Lesson 1: Culture? What Culture?

Definitions of Culture

Over the past several decades, increasing attention has been paid to the place of culture in our classes. As research and practice have progressed over these years, the definition of "culture" and the relationship between language and culture have been defined and redefined. Here we see an overview of this evolution. In particular, note how culture and its role in language learning are designated in each definition.

Seelye's Definition of Culture

Ned Seelye writes: "Learning a language in isolation of its cultural roots prevents one from becoming socialized into its contextual use. Knowledge of linguistic structure alone does not carry with it any special insight into the political, social, religious, or economic system (1976)."


On Ned Seelye's definition of culture (1976).

Duration: 01:51

Flash player not found. Play in new window.

How might you delineate the differences between "linguistic competence" and "cultural competence" in Seelye's terms?

Rivers's Definition of Culture

According to Wilga Rivers: "We must focus on both appropriate content and activities that enable students to assimilate that content. Activities should encourage them to go beyond fact, so that they begin to perceive and experience vicariously the deeper levels of the culture of the speakers of the language (1981)."


On Wilga Rivers's definition of culture (1981).

Duration: 02:32

Flash player not found. Play in new window.

Do you think that non-native speakers/learners of language should, as Rivers suggests, try to approximate near-native proficiency? Or will they always be perceived as "foreign," so why bother with all of the cultural details?

Kramsch's Definition of Culture

Claire Kramsch points out: "At the intersection of multiple native and target cultures, the major task of language learners is to define for themselves what this 'third place' that they have engaged in seeking will look like, whether they are conscious of it or not (1993)."


On Claire Kramsch's definition of culture (1993).

Duration: 01:20

Flash player not found. Play in new window.

Try to create a model or working definition of what might be included in the "Third Place" for your language. What are the characteristics of linguistic and cultural features that define for us—as learners—what "nativeness" is for speakers of your language?