of the foreign language while referring to the native culture of the learner is virtually useless. In other words, what is the point in learning a foreign language, if the learner is denied the opportunity to cope with experience in a different, “foreign” way?

 Nevertheless, there are several problems with the above approach. Firstly, it forms part of the ‘strange paradox’ that, while in mother-tongue teaching what is emphasised is children’s ability to express themselves, in FL teaching learners are forced to express a culture with which they are barely familiar (Brumfit, 1980: 95). Secondly, developing a new identity through one’s sudden exposure to the target-language culture is likely to cause a split between experience and thought, which is conducive to serious socio-psychological problems affecting the learner’s mental equilibrium negatively.

 Another problem concerning the use of target-language elements has to do with the fact that such a position equates a language with the instances of its native speakers’ uses and usages, thus making them not only its arbiters of well-formedness and appropriacy but also its sole owners. Yet, according to Paikeday (1985), this assumption is erroneous, as there are educated as well as naïve native speakers. In this light, some non-native speakers of the language may be more entitled to arbitrating well-formedness and appropriacy than some putative native speakers.

 What aggravates the problem of presentation of the target language in relation to its own culture is the generally stereotypical representation of that culture in instructional materials. Many American EFL materials present stereotyped portrayals of men and women, through one-sided role allocation, overt put-downs, or simple omissions.

 By way of conclusion, it should be said that language has no function independently of the social contexts (or “socially sanctioned contexts,” for that matter) in which it is used. In the case of the English language, which is a lingua franca, such contexts are numerous. Similarly, the schematic knowledge of the speakers of such contexts is quite diverse. So, to present English as a language belonging only to its native speakers and its settings is misleading, as well as a disservice to EFL learners, who are called on to tackle unfamiliar information while trying to cope with the exigencies of a novel language system. Instead of being confined to a given target-language culture, shorn of any insight or critical perspective, EFL learners should build bridges between the culturally familiar and unfamiliar. Such bridges can be built, inter alia, ‘through the use of comparisons as techniques of cross-cultural comprehension or the exploitation of universal concepts of human experience as reference points for the interpretation of unfamiliar data’ (Alptekin in Hedge and Whitney (Eds.), 1996: 60).





  • Alptekin, C. 1996. ‘Target-language culture in EFL materials’, in T. Hedge and N. Whitney (Eds). Power, Pedagogy & Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Brumfit, C. 1980. Problems and Principles in English Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Paikeday, T. M. 1985. The Native Speaker is Dead! Toronto and New York:Paikeday.

  • Stewart, S. 1982. ‘Language and Culture’. USF Language Quarterly 20/3: 7-10.

  • Widdowson, H. G. 1990. Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas