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Vol 34 No 3, July - September 1996 Page 12 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT

On Their Own Terms
Using Student Native Culture as Content in the EFL Classroom
by Ron Post and Ilyse Rathet

In their recent EFL textbook Build Up Your English , Italian authors Maria Cirelli and Sirio Di Giuliomaria highlight the duality of English use in Europe and throughout the world today by writing in an introductory note to their students (translation ours): "To learn a foreign language today is very important in that it permits entrance into contact with other realities and other cultures in order to understand their mentality and varied customs.(at the same time) English is in fact an important lingua franca , that is, a language spread among native speakers of various languages much as was Latin during the medieval period."

Today's world is integrating-due to the closing of the Cold War and the opening of worldwide trade and media markets-but also showing signs of persistent culturalism and nationalism. These changes suggest that we examine whether English is more a vehicle for local and international use-that is a lingua franca -than a vehicle by which non-native speakers may learn a correspondent Anglo culture for purposes such as travel or immigration. In fact the existence of a continuum of uses for English, such as the eight mentioned for English in Singapore by Talib (1992) suggests reconsideration of the emphasis placed upon teaching an Anglo culture along with the English language. With English generally being seen as the main lingua franca for international contact, EFL teachers can expect to see signs of a "global village" in their classes with students expecting to use English as a vehicle for their own specific purposes, which may not necessarily include use in a native-speaking country.

For these reasons we support use of student native culture as cultural content in the English language classroom. Further support for using students' own culture content in English language classrooms comes from schema theory research. A wide range of studies has shown that using content familiar to students, rather than unfamiliar content, can influence student comprehension of a second language (see, for example Anderson and Barnitz 1984, Johnson 1981, Long 1990, Pearson-Casanave 1984). Research has demonstrated that unfamiliar religious (Carrell 1987), folklore (Johnson 1981), and literary (Winfield and Barnes-Felfeli 1982) information can impede students' learning of the linguistic information used to convey the content. Why overburden our students with both new linguistic content and new cultural information simultaneously? If we can, especially for lower-level students, use familiar cultural content while teaching English, we can reduce what Winfield and Barnes-Felfeli call the "processing load" that students experience.

An additional benefit to students for using content from their own cultures in studying English can be their increased ability in self expression, especially when they need to explore their changing identities in a new linguistic environment. Students may feel that they have "no words" to express complex culture-based themes such as family systems (Gonzales 1982) and values (Ojaide 1987 and Wierzbicka 1991). English can be a vehicle for expressing such themes.

Using native culture in the English language classroom can also enhance student motivation and, further, allow for greater sensitivity to students' goals in studying the language. Specifically, Huizenga and Thomas-Ruzic (1993) noted that many European teachers and students were not interested in learning English for the purpose of integration into British or American culture. For example, Polish students were more interested in accessing English-language literature now permitted in their country. For those teaching in an EFL context we must realistically evaluate who among our students will ever visit or spend extended time in an Anglo culture. Only once we have identified this proportion of students can we consider their potential need to learn and/or assimilate Anglo cultural content.

Let's look now at some activities which we have used in our classrooms in Japan and Italy which incorporate student native culture as content. These examples represent a range of shading of cultural content from entirely student culture to nearly completely Anglo culture. They in turn emphasize our intention to promote the inclusion of student native culture as content in the English language classroom as an integral part of an overall balanced curriculum. We by no means intend for teachers to eliminate all target cultural content. We also recognize that cultural content is implicit in many languages' syntax, vocabulary and other features. While such intrinsic cultural flavor cannot and should not be avoided, we propose de-emphasizing additional explicit target cultural content in English language study.

Sample Activities

1. Collecting "local" English

Where used? Japan and Italy

Content type: All native culture

Students are asked to keep a regular log or diary in which they record words, phrases, and texts in English which they read or hear in the course of their everyday activities. The log may include clippings from magazines or newspapers. Students often find advertisements a common source of English, but often names of businesses, slogans, and American, and British food brands are recognized. In Japan, by chance, several students were wearing clothing printed with "local English." We copied down the texts from their clothes and discussed the source and meaning of what was written. Some grammatical and lexical errors in the printed English provided plenty of material for classroom analysis. This activity not only makes students aware of sources of English in their own cultures but also can lead to discussions of the role of English in their society. Note: A similar activity was presented by Caparrini (1995) as an ice-breaking activity for his Spanish students.

2. Exploring cultural icons

Where used? Japan

Content type: All native culture

Figure 1 shows a simple handout used to allow our Japanese students to attempt to describe objects unique to Japanese culture. Students are asked to describe the objects first by answering some simple Wh- questions about the objects such as "What is it?" and "Where do you use it?" After answering the Wh- questions, students attempt to provide an English language equivalent for the name of the object. When we did this activity we found that students were surprised to learn that they could actually communicate these icons, which they saw as uniquely Japanese, in a non-native language. They benefited from this activity, learning to use English, and gaining a bit of cross-cultural awareness.

3. Guessing game with cultural objects

Where used? Japan and Italy

Content type: All native culture

Each student in the class presents an object from the native culture which is not found or easily recognized overseas. For instance one student in Japan brought a portion of a kimono used to support the obi , another student brought an inkan or ivory stamp used to stamp one's name on documents, and a third student brought a bamboo whisk used for the Japanese tea ceremony. Italian students brought various pasta and wine-making implements as well as football club emblems and unusual toiletry articles. The students presented their objects to the rest of the class, then formed groups to write descriptions of the objects. Later, teacher and students played a game using alternating Wh- and Yes/No questions. The game, much like twenty questions, had the teacher role-play a naive non-local who asked questions to which the students responded until the function of the object was clear. This activity was later expanded into a full-scale project in which students wrote articles in English for a cultural brochure which explained the overall use and role of the objects in the local culture.

4. Health remedies

Where used: Japan and Italy

Content type: Native culture and U.S. culture

We have successfully used this handout in both cultures ( Figure 2 ). Here students write in the simple medical remedy corresponding to that which is listed for each ailment in U.S culture. Then, in groups, students discuss their remedies. Often these differ on a person-to-person basis even within a single culture. After all, not all Americans believe in chicken soup for a cold! Students are often quite surprised and amused by the remedies recommended by their classmates. Students can write a paragraph or essay about a favorite remedy as a follow-up activity to the oral exercise.

5. Let's talk about pizza

Where used: Italy

Content type: U.S. and Italian culture

We devised this activity after noting that Italian pizza was quite distinct both in culinary terms and social terms from pizza we knew in the United States. Students, individually or in groups, answer the questions listed about Italian pizza. If they also know some of the information about pizza in the U.S. (from visits there, media information, or guesses) they fill this part in also ( Figure 3 ). The teacher provides information about American cultures, where needed. After the sheet has been filled out, students are asked to write a short comparison-contrast essay on pizza. This activity can be adapted for other foods exported overseas (perhaps by emigrants) from the countries in which EFL is being taught.

6. Talking about public transportation

Where used: Japan

Content type: U.S. and Japanese

This activity was used to help students prepare to go to the United States for a home stay. Thus, in terms of cultural content, it represents a stage where students are preparing to experience the Anglo culture associated with the language they have been learning. Students need to be prepared to use a city bus system on arrival in the United States. However, before discussing the procedure used in riding the bus system in the home stay city the class is asked to list the steps in riding and paying for a ride on a Japanese bus. This is done as a whole class exercise. After doing this, the teacher uses an eraser to erase those steps not needed when riding an American bus and then uses a different colored chalk to add those steps additionally required on an American bus. For example in Japan, we erased a step requiring passengers to look up at the front of the bus at an ever-changing electronic fee display. We added a step reminding students the exact change was required on an American bus.

7. Talking about education

Where used?: Italy

Content type: Native culture to prepare for all- U.S. culture

This activity emerged from the need to use a reading containing only American cultural content. We needed to introduce some pre-reading activities which included the students' native culture in order to make the reading more accessible to them. The final goal of the activity was to read an article from a popular news magazine on bilingual education in the United States. Three activities prepare students for attempting this fully non-native cultural content reading. First students form small groups and interview each other using the chart on Education, Comparison, and Contrast ( Figure 4 ). In this way they explore the educational histories of their fellow students. After students have finished the interviews and discussed the results, each group chooses a flash card on which is illustrated the educational structure of some country. Their group must cooperate to write several sentences describing their flash card. Then each group shares their sentences with the other groups. In the next step American culture is introduced. Students look at a chart of the American educational system from the ESL Miscellany, and individually write sentences similar to those written about the flash cards describing the chart. (See above.) They are then shared with the rest of the class. Here the teacher adds clarifying information about American culture. Students are asked to write a short essay for homework comparing some aspect of their own and the American educational system. Only after this has been completed and discussed are students presented with the reading on bilingual education in the United States.

These activities illustrate only a few of the ways in which we can incorporate student native culture content in EFL classrooms, thus adding a more culturally sensitive, student-focused flavor to English language teaching in today's varied English teaching environments.

Ron Post is an instructor, curriculum consultant, and teacher trainer based in Rome. He has been involved in TESOL in the United States, Japan, and Europe since 1983.
Ilyse Rathet has taught English and Science in the United States, Latin America, and Japan. She currently teaches English and trains English teachers in Rome and Central Italy.



  • Anderson, B. and J. Barnitz. 1984. Cross-cultural schema and reading comprehension instruction. Journal of Reading, 27, pp. 103-107.
  • Caparrini, B. 1995. Labels: Motivation from the very first day. English Teaching Forum, 33, 2, pp. 47-48.
  • Carrell, P. 1987. Content and formal schemata in ESL reading. TESOL Quarterly, 21, 3, pp. 461-480.
  • Clark, R., P. Moran, A Burrrows. 1981. The ESL Miscellany. Brattleboro VT: Pro Lingua Associates.
  • Di Giuliomaria, S. and M. Cirelli. 1990. Building up your English. Firenze: La Nuova Italia Oxford University Press.
  • Gonzales, A. 1982. English in the Philippines. In New Englishes, ed. John B. Pride. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House, Inc., pp. 211-226.
  • Huizenga, J. and M. Thomas-Ruzic. 1993. English language teaching and a changing Europe: Motivational factors. Presented at TESOL 1993 convention, Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Johnson, P. 1981. Effects on reading comprehension of language complexity and cultural background of a text. TESOL Quarterly, 15, 2, pp. 169-181.
  • Long, D. 1990. What you don't know can help you: An exploratory study of background knowledge and second language listening comprehension. SSLA, 12, pp. 65-80.
  • Ojaide, T. 1987. My poetry: English language and the African tradition. World Englishes, 6, 2, pp. 165- 167.
  • Pearson-Casanave, C. 1984. Communicative pre-reading activities: Schema theory in action. TESOL Quarterly, 18, 2, pp. 334-336.
  • Talib, I. 1992. Why not teach non-native English literature? ELT Journal, 46,1, pp. 51-55.
  • Wierzbicka, A. 1991. Japanese key words and core cultural values. Language in Society, 20, pp. 333-385.
  • Winfield, F. and P. Barnes-Felfeli, 1982. The effects of familiar and unfamiliar cultural context on foreign language composition. Modern Language Journal, 66, pp. 373-378.

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Vol 34 No 3, July - September 1996 Page 12 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT

Figure 1


What is it?

Where do you use it?

(wind chime)




(sliding paper door)


(heated table)


(paper fan)


(floor pillow)


(floor pillow)


(bamboo floor mat)


(shoe storage rack)


(chopstick rack)


(name stamp)




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Figure 2

What should you do?

What's wrong? What should you do? What should you do?
The United States Your Country
You have a cold. Take aspirin. Drink liquids.
Take vitamin C. Get a lot of rest
Eat chicken soup.
You have the flu. Take aspirin. Drink liquids.
Get a lot of rest. Maybe take some other medicines (antibiotics).
You have the hiccups. Hold your breath for 10 seconds.
Drink water. Drink water from the back side of a cup. Be scared by someone.
You have a headache. Take aspirin. Take a nap or sleep.
You have diarrhea. Drink clear liquids (soup, tea). Eat only bread or crackers. Rest.
Take diarrhea medicine.
You have swelling from an injury. Put a cold compress (ice that is wrapped in a towel) on the injury.
You are constipated. Drink prune juice or strong coffee. Eat wheat bran, or take medicine.
You feel run down. Get a lot of rest. Eat healthy foods: fruits and vegetables, meat, fish. Take some vitamins, especially B and C.

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Figure 3


Pizza in Italy and in the United States:
Your own comparison

Please try to answer the following questions about Pizza in Italy.
Then, we will discuss the answers which describe Pizza in the U.S.

WHO makes it?
WHO eats it?
WHO buys it?
WHAT image comes to mind when you think of pizza?
WHAT ingredients are most commonly used to make pizza?
WHAT toppings are common for pizza?
WHERE is pizza eaten?
WHERE are pizzerias found?
WHERE can one buy pizza?
WHEN is pizza eaten? (time of day, special occasions)
HOW is pizza cooked? (type of oven, time, temperature)
HOW much does pizza cost? Is it expensive?

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Figure 4

Education-comparison and contrast
Please fill in the following table by interviewing people in your group or class about the following information about their high school. After you have gathered the data, write down four main conclusions you can reach using the information that you have gathered.

student name


high school class size

years in
high school

public or



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