10 reasons for teaching culture through film

Culture can be defined as “the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs and understanding that are learned by socialization. Thus, it can be seen as the growth of a group identity fostered by social patterns unique to the group” (Center for Advance Research on Language Acquisition). A very useful medium for learning about culture is film.

This blog is about the use of film to study aspects of culture in the classroom, particularly in the foreign language classroom. It looks at the theoretical and practical implications of using films to promote students' acquisition of intercultural communicative competence, which can be defined as "the ability to understand cultures, including one's own, and to use this understanding to communicate successfully with people from other cultures" (British Council). The blog also provides teaching ideas for using films of different genres, such as feature films, documentaries, short films, trailers, music videos and commercials. Both English-language films and films in other languages are featured.



Films are powerful tools for learning about other cultures and intercultural interaction for the following ten reasons:


-          As Ellen Summerfield states in Crossing Cultures through Film (1993), “film helps to create a unique environment for cross-cultural learning because it speaks to our emotions as well as our intellect. Learning about stereotypes, ethnocentrism, discrimination, and acculturation in the abstract can be flat and uninspiring. But if we experience intercultural contact with our eyes and ears, we begin to understand it.” Films can promote awareness, curiosity and interest in other cultures and respect for diversity. They enable learners to develop empathy with the protagonist from whose point of view the story is told.  Films can therefore help learners to see the world from another's point of view and to put themselves in the shoes of people with whom they have little or no personal contact, such as refugees or ethnic minorities in their own country or abroad.


-          Films are cultural documents and allow students to explore different elements of another culture, such as its products, e.g. literature, folklore, art, music and artefacts; patterns of behaviour, e.g. customs, habits, dress, food and leisure activities; and ideas, e.g. beliefs, values, institutions (as outlined in Cultural Awareness by Tomalin & Stempleski, 1993).


-          Films can promote the skills that learners need in communicative situations. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), established by the Council of Europe in 2001, distinguishes between the general and communicative language skills of the language learner. In particular, films can be used as a tool to help learners acquire knowledge of the socio-cultural elements mentioned under declarative skills.


·         everyday living, e.g. food and drink, mealtimes, table manners, public holidays,  

        working hours and practices, leisure activities


·         living conditions


·         interpersonal relationships


·         values, beliefs and attitudes


·         body language


·         social conventions


·         ritual behaviour


With regard to the intercultural competences mentioned in the CEFR, films can be part of students’ training “to fulfil the role of cultural intermediary between one’s own culture and the foreign culture and to deal effectively with intercultural misunderstanding and conflict situations; the ability to overcome stereotyped relationships”. Under ‘existential’ competence, the CEFR states that “desirable attitudes are openness towards, and interest in, new experiences, other persons, ideas, peoples, societies and cultures; willingness to relativise one’s own cultural viewpoint and cultural value-system; willingness and ability to distance oneself from conventional attitudes to cultural difference”. Memorable film experiences can help to develop these attitudes.



-          In terms of the communicative language skills outlined in the CEFR, films often expose students to authentic language and its variations, such as accents, dialects and sociolects, as well as to different communicative situations. They are therefore a useful tool for developing students' linguistic competence, sociolinguistic competence and pragmatic competence.


-          Films can also be used to interpret the paralinguistic (non-verbal) features of the spoken language of other language communities, such as tone and pitch, and body language - gestures, facial expressions, posture, eye contact - and proxemics (the study of human use of space).


-          If cultural theories are a classroom topic, films can demonstrate what these theories and abstract concepts mean in real life, e.g. Edward T. Hall’s theory of monochronic and polychronic time, Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, for example, power distance and individualism vs. collectivism, or Trompenaars' model of national cultural differences.


-          Suitable films can be exploited to study some of the eleven global issues that are mentioned in Teaching English (Grimm, Meyer &Volkmann) from multiple perspectives, for instance:

  • Demographic aspects: mobility and migratio
  • Aspects of peace education and non-violence: violence and war, racism, refugees, terrorism
  • Political aspects and human rights education: human rights, global governance, immigration laws, multiculturalism, integration
  • Ecological aspects
  • Cultural aspects: globalisation and localisation
  • Socio-economic aspects: poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, fair trade
  • Social aspects: religion, living together in multicultural societies and integration, human rights, gender issues
  • Language-related aspects: English as a lingua franca, business communication 



-       A film-based activity can be used as a springboard to train communicative language strategies. Films are multimedia products and, through the combination of image, sound and possibly text, they can support listening comprehension. In addition, a film can be a stimulus for other communicative language activities and strategies to be practised in pre- and post-viewing activities, such as production, interaction and mediation.




-       Films can be used to teach media literacy, which is helping students to become competent, critical and literate in all forms of media so that they control the interpretation of what they see or hear rather than being controlled by it (http://www.medialit.org), and to learn how to become critical viewers of biased and stereotypical media representations. Films can also be used to study cinematic techniques such as filming, editing, lighting and music and how they are used to present a point of view.





-        Finally, films can be seen as a form of edutainment because they combine entertainment with learning.




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