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Review of  Second Culture Teaching and Learning

Reviewer: Valeria Buttini-Bailey
Book Title: Second Culture Teaching and Learning
Book Author: Thomas Szende
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 26.241

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The monograph by Thomas Szende aims to offer an incisive analysis of how the second language learner can achieve cultural proficiency. As a matter of fact, ''acting in a foreign language is not possible if one has not previously acquired a certain amount of the knowledge that is shared within the target society, and which linguistic practice stricto sensu cannot guarantee'' (p. 15).

The book's main purpose, therefore, is ''[...] to orient the practice of L2 teaching-learning by offering to the passionate reader, whether he is a teacher, researcher or student, keys allowing him to reflect on how all languages, in even the most ordinary communicative exchanges, [...] testify to the culture (indeed, cultures) which they originate from, and in which they are profoundly steeped, with privileged zones where images of the collective “real” are concentrated. For, theoretically, all words and all language elements may carry culture. In pedagogical practice, however, certain language elements, more than others, appear as reference points that summon culture. This is what we will endeavor to illustrate here through numerous examples'' (p. 41-42).

The volume is organized into seven chapters, a foreword and an afterword; it also includes a list of tables, references, and an index. Below I will briefly describe each chapter before turning to a critical commentary.


Chapter One serves as an introduction to outline the purpose and intended audience of the volume. The conditions of teaching-learning of languages and cultures in a non-natural context will be investigated, according to the postulate that ''linguistic and cultural knowledge can be transmitted to various learner audiences'' and that ''the appropriation of a second language and culture can be facilitated and guided through teaching programs based on choices (needs, objectives and content, teaching material and evaluation, articulation between various levels)'' (p. 29).

A few questions that the book promises to handle are raised: what kind(s) of theoretical model(s) should be exploited to allow cultural facts to be identified? What are the rules of second language use that the foreign speaker needs to gain access to in order to communicate in a manner that is culturally appropriate within a linguistic community? How can such a skill [...] be implemented? Is it possible to define a common cultural knowledge basis that is representative [...] and necessary [...]? Can cultural knowledge be prioritized? Is it possible to distinguish levels of cultural competence? Would it be necessary to envisage a close link between linguistic progression and cultural progression? Amongst the choices of teaching material and evaluation systems, how can the cultural dimension be taken into account? (pp. 36-37).

The author also explains how, and why, he collected the data used to illustrate his thesis : ''[...] we requested of a number of colleagues [...] to reproduce communication situations, and to identify the precise course of a certain number of language events within their culture which, as native speakers, they have intimate knowledge of (English, French, Hungarian, Russian, Egyptian Arabic and Chinese). The competence reflected by the mastery of identified expressions, the capacity to evaluate their representativeness, their authenticity, and their conformity to rules of usage is an integral part of the linguistic competence of our informers. Comparing linguistic sequences produced in identical situations sheds light on particularities that are barely perceptible in a monolingual context. Objects that appear definable may not be linguistically distinguished in other languages while elements common to two languages may function according to a different distribution'' (p. 42).

Chapter Two is aimed at defining the key term “culture” and at showing to what extent this term can be considered a synonym of other terms such as, for instance, ''civilization''. Culture is seen here as ''[...] a dynamic system of values, beliefs, customs and behaviors, i.e., an ensemble of elements, considered as given and shared (Hall, 1990), that are not simply passed down from generation to generation, but that allow the members of a community to establish relationships with one another (Abdallah-Pretceille, 1986: 76)'' (p. 54). Besides, culture is defined as ''the hypothetical repertoire of explicit and implicit rules that govern exchanges within a community'' and ''of all references that are acquired and memorized, experienced and expressed collectively, and which, be they shared or not by other cultures, constitute, to the members of the group, nature itself at a given moment of its evolution'' (p. 54).

The author also points out that ''Despite the planetary uniformization, our cultures remain essentially national and regional with representational backdrops of specific beliefs and attitudes. [...] Cultural identity is the result of the combination of values which are part of specific historical filiations (continuity) and values which tend to erase the cultural differences (universality). The task of the teacher is to reveal the complementarity of these values, to point out the manner in which the local is transformed under the impact of global transformations and the manner in which the latter are enhanced through the contribution of local elements'' (p. 68).

In Chapter Three the procedures of L1 and L2 languages and cultures acquisition, which ''hardly resemble one another'' and ''constitute specific teaching and learning situations'' (p. 88), are compared and other questions are raised: can foreign language teachers hope to reproduce all that an individual learns in and through his first language? Can they hope to reproduce all the moments in a native’s existence that have contributed to constructing his cultural capital? (p. 86) What coherent and efficient language teaching and learning theory should be implemented? How can one get a cultural field that has already been developed to coexist with a new cultural matrix? (pp. 90-91).

Chapter Four deals with the lexicon as a complex inventory of all ideas, interests and preoccupations that retain the attention of a community (Sapir, 1968: 75) and with ''the social sensitivity of words'' (p. 100). As a matter of fact, ''The words of two languages, bearers of a specific logic and vision of the world, almost never have the same content – hence the cases of quasi-coincidences, of non-coincidences and of absence of equivalents. All experiences, sometimes linked to an “insufficiency”, other times to an “overabundance” of foreign vocabulary, can constitute difficulties for the learner. The capacity of a community to oppose concepts which in other communities are not distinguished and, conversely, the incapacity of a language to establish a separation where another language is capable of it, are potential sources of confusion'' (p. 93). Words can be connoted and permeated with particular suggestive or emotive values (p. 101); they can carry the traces of events that have marked the history of a community (p. 105); they can be representative of the current values of a society (p. 112); they can obviously reflect the speaker’s geographical, social and ideological position (p. 118). Teachers need to address the phenomenon of polysemy with their learners; learners need to deal with the problems imposed by metaphors, onomatopoeias, idiomatic expressions, proverbs and collocations that may vary from one language to another.

Chapter Five reflects on the way the discursive organization of linguistic elements differs from one cultural community to another. A few suggestions to teachers are made, such as the recourse to media, writing, audio-visuals and electronics, in order to develop ''in the learner a critical and ethical sense regarding the language being conveyed'', and raise ''awareness on an ongoing basis as to the process of information handling'' (p. 189). Other suggested pedagogical material includes advertising documents and past and contemporary literature (especially popular folk tales, tales, science-fiction literature, police novels, and comics). The chapter also deals with problems posed by irony, humor, allusions and citations, implicit content, verbal and non-verbal communication.

Chapter Six explores the role played by social representations, stereotypes and clichés. The author underlines how, in a foreign culture, ''we have a tendency to select its most salient features, without being preoccupied to know if they are really pertinent''. In courses, this makes the teachers tend ''to reduce the cultural dimensions to a simple decorative function for the purpose of linguistic structures'' (p. 275).

Chapter Seven firstly deals with a few pedagogical challenges related to the classroom (e.g. What is the role played by code-switching?), to the instructor (e.g. Should he/she be native or not?), to the textbook (e.g. Should they promote the native’s cultural experience as well?), to the learner (e.g. What role is played by motivation?). The issue of progression in the foreign culture competence is raised: is it possible to choose an appropriate itinerary, and develop a logical organization of pedagogical practices on the subject of cultural competence? Is there a beam of imperative social interactions, a minimum of knowledge of a culture without which communication would be impossible? (p. 319). The author states that ''cultural competence does not have any permanent constituents'' (p. 319) and that ''we do not progress in a linear fashion but rather through repetition, from angles that are different throughout language learning (Diaz, 1998: 26)''.

The limits of CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment) are also underlined in this chapter: ''The CEFR does not seem to have truly renewed the debate around the status of culture in foreign language teaching-learning. Indeed, the major categories of the framework that are developed in levels are essentially of linguistic/communicative character'' (p. 326) and a few suggestions of activities are made. The author supports for instance the recourse to translation, defined as ''an activity that in a paradoxical way confirms that all languages resemble one another and that they are all different'' (p. 357).


In terms of layout and structure, the volume is well organized. It is also remarkably rich in in-text citations and brings together a wealth of information from several fields beyond linguistics, such as semiotics, sociology, ethnology, anthropology, and philosophy. This represents at the same time both a weak and a strong point of the book. Some chapters are very dense, but enjoyable, while others tend to become somewhat tedious and the reader may have the impression that no further information is being added, and that the book could have easily been some fifty pages shorter.

The intended audience of the book is precisely as the author states in Chapter One, i.e. teachers, researchers and students. It would work particularly well as a theoretic textbook in teacher training courses. Teachers in need of a more practical approach would probably be disappointed though, as it does not offer an example of a proper didactic unit. Moreover, some of the methodological questions raised throughout the chapters remain unanswered, probably because they are unanswerable or there is no univocal answer. The volume is therefore a good guide to relevant research literature, and a very powerful instrument to spark a reflection in language educators, but fails to provide ''effective teaching strategies'' as stated (only) on the back cover of the book.

This volume does however represent a very good introduction to the discipline and it offers a good discussion of its state of the art, functioning as a good preparation for further research.


Abdallah-Pretceille, M. 1986. Approche interculturelle de l’enseignement des civilisations. In L. Porcher (Ed.), La civilisation. Paris: Clé International. 71-87.

CEFR. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. 2001. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.

Diaz, V. 1998. Allemand et enseignement de la civilisation. Les langues moderne 4. 26-27.
Hall, G. 1990. Exploring English Language Teaching. Language in Action. New York: Routledge.

Sapir, E. 1968. Linguistique. Paris: Gallimard.
Valeria Buttini-Bailey holds a PhD in Italian Linguistics by the University of Basel and the University of Turin. She is currently lecturer and postdoc at the University of Basel. Her research interests include applied linguistics, sociolinguistics, language teacher education, and syntax.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9783034314572
Pages: 462
Prices: U.S. $ 118.95
U.K. £ 73.00