Paul Dummett, June 2014

The issue I want to address in this short essay is the cultural context which frames the content of EFL lessons. It seems to me that in spite of numerous nods to the internationalisation of English and its global context, ELT materials remain principally ‘mono-cultural’. (This term is expanded on below.) My contention is that this approach is inappropriate and that the content of our lessons should deal with universally recognisable themes from a range of diverse cultural perspectives.       

Historically, published ELT materials have focused on one of three cultural contexts as the background for language learning. Cortazzi and Jin (1999) refer to these contexts as based either on source culture, target culture, or international (target) culture. The first, source culture, frames learning within the learners’ own culture, using references that are familiar to the student. Such an approach is favoured in some primary and secondary course material, the rationale being that learners are left free to deal with the cognitive challenge of learning a new language without having to grapple with its cultural specificities at the same time. It has also been argued that this approach ‘minimizes the potential of marginalizing the values and lived experiences of the learners’ (Sharifan, 2009). 

The second context is the culture of the target language itself – British, American, Australian, etc. While textbooks that fall into this category tend to avoid very specific cultural references and leave the job of explicitly exploring the institutions, literature and cultural history of the target culture to ancillary ESL materials, they nevertheless root the context of each lesson firmly in the target culture. This approach combines linguistic training with cultural assimilation, the main aim being to facilitate non-native speakers’ integration into an English-speaking country, whether that be for study or work, for the short or long term.  The desire to immerse and integrate oneself in the target culture is clearly a great motivator and an effective route to language proficiency (Gardner and Lambert, 1972). However, it is not a pre-requisite. It has been shown that it is possible to be a very successful language learner even if you are ‘highly ethnocentric’ and do not like the target culture (Leaver, 2003).

The third category of cultural context - international target culture - is what most mainstream

UK-published EFL coursebooks aspire to in their marketing literature. Publishers want to take account of the fact that the language is now used by multiple cultures for a variety of different purposes – academic, scientific, business etc. – and that an increasing number of interactions in English take place between two or more non-native speakers, outnumbering native speaker interactions (Crytsal, 1997)  So references to English food, red buses and the tabloid newspapers have disappeared, to be replaced by Jamie Oliver’s healthy international cuisine, a Chinese solar-powered scooter and our favourite global social media sites. The problem here is that although seeming to embrace internationalism, these stories are not actually told from a different cultural perspective. As Cortez (2008) rightly points out ‘Western textbooks privilege the stories told by Western protagonists about the Other’.

So, in spite of all that is said at conferences about the changing nature of the English language, its internationalisation, its emergence as a lingua franca (ELF) and the growing acceptance of other ‘Englishes’ spoken in different parts of the world, mainstream EFL materials in fact remain fairly ‘mono-cultural’, presenting a world which is predominantly white, western and well-to-do. It was this observation that led me to conduct my own research into five of the UK’s best-selling published course books of the last five years. I looked at the profile of the characters that featured in two randomly selected units in each book. Although the study was in some ways superficial, the results were nevertheless striking. The characters in the books were 59% male, 81% white Caucasian, 40% British, and of the 60% remaining 82% were either from Europe or the U.S.

From a commercial perspective, these findings are not so surprising. These are mass market

products and so naturally they reflect the culture of the main markets into which the books are sold. If they do not accurately represent the culture of the target market as it is today –

in a less economically developed country, for example - they are nevertheless supposed to

present a world to which that country and those people aspire. (An author I know was recently asked by their publisher to remove a photo of barefooted children next to an article about an Indian village, because it was not an ‘aspirational’ image.)  

But what should be the alternative?  As I stated at the beginning, in a globalised world, it

makes more sense to hear English used by people from a range of cultural backgrounds. This

is not a new idea. The teacher’s resource book, Vocabulary (John Morgan and Mario Rinvolucri, OUP 1986), has a wonderful example of such a culturally diverse voice in an extract from Julius Nyrere’s Ujaama. In my own teaching I make use of the TED talk archive, where we can hear stories about entrepreneurship in India told by an Indian entrepreneur, about peaceful civil protest in west Africa by a west African, about global feminism by a Chilean woman. These are universal issues, but approached from diverse cultural contexts.


Why does this make sense? First, we can cite the same reasons that mainstream EFL materials have tried to focus on international target culture:  1) that English is no longer the property of a single culture - it has itself transcended cultural frontiers to become a global language, and 2) that an attempt in this context to focus solely on the “target” culture of the originator of this language, namely England and the English, would be at best parochial and at worst culturally imperialist. That is not to say that we should ignore target culture in our teaching. Kramsch (1999) sums up well the balance we must strike: ‘Our responsibility as language teachers is to help students not only become acceptable and listened to users of English by adopting the culturally sanctioned genres, styles and rhetorical conventions of the English speaking world, but how to gain a profit of distinction by using English in ways that are unique to their multilingual and multicultural sensibilities.’ In other words, while it is useful and indeed desirable to make students’ aware of target culture, its thought and literature, we must also, given the increasing number of non-native interactions, allow for other perspectives too.  

Secondly, it makes sense because it promotes a more critical pedagogy; that is to say one in which learners naturally question assumptions and approach various issues in an open-minded way. By offering diverse cultural perspectives in our teaching materials, we invite learners to embrace cultural difference and to question cultural assumptions, their own included. While one effect of globalisation and the freer movement of people around the world has been a breaking down of barriers, another unfortunate consequence has been an increase in xenophobia and nationalism, as evidenced by the recent results of the 2014 European parliamentary elections. These are dangerous sentiments and tend to emanate from those who are ignorant and fearful of cultural difference. It is one of the roles of education, and ELT is certainly no exception, to expose learners to the full diversity of ideas and cultural behaviours, in order to counteract such tendencies.


Cortazzi, M. and Jin, L. (1999). Cultural mirrors: materials and methods in the EFL classroom. In E. Hinkel (ed.), Culture in second language teaching (pp. 196-219) Cambridge University Press.

Cortez, N.A. (2008) Am I in the Book? Imagined Communities and Language Ideologies of English in a Global Efl Textbook (Proquest Information and Learning)

Crystal, D. (1997) English as a global language. Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, R.C. and Lambert, W.E. (1972) Attitudes and motivation in second language learning (Newbury House, Rowley MA, USA)

Kramsch, E. (2003) Language, culture, and voice in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (NovELTy. A Journal of English Language teaching and Cultural Studies in Hungary 8:1, 2001,pp 4-21.)

Leaver, B.L. (2003) Motvation at native-like levels of foreign language proficiency: a research agenda (Journal for Distinguished Language Studies, 1 (1))

Morgan, J. and Rinvolucri, M. (1986) Vocabulary – Resource Books for Teachers p.20 (Oxford University Press) 

Sharifian, F. (2009). Cultural Conceptualizations in English as an International Language. In English as an International Language: Perspectives and Pedagogical Issues, ed. Sharifian F, pp 242–253. Bristol, Buffalo and Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

Paul Dummett Bio:

My career in ELT began in Oxford in 1987, first as a teacher, then DoS, then Vice principal of Godmer House School of English. In 1996, I set up my own school which I ran for 10 years, giving it up in 2006 to concentrate on writing full-time. My interests have always centred around needs-based learning: from task-based learning for general English students through business English teaching to specialised ESP courses.

As a teacher and a writer, my aim is to develop materials that are stimulating and thought-provoking - that offer more than just language learning. I seek out projects that offer this possibility. Most recently, this led me to work with National Geographic on the Adult series, LIFE.     

My publications include: Success with BEC (Summertown 2008), Energy English (Cengage 2010) and LIFE (National Geographic Learning (2012).

I live in Oxford with my wife (and children when they come home).