The Context of Cultures

high and low contextThe culture of a country is important to understand and respect as you move around the world. Whether it be as a traveler or as an expatriate for your career, it will control how you interact with people there.

The anthropologist Edward Hall made famous the general terms of “high context” and “low context” as an overall way to start evaluating communications within a culture.  Knowing the differences between the two and how to identify which type of culture you are entering will give you one more tool for success.

A high context culture puts more faith in intuition than facts. This is the “gentleman’s word” poster child. What is known about you, your family and your past action plays a much bigger part in decision making than any facts or figures that are presented. Long term relationships are essential and people take time to build relationships and trust.

Other traits include:

  • Less verbally explicit, less written/formal information
  • More internalized comprehension
  • Situational knowledge and its relationship to parties

In a low context culture, more emphasis is put on the literal meanings of words, facts, numbers and data. The feeling about a person or situation is less likely to have an impact on the final outcome.  Relationships in this culture are normally of shorter duration so environment rules are more prevalent and guide how each person relates and communicates with others.  Words used are intended to be taken explicitly. Such interaction can lead those accustomed to a high context culture to believe there is a lack of trust in the transaction.

Other traits include:

  • External rule orientated
  • Relationships by purpose and of shorter duration
  • Centered on tasks to be accomplished and decisions to be made
  • Less internalized information that is more easily transferred between parties

There are no clear cut lines between the two categories; no one culture is all of one and none of the other. Often both exist in the form of subgroups. For instance, the United States is a low context culture. But within your family, it can be high context based on years of familiarity and mutual understanding of how your family interacts with one another and within society in general.

Knowing the difference between high and low context cultures and your role within them can make your life easier in a foreign country, both personal and professional. It is the beginning of the transformation every expatriate must make to be successful.


Teaching-Learning Culture: between Past and Present (Part 1)


Culture teaching has been known by different names in various places (Byram,1994,cited in Thai TESOL Bulletin, vol 11 N°1 Feb 1998). ‘Landeskunde’, in German literally means ‘knowledge of the country’, merely centres on teaching of facts that vindicate that it is teaching of ‘civilization’ not ‘culture’. In the 1950s-60s there was an emphasis on teaching geography and history as parts of language learning. The French term ‘civilization’ refers in a broad sense to the way of life and institutions of a particular country.

In the United States, the word ‘culture’ is used to refer to learning about customs and behaviours associated with the language learning, thus concentrating largely on daily life. In Britain ‘Background’ concentrates on information about customs and daily life; the phrase ‘area studies’ is also used to distinguish courses which are not devoted exclusively to literature from other courses. English departments in the colonial period ignored television, radio, speech, song, everyday narratives and were limited instead to the study of a narrow range of literary materials.

Language itself is already culture and therefore it is something of nonsense to talk about the inclusion or exclusion of culture in a foreign language curriculum. Mcleod (1976:212) made the point that “by teaching a language…one is inevitably already teaching culture implicitly”; a coming together of language and culture which Agar (1994) calls ‘Languaculture’. By speaking the language one automatically brings to the surface the culture of that language.

To speak a language effectively, one has to be able to think in that language; a thought which is extremely powerful. A person‘s mind is in a sense the centre of his identity, so if a person thinks in French in order to speak French, one can say, he has almost adopted a French identity (Brown 1994 , littlewood 1984). In the past, the most common method of presenting cultural material was exposition and explanation of facts, teachers talked at great length about the geographical environment, the history of the people, their literary, artistic and scientific achievements, the institutions of the society, and even about small details of their everyday life. These facts were shown in films and slides. Kramsch, Cain and Murphy-lejeune (1996) therefore outline historical reasons for discourse-based “culture as language and language as culture” pedagogy.

Allen (1985:138) attempts to summarize the history of culture teaching by contending that “…prior to the 1960s, the lines between language and culture were carefully drawn. The primary reason for second language study in the earlier part of this century was access to great literary masterpieces of civilization”. Flewing (1993:339) notes “It was through reading that students learned of the civilization associated with the target language”. Nostrand (1960 cited in The Internet TESL Journal “Towards Understanding of Culture in L2/FL Education) advocates the “describing and teaching the sociocultural context of a foreign language and literature”. Brooks (1968, ibid) emphasized the importance of culture not for the study of literature but for language learning.

Culture teaching must reflect the general, specific and dynamic aspects of culture in that learners should be exposed to the various aspects of the TC so that they are able to ‘function in interaction with people from cultures other than their own’(Gibson,1995:53). In the so-called traditional trend in teaching culture, emphasis was on imparting a body of knowledge about the history, geography and institutions of the target culture community.

The recently endorsed approach to teaching culture focuses on the need to help the learner develop skills and strategies conducive to intercultural competence that guide him/her to both the ‘objective’ and  the ‘subjective’ components of the target culture, as well as to the workings of intercultural communication.

Learners no longer need to judge the actions and values of others from within their own world; they have the possibility of understanding and judging from within the perspective of others and their worlds. Learners will need not only to understand the cultural influences at work in the behavior of others, but also to recognize the profound influence patterns of their own culture exert over their thoughts, activities, and their forms of linguistic expression. Culture teaching must contribute to making the contact between the two cultures bestow a ‘liberating’ experience that shuns the learner the underpinnings of ‘cultural imperialism’ and alienation. By failing to draw students’ attention to these cultural elements (language, behavior…) and to discuss their implications, the teacher allows misconceptions to develop in the students’ minds.

‘Culture’ and ‘civilization’ are not to be synonymous ‘Civilization’ included geography, history, artistic and literary achievements, political and educational and religious institutions, accomplishments in the sciences, and major philosophical concepts basic to the operation of the society. These represent the institutionalized, and frequently the metropolitan aspects of culture. ‘Culture’ in the contemporary teaching of languages includes these aspects, but much more attention is paid to everyday lifestyle of ordinary citizens and the values, beliefs and  prejudices they share with their fellows within their  linguistic and social groups with due attention to intergroup differences (of social class  for instance). Students, thus, become able to understand more fully the evolving relationship between the ‘formal culture’ (or civilization), aspects of contemporary society and the relationship and interaction between this formal culture and the deep culture of everyday living.

Culture teaching, broadly speaking, involves a comprehensive description of the way of life of a particular society which is intertwined with the teaching of language. Current pedagogy centralizes the importance of culture as context for language use. Stern  (1992 cited in TESOL Bulletin Vol11 N°1 Feb 1998) stresses “the need for a better knowledge of a country and its people as part of second language education, but also points out that instruction in foreign languages and cultures has decreased despite increased contacts with other people, cultures and countries.

Brooks (1964, ibid) strongly advocates the idea of a cultural component in the second language curriculum and emphasized an anthropological approach to the study of culture. Attempting to conceptualize culture teaching, Nostrand (1974, ibid) developed the Emergent Model Scheme which included six main categories:1-Culture: including value systems and habits of thought, 2-Society:including organizations and familial, religious, economic, educational, political and judicial institutions,3-Conflict :including interpersonal groups as well as intrapersonal conflict, 4-Ecology and Technology, including exploration of plants and animals, health care, and travel, 5-Individuals:had to do with intra/interpersonal variation and 6-Cross-cultural environment that had to do with attitudes towards other cultures and organizations. Culture teaching provides interdisciplinary courses in which students study the history, sociology, fine arts, or philosophy of the country/countries where the target language is spoken.

‘Culture’ in second and foreign language education today is clearly much more than “great” literature .This reality is reflected in current methods of language learning and teaching including the recent tapestry approach (Scarcella & Oxford,1992,ibid). Culture teaching helps students to be culturally informed so that they can effectively understand cultural messages, disambiguate them where necessary, assess their significance as signs and  images and realize the values they embody (Mountford,1995:3). Students will be able to ‘change their  view of the world by expressing their own cultural identity to the contrasting influences which the foreign culture and language might exert’(Raw,1997, cited in Ouakrime, Cultural Studies Magazine, Fez page 9).

Contrastive study of NC and TC is of great relevance in this respect. As learners strive to understand another culture, they will learn much by comparing and contrasting their own culture and its relationship to their use of their native language. The teachers of another culture are required to develop sensitivity to the attitudes of the students toward their own and other cultures, moving delicately toward attitude change where that is warranted.

Above all, native speakers and EFL teachers alike need to overcome any temptation to demonstrate the superiority of one culture over another. Teachers are not in the classroom to confirm the prejudice of their students nor to attack their deeply held convictions. For these reasons, any presentation of cultural material has preferably to be objective, analytic and informative, and hence The importance of the humanistic and affective dimensions of culture teaching which are likely to exist in an second or foreign language classroom.

Language educators cannot only work to dispel stereotypes, pockets of ignorance, and deep-seated prejudices that may exist, but rather can contribute to learners’ understanding that begins with awareness of self and leads to awareness of others. The question that is self-assertive is how much of the culture should be taught along with the language chiefly if we understand that the terms ‘target culture’ and ‘native speakers’ are challenged as being based upon a pre-global and exclusive approach to foreign language education which is becoming increasingly untenable today for language of wider communication (LWC).

To Be Continued …

By Dr. Azize Kour – Sale

Acess the article here