Listening to the average Australian (or other native English-speaking group), there can be no doubt that language and culture are intrinsically bound.
The below comic, showing Trevor and his good friends Gavin and Martin at a barbecue, gives some classic examples of utterances (things that are said) which are culturally loaded in Australian idiomatic English.
Comic courtesy of Gerard Piper
In this humorous take on Australian idioms, we see Martin is alarmed when Trevor says the barbecue cost him “an arm and a leg” not understanding that the phrase means expensive. His perplexity only increases when he hears that Phil “is tied up”, unaware that this is an idiom, saying someone is busy with another activity.
What sense is a non-native speaker of English in Australia going to make of, “How’re you going?” A logical answer would be, “We’re driving / catching the bus / walking.” The expected response, however, is “Fine thanks. How about you?”. Confusion, disorientation and miscommunication result if no-one ever explains that the question “How’re you going?” is an enquiry about someone’s health or life in general.
Teaching ESL is therefore as much about explaining the target culture implicit in our many idiomatic expressions, as it is about teaching someone vocabulary and grammatical structures.
Within any language, and within any social setting, there will be phrases and concepts which are understood by some, and not by others. This understanding comes through a lifetime of hearing, responding to and using these phrases. Analysis of each word in a phrase will not render the intended meaning. The phrase as a whole has a single meaning, endowed upon it by a community who tacitly agree on the intended meaning. This also applies to single words, for example, ‘wicked’, which in certain circles has come to describe something very exciting or well done.
Most of the English-speaking nations share some common idioms, and idioms can be understood between nations. For example, in Australia and USA, ‘head honcho’ means the topmost leader of a company. An American could say to an Australian, "The head honcho is coming to the meeting," and meaning would not be lost; the Australian would understand what the American meant. An example of an idiom which has migrated to other areas is the Indian phrase, "Please do the needful," meaning, "Please do what is implied and / or expected." As the global network expands, this phrase which used to be specific to India is now being used outside the area in which it originated.
The concepts implicit in the language people use, create a situation in which some people are insiders because they understand what is being said and others are outsiders. The words and phrases we use are part of an intricate web of behaviour and ways of communicating and relating that establish and maintain a particular cultural context.
The challenge for language teachers is to be aware of aspects of communication that are specific to a particular group or community, then to be able to unpack or explain those language items to enable learners to access the meaning and communicate effectively.
Cultural concepts and strategies to teach English as a second of foreign language learners (ESL / EFL) how to understand them, is just one of the aspects we cover in Unit 1: Create a culturally inclusive learning environment. This unit is available in our TESOL Courses: