top of page

Culture as a fifth skill in TEFL?

Should culture be considered the fifth skill in teaching English as a foreign language?

What is culture?

Culture is an inconspicuous part of our everyday life, yet, at the same time, it is a very complex concept which isn’t easy to define. While reflecting on culture it is important to understand many aspects that come with it: customs, behaviours, viewpoints, beliefs, etc. Many scholars come up with definitions of culture and each one of us can come up with our own version, but, as Jarvis (2006) rightly points out: “It is the human ability to create and transmit culture (...)”. It is vital to keep in mind that there are many types of cultures in the world, which are constantly changing and adapting just as we are. 

Culture & language 

The relationship between culture and language is harmonious, it is also very much connected with nurture. The conceptual ideas we are taught by our parents, and the environment around us give us the basis for our culture which is presented to us through language. In other words, we believe that what is taught to us is true and this is the way to look at the world. For example, if we were told as babies that the colour of paper is ‘black’ we would assimilate this and give another name to, what’s commonly known as ‘white’. When we learn another language we start to understand how other cultures perceive different concepts. For instance, before moving to England the concept of greeting one another was not as important to me until I understood that a simple ‘How are you?’ is an important aspect of British culture. There is a big cultural difference between a Pole asking how you are and an Englishman’s query of your wellbeing. I understood that the English don’t really want to know how you are whereas the same question asked in Poland would await an in-depth answer on how we feel and more often than not, a couple of complaints would be thrown into the conversation. On the contrary, in the UK, ‘How are you?” is just a greeting, the same as saying ‘Hi’. 

Does the language we speak shape the way we think? 

The way we see the world in different parts of the world is distinct and having another language opens up another way of looking at the world and understanding a variety of concepts. Lera Boroditsky in her Ted talk entitled: How language shapes the way we think (2017) mentioned different ways of perceiving time. Some cultures look at time as fixed in the landscape and believe that time travels from east to west. It is difficult for most of us to visualise this concept as it is not in our culture to see it this way. We are taught in many different ways in which we see the world and these ideas are given to us through language. Brododitsky’s example of masculine and feminine nouns touches on this notion. She says that if a noun is masculine, we see the object in a more manlike way and vice versa with feminine nouns. This means that people who speak different languages pay attention to different things. As a consequence, language guides our reasoning. I agree with her view as I have experienced it myself when expressing my thoughts in different languages. Many times the way sentences are structured and the vocabulary that is available to us in each language repertoire changes the way we convey the message. This means that it is not only the person who perceives the concept differently but the listener who perceives that individual according to how they are expressing themselves in another language. 

Should culture be taught as a fifth language skill?

When we teach a language it is given that we also teach many aspects of culture. However, as Tomalin (...) argues, what should also be taught is cultural awareness and sensitivity. This can help us adjust our behaviour to a new culture and understand others better. Communication is a key aspect in language teaching, but, can we be successful communicators without cultural awareness? It is vital to understand how other communities behave, what their daily routines look like and how they adapt their language use to a situation. Without these skills language learning becomes meaningless. 

Am I just a language teacher?

Considering the aforementioned, I believe that my practice shows I am not just a language teacher but a facilitator, guide and mentor to my students. As part of my lessons I share personal anecdotes which reflect on my experiences with culture, listen and learn from the students to collaboratively construct meaning and successfully achieve communicative goals. At the same time not forgetting about the importance of language objectives in the classroom. It is incredibly important not just to teach tolerance, acceptance and awareness of culture but also to consider cultural diversity in the classroom and make the most of it as a resource to teach each other about cultures. 


Jervis, N. (2006). What Is a Culture?, The University of the State of New York, The State Education Department, Albany, New York

Tomalin, B. (n.d.). Culture - the fifth language skill. British Council. Teaching English. 


bottom of page