Cultural elements and their potentials to develop students’ intercultural competence: A survey on english textbooks used in classes of language skills at university of foreign languages, Hue university

Intercultural competence is one of the most fundamental components that should

be developed among language users and can be attained in many different ways. Several

studies have suggested that cultural elements incorporated in English textbooks can be of

great significance in helping learners acquired intercultural competence. This paper

presents the results of a survey on English textbooks used for teaching language skills at the

Department of English and the Department of International Studies, Hue University of

Foreign Languages. The findings reveal an inclusion of several usable cultural elements

from both the inner circle and outer circle cultures in such textbooks; however, most of

them reflect surface cultural values rather than deep cultural ones. Besides, although deep

culture elements are incorporated, these are addressed at a pretty shallow level. It is

suggested that in order to enhance students’ intercultural competence, teachers and students

need further effort to take full advantage of the available cultural elements. This paper also

gives recommendation on effective use of such elements

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T p chí Khoa h c Ngôn ng  và Văn hóaạ ọ ữ ISSN 2525­2674 T p 3, S  1, 2019ậ ố
CULTURAL ELEMENTS AND THEIR POTENTIALS TO
DEVELOP STUDENTS’ INTERCULTURAL COMPETENCE: 
A SURVEY ON ENGLISH TEXTBOOKS USED IN CLASSES 
OF LANGUAGE SKILLS AT UNIVERSITY OF FOREIGN
LANGUAGES, HUE UNIVERSITY
Cao Le Thanh Hai*, Truong Thi Ai Nhi
University of Foreign Languages, Hue University
Received: 01/08/2018; Revised: 12/09/2018; Accepted: 22/04/2019
Abstract: Intercultural competence is one of the most fundamental components that should
be developed among language users and can be attained in many different ways. Several
studies have suggested that cultural elements incorporated in English textbooks can be of
great significance in helping learners acquired intercultural competence. This paper
presents the results of a survey on English textbooks used for teaching language skills at the
Department of English and the Department of International Studies, Hue University of
Foreign Languages. The findings reveal an inclusion of several usable cultural elements
from both the inner circle and outer circle cultures in such textbooks; however, most of
them reflect surface cultural values rather than deep cultural ones. Besides, although deep
culture elements are incorporated, these are addressed at a pretty shallow level. It is
suggested that in order to enhance students’ intercultural competence, teachers and students
need further effort to take full advantage of the available cultural elements. This paper also
gives recommendation on effective use of such elements. 
Key words: Deep cultural values, intercultural competence, surface cultural values
1. Introduction
The last few decades have witnessed one of the most fundamental changes in language
learning and teaching - the recognition of the cultural dimension as a vital component. This
change has largely transformed the nature of teaching and learning languages. In other words,
the aim of language learning and teaching is no longer defined in terms of the acquisition and
the transmission of communicative competence in a foreign language, which refers to a person’s
ability to act in a foreign language in linguistically, socio-linguistically and pragmatically
appropriate ways (Council of Europe, 2001). Rather, it is defined in terms of interculturality,
which is “the ability of a person to behave adequately in a flexible manner when confronted
with actions, attitudes and expectations of representatives of foreign cultures” (Meyer, 1991, p.
138). Interculturality is seen here as a dynamic process by which people not only draw on and
use the resources and processes of cultures with which they are familiar but also those they may
not typically be associated with in their interactions with others (Young & Sercombe, 2010).
This definition, in fact, adds to the notion of communicative competence and enlarges it to
incorporate intercultural competence. Here, a competent language user is characterised as one
who is both plurilingual (i.e. whose experience of language in its cultural context expands from
the language of the home to that of the society at large and then to the languages of other
peoples) and in the process of developing interculturality. The linguistic and cultural
* Email: clthai@hueuni.edu.vn
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competences in respect of each language used by the learner are modified by knowledge of the
other and contribute towards intercultural awareness, skills, and know-how. An important
motivation for the advocacy of interculturality are perceptions that intercultural contact and
interchange are greater than ever, necessitating approaches to understanding and brokering
difference through effective communication. From this position, language learning is the best
place within the educational field for the learning of and about culture, reflecting powerful
interrelationships between language and culture (Risager, 1998). 
At the Department of English and the Department of International Studies, Hue
University of Foreign Languages, in order to help students develop their intercultural
competence, courses in British and American culture have been added to the curriculum since
the very beginning. Despite intermittent changes in the textbooks used, these courses have
consistently covered a wide range of topics that were listed by CEF (2001) as seven categories
that are considered characteristic of a particular European society and its culture which include
everyday living, living condition, interpersonal relations, values, beliefs and attitudes, body
language, social conventions and ritual behaviours. While the use of culture as a way to enhance
students’ intercultural competence has been highly recognized and sought after by teachers and
curriculum designers from the department; the effort, in the researcher’s opinion, should be
more rigorous. In other words, cultural elements incorporated in textbooks for other courses,
especially those used for teaching language skills should be actively employed as a means to
enhance students’ intercultural competence from day one. As a result, the present study provides
an in-depth survey of textbooks used for teaching language skills to identify the cultural topics
included in them as the initial step towards effective usage of such elements in developing and
enhancing students’ intercultural competence.
There are five sections in the study. The introduction provides details on the context of
the study. The sections on literature review and the method give definitions of the major
concepts, description of instruments to collect data, participants and data analysis procedure.
This is followed by findings and discussion which gives in-depth analysis of the collected data.
In the final sections, conclusions are drawn and implications are presented. 
2. Theoretical background
2.1. Definition of intercultural competence
Intercultural communicative competence is defined by Alptekin (2002) as the ability of
learners to illicit and nourish communication; and thus plays a crucial role in communication
effectiveness. In other words, it is the ability to attain a successful interaction, which requires
several factors other than language competence. As suggested by Byram, the success of
interaction implies not only an effective interchange of information, as was the goal of
communicative language teaching, but also the “the ability to decentre and take up the other’s
perspective on their own culture, anticipating and where possible, resolving dysfunctions in
communication and behaviour” (Byram & Zarate, 1997, p. 42). Intercultural communicative
competence, as a result, can be formed on the basis of awareness, behaviour and action (Byram,
2008).
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2.2. Objectives of teaching/learning culture
The interwoven relationship between language and culture can be summarized by Brown
(2000, p. 177), “A language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two
are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of
either language or culture.” In order to communicate successfully across languages and cultures,
one must understand culturally different norms of interaction and people’s values and thought
(Saville-Troike, 2003). Sometimes linguistic correct sentences could cause misunderstanding or
confusion when they are in a different cultural context (Schulz, 2007). 
Tomalin and Stempleski (1993, pp. 7-8) listed such goals of cultural instruction as:
- To develop an understanding of the fact that all people exhibit culturally-conditioned
behaviours;
- To develop an understanding that social variables such as age, sex, social class, and place of
residence influence the way in which people speak and behave;
- To become more aware of conventional behaviour in common situations in the target culture;
- To increase their awareness of the cultural connotations of words and phrases in the target
language;
- To develop the ability to evaluate and refine generalizations about the target culture, in terms
of supporting evidence;
- To develop the necessary skills to locate and organize information about the target culture;
- To simulate students’ intellectual curiosity about the target culture, and to encourage empathy
towards its people.
Such goals of teaching culture can be seen as clear indicators of the vital role of teaching
culture in enhancing language learners’ intercultural (communicative) competence.
2.3. Theoretical views on culture
In “The Cultural Content in EFL Textbooks and What Teachers Need to Do about it,”
Rodriguez (2015) listed the four following features of culture:
2.3.1. Culture involves both surface and deep culture
According to Hinkel (2001, cited in Rodriguez, 2015), the EFL field has generally
focused on teaching elements of surface culture, that is, the easily observable and static
elements that represent a nation. In other words, EFL materials often include holidays, tourist
sites, famous people’s achievements, and food. However, these surface forms of culture are not
sufficient for students to understand the target culture because they only entail the accumulation
of general fixed information and do not provide opportunities to address the underlying
sociocultural interactions that occur in different backgrounds (Rodriguez, 2015). In contrast,
deep culture embraces invisible meanings associated with a region, a group of people, or
subcultures that reflect their own particular sociocultural norms, lifestyles, beliefs, and values.
These deep cultural forms are very intricate, almost hidden, because they are personal,
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individual, possibly collective but multifaceted and because they do not necessarily fit the
traditional social norms or the fixed cultural standards (Rodriguez, 2015). 
Gary Weaver (1986) uses the image of an iceberg to explain these many layers of culture.
Like an iceberg, part of a culture is “above water” in that it is visible and easy to identify and
know. This part includes surface culture and elements of folk culture - the arts, folk dancing
dress, cooking etc. But just as nine tenths of an iceberg is out of sight below water, Weaver
explains, nine tenths of a culture is also hidden from view. This out-of-awareness part of culture
has been termed “deep culture” although it does include some elements of folk culture. Deep
culture includes elements such as the definition of sin, concept of justice, word ethic, eye
behaviour, definition of insanity, approaches to problem solving, fiscal expression, and approach
to interpersonal relationships. Ogbu (1988, p. 13) presents this essential idea more clearly when
he states that “cultural tasks vary from culture to culture because different populations have
worked out to solve different solutions to common problems in life, such as how to make a
living, reproduce, maintain order within their borders, defend themselves against outsiders, and
so on.”
2.3.2. Culture is transformative, not only static
The EFL field has considered culture to be a static entity that represents the main
collective sociocultural norms, lifestyles, and values that are learned, shared, and transmitted by
the people of a community (e.g., the British value punctuality, Americans are workaholics).
However, these elemental visions not only tend to create stereotypes but are inaccurate in the
current process of global communication given that culture is constantly in flux in multiple
ways (Rodriguez, 2015). It is dangerous to generalize that all of the people of a community
“share” and follow the exact same established sociocultural norms with homogeneous
compliance. Likewise, it is a mistake to believe that each culture is unalterable with its own
norms and traditions given that history itself has shown that one nation can indirectly or directly
influence and change another and cause cultural alterations (Rodriguez, 2015).
2.3.3. Culture is contentious, not only congratulatory 
EFL education has also focused on teaching culture in celebratory or neutral terms by
emphasizing the most emblematic elements that define a cultural group and by spreading the
idea that all cultures of the world happily coexist through mutual respect and tolerance.
Therefore, learners create safe, celebratory opinions of the target cultures because they are never
taught that defects in and deviations from the models of the “correct” cultural behaviour also
exist. Learners are taught to appreciate positive characteristics of other nations, such as that
Americans are well-organized, the British enjoy having tea every afternoon, and Japanese
people are humble. Congratulatory views also underline the study of tourist sites, the lives of
famous celebrities, the main human achievements of a country, and tips on how to survive as a
tourist in a foreign country. Meanwhile, Graff (1992) and Hames-Garcia (2003) (cited in
Rodriguez, 2015) state that teachers should avoid self-congratulatory approaches to culture,
history, and identity in their pedagogy because celebratory discourses are one-sided in that they
do not allow students to learn about the true conflictive sociocultural realities of a nation.
Instead, approaches to culture and identity should promote a more critical approach through
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“debates” and “models of controversy and conflict” (Hames-Garcia, 2003, p. 32) against
oppression, injustice, and power. In this sense, culture should be taught in the EFL classroom
from a contentious and controversial perspective in such a way that it explores the deep,
complex elements of culture. 
2.3.4. Culture is heterogeneous, not only homogeneous
Similar to the previous features, culture is seen in the EFL classroom as a homogeneous
entity in which all of its components are studied in equal and generalized terms. Atkinson refers
to this form of culture as “geographically distinct” and “relatively unchanging” and as a set of
rules that regulate all individuals’ behaviour in a community uniformly as if they were identical
(Atkinson, 1999, p. 626). As a result, learners have a tendency to create standardized
generalizations of the target culture because they are never given the chance to consider that
there are exceptions to the cultural norm. Consequently, it is important to recognize that there
are also subgroups and subcultures within a particular society with their own values and
ideologies that differ from those of the dominant group and that can help learners reflect on
issues related to gender, ethnicity, identity, social class, and power, that is, to understand the
heterogeneous and hybrid value that all cultures of the world encompass (Rodriguez, 2015).
3. Methods
3.1. Material
Led by the model suggested by Gary Weaver (1986), 2 English textbooks (NorthStar 1&2
Reading and Writing) were analyzed in order to identify the level of surface and deep culture
elements incorporated in their content. The analysis of the textbooks was guided by the
following question: Which surface or deep cultural topics do EFL communicative textbooks
contain? 
The criterion for the selection of the textbooks was based on their usage. At Hue
University of Foreign Languages, NorthStar series have been used for several years. The series
include 5 sets with 10 textbooks (labeling from 1 to 5, each set is consisted of 2 books - 1 for
reading and writing and another for listening and speaking). The textbooks have been
implemented as a means to prepare EFL students to become future teachers and
interpreters/translators in the country. 
Within the limit of this paper and as a component of a much larger project, only NorthStar
1&2 Reading and Writing were chosen for analysis. 
3.2. Data collection instruments and procedure 
Data in the study, which is descriptive in nature, were collected over the course of two
months from mid-June to mid-August in 2018. To answer the question that led this analysis,
every single page and unit of the two textbooks was examined to identify those activities in
which culture was incorporated. Each topic was classified into two categories: surface or deep
culture. All of the static aspects such as holidays, geographical sites, food, and important people
(personalities) were classified as surface culture, and all of the invisible aspects that appeared to
be complex to approach were classified as deep culture; whereas all of the more universal
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values were labelled as unclassified. In addition, all of the cultural themes were examined
according to the following features: 
- Topics of surface culture: characterized as being static, congratulatory, neutral, and
homogeneous
- Topics of deep culture: characterized as being transformative, complex, contentious or
congratulatory, and heterogeneous
- Topics of universal culture: characterized as being applicable to a wide range of different
cultures 
4. Findings and Discussion
4.1. Cultural elements in NorthStar 1 Reading and Writing (3rd ed.) by Haugnes and
Maher (2007)
Table 1. Cultural elements in NorthStar 1 Reading and Writing (3rd ed.) by Haugnes and Maher (2007)
Aspects Classification Origin
Surface
culture
Deep culture Universal
/Unclassified
Inner
circle
Outer
circle
Internet Facebook, 
friendship 
websites/social 
networks
Austra
lia
Grooming and 
presence
Ownership 
attitudes towards 
individuality
US
US
Arts graffiti US
Personalities local figures in
art field
US
Aesthetics how people enjoy the TV 
show about the antiques 
and collections and the 
meanings of the 
collectibles
US & 
Engla
nd
History Social movements against
juvenile delinquency
US
Attitudes 
towards 
economic 
globalization 
Multinational 
corporations versus
family-owned 
business
US, 
Austra
lia
Korea
Attitudes Attitudes towards traffic 
problems and solutions
US Thaila
nd 
Marriage giving birth and raising 
children
US, 
Canad
a
Personalities sports figures US
Findings from the analysis show that there is a combination between surface and deep
culture elements with surface ones being the dominant. At the same time, aspects reflecting
deep culture are not comprehensively discussed. 
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Values that reflect surface culture include arts, and personalities; and the majority of them
originate from countries of the inner circle (the USA, Canada, the UK, and Australia) with just a
few coming from those of the outer circle (Korea and Thailand). These elements match the
description of surface culture as being congratulatory, neutral and homogeneous. For example,
when graffiti is mentioned (in Unit 3), it is addressed as an art form that is “for everyone”
without an explanation of its origin and its association with class struggle and social issues. In
reality, this form of art is utilized with different purposes by different groups of people in
transmitting their cultural messages. In this case, however, arts in general and graffiti in
particular are viewed from a very celebratory perspective. Likewise, other aspects such as sports
figures, attitudes towards traffic problems and solutions are mentioned in pretty neutral manner. 
Elements representing deep culture comprise of marriage, aesthetic, and grooming and
presence. However, it is noticeable that regardless of being incorporated in the textbook, deep
culture values are not rigorously elaborat

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