Lesson 1: Culture? What Culture?

Culture as a Fifth Skill

Culture. Cultura. Kultur. No matter how you say it, it is an essential part of our languages, our past, our present. Language without cultural relevance is nearly useless. Yet successfully teaching the cultural element in our foreign language classes remains elusive.

In keeping with the convention within the field of Foreign Language Education of referring to language abilities as separate skills (e.g., listening, speaking, reading, and writing), teachers often refer to culture as the "fifth skill." But what does that mean? While it may generally be accepted in the language-teaching community that culture is an integral part of language instruction, there is little consensus on what, much less how, we should teach it. Unlike vocabulary and grammar, which are concrete in their content, culture is quite fluid and amorphous and therefore difficult to define.

In general, culture as the fifth skill emphasizes the learner's ability to perceive, to understand, and ultimately, to accept cultural relativity.

To grasp what cultural relativity means, consider a simple social act such as giving flowers. In American culture, who may give flowers to whom? In what situations? For example, is it appropriate to give flowers to the hostess of a dinner party? If so, what kinds of flowers are appropriate? Should you say something when you give your hostess flowers? Now watch the video and discover how your answers about the social act of flower giving are all relative to the American context and may lead to a social faux pas in another country.


Culture as a "fifth skill."

Duration: 03:54

Culture as a fifth skill refers to a set of abilities:

  • The ability to perceive and recognize cultural differences. ("Oh, so that is how you are supposed to give flowers in Russia!")
  • The ability to accept cultural differences. ("From now on, I must remember to give an odd number of flowers.")
  • The ability to appreciate and value cultural differences. ("Isn't it interesting that the number of flowers holds significance!")