Investigating the Role of Culture for ELT materials in Japan

Frazer Smith


As use of English as a language for international communication around the world becomes more and more prevalent, traditional textbook representations of culture associated with the language have been increasingly problematized. This paper seeks to investigate how notions of culture are commonly understood and question the extent to which such representations are useful for English language teaching purposes. In an attempt to do this, a number of fundamental concerns have been outlined, namely: (a) evaluating current representation in ELT materials; (b) exploring the extent to which English can be separated from traditional target cultures; (c) questioning how pre-conceived notions of authenticity contribute to learner expectations; and (d) considering how roles of language learning motivation may influence individual perspectives. The rationale for this article was inspired by the author’s experience of teaching English for professional purposes in the Japanese context, and, as a result, seeks to examine how such concerns can contribute to improved practical application in the region and other contexts with related concerns. Areas for future research are also outlined.

Key words: ELF, culture, materials, motivation, Japan



I have chosen to examine this particular issue as it is an issue that concerns me in my own teaching practice, and it is also an area I would like to research more. To explain, I currently work as an ELT practitioner in Japan, mostly specialising in the teaching of business and general English classes to adult learners. Most materials are allocated to me by my employer, but I also have the freedom to create additional content. On the whole, provided materials consist of course books from UK-based publishers, which, although seemingly intent on promotion of English as an International Language (EIL), can display limitations. I have often wondered how representations of language and content could be improved to better meet the needs of the majority of my learners. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to consider the role of ‘culture’ presented in ELT materials and examine possible solutions to the issues raised, especially in regard to my particular teaching context.


Defining ‘culture’

To begin, it is first worth considering what is meant by the term ‘culture’ especially in an age of ‘global superdiversity’ (Jenkins, 2000: 246). Spencer-Oatey (2008:3) explains that the concept itself is ‘notoriously difficult to define’; describing it as ‘a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions that are shared by a group of people’. Tomalin, Stempleski and Maley (1994) point out that the concept can be broadly divided in terms of ‘big C’ and ‘little c’ elements: the former referring to “history, geography, institutions, literature, art, music, and the way of life”; whereas the latter describes “behaviour culture such as culturally-influenced beliefs and perceptions” (pp. 6-7). The extent to which such concepts are relevant to language learning remains somewhat unclear; however, it is widely believed by many that the relationship is, to some extent, inseparable (Bhabha, 1994; Hinkel, 1999; Jiang, 2000).

In Widdowson’s (1990) view, the two areas deemed essential to language learning are: ‘systemic knowledge’ in reference to the associated semantic and syntactic systems of the language; and ‘schematic knowledge’ which refers to the more implicit wider contextual information that is socially acquired in the particular context of the learner. In ‘native’ language learning, a child’s knowledge of both areas is thought to develop concurrently, with each complementing the other (Alptekin, 1993). For example, it is explained: ‘while a child from the Anglo-American world will normally think of a dog as ‘man’s best friend’, Middle Eastern children are likely to perceive it as dangerous and dirty’ (ibid: 137). Clearly, then, if we are to accept such notions, we can conclude that culture plays a significant cognitive role. Where this becomes problematic, as Jenkins’ earlier term suggests, is in which culture to teach, a question to which the answer can have wide implications, as I shall attempt to explain. Ultimately, it seems, such ideas are increasingly slippery and rarely ‘impartial’.

The ELT profession has traditionally tended to portray the United States and Great Britain as the ‘target cultures’ where the English language can be found (for example, see Garwood et al., 1993). Clearly, these are often the most identifiable countries associated with the language, and it is still not uncommon to see highly stereotypical representations of the respective ‘cultures’ around many language schools, even today. However, as we have already seen: ‘the situation with English is much more complicated because of the wide variety of cultures which call the language their own’ (Gilmore, 2007:106). Such practices can have wide ranging implications, including lending support to a ‘deficiency’ model whereby ‘non-native’ language teachers face discrimination in the workplace for not being from the ‘target cultures’ (Alptekin, 2002; Mondiano, 2000).


Problematizing Current Representations

First, it is worth considering the concept of EIL and the implications for ELT contexts. English as an International Language, as Mondiano (2000) explains, is now ‘simply a utilitarian communicative tool’ that ‘non-native’ users utilise for functional purposes, while maintaining their own ‘distinctive cultural characteristics’ (p. 344). This view takes into account the changing ‘ownership’ of the language; and how it has come to represent ‘a proliferation of forms, varying in pronunciation, intonation, grammar, vocabulary, spelling and conventions of use’ around the world (Gilmore, 2007: 103). The key takeaway being that English, as the lingua franca, has a unique status. For example, while ‘the Japanese language is thought to belong to Japan, the Chinese language to China, the Polish language to Poland, the Vietnamese language to Vietnam, and so on’ (Nault, 2006: 316), English is spoken much more widely than the places where it is classified as a first language (for more, see Kachru’s ‘Circles of English’, 1985), and, therefore, this should influence the way the language is presented.

It is worth mentioning at this point that writers of contemporary ELT materials are not completely oblivious to such problems and appear to continually attempt to address these issues. However, as a great majority of established publishers are located in ‘target culture’ countries, it is argued, perhaps unknowingly, that cultural messages are often taught implicitly (Nault, 2006), leading some to refer to such phenomena as the so-called ‘hidden curriculum’ (Cunningsworth, 1995). As Alptekin (1993) explains, ‘most textbook writers are native speakers who consciously or unconsciously transmit the views, values, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings of their own English-speaking society – usually the United States or United Kingdom’ (p. 138).

In doing this, it is argued that students are not presented with a ‘lingua franca providing access to the global village’, but are instead led along a path to ‘cultural indoctrination’ (Mondiano, 2000: 340). Therefore, a more varied approach to culture has frequently been advocated, and ‘ownership’ of the tongue increasingly questioned (Widdowson 1994; Seidlhofer 1999; Jenkins 2000). Modiano (2000:340-342) expands on the point, explaining that, ultimately, the promotion of a culture specific ‘Standard English’ is “doomed to fail” and that “a geographically, politically, and culturally ‘neutral’ form of English” is the only way forward in response to addressing such ongoing concerns.


A Lingua/Cultural Franca Model

In an attempt to supply such a ‘language’, Jenkins (2000:2) proposes the ‘lingua franca core’ which aims to address ‘problems of mutual phonological intelligibility’, and re-position the ELT industry as an enterprise primarily dedicated to ‘the acquisition of inter-cultural communicative skills’ rather than the pronunciation models derived from typical ‘prestige’ varieties of English (Mondiano, 2000: 345). Similarly, Alptekin (1984) argues, that many EFL learners prefer to reject the value and norms of English-speaking cultures, preferring to identify with the “international attitudes associated with areas such as pop culture and travel” that happen to use English as the primary medium (p. 16). Such notions are well-intentioned, but it would appear that evidence of a comprehensive response remains elusive. As Nault (2006) points out that ‘at present, no well-designed ELT course books exist that explicitly focus on cross-cultural and multicultural themes from a [truly] global perspective’ (p. 323).

Although many contemporary textbook publishers endeavour to create materials that are both ‘authentic’ and ‘international’, such content often suffers due to being ‘written by native speaker authors who, despite feigning to represent other nationalities, cannot possibly dissociate themselves from their own cultures’ enough to achieve the intended result (Gilmore, 2007: 105). Furthermore, it has been suggested that the main issue is that culture-free language is an impossible goal (ibid.). If this really is the case, and we accept that all of us are, in some way, inherently biased, then what are the possible solutions? Cortazzi and Jin (cited in Gilmore, 1999: 105) identify three kinds of ELT textbook on the market: those that teach the students’ own culture (C1); those that teach the target culture (C2); and those that teach various cultures other than the ‘source’ or ‘target’ (C3, C4, C5…).

The first approach (C1), teaching the target language through the learners’ own culture, presents a number of potential advantages, in that: it facilitates learners with schematic knowledge of which they are already familiar, reinforces their own national identity, and avoids risk of ‘cultural indoctrination’. However, such a view ignores learners’ individual propensity for critical evaluation of the content presented – which has also been suggested as a viable potential solution to the problem (McConachy, 2008). The second variety (C2) is often the most common, usually focusing on ‘standard’ varieties of American or British English. As previously mentioned, there have been increasing attempts to include a wider range of ‘target cultures’, but such portrayals are often subjective from the writer’s point-of-view and/or highly stereotypical (McConachy and Hata, 2013).

The final textbook approach, teaching learners about various cultures, could be considered the ideal solution for EIL purposes – if it were not so difficult to achieve. The main advantages here are that it has the potential to facilitate experiences requiring inter-cultural competency, and may present learners with the kinds of spoken interaction they are most likely to experience, i.e. NNS-NNS interaction (Gilmore, 2007: 106). The difficulty lies in presenting learners with an accurate representation of such discourse rather than the usual ‘contrived dialogues written by native speakers’ (ibid.). There is also the question of whether learners prefer to learn ‘standard’ or ‘native’ English, an issue Timmis (2002) responded to with his research into student and teacher attitudes found in 14 countries:

There is still some desire among students to conform to native speaker norms, and this desire is not necessarily restricted to those students who use, or anticipate using English primarily with native speakers (2002:248).


A Question of ‘authenticity’

If many students do still want to conform to so-called ‘native speaker’ norms, then it is worth further examining potential drivers of the motivation behind this. One particular area thought to contribute is the concept of communicative competence (CC) (Canale, 1983). The CC model describes four core competencies: often referred to as grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, discourse competence, and strategic competence. The model has been widely influential and is still influential as a conventional framework of curriculum design and classroom practice (Alptekin, 2002: 57). The major problem with the model is that it encapsulates only native speakers’ knowledge of the core competencies, thereby continuing to facilitate a ‘deficiency’ model of competency for ‘non-native’ speakers (ibid.: 58). As Alptekin explains: ‘the model is found to be utopian, unrealistic, and constraining in relation to EIL’ portraying ‘a monolithic perception of the native speaker’s language and culture’ using ‘mainstream’ modes of behaviour from this speech community (ibid.: 57).

If students are expected to rely on such models as a benchmark of their performance, then no wonder so many learners are keen to learn ‘native’ English. What is also apparent is that the way in which competency, too, is perceived through the constraints of a native speaker model, which, in turn, is likely to affect how culture is represented through ELT materials. What this can lead to, Alptekin argues, is a situation of enculturation where foreign language teachers are seen as ‘gatekeepers’ to the ‘new world view’ in which learners are trying to achieve (ibid. 58). It also argued that such overt attention to the CC model overly promotes ‘communicatively-orientated’ considerations, which can result in sidelining the role of authentic social contexts. As a result, idealised, often stereotypical images of English-speaking cultures are presented instead (Alptekin, 2002; Nault, 2006).

To counter such issues, Alptekin advocates a standard of ‘intercultural communicative competence’ (ICC) be introduced in response to such imbalances, by: equipping learners with an awareness of difference and ways in which to communicate effectively with others (ibid. 63). Clearly, such issues will need to be further addressed if the ELT industry is truly serious about EIL. At present, solutions to many of such problems remain unclear, and, although many ELT services pay lip service to the principles of EIL, a great deal of current ELT practice is still based on native speaker models.


A Question of Motivation

One problem with the discussion so far is that has primarily focused on theoretical perspectives rather than give due consideration to the views of learners themselves. Descriptions of culture all too often are generalised in ways that can be detrimental to the role of the individual. It can be argued learners are likely to respond best to materials that meet their expectations and goals. Individual information about one’s own motivation is often very difficult to determine, and highly dependent on individual attributes of the person. Previously, it was thought that many learners were affected by integrative motivation and the desire to enter a specified language community (Gardner & Lambert, 1959). Such a ‘simple’ view implicitly assumed learning a second language results in the loss of the first language and results in the establishment of a new identity. This has since been met with criticism:

Such a ‘simple’ view ‘seriously misrepresents the complex sociolinguistic realities of language learning, language use and cultural identity in postcolonial World English contexts, where multidimensional identities and pluralism (rather than integration) are the norm (Coetzee-Van Rooy, 2006, cited in Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009)

This also highlights the need to pay sufficient attention to motivation as part of an individual learner’s thought processes. It is argued that learner’s motivation can be thought of as socially or culturally constructed through a complex interplay of identity and the self (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009:216). If we are to better understand such qualities, we need to recognise that language learners are people necessarily located in a particular cultural and historical context (ibid.). It is all very well to generalise what learners want according to a range of varying distinctions, but such assumptions do not always hold true, especially without sufficient attention to the particular context and the individual needs of the learner. What may be suitable for one group of learners may not fit for another: a significant issue among major textbook publishers is that they have tended to adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach which may not always be suitable for every context (Ryan cited in Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2009:120).


The Japanese Context

To return to the initial source of inquiry that inspired this paper, I shall outline how I believe such concerns are relevant to the Japanese context. Clearly, attitudes towards ELT are likely to differ depending on the individual student’s purpose, e.g. it may be safely assumed that those studying English for business are more likely to require intercultural communicative competence than those studying general English. From my own experience, I have found that learners of business English are generally more likely to be receptive to an EIL perspective, and more motivated to acquire language that may be pragmatically useful. At times, it can seem daunting to sift through standardised materials that frequently make reference to supposed ‘cultural norms’ that are unlikely to be of much use to a cohort that is unlikely to work in the geographic region where the book is produced.

Conversely, learners of general English can be extremely motivated by opportunities to learn more about international ‘cultural differences’. In many ways, it could be inferred that this may relate to learners’ individual sources of motivations rather than regional cultural differences. That is not to say that it is not worth examining more general accounts describing opinions on ELT contexts in Japan. For example, Kubota (1998) sees ELT relationships in the country as largely historical, referencing discourses of nihonjinron, or ‘uniqueness of the Japanese’, versus kokusaika, ‘or internationalisation’, to describe both resistance and accommodation to ‘the hegemony of the West’ respectively. It has also been argued that English use represents a historical dynamic between Japan and ‘the West’(ibid.)

Honna and Takeshita (1998), expanding on how the language can be perceived in the country, describe a concept of ‘English as an American Language’, and point out the seriousness of ‘the nation’s inclination to native speaker English [which makes] teachers victims of frustrations and self-defeatism’ (122). In addition, they highlight that more efforts should be made to accommodate ‘Japanese English’ rather than attempt to rely on ‘inner circle varieties’. As for content, Chihara and Sakurai (1989) suggest ways to adapt descriptions of ‘culture’ to be more suitable for Japanese learners and they said that ‘only a few terms were changed in each of the two passages: e.g. names of persons and places; in one instance kissing was changed to hugging’ (p. 145).


Conclusion and Future Implications

Approaches to representations of ‘culture’ are more complex than I had initially anticipated. It is often fairly straightforward to falsify depictions based on accounts of contradictions or generalisations, but it can be equally difficult to provide more ‘authentic’ representation. This paper has helped me to better understand future directions for EIL-based teaching approaches, and how continued focus on ‘inner-circle’ English-speaking countries, in most cases, is no longer rational. In reading around this topic, this has enabled me to better recognise how ‘unspoken’ aspects of content affect what is taught.

In future, I would like to learn more about how ELT can be re-positioned as an industry that is more inclusive and representative of its full range of speakers. It appears that suggestions for a specified ‘neutral form’ of English have yet to materialise, but it seems inevitable that the language will reach such an outcome in due course. How this will affect current cultural contexts remains difficult to determine; however, what does seem clear is that attention to ‘inter-cultural skills’ will likely increase as use of English becomes more commonplace globally. Despite such observations, it seems also clear that, as this progresses, individual questions of identity and the self will become less easy to define.

This is clearly an area that demands further research to determine how such theory can be better applied in practice, particularly in relation to specific contexts. To some extent, it would seem that more needs to be done to bridge gaps between theory and practice. For example, the proposed model of intercultural communicative competence appears practical from a bottom-up perspective; yet I found very little information concerning how this has been applied in research, nor had I heard about such developments prior to engaging with the literature for this paper. Therefore, I believe increased provision of such information would better help practitioners respond to such theoretical perspectives outlined. It would also be beneficial to learn how authentic discourse among English speakers can be better integrated into future textbook materials. Overall, there is clearly plenty of potential for further research in this area, especially the interaction between language and schematic knowledge.



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(Frazer Smith: He completed the CELTA course in 2014 and is currently in the process of working towards the Delta. Since 2016 he has been enrolled on the MA in English Language Teaching at Warwick, with a particular interest in sources of motivation among Japanese learners. He has lived and worked primarily in Japan and South Korea, with some experience in Poland and the UK.)



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