Teaching and learning culture

Written by: Desislava Zareva, New Bulgarian University
Nelly Yakimova, University of Sofia
This paper aims to outline the rationale and the content of a new ‘Studying Culture’ course successfully implemented in the curricula of four Bulgarian Universities, and to introduce a set of specially designed teaching materials it makes use of: a student handbook and three self-study units.
‘Studyng Culture’ is a completely innovative course which has no precedence within the study programmes of Bulgarian Universities. It has been initiated with the support of the British Council, Bulgaria, and has been designed by five university teachers, members of the English departments of four academic institutions – Milena Katzarska (University of Plovdiv), Elena Zlatanova (University of Veliko Turnovo), Nelly Yakimova (University of Sofia), Desislava Zareva (New Bulgarian University) and Leah Davcheva (The British Council).
The course is geared primarily at teacher trainees at B.A and at students of British and American Studies at M.A. levels. However, its wide scope of subjects investigated and research methodology applied could make it equally appealing to those with other academic interests.
‘Studying Culture’ aims to raise participants’ cultural awareness, provide techniques for describing, analysing, and comparing cultures, sensitise students to the key aspects of the cultural learning and teaching process and develop their skills for materials design and materials evaluation.
Those of the students who sucessfully complete the course learn to describe and analyse, interpret and compare from a great range of perspectives; conduct field work and complete small-scale research tasks; apply the theoretical models and practical skills acquired into their language classrooms; design their own materials for raising their students’ cultural awareness and for developing their intercultural competence.
The course has been designed around six modules, each of them dealing with a particular aspect of culture, its relationship with language, and the respective implications for the language and culture classroom. We must point out here that the writing team have adopted Byram’s (1999) view of culture as:

‘… beliefs, values, and behaviours of a social group, where ‘social group’ can refer to any collectivity of people from those in a social institution such as a university, a golf club, a family, to those organised in large scale groups such as a nation state or even a ‘civilisation’ such as ‘Western/European’. The ‘beliefs’ in question are the ‘shared meanings’ which underpin their behaviours, and the ‘values’ are those which are attached to their beliefs and behaviours. Some of all this may be accessible to conscious analysis but much of it will not.’

‘Studying Culture’: content and methodology

The first module, Language and Culture, focuses on the relationship between language and culture and provides the starting point for the debate about language as a culture carrier. Just as language and culture are closely related in human society, so are language learning and culture learning. We take it for granted that culture learning has to take place as an integral part of language learning, and vice versa. However, the mere acquisition of information about a foreign country, without the psychological demands of integrated language and culture learning, is inadequate as a basis for education through foreign language teaching. Thus, in planning, directing and evaluating culture learning and teaching in the language classroom, teachers should be aware of the general nature of culture learning as a process and the major variables that stimulate or hinder its progress. Module Two, Intercultural Learning, introduces the factors involved in learning for intercultural communication and a model for intercultural communicative competence, based on Byram (1997).
The third module, Language and Society, is based on the view that language cannot be understood, taught and learned out of its social and cultural context. Culture reflects in language and at the same time language is the instrument for shaping our social order. One aspect of this interrelationship is that language varies according to situation. Different contexts can be characterized by different forms of linguistic expression and thus be identified by language users. Language also varies according to its users. This kind of diversity can be approached by exploring the differences between men and women in the way they speak. Yet another aspect of the relationship between language and culture in a social context can be traced on the level of personal communication.
In Module Four, Teaching the Media, we look at ways of exploring the media as the source of the programmes, films, music, books and magazines that we watch, listen to and read. We try to analyse the ways in which we consume and use media products, how we are shaped and influenced by the meanings and values which circulate around us, and how we, in turn, make sense of the world we live in.
The study of Popular Culture, which the theme of the fifth module, draws upon two definitions of culture: the broad, anthropological definition, which presents culture as a whole way of life of a people and their values and beliefs, and the narrow, aesthetic one, according to which culture refers to the best that has been produced in the fields of art, music and literature. The focus of this module is upon cultural forms and practices that have wide social currency, since no picture of a society’s culture would be complete without attention to popular as well as minority tastes.
The sixth module, Exploring Cultures through Literature and Art, aims to sensitise students to cultural implications in literary texts. We introduce the key theoretical aspects of ‘reading’ cultures through their literature and art and try to explore the manner in which literary texts may be shaped by a sense of cultural identity related to locality.
Throughout the course students are involved in different types of academic input and practical work: lectures, seminars, tutorials, workshops, reading assignments, field work and project work.
It should be stressed that teaching and learning processes are student-centred and experiential in nature. The principles of interaction, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, independent study, sharing and openness have been employed. The best way to describe the methodology of the course is not so much as a source of definitive answers but as an opportunity to discuss productive and important questions of cultural teaching and learning.
Continuous assessment based on the successful completion of self and peer evaluation tasks, an assessed exercise at the end of each module and a final project work on a topic of students’ choice has proved so far the best method for evaluating students’ progress.
Being a team of representatives of four different Bulgarian universitites, we have tried to design this course in such a way, so that it is flexible and can be adapted to the needs of a particular academic curriculum. On the other hand, if we take into consideration the particular needs of a given target group of students, the focus of the course can shift from highly theoretical input (e.g. for M.A. students) to more methodology-oriented and practical tasks (e.g. for student teachers). It is also worth mentioning that the self-contained nature of the modules allows them to be further expanded or condensed according to time constraints and students’ interests.
As regards the content of the course, we have adopted an interdisciplinary approach, drawing upon a number of academic subjects, such as linguistics, sociolinguistics, culture and media studies, civilisation, literature and art. We rely on examples from different cultures and encourage cross-cultural comparisons. We have also made our priority to enable students to acquire skills rather than teach facts. They learn to explore aspects of different cultures, compare and contrast examples of social behaviour and use various methods for data collection and analysis (e.g. ethnography). In addition, they find out how to deal with texts and design their own teaching materials.

‘Studying Culture’: courseware

We have designed the teaching materials in order to facilitate classroom sessions as well as to promote independent learning. The student handbook outlines the rationale of the course and the individual topics, highlights the key concepts dealt with in the respective modules and informs students about the forms of assessment and the assessment criteria. It also contains a practical guide to research methods and quotation conventions as well as bibliographical notes at the end of each module.
We also make use of a set of offprints with the basic reading materials and a plan for each session.
Since the framework of the course is based on a broad definition of culture as the beliefs, values and behaviour of a social group, it is impossible to thoroughly explore the representations of culture in all the different spheres of life within the allotted time of 60 academic hours. Therefore, we rely heavily on individual work as an indelible part of the learning process. We are convinced that facilitated independent learning not only enables students to catch up with what they have missed from their classroom activities, but it also allows them the choice of time, place and pace of their own learning. To this end, we have designed three self-access units, each containing a body of learning materials that can be used independently, as a supplement to the learning process conducted in the classroom. The three topics, ethnography of communication, popular music and communities in literature, are derived from the broader themes of the modules Language and Society, Popular Culture, and Exploring Cultures Through Literature and Art, respectively. They are supplementary to the course and aim to develop further students’ knowledge and expertise in those areas. They follow the rationale and course description, as outlined in the Student Handbook, draw upon the background of students’ classroom experience in the course, and introduce topics and activities which are of relevance to the course content. The concluding activities of the self-access units are bound with the graded assignments for the three modules. Each unit provides mechanisms for self-evaluation of students’ progress and contains clearly flagged instructions to facilitate independent work.
The present volume of self-access units, being the most recent of our teaching materials, has undergone a trial period and we are now thinking of developing and expanding it further by including new topics not only relevant to the content of the course, but also interesting and intellectually challenging to students. In this respect we would like to emphasise that we are constantly trying to update and improve our course, drawing upon our teaching experience as well as the feedback which we get from our students through specially designed evaluation questionnaires.
In conclusion, we believe that our shared experience can be of use to many enthusiastic educators who are seeking new approaches to the teaching of language and culture.


Byram, M. (1999) On Being Bicultural and Intercultural, unpublished
Byram, M. (1997) Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence, Multilingual Matters.

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