Culture as part of the communication 5

[the Red Queen] “But you make no remark?”

– “I didn’t know I had to make one-just then” – Alice faltred out.

– “You should have said,” – the Queen went on in a tone of grave reproof, – “It’s extremely kind of you to tell me all this”

(Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)

“Señor,” said Sancho, “I see well enough that all these things your worship has said to me are good, holy, and profitable; but what use will they be to me if I don’t remember one of them?

(Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes)


          I am sure that every student of a foreign language is going to find himself, at some stage, in the same situation as Alicia with the Red Queen: unsure about what speech they have to use with a particular interlocutor, or how to materialize their communicative intentions, without any idea what is it that their interlocutor is expecting from them and if they should participate in a certain context. In sum, what ritual communication patterns must be followed.

          In the other hand, sometimes, the students get so overwhelmed with all the cultural information, not lived or experimented by themselves, not linked with their necessities or tastes, that they become “Sanchos”. They recognize the interest of those informations but they are sure this is not they way to interiorize that knowledge.

          And here is where it comes the importance or necessity of teaching culture as a insoluble part of the communication.

          But, what is culture?

          I won’t paraphrase definitions from others, for me, culture is what has been acquired or learnt inside the society, like the traditions or ways of life. This guided and repetitive behaviors and ways of thinking and feeling shared by one community. 

          So language and culture must go hand in hand, because both are essential in the communication. Knowing the language is not enough in a real situation since we use so many cultural elements in our speech that someone who doesn’t know this cultural aspects is going to hear a completely indecipherable message. 

          In the same way, when we learn a language and then we go to another country with the expectation of it, we use that language but follow our cultural patterns, which sometimes creates a feeling of frustration, of not understanding what is going on.

          I have a practical example: I have used this exercise in some spanish classes. Imagine this situation: a middle age person goes to another middle age person’s house to get back a book, they are acquaintance, but don’t know each other very much. There are 4 dialogues and the student has to chose the most likely to happen in Spain.


A. Good morning, what would you take?
B. Yes, a Coke, please
A. Want a drink?
B. No, thank you very much
… (after a while)
A. Well, goodbye. Until Monday
B. Goodbye, until Monday
A. Want a drink?
B. No, thank you very much
… (after a while)
B. But now yes, I am thirsty
A. Want a drink? A beer, a Coke …
B. No, no thank you very much
A. Or a coffee or tea …
B. No, really, thank you
… (a little later)
A. Are you sure you do not fancy a coffee or a soda?
m Well, yes. A cup of coffee, if you take it too …

        I got varied results between the students, but if you ask a Spanish, the answer will be always and without exception (so far…) number 4.

          For me is clear that teaching a language has, as main purpose, the communication in general and to communicate with the natives in particular, so whenever the teacher organizes a didactic unit, it has to bear in mind the vocabulary needed, the grammar included and the cultural element underlying. For instance, if the topic in class is “how to ask in a café, restaurant or bar”, i will plan my class around some vocabulary (drinks, food…), some tools (how to ask and answer), some grammar (question structures, verbs) and some cultural aspects (what register is used in a bar, what would expect the waiter for the customer, the register language and behaviors in those situations).

          I just need to have in mind my culture and the one of the student in order to keep a distance that will allow the student to reflect about the difference and how this differences affect the language, so that my student has information enough to know what it’s expected from him in every communicative situation, so he could chose whether to adapt himself to the cultural assumptions in every situation, or keep being foreigner, but at least he would have the tools to be in control of the situation.

          Maybe, understanding the culture as part of the communication, leaving the stereotypes away and focusing in what makes us different and equal, could lead us to a better understanding of the others, which is always very positive and highly enriching.

Leave a Reply

5 thoughts on “Culture as part of the communication