The Role of Local Culture and Context in English Language Teaching

-Mabindra Regmi

The Relation between Language and Culture
The structuralists portrayed language as an entity that could be segmented and through learning these segments, the totality would also be learnt. This method has been tested, challenged and in many cases discarded in the world of linguistics. The conception, propagation and inevitable discontinuation of ever new methods has prompted Sowden to express “there has indeed been methodological fatigue, leading many to the pragmatic conclusion that informed eclecticism offers the best approach for the future.” (Sowden, 2007, p. 304). Perhaps, eclecticism is the right trend while implementing ELT methods. One of the factors that should be considered, however, is that there seems to be a deep connection between language and culture unlike the belief of the structuralists.
The concept of language teaching now is that of concentration in what the learners learn or want to learn rather that what is to be taught. As the classrooms get more learner-centered, it can be assumed that the attitude and the initiatives from the learners’ side will be more prominent. Since a person is shaped by ones culture and local setting, we can assume that the importance of cultural context in language teaching will grow as learning becomes more learner centered.
It is in conjunction with this shift of emphasis away from teaching and towards learning, that there has appeared a growing awareness of the role played by culture in the classroom.
(Sowden C, 2007, p. 304)
It is not only the learners that come with their own culture in the classroom, the teachers also bring their own culture. This is particularly true if the language teacher is not from the locality. Sowden warns the teacher “to be aware not only of the cultures of their students and their environment, but also of the cultures that they themselves bring to the classroom” (Sowden, 2007, p.305).
Thus, it can be seen, however inconclusive, that culture of both the teacher and learner plays an important role in the language learning environment and they have to be addressed for effective learning to take place. This intricate mutual relationship between language and culture may be the key to unlock the language teaching methodologies of the future.
Whenever we talk about language and its use, it is important to figure out the relation between language and culture. There are few things we need to ask ourselves in this regard.
Can language exist independent of culture?
Is learning a new language (English) definitive of learning the culture of native speakers of English?
Who are the native speakers of English?
Will the culture of the native speakers be appropriate in the setting of the language learner?
Can language exist independent of culture?
A language cannot exist in vacuum. It has to express some objective function when utterances are made or some text is written. When we do make use of language, the production made is generally about what we know or what we have experienced. What we know and experience mostly confines within the local setting that we have grown up and where we are residing. Thus, local context becomes inseparable from the use of language.
Is learning a new language (English) definitive of learning the culture of native speakers of English?
When we learn a new language, we need to adopt the culture of the target language to a certain extent because the cultural aspect comes amalgamated with the target language. But what about the learners? The learners have their own set of cultural experiences and objectives of using a language. They have their own cultural amalgamation which has to be addressed during target language learning process to make it meaningful and relevant to the learners. We can assume that integration of local culture and context is inevitable while learning a target language.
Who are the native speakers of English?
The distinction that makes a native speaker is generally very vague and often misleading. It might be important to look into the terminology if we are to explain what English is. A dictionary definition might say that native is belonging to a certain geographic location. In the case of English we must consider the fact that it is spoken in many parts of the world and more and more people are adopting it as the first language of communication. In this setting we must consider the appropriateness of calling certain speakers native and others not. Furthermore, even within the native speakers we find many varieties as in the British English, American English, Australian English, or South African English. If the English language is to be made a truly global one, one must leave the notion of ‘native speakers’ behind.
Will the culture of the native speakers be appropriate in the setting of the language learner?
The culture and context of the learner and the native user of English may differ very contrastively. The traditional native speakers of English have their own cultural and contextual setting and it creeps into the language that they use. It should not be surprising thus, that the English used in non-native setting has the purpose of academia without much cultural interference. But can English have the same purpose if it were to only transfer the cultural and contextual nature of the target language? In order to make English learning a holistic experience, it is important that culture and local context are integrated so the learner has a more comprehensive grasp of the language.
Different Views Regarding the Role of Culture in Language Class
Different people have expressed their opinions regarding the role of culture in language class. Phyak, P has collected four such opinions from various personnel in his article integrating local culture in the EFL context of Nepal: An ignored agenda?
The first view expressed by Byram and Flemming (Byram, 1997; Byram and Fleming, 1998) states that the target language culture should be taught in ELT in order to help learners to acculturate into the culture of English countries. The second view expressed by Karchu, Nelson and Canagaraja (Kachru, 1986; Kachru and Nelson, 1996; Canagarajah, 1999) opines that there is no need of teaching target culture especially in the contexts where different institutionalised varieties of English are in practice. Similarly, the third view by Kramsch and Sullivan (Kramsch and Sullivan, 1996) states plainly that ‘local culture’ in TEFL should be taught. Finally, the fourth view by Alptekin, Jenkins and Seidlhofer (Alptekin, 2005; Jenkins, 2005; Seidlhofer, 2001) says that since English is a lingua franca, it should be taught in a culture-free context. In the same article Phyak gives a fifth opinion regarding the use of culture in language class by assimilating the highlights of the above opinions where he advises the teachers to use both target and native cultures with priority to local culture (Phyak, P).
Whatever the views of applied linguists all over the world, we cannot disregard two core realities. The first is that while learning a second language, the influence of the culture of that language is inevitable. The second fact is that the learner of second language comes equipped with the culture of the first language. If no association is made between the culture of the first language and the learning of the second one, the learning will not be as effective. Therefore, inclusion of local culture and context should be more prominent in the initial phases and gradually gear more towards the target culture so that the integration is seamless in the end and language skill transition is more comprehensive.
English as an International Language
Hegemony of English language is a global phenomenon and the onset of modern technology, the computer; and as the choice language of the academia will further strengthen it. Eventually, the spread of English will probably be the root cause for disappearance of majority of world languages. Having said that, one must accommodate the fact that the use of English in international communication is increasing, and thus, it is gaining momentum as being an international language.
The rise of English as an international language has created many concerns among the laymen, experts, anglophiles and chauvinists alike. The concerns can be divided into two factions. The first leads us towards convergence of all world languages into one giant English language. Because of the advent of printing, and more recently, media; languages, specifically English; are being standardized so that there is uniformity in the manner we write and speak. Many believe this to be a positive step towards world unification. There may be advantages to uniformity, but the question is; does it outweigh the disadvantages that it might bring in the form of ‘language death’ as expressed by David Crystal or loss of identity? The other faction is made up of personnel who are asking this very question. The prominence of English might be an indicator of decline of other languages. When a language is lost, it is not only the means of communication that is lost with it. There are contextual and cultural associations with languages, and in addition; it also forms the corpora of accumulated knowledge of a community. All this will also be lost with the dying language. Moreover, there is a strong affinity of the language with the identity of a person or a community. Although English may provide with alternate identity, as shall be discussed later in this paper, the primary form of identity shall be lost, especially if the learning of English is subtractive in terms of the first language.
Discrepancies aside, internationalization of English is inevitable. The question now remains is how we are going to bring about policies for other languages that are in existence. In order to understand why English is fast becoming a global language, we must try and analyze why is it important for us to learn English.
There are many reasons why an individual would want to learn English.
i. English may be a factor for obtaining better employment opportunities.
ii. English is the medium of communication for business, recreation and competitive tournaments.
iii. English is almost mandatory for learners pursuing higher academic achievements and publishing of one’s findings.
iv. The knowledge of English may provide higher social standing or identity in many cases.
We can see that English language empowers a person both in terms of social and material power. Thus we can see the attraction towards learning English. The choices that the language communities have is either to have subtractive learning of English and forget one’s own linguistic heritage, as is happening mostly in developing countries like Nepal; or to make the learning process additive by retaining one’s own language intact. It can be assumed that the later alternative is more acceptable.
The reason for the long windedness of the explanation above brings us back to the core discussion of this paper: local context and culture in teaching or learning English. Now as we have made a huge circle from the inevitable internationalization of English to the better alternate of additive learning of English; it is time to ponder over how we are going to teach English language.
English Language, Local Culture and Social Identity
If we want to have mastery over English language, then I believe we must find a way to make the language practical to its learners. Just reading the literature of the language or using the language in stereotype British or American cultural setting will not hold much significance to the learner of English as a foreign language. What needs to be done is to bring about association between the language being learnt and the experience of the learners. This will provide platform for practicality of the language being learnt. In order to understand why local context and local culture must be integrated into teaching of English language, we must also be familiar with how culture and local context plays a role in language learning.
Culture and Language Reflect each other
The common notion regarding the purpose of language learning has been related to communication. Because of the researches done in sociolinguistics and discourse, we should consider the fact that language is not only ‘understanding’ what the other person is expressing but it is also necessary that we understand the text at a discourse level where cultural and individual background conveys deeper meaning to the language items used. Language is not only communicating with words but we have deep rooted cultural and contextual schemata and frames which are reflected in the language that we use. Thus it is important to analyze the meaning of discourse at cultural and contextual level.
The reason that we should consider the Frame and Schema theories of discourse analysis when talking about the language is that if we are not able to express or comprehend the schema created through cultural setting, only understanding the text in communication will not be able to justify the meaning that should have been understood. Only through associating and integrating the language that we are trying to learn (English) into social and cultural setting shall we be able to exploit the nuances of the expression made in a language. Englebert believes that there is a cultural variation between the learner and the language and that the “teacher hosting foreign students must come to terms with the fact that those students are immersed in a culture with which they are not familiar, and that they bring with them not only their limited knowledge of the language, but a myriad of assumptions based on generations of cultural indoctrination”. (Englebert, 2004). These assumptions based on “cultural indoctrination” are at the core of schema of the learner.
Not only the culture of the target language but even the prescribed packaged methodology might create confusion in teaching English as a foreign language. In her study among the Asian students studying in New Zealand, Li found that “the interactive teaching methods adopted by New Zealand teachers are culturally incompatible with Asian students’ learning conceptualizations. The findings suggest that some teachers’ adoption of the communicative or interactive teaching approach led to Asian students’ negative learning experience in New Zealand” (Li, 2004). This shows that the cultural background and the mindset of the learner should be considered while teaching English. Subsequently, it also indicates the integration of local context and culture of the learner for smoother and more effective teaching learning experience.
If the learner of English is only familiar with her own experience based on her own cultural and local setting, trying to incorporate a different language with a different setting will make it literally ‘foreign’. The ‘foreignness’ can be significantly eliminated if local context and culture of the learner is being used in the target language. Thus integrating the cultural and contextual setting in language learning will be important.
English Language and Social Identity
Bonny Norton has explained that in the current social situation, English language helps create a more powerful identity for the individuals because of the advantages associated with the proficiency of English Language (Norton, 2007). She further explains that construction of identity through learning English are complex and dynamic. The five examples that she has taken in her article all give different perspectives people have for English language based on their cultural and contextual backgrounds.
If individuals from different social and ethnical backgrounds have different concepts about how English should be taught and learnt, then we can assume that it is the experience of the learner that is influencing such perspectives. An individual is the product of the local culture and context, so we cannot ignore the importance of inclusion of local context and culture in English pedagogy. Norton recommends that we should not overlook the focus on individual account while teaching English. She further explains that the researches on language teaching and identity is fragmented and it has to be made more organized, and if English belongs to the people who speak it, expansion of English in this Global era is better (Norton, 2007).
Inclusion of Local Context and Culture in ELT in Nepal
Along with the gathering momentum of inclusion of local culture and context in language teaching across the world, an initiative has been started in Nepal where linguists and social activists are advocating for inclusion of local context and culture, namely, ethnic languages in mainstream education. Alongside with this initiative there are many linguists and teachers of English language who are advocating for inclusion of local context and culture in English Language Teaching.
The problem that the Nepali society is facing is how to bring about the implementation of such content and context in English language. Looking at the coursebooks and educational materials, it is evident that the English teaching is heavily influenced by the culture of target language users. Although some content and stories seem that they have local context, but the exercises that follow again reflect to the target language culture. On the other hand, the teachers are also imparted trainings and education aligning with the target language culture. In this ambience, it will be difficult to implement inclusive local content and culture while teaching of English. In order to overcome this impasse, some measures can be taken so that there is a momentum towards progressive implementation of the discussed issue.
First, the language policy makers and the educators of the country need to come together to make a master plan on how to develop materials, train teachers and set objectives on inclusion of local culture and context in ELT. Only when a concrete set of objectives and a clear vision of the implementational procedures have been codified, the initiative can move forward.
Second, there has to be a mass drive for collection of local content in the form of stories, poems, articles and the like which also reflects local culture. The content corpus has to be exhaustive so that all the major aspects that need to be covered are covered. Agencies like Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association, NELTA, can be instrumental in taking the necessary initiatives. It is wise to include people from different academic, professional, age group, ethnic, gender, and geographical backgrounds to make the corpus comprehensive and complete.
Third, the gathered content has to be carefully cataloged, edited and selected for practical use. There may be many ways by which the content can be used. The content can be an integrated one where a little of everything is included, or it might also be ethnic or locality specific where different communities make use of different relevant parts of the corpus.
The fourth, which might also be the most important, is to enable the teacher of English to believe that local content and context is not only necessary but is the most effective way of teaching or learning a language. The teacher should also have autonomy to develop content from her own locality adjusting to the need of the learners there. Perhaps the most difficult part of this endeavor will be to discard the prevalent target culture based content in favor of local culture based one. But once the importance is felt and the initiative commenced, language learning process will take a meaningful and applicable turn. The learners then will not be learning English in vacuum but they can associate their own life experiences to the language being learnt.
Finally, a monitoring and evaluation mechanism should be developed in order to judge how successful the implementation of the initiative has been. The monitoring and evaluating body can also make necessary changes in the whole process as the problems arise.
Association and Comprehension through Local Context in ELT
If there is association between the local context and culture, and English Language teaching; the learners might benefit in many different ways. As Lengkanawati states “we can conclude that the choice and the intensity of using language learning strategies is influenced by many factors, one of which is the students’ cultural background” (Lengkanawati, 2004), the association of local culture and English language teaching might help the learner build better learning strategies. It will lead the learner to grasp deeper meaning of the target language and use it efficiently and productively. Moreover, the differences that lie within the variations of English will make the learner appreciate that context and culture are essential for language learning. All this will lead to a global culture where one retains her native culture while learning that of the target language and thus of the whole world.
We have discussed previously about the nature of association between language and culture. In addition, we also discussed about the emergence of English as an international language and the advantages of learning it. Then we went on to how local context and culture can be integrated into teaching English in Nepal. Now, we shall focus on advantages there might be in integrating local context and culture while teaching English in three different stages.

The association of local context and culture can be done in three levels: using local context and culture while learning English, Using the context and culture of the target language, and integrating the two cultures to create multicultural or global comprehension.
1. Using the local cultural and contextual setting while learning English.
Using local context and culture will enable the learners to grasp the deeper meaning of English because they can associate the cultural and contextual meaning that they are familiar with. In Barfield and Uzarski’s findings, “the classroom observation showed that students in pair and group works were more interactive when they had to discuss on their local cultures than when they had to discuss on different stories or texts which they were not familiar with.” Contextualization will further enable the learner to be proficient in the language at a faster pace. The learner will understand how a different language is not very different from one’s own. This methodology needs to be applied on the learners at least at the beginning. The learners must be given ample opportunities to interact in the target language. This is only possible if the content that is being used is related to local context or culture. If target language culture is given as a topic of interaction, the learners may have nothing to contribute and will be less willing to proceed further.
2. Using the culture and context of the target language
The users of the target language are varied. There is no single context or culture that defines a language like English. Therefore, it will be difficult to identify the target culture when we talk of English. This also indicates that even within the same language there is influence of local context and culture. This will make the learner understand that the language is not entirely free from the culture and context of a community. For example, we can take metro English that the Londoners’ use. It is very different from the traditional Standard or BBC English that we learn in Nepal or the other parts of the world. Sometimes there is a discrepancy in lexical meanings and pronunciation too. A pavement for the British might be sidewalk for the Americans. A mate is a friend in Australia and spouse in England. The fact that even among the native speakers of English in different countries the linguistic items have different meanings will enable the learners to realize that culture or local context is the key factor in using and understanding a language. It will also give an insight that language is culture and context specific and not medium specific. To clarify this statement we can safely assume that the people coming from same cultural and contextual setting will share more meanings than people from cross-culture sharing the same language.
This demarcation will be of vital importance because the learner will be able to comprehend that to understand a person is not only understanding the language but understanding the local context and culture as well. It will further inspire the learners of English to be familiar with different cultural settings of the people that use the language.
This kind of interpretation of language should be carried out at intermediate and advanced levels where the learners have been made familiar of the inclusion of their own cultural and local contexts while learning English.
3. The emergence of a Global culture
When more and more people start becoming familiar with the local culture and context of more and more places, then a common, integrated culture will emerge. This is the Global phenomenon that has been extensively discussed in every sphere of modern human civilization.
This global concept of the language and cross-cultural integration should be the ultimate outcome of language learning. When we are able to identify issues of global importance and contribute to it in a local way, then we will be adherent to the
post-modernist maxim of “think globally, act locally”.
This is a concept that might be difficult to understand for many learners. There is also a paradox of going local to harbor a global outlook. This in turn complicates the nature of language that we use in the modern world. The learners of languages, and specifically of dominant language like English, should consider the integration of local context and language. Considering the complexity of the process and inputs, learners of the tertiary level of English should be taught at this comprehensive level.
Assimilation of Various Cultures for Global Interpretation
Barfield and Uzarski have a very interesting notion regarding language integration when they opine that even if an indigenous language is lost, which is happening at an alarming rate all over the world, through integration it can be preserved within another language like English.
Interestingly, despite the loss or future loss of an indigenous language, the “roots” of that indigenous culture can be preserved through the learning of another language, such as English.
(Barfield and Uzarski, 2009)
This is one notion that can be construed as positive aspect of assimilation of local culture into a Global one. Even though we might have strong opinions regarding local languages and cultures that we have inherited, and feel strongly towards dominance and ultimate displacement that a language like English will do to other local languages, the only way to actually save a part of the culture and local form of language might be through English. In order to achieve this, it would be important to integrate local context and culture in teaching languages like English.
On the other hand, because English is fast becoming the lingua franca of the world, there should also be a global ownership of the language. If we consider only one of the cultures of the native speakers then the globalization of the language will not be possible. In order to truly make a language like English a global one, and for all the cultures to feel that they are also a part of this global phenomenon, integration of local culture and context is important. So, at the end, every individual language community can feel the ownership of global English through integration and assimilation.
Contrastively, the cultural and local contexts of societies that use English language are varied and it would be impossible to integrate everything about all the cultures. To make it comprehensible in the global arena, we should find out commonalities that exist in all the cultures and localities across the world and try to establish a common contextual and cultural condition for the language to evolve into a Global Language. Such understanding and cohesion will provide “the abilities to perform effectively and appropriately with members of another language-culture background on their terms” (Barfield and Uzarski, 2009).
This article has assumed certain developments in English language based on current global trends. It has assumed that English is fast becoming a global language and it will become more so in the future. It has also assumed that the local languages will decline and decay in the face of English as their adversary. Considering these base assumptions, the article has provided insight into understanding the importance of English language and equal importance of using local context and culture while teaching English. In conclusion, we can reaffirm the essence of the whole discussion in the following manner: first, we need to understand that we use English as a method of communication and this language is fast becoming a global language. Because we use it in our communication, the language cannot be excluded from the local context and culture because they are what we are likely to be communicating about. There may be differences in opinions regarding how or if local context and culture should be used in teaching English, but it is essential that we integrate local context and culture. Second, use of local context and culture in teaching English will depend on the nature of the local setting. Same system may not be applicable in all communities. Therefore, how the integration is to be done should be tailored to suit the needs of a particular community or a country. In case of Nepal, this can initiate with development of content corpus based on multilingual communities existing in the country and making a broad plan on what and how to integrate the content thus collected and selected. Third, the use of local context and culture can be done following a procedural format where local context and culture can be given more priority in the earlier stages of learning English language. Slowly, learning of the culture and context of the target language is to be achieved for more comprehensive understanding. When integration is done among various communities and language groups, then English will emerge as a true global language with global ownership. Finally, we should also consider the possibility that many present languages of the world might one day die. And the only possibility of its context and culture to be passed on may be through integration into a dominant language like English. All these expositions make the use of local context and culture in English Language Teaching a necessity.

Barfield, S. C., and Uzarski, J. (2009). Integrating Indigenous Cultures into English Language. Englsih Teaching Forum, 2009, Number 1
Englebert, M. (2004). Character or Culture? Implications for the Culturally Diverse Classroom. Asian EFL Journal March, 2004
Lengkanawati, N S. (2004). How Learners from Different Cultural Backgrounds Learn a Foreign Language. Asian EFL Journal, March 2004
Li, M. (2004). Culture and Classroom Communication: A Case Study of Asian Students in New Zealand Language Schools. Asian EFL Journal, March 2004
Norton, B. (1997). Language, Identity, and the Ownership of English. University of British Columbia Tesol Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 3, Autumn 1997
Phyak, P. Integrating local culture in the EFL context of Nepal: An ignored agenda? Education Quarterly, Vol. 1 No. 1 Dean’s Office, Faculty of Education, TU
Sowden, C. (2007). Culture and the ‘good teacher’ in the English Language classroom. ELT Journal Volume 61/4. Oxford University Press

5 thoughts on “The Role of Local Culture and Context in English Language Teaching

  1. thank you for this articale wishing if you could kindly inform me about the parameters of teaching culture for the practical side of my research.

    Mr Essam H. Nassir
    MA student/English department/Basrah/Iraq

  2. Dear Essam,

    My study is more on integrating local culture in ELT rather than teaching culture. I am doing some research on the impact on integrating local culture and context in ELT classrooms in Nepal. When I have more findings I will surely write something on the topic via this blog.

  3. The article is loaded with postmodern paradigm of language. My understanding is that if we academia are really worried about local culture of indigenous languages, we’d better promote mosac approach to glocalization of English rather integrative approach. I’d rather prefer synergy that we get from mosaic approach whereas in integrative one indigenous language may have to surrender to domimant language while assimilating in case of not finding commonalities. Anyway, it’s my philosophical idea. In this article I was looking for ‘how’ part. I could’t get as expected. Anyway, it is informative. I ENJOYED reading!

  4. I’m very thankful to the writer. In fact, i’m too doing research on adopting local discourse in English language curriculum/textbooks. this article became a great help for me!

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