Ethnography as an Approach to Language-and-culture Teaching and Learning


Anastasia Stavridou


This paper focuses on the use of ethnography as a tool in order to teach language and culture to non-native speakers of English. At first, the article discusses the concept of ethnography (Agar, 1980), how it emerged and how it was developed, and then, it elaborates on the impact of culture and the link between language and culture (Kramsch, 1993) since the paper intends to justify the usefulness of this approach in a specific language context. The advantages of using ethnography are highlighted through the sample activity designed by the author. Language learners are expected to explore the width of knowledge hidden in real-case interaction and, consequently, to develop their observation and communication skills. In addition, learners realise the importance of culture and obtain cultural learning and experience apart from the linguistic knowledge. Finally, a sample activity based on the traditional feast day, Shrove Tuesday, commonly known as Pancake Day, supports the notion of ethnography in the language-and-culture teaching and learning.

 Key words: ethnography, languaculture, language teaching, intercultural engagement



This paper aims to investigate the use of ethnographic approaches in teaching and learning language and culture. Ethnography was first developed within anthropology, but very soon was applied within other disciplines too, such as language-and-culture teaching. Ethnographic approaches to teaching language and culture seem to become more popular and acquire more significance in the context of modern societies, which are characterised by continuous changes and diversity and thus become more and more multicultural. Today, as societies become more multicultural, ethnographic approaches seem even more effective for teaching language and culture. In the first part of this assignment, I will explore how the concept of ethnography emerged and was then expanded to language teaching, what the impact of culture is on ethnography and what the connection is between language and culture. Then, in the second part, I will focus on the positive effects of ethnographic approaches to teaching language-and-culture and specifically on how students can benefit from them. To illustrate these, I will provide some sample activities in which the concept of ethnography can be applied.

Defining the Concept of ‘Ethnography’

The notion of ethnography derives from the field of anthropology in late 19th century when anthropologists from Europe acknowledged the ‘description of a community through systematic observation by someone who lives amongst the community as a ‘participant observer’ over months or years’ (Corbett, 2003, p. 19). As Agar (1980, p. 69) highlights, ethnography entails personal involvement with the community and constant observation. The research process might last for years, because the emphasis is on the direct personal involvement in the community and on the understanding of the behaviour of the group members in the community rather than the prediction of it (Agar, 1980). As Barro, Jordan, and Roberts (1998) argue, ethnography may be defined as ‘the study of “other” people and the social and cultural patterns that give meaning to their lives’.

Building on the idea of Barro et al. about ethnography, Kaplan-Weinger and Ullman (2015) contend that knowledge is not stored in the individual’s head, but rather in the communities. They assert that it is through social interaction that people learn how to behave in socially acceptable ways. As they explain, people’s knowledge derives from their lived experiences (Kaplan-Weigner & Ullman, 2015, p. 11). This is also linked with the notion that observations can only be realised once they are situated in a context and not isolated from it, which entails that we should identify the broader context that affects our knowledge of a language and connect it with the new aspects of the situation in which the new learning occurs (Agar, 1980, p.75). Based on that way of thinking, ethnography was expanded to the field of teaching language and culture, and also, to how culture plays an important role in understanding ethnographic approaches to teaching.

Culture and Ethnography

Culture is a rather abstract concept which encompasses a range of aspects. Ethnographic approaches seem to have mainly been influenced by the poststructuralist view of culture. In this context, Holliday (2013) defined culture as ‘whatever is around us and whatever has some sort of social behaviour’. This accords with what Geertz (1973) claims that culture ‘consists of socially established structures of meaning in terms of which people do […] things’ (pp. 12-13). He also contends that culture can be treated as a symbolic system; from the outset, the internal elements, which make up this system, are isolated and examined, and then the entire system is described in terms of the relationships identified among the elements (Geertz, 1973, p.17).

The Connection of Language and Culture: The Concept of ‘Languaculture’

Having discussed these ideas, I would like to move on to the concept of ‘languaculture’, a notion developed by Agar (1994) which displays the link between language and culture. The origins of this idea lie in Kramsch’s (1993) theory about the connection of language and culture. According to her, culture is a social construct, meaning the product of self and other perception. In this context, Kramsch (1993, p. 205) contends that understanding a foreign culture entails a correlation with one’s own culture. As a result, she claims that it presupposes a kind of reflection both on the target (C2) and on the native (C1) cultures. To illustrate this further, if C1 stands for the native culture, C1’ is the perception of C1 from someone living in this culture and C1’’ is the perception of C1 culture from someone living outside the C1 (Kramsch, 1993, p. 210). Kramsch also asserts that the notion of C2 has deep roots in the perception of C1. Consequently, in order to avoid having a partial understanding of both C1 and C2, she suggests the development of a third perspective that would allow language learners to take both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspectives of C1 and C2.

Agar (1994) expresses and develops the idea of ‘languaculture’, a term derived from Friedrich’s (1989) idea of ‘linguaculture’, a coined notion that encompasses the essential connection between language and culture. In particular, Agar explains that the language is not only grammar and vocabulary but rather a richer compound that entails drawing on pragmatics, i.e. the general context in which communication takes place alongside the personal characteristics of the interlocutors. As a consequence, Agar (1994) suggests that language and culture are always interrelated, and thus, one cannot assume to ‘know’ a foreign language unless one is aware of the culture within which this particular language has been developed. Finally, the concept of culture, as defined by Agar (1994), comprises the link between the two different languacultures that Agar names LC1 (native languaculture) and LC2 (target languaculture).

Outline of Language Education Context

A potential educational context within which an ethnographic approach could be used would be a classroom community that consists of 14-year old students in a public high school in Athens, Greece. The proposed activity is designed for the purposes of an English class and it involves a traditional feast day, Shrove Tuesday, commonly known as Pancake Day, which takes place in the UK annually. The feast takes place in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent (Davidson, 1984).

Taking this festival as a point of reference, the activity designed is a visit to the British Council in Athens, where British citizens gather and celebrate the last “fat eating” day before the fasting period of Lent starts. Nonetheless, part of the activity is a preliminary classroom discussion and activity a few days prior to the visit so that students become familiar with this custom, which is not commonly known in Greece. The preliminary activity includes a discussion about a similar Greek religious custom, Ash Monday, which is held in early spring when people gather in order to celebrate the beginning of the lent. The class is selected on the basis of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) level. In particular, a class is selected if the language level of the students is B1+. This implies that the students are cognitively able to reflect on their one cultural tradition and synthesise an idea of the “third place” in which learning takes place (The sample activity ideas are provided in the Appendix).

The Proposed Approach

This section focuses on the advantages gained out of the selection of this activity, which will engage the students both with native British people that live in Athens, who represent C2, and with their own customs, which are represented by C1. Through the preliminary activity discussed in class, students are expected to see themselves as ethnographers by asking them to explore their own cultural tradition, which in this case is related to religion, and to gain a better understanding of their culture. Corbett (2003, p. 107) names such a preliminary activity as ‘concept training’ which helps language learners not only to decentre the idea of the ordinary, but also to understand that ordinary is culturally constructed. Additionally, the students will be able to reflect cognitively on their culture and the customs tied to it after the visit to the British Council. This implies that the learners can realise the differences and the possible similarities between the two cultures and how ideas of culture and religion are intertwined by observing the custom and engaging in discussion with the native British people living in Athens. It should be noted that at this stage the teacher should prevent the students from comparing the two cultures on the basis of which one is better than the other.

Students can benefit from the proposed ethnographic activity in various ways. Firstly, language learners are expected to realise that knowledge is not only what already exists and is stored in their heads, but also the actual interaction with the real world (Kaplan-Weigner & Ullman, 2015, p. 11); thus, gaining knowledge entails systematic observation and understanding (Corbett, 2003, p. 96). In connection with this, Parsons and Junge (2001, p. 205) acknowledge that an ‘ethnographic approach bridges the gap between classroom and the outside world’ while achieving acquisition and awareness of both language and culture. In a broader sense, an ethnographic approach aims to interpret what we think we know through the description, explanation, and interpretation of human life. Through ethnographic approaches, students learn about language and culture in authentic situations, so they practise their language and communication skills and realise how they are used in actual contexts (Parsons & Junge, 2001, p.205).

Furthermore, ethnographic approaches offer students the opportunity to realise that knowledge of the language-and-culture lies in the “third place”, between their native (C1) and the foreign (C2) culture (Kramsch, 1993). In particular, this is realised, since ethnography offers conceptual tools for cultural learning alongside experience. Within ethnographic approaches to language teaching, language learners act like ‘mediators’ since they avoid the role of the ‘student in the classroom’ and they turn into an observer or an ethnographer who actively participates in the learning process. Thus, the roles in the classroom change; on the one hand, learners take more responsibilities, whereas on the other hand, the teacher becomes consultant and counsellor (Parsons & Junge, 2001, p. 205). This accords with what Agar (1994) claims, that such an approach places the ‘student-child role’ in the centre of the learning process, so one could assume that it focuses on a student-centred learning. Student-centred learning furthers learners’ responsibility, as students are actively engaged in the learning process and they are not passive observers, which means that involvement and participation are necessary for learning. Finally, the relationship between the teacher and the learners is balanced, once the teacher is seen as facilitator and resource person (Brandes & Ginnis, 1996 as cited in O’Neil & McMahon, 2005).

In addition, through this ethnographically informed activity, learners can further develop their language and communication skills. To be more specific, fieldwork offers substantial language practice opportunities through classroom interaction during the preliminary activity and through conversation with the British citizens during the visit to the British Council. Moreover, their communication skills and their feeling of being independent and confident will be fostered, once they take the initiative to conduct discussion with native speakers of English living in Athens.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the benefits that learners will gain from the reflection they will have after the visit at the British Council office. To be more specific, they will be asked to reflect on Greek culture and recognise how Greek and British people perceive the notion of Lent, how they celebrate this festivity, what they usually do during that day and how all these are affected by the cultural beliefs and traditions. It is also worth bearing in mind that both of these celebrations are connected to religion; however, different ways of celebrating them may exist due to different doctrines (Protestantism and Orthodoxy).



To sum up, the aim of this paper was to present how the approach of ethnography can be used in a context of teaching and learning language and culture. In order to achieve this, the basic features of ethnography were displayed in the first part of the assignment and then the benefits of this approach were identified in a possible classroom context. Nonetheless, it is worth identifying some anticipated difficulties that students may encounter during the visit to the British Council. They may face some difficulty in understanding British native speakers while discussing with them if they are not so exposed to the native British accent and this situation may cause them to experience certain level of anxiety or stress. Finally, the fact that there will be just one visit to the British Council may not provide sufficient time for meaningful exploration of this British custom. Consequently, it is necessary to conduct a follow-up lesson where students can reflect on the experience they gained during the visit and on their experience on Ash Monday.



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Agar, M. (1994). Language shock: Understanding the culture of conversation. New York: William Morrow.

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Brandes, D. & Ginnis, P. (1996). A guide to student centred learning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Corbett, J. (2003). An intercultural approach to English language teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Corbett, J. (2010). Intercultural language activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Davidson, M. (1984). Shrove Tuesday, Ash Monday and Mardi Gras. Oxford: Religious and Moral Education Press, Pergamon.

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Holliday, A. (2013). Understanding intercultural communication: negotiating a grammar of culture. Routledge: Milton Park, Oxford.

Kaplan-Weigner, J. & Ullman, C. (2015). Methods for the ethnography of communication: Language in use for schools and communities. Routledge: New York.

Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’ Neil, G. & McMahon, T. (2005). Student-centred learning: What does it mean for students and lecturers? In G. O’ Neil, S. Moore & B. McMullin (Eds.), Emerging issues in the practice of university learning and teaching (pp. 27-36). Dublin: AISHE.

Parsons, J. & Junge, P. (2001). Why do Danes put their elderly in nursing homes? Working outside the classroom with adult second language learners. In M. Byram, A. Nichols & D. Stevens (Eds.), Developing intercultural competence in practice (pp. 203- 216). Clevelon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.


(Anastasia Stavridou: She obtains a bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature. During her studies, she completed her internship as a student teacher in an experimental junior high school in Athens and designed a reflective portfolio according to the EPOSTL. Currently, she is doing a master in Intercultural Communication for Business and the Professions at the University of Warwick, UK.)


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