Language and culture are intertwined. Culture is a part of life, and students need to understand the cultural implications of reading material. One can learn a lot of about a specific culture group by reading its fiction, poetry and theatrical works.

ESL students can learn about the culture of the host country from their readings, so the cultural biases inherent in the readings can be approached as an additional learning experience. Cultural situations in the texts can be great starting points for conversation as well as contrastive writing assignments.

Teachers just need to be aware that some cultural inferences may pose difficulty for second-language (L2) students, since ESL students will not have the same cultural map as the native speakers.

The need

In "Reading in a Second Language," author Ronald McKay provides a good definition of culture: "Culture includes all things that make up our daily lives. It includes social relations, religion, art, beliefs, values, clothes, food, marriage, child rearing, family, education, entertainment, housing, work and laws."

Many factors are involved in reading: readers' familiarity with conventions of written texts in the first language (L1) and the L2, awareness of cultural differences, and awareness of the structures in the text. Added to this mix is the emerging concept of interculturalism, which is a knowledge — rather than acceptance — of the new culture, as contrasted with biculturalism, whereby the learners adopt the new culture.

McKay goes on to point out that "English today is being used globally by bilingual speakers, who have chosen not to internalize the norms of native-English-speaking countries," and English is perceived to be culturally neutral and "provides the basis for promoting cross-cultural understanding in an increasingly global village."

Cultural understanding and background knowledge are indeed significant factors affecting reading performance. In fact, ESL students who have reading difficulties may not have a reading problem as much as a background knowledge deficit.

Earlier practices viewed reading as deriving meaning from print without recognizing the full importance of background knowledge. Current research into schema theory shows that students interact positively with material whose content is familiar, even though the language may not be.

A familiar frame of reference and cultural understanding is vital to comprehension. The teacher needs to ask if the learners have prior knowledge of the subject or a related one.

When the schema includes a whole event, such as a trip or a process, the reader recalls a chain of events concerning the situation. An unfamiliar situation such as a reading on lasers may be difficult if the students lack a sufficient scientific background. A solution would be to refer to related technology (e.g., CD players) that works on the laser principle.

Specific cultural considerations

A passage may be linguistically understood, but the real meaning may depend on a cultural concept, a common proverb or a saying that the language learner may not fully comprehend. For example, a biblical reference, such as "loaves and fish" may be unclear to someone from an Islamic or Hindu country.

References to a popular TV program can also be problematic. For example, the phrases "follow the bouncing ball" and "sing along with Mitch" would be mysterious. These phrases actually refer to an animated cursor used in an early form of what is now called "karaoke."

Readers have certain expectations about text structure held over from their L1. When they cannot identify what they are reading, they tend to formulate their own schemata.

"Any one individual's interpretation of a message will be heavily influenced by his or her personal history, interests, preconceived ideas and cultural background," writes Alica Omaggio Hadley in "Teaching Language in Context."

If students understand a text's structure, they can use it to guess unfamiliar words. Teachers and administrators need to be aware of these facts when choosing and implementing reading programs.

English courses often require students to analyze a passage, and culture can play an important role in what the authors have written. English rhetorical styles differ from those of other language groups and students need to be away of these differences, which reflect the cultures of the L1 and L2.

Consider Vicki Galloway's comments on culture: "Cultures are powerful human creations, affording their members a shared identity, a cohesive framework for selecting, constructing and interpreting perceptions, and for assigning value and meaning in constant fashion. ... Things that fit into this cultural framework are given the labels 'human nature,' 'instinct,' 'common sense,' 'logic.' Things that don't fit are different, and therefore either illogical, immoral, nonsensical or the result of a naive and inferior stage of development of 'human nature.'"

College instructors should realize that for some items there are no equivalents. For example, humor may not cross the language barrier. Students otherwise competent in English may feel left out when jokes go over their heads. Faculty need to help students realize that their view of the world is culturally bound, and teachers and learners alike need to appreciate the different cultural frameworks used to perceive the world.


Culture does not need to be an obstacle. A culture gap can become teaching tool to help the students become more proficient in understanding and communicating. Note the following from ACTFL: "Through comparisons and contrasts with the language being studied, students develop insight into the nature of language and the concept of culture and realize that there are multiple ways of viewing the world."