This article offers an overview of mainstream approaches to culture in language teaching and proposes an alternative approach which conceptualizes the language textbook as a key participant in classroom conversations about culture. A case study illustrates the points made, showing how young learners challenged naturalized aspects of their culture through interaction with their language textbook.
That language learning and culture learning are strongly related is not a new idea. However, much is yet to be discussed regarding both the configuration of this relationship and the implications of particular approaches to language and culture in the second language (L2) classroom. This article explores these latter issues through an initial discussion of the scope of the term culture followed by an examination of the extent to which L2 pedagogy can promote learners' intercultural communicative competence by moving beyond the mainstream focus of culture learning as information about the other. The main argument of this article, to be illustrated with a case study, is that L2 textbooks can--and should--become key participants in classroom conversations about culture as they offer great potential for fostering learners' reflections about the components of their cultural identities.
According to Williams (1983:87), "culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language" and he goes on to argue that this complication relates to the history of the term and to its multiple meanings. Arguably, the difficulty in understanding culture is also linked with often taken-for-granted and vague uses of the word describing groups of people's behavior, norms and values. Prototypically, everyday uses of the term will equate it with background which in turn will tend to be associated with generalizations about a particular group of people such as 'Those who come from X culture do Y'. This view is endorsed by a lot of work done on intercultural communication and cross-cultural training (e.g. Hofstede, 1991), yet it does not offer a solid theoretical justification for intra-group differences or changes over time within the same group. Moreover, this perspective is reductionist in that it does not allow for a rich account of an individual's multiple cultures (as a member of a generation, a professional group, a gender, a family, and so on).
In applied linguistics, critiques to this naturalized approach to culture include Hall's (2002) view that culture should be perceived as sociocultural practice and not as pre-defined descriptors about a group of people. From this standpoint, culture emerges in people's social lives and consequently particular cultural groups should not be seen as well-defined, homogenous and static entities whose members share fixed meanings. Along the same lines, Street (1993) has claimed that culture is a verb (i.e., it "is an active process of meaning making", ibid:25) and consequently research should focus not on what culture is, but on what it does as regards people's ways of making sense of the world (including their perceptions of the self and others).
Holliday (1999) also rejects an essentialist orientation towards culture by showing that different approaches to culture will lead to important differences in the ways individuals conceptualize human interaction. Specifically, he argues that a mainstream large culture paradigm (which associates a culture with ethnic, national and international groups) has dominated applied linguistic research and that this tendency has generated often prescriptive ideas about how certain groups of people (such as the Japanese or the Indians) behave, what they find polite and impolite, how they use language, and so on. Alternatively, Holliday advocates a small culture paradigm which looks at cultures as dynamic, complex and ever-changing processes. As described in Holliday, Hyde, & Kullman (2004), a small-culture approach moves away from the culturist focus on pseudo-homogenous national groups often described in stereotypical terms; moreover, it allows us to question the often tacit and unarticulated ideological issues at stake in people's meaning-makings processes. …