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Target Cultures in German Curricula and Didactic Concepts of EFL Teaching

Les cultures-cibles dans les programmes scolaires allemands et les concepts didactiques dans l’enseignement de l’anglais langue étrangère
Wolfgang Gehring
p. 246-273


Les programmes jouent un rôle important dans l’enseignement de l’anglais langue étrangère dans les écoles allemandes. C’est aux professeurs de les appliquer et aux auteurs de manuels de les suivre. De là il va sans dire qu’ils ont une certaine influence sur la perception des cultures anglophones chez l’apprenant. Les programmes se basent sur des concepts didactiques développés explicitement pour l’enseignement des cultures dans les cours de langues en Allemagne. Cet article tente d’analyser les principes didactiques essentiels et d’examiner leurs implications méthodologiques. Par ailleurs, il examine les paramètres d’une approche culturelle orientée vers le Canada qui pourrait satisfaire aux exigences de l’enseignement de l’anglais langue étrangère en Allemagne.

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  • 1  Cf. Merkl’s article on “Teaching Canadian Identity and Multiculturalism in Germany”, in this volum (...)

1Students do not know much about Canada. In his latest research, Matthias Merkl revealed this ‘shortcoming.’1 My own survey administered to 100 B.A. students at the end of their first term led to the same conclusion. Causes for this lack of knowledge are complex; it would certainly be unfounded to hold ESL-teaching solely to account for this situation. In a world as dominated by media as ours, school and ESL-teaching is only one of many sources that provide access to cultural resources; and presumably many of those other sources are more influential than the ESL class. But looking at the interrelation of the production of knowledge and the outcome within ESL teaching, one has to consider two variables that influence contents and methodology of mediation in class.

2In the German educational system, curricula or syllabuses and their underlying didactic concepts are of great importance. Numerous editions are available. This is due to the fact that education in Germany lies within the responsibility of the Bundesländer—the federal states—of which there are 16. Additionally, the educational system provides three different types of schools to meet the needs of pupils according to their abilities. When taking curricula written for vocational schools and different colleges additionally into consideration, the number of circulating curricula is expanded even further. The aim of this paper is to analyze the impact of such a large variety of curricula on the perception of foreign cultures. Subsequently, I shall outline a Canada-oriented didactic that could be integrated into a concept for ESL classes that are still concerned with building up language competence. It is therefore implied that authentic narrative texts will not be analysed concerning their exploitation potential for intercultural learning processes in this context.

Early Culture-didactic Approaches

3Dealing with topics that are directly connected to the country of the target language is not new to didactic concepts. For several decades German curricula have comprised the idea of teaching language in relation to its culture. In the recent history of ESL-teaching in Germany, four terms were coined to classify possible subjects and their contents: Realienkunde and Kulturkunde before the Second World War, commonly referred to after 1945 as Landeskunde (area studies) and intercultural learning.

4Curricula based on the Landeskunde-approach mostly provide Great Britain and the USA as cultural contexts, Britain being the prime traditional reference in cultural interests of ESL teaching. Language teaching without an explicit allocation to its culture was declined more than 100 years ago. At the 8th congress for German modern linguists in 1898 there was a plea in favour of a canon based on concrete and real contents so that the subject matter in foreign language teaching should be “das fremde Volkstum”—the foreign, unknown folklore (Walter 1982, 93). Texts based on that principle provide information on customs and habits, on geographical conditions, and selected historical developments within the target culture. The texts that were meant to be used in class were no longer just literary texts, speeches, and biographies but also charts, diagrams, and reports on everyday life.

5A fact-based approach as such was something supporters of the Kulturkunde-approach meant to counteract. Beginning in 1915, the desire was formulated to empower learners to develop a holistic perception of the target culture. Cognitive and affective approaches were thus conceived, that is structural understanding and admiration for the target culture in equal measure. In the 1920s and 1930s, the German Kulturkunde romanticized the characteristic traits of the British people. Resembling some sort of folklore-class, ESL-teaching intended to provide a justification for Germany’s own claim of cultural superiority by denigrating the alien.

6Kulturkunde as a concept and as terminology was deployed in curricula after 1945. Within the field of didactics of the English language, the term encountered affirmation (See Raddatz, 1977). What was intended to be known and necessary for the understanding of other countries and cultures, was embraced by the new term “Landeskunde” (area studies) which developed during the 1960s. In the following decades, several approaches were added to this concept, which were to some extent of diverse contents, goals, and departures. Nevertheless, Great Britain and the USA remained unchallenged as the main target cultures with other English-speaking cultures left for the most part by the wayside.

7Grounds for area studies to focus on Great Britain and the USA can be found in publications originating in the 1970s. The audio-lingual method had dominated the ESL-classroom so far, with obvious consequences for the selected contents. When the behaviouristic-structuralistic teaching approaches were introduced to schools, the material provided for the learners abstained from giving a (target) cultural context. Linguists favoring a stronger integration of transactional contents into the curricula for ESL-teaching argued quite convincingly that language and culture form a unit. In the latest developments within the subject of ESL-teaching, four major streams of thought have dominated the discussion about contents of ESL-teaching and the design of curricula. In the following, I shall examine the area studies approach, the small-c-culture approach, the pragmatic approach, and the content-oriented approach according to their ability to include Canadian matters in the modern concept of teaching.

Area Studies Approach (Landeskundlicher Ansatz)

8The area studies approach still has its influence on German curricula of English. It offers thematic focuses on the target culture, varying from the teaching of geographical, historical, and institutional facts to providing information on everyday culture, e.g. the educational system. Elements of history, geography, and social institutions are converted to contexts for language learning. This means culture-related topics are selected according to their value for teaching language and linguistic patterns. A detailed fact-oriented canon based on the area studies approach was not able to achieve acceptance—at least not as far as the so-called SekundarstufeI (grade 5-10) is concerned. Due to the primacy of language-centred assignments, the requirements demanded by the curricula are limited to exemplary presentation of some aspects of the target culture, the selection of which accounts for the needs of those learners who might actually visit the target culture. A mixture of factual and problem-oriented information about history, geography, social science (see Schröder, 1987) marks the contents of the area studies approach. Schemata or sufficiency are sought. An education focussing on the examination of social phenomena, problems, and developments by analysing narrative and expository texts, is applied to other subjects within the canon. The underlying structure of the area studies approach is geared to linguistic objectives. This leads to impressionistically structured information which includes the explanation of structures of some social institutions and other cultural phenomena.

Small-c-culture Approach (Landeskultureller Ansatz)

9Due to the necessity to create authentic or at least almost authentic contexts for the training of speech patterns on the one hand, and to fabricate a point of contact based on preliminary experiences for affective and evaluative processes of understanding, on the other, the small-c-culture approach constructs a scenario of the target culture that is close to the learner. Dominating aspects of the target culture within the curricula and text books of this approach are daily routines, and standards within living, communication, work, recreation, education, supply, and traffic. More sporadically, topics derived from the pupils’ sphere are picked out, such as sympathy, exclusion, and loss. With its diverse topics, the small-c-culture breaks away from the “facts and figures” of the area studies approach. The small-c-culture approach is dominated by phenomena that are of interest to cope with, which includes culture-specific expectations about communication strategies and rituals. Socio-political, historical, and geographical facts are of less importance in so far as they do not provide orientation for communicative actions.

10Contents developed along the lines of the small-c-culture approach also focus on the needs of those who are interested in a shorter, primarily spare-time or vacation-based contact with a target culture, or who are just interested in keeping in touch with English-speaking acquaintances. The target culture is then presented from this point of view, namely in textbooks—which are based on curricula as their primary source—comprising graphical material which demonstrates scenic aspects of a country or a city.

11There are dialogues and exercises to practise communication that are closely joined to small-c-information. They refer to situations and contexts that require linguistic action. In those cases in which a demand for utterance and small-c-information coincide, the contents are meant to be explicit. This coincidence is particularly apparent within culture specific ways of organisation of the public life such as making phone calls, buying tickets, booking a hotel, choosing a dish at a restaurant—whenever predictable linguistic patterns / speech patterns are used. More often than not, information is used to provide an occasion to practise a grammatical feature, which then leads to an almost accidental, implicit teaching of information.

12Even though linguistic action (that is speaking) within a foreign language is linked to a certain target culture, the area based context of these transactions is usually limited to an atmospheric function. Exercises derived from the linguistic curriculum are coloured and therefore adopted to the target colour, without dealing with the “aspect of alienation” in an intercultural or problem-oriented understanding that is connected. The primary intention is to provide an authentic provocation to speak, to use and practise language and speech patterns that are of interest for visitors of the country. It is not important to exchange views and perceptions within the target culture. Contrastive approximation of different aspects between the learner’s own and the target culture remain almost untouched.

13The perspective on an English target culture focusing on everyday life includes the understanding of those texts that one encounters within everyday life: recipes, schedules, TV programmes and the like. Tasks for the learner focus on the extraction of relevant information.

14Two content-based issues are of great importance to small-c-culture curricula: survival situations on the one hand, and detailed knowledge about cultural segments on the other. The first demand that the learner be linguistically active and practice language functions such as asking for directions. The latter deals with information that is significant to visitors of the target culture (see Gehring, 1996). Comparable to the didactic concept of a tourist and travel guide, the learner is confronted with and learns about specific historically important buildings in certain regions. Their historical and generally cultural importance is revealed with the help of background information, which demonstrates the attempt to illustrate the inseparability of a culture’s present and past. The integration of isolated knowledge into a somewhat greater context is out of the question because of the linguistic focus of the course.

15Concerning contents and goals, the curricula for Haupt- und Realschule (B and C-level) and Gymnasium (A-level) differ considerably. These differences can be found in the variety of information and the intended intensity of its adaptation. In no case whatsoever is the structure of information and the substance comparable to other subjects like history and geography. This is due to the standards of the small-c-culture curricula that omit historical and political contents for some school forms.

The Pragmatic Approach

16Complex factual information for target cultures is also not central to pragmatically oriented curricula. The transactional information has a supporting function, that is to say it supports the process of language learning. Already existing knowledge about a target culture is of interest within the development of the foreign language whenever linguistic understanding is affected by understanding of factual (objective) understanding (see Erdmenger/Istel, 1973). Within the pragmatic concept, that knowledge is influenced by parameters of culture-specific language use, which are hardly of any interest at all within the area studies and small-c-culture approach.

17Pragmatically-oriented curricula include culture specific factual information, as long as these are of any help for the learner to cope with or to practise communication. Adequacy as an indication for communicative language use is normally related to the aspect of language use that is attributed to communicative competence. In the 1970s Dell Hymes brought attention to the fact that language competence is not only a matter of structural and grammatical competence. This is only one aspect of language competence but it has to be seen in the context of other abilities. In his concept of communicative competence, which had a great influence on German curricula, the knowledge of grammatical rules and social competence form a unit. A speaker achieves communicative competence solely if he has acquired grammatical knowledge and the ability to utter what he means to say in an appropriate manner—appropriate to the situation and surrounding (see Hymes, 1972).

18The formulation of goals and standards of the pragmatic oriented curricula, in which the major focus is set upon communication and adequacy and acceptability of utterances, was supported by research in the field of politeness. In the perspective of teaching methodology, evaluations of aspects of interpersonal language use are of greater interest in developing reliable criteria to judge the adequacy of language use. With such criteria at hand, problems of intercultural interaction could be treated systematically—in general and in class.

19The starting point for pragmatic considerations about acceptable language use was the face-concept developed by Brown and Levinson in 1975. Both researchers claimed that successful interaction—and communication—depended on the success of the interlocutors to preserve the ‘face’ of the other. The parameter ‘face’ includes two different needs (wants). To save the positive face is the first category which means that an interlocutor does not want his own face (the perception of himself) to be challenged or even offended. It goes without saying that he does not want to be forced to pass a judgement or an opinion on a topic he himself considers to be a taboo. The other category is the negative face, that is, the interlocutor tries to be free from control that might be exerted on him by the use of the other interlocutor. Being exposed to comparable situations is almost inevitable in communication, especially if a speech act includes an intention, which means that one interlocutor utters an interest in his opponent’s taking part in or carrying out an action. In many communicative situations that are related to curricula, learners are taught to express intentions, advice, requests, and orders, so that they are more likely to routinize face-threatening acts, since all utterances that require the addressee to react without intending to can be considered as face-threatening.

20From a language didactics point of view the challenge must be to confront and supply the learners with face saving strategies to activate and train these abilities and lessen face threatening components of their speech behaviour.

21The frame of contents of the pragmatic approach is therefore more intercultural than target-culture-based. In a wider context it is influenced by linguistic and factual-based considerations. One aspect of this is to build up an awareness of appropriate language use. The principle of cooperation is in particular of great importance in the pragmatic approach. These guidelines for communicative actions—as delineated by Grice—refer to the quality and quantity of information, its relevance and degree of truthfulness (Grice, 1975). From a pragmatic point of view, an utterance embodies the authorisation for communicative action. This is the case as soon as the communicative contribution is interesting and new to the addressee, and he, the addressee considers it to be credible and meaningful, i.e.  as soon as it specifies something for the listener, which is comprehensible in round terms.

22Pragmatic curricula are designed according to functional language use. Especially during the 1980s and 1990s this perception of foreign language teaching led to new ways of grouping and structuring the sequences of linguistic material in German schools. In older versions it became customary for linguistic goals to be distinguished by formal criteria. Selection of the linguistic elements took place according to their use of the constitutive formal process of learning, to their frequency and their learnability. In addition, the degree of availability of speech material to native speakers was measured according to certain contexts. The next step was to try to decide which linguistic material would have to come up in a context. These elicited structures were put into order from simple to difficult, whereby preceding linguistic material was meant to support the latter. This having been accomplished, area studies contexts, cultural settings and everyday routines were constructed, but, needless to say, only in close connection to the selected linguistic material. The cultural parameter at work within interaction had to remain impressionistic attachment, as Wilkins expresses: “More often than not, there is no particular relationship between the setting in which the language is produced and the topic which is being talked or written about” (Wilkins, 1976, 76).

Content-based Approach

23The culture-based didactic approaches outlined so far are part of a teaching concept that focuses on the development of language competence in a target language. Cultural contents are not central to these curricula. And that is what the content-based approach does. More complex matters are ‘didacticized’ to adapt to the learner’s abilities than in the other approaches, however, this process of conditioning does not entail paying too much attention to linguistic matters. Apart from similar intercultural objectives as determined by the school subject, English and social science taught in English are sufficiently distinct for us to refer to teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) as Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).

24The topics and the complexity of the subject matter of a low-context approach based curriculum are comparable to the equivalent taught in a first language. Though language plays a role in deciding on objectives and methodology, content-oriented curricula are designed for subjects using English to mediate rather than create meaning.

25One distinguishing feature of a content-oriented EFL-curriculum and a language-centred curriculum is the absence of exercises focusing on specific language patterns and structures. Learners are not meant to practice routines to develop skills explicitly. English-speaking target cultures lose their importance in creating a context for language learning curricula. Selection and accentuation of the subject matter rests upon curricula of the subjects and is determined by the competences these curricula stipulate. In spite of that, topics and objectives of the content-oriented approach are not coercively congruent with the contents of the subject curricula. The major difference and distinct profile arises from the language component which cannot be left out completely. Nobody would suggest that learners in their third year (that is when the content-oriented approach sets in) are able to follow, overnight, history, geography, or biology classes in a foreign language without any problems.

Canada in the EFL Classroom in German Schools

26Concepts dominating the curricula stress contexts that accord a great importance and influence to Great Britain and the USA. Within the first four to five years of EFL, factual information on geography, history, and social domains provide the core of the contents. Other English-speaking cultures and their societies can only be covered to a very limited extent—due to the British-American domination. Nevertheless, curricula that focus on the development of language skills give the opportunity to use Canadian culture to provide the cultural context. In all contexts in which the prevailing communicative approach allows intercultural confrontation, intercultural learning can be acted out using the example of Canada. Due to the embedding of language-centred didactic objectives in a cultural context as is often the case in exercises, characterisations of persona, transactional dialogues and textbooks, a reference to everyday life in Canada can be established.

  1. Cultural references in a practice setting carry out an atmospheric function. Names, geographical, historical, or biographical data create a connection to the target culture—even within exercises even though the information is not picked out explicitly as a central intercultural theme. Speech-act scenarios provide the context for training of real life language use or facilitate language activities derived from the target culture, such as topics like ‘school uniform: pros and cons.’

  2. Practice of a target language is very often initiated in and by roles derived from the target culture. Many of these roles are set within a transactional or touristic context. Some may be based on an already established relationship, for example between e-mail partners, or they develop because the interlocutors share the same interests or belong to the same group.

  3. Transactional dialogues are part of the everyday life in a target culture. They provide pragmatic language knowledge. The linguistic elements of dialogues are easily integrated into congruent and consecutive activities. An everyday-life context is authentic and transferable, it routinizes speech patterns which enable the learner to deal with predictable confrontations with the target language in the service sector. Transactional dialogues are fertile from a language didactic point of view as they demonstrate and pass on successful communication patterns in a target culture without the need for great language ability and competence. Even the beginner can perceive that language has its effects, and will have his first sense of achievement.

  4. The fourth option for integrating Canada into EFL is offered by texts containing information on different spheres of life that are of interest to young language learners. In this approach it is crucial to select contexts that illustrate the Canadian reality from the learner’s perspective. Communities, daily routines, living and working conditions, recreational activities, and matters of importance to adolescence are aspects that should rouse the learner’s interest and attention.

27These few references alone point out that literature is not the only approach to Canadian culture. Curricula for EFL in German schools open a window of opportunity to weave Canadian subject matters into learning concepts that focus on language—without reducing them to facts and figures.

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BROWN P. and S. LEVINSON, “Universals in Language Use: Politeness Phenonema,” in Ester H. GOODY (Ed.), Questions and Politeness. Strategies in Social Interaction, Cambridge, 1975.

ERDMENGER M. and H.-W. ISTEL, Didaktik der Landeskunde, München, 1973.

GEHRING W., Schülernahe Lebensbereiche in Englischbüchern für die 7. Jahrgangsstufe, Frankfurt, Lang, 1996.

GRICE H. P., “Logic and Conversation,” in Peter COLE and Jerry L. MORGAN (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts, New York, 1975.

HYMES D. H., “On Communicative Competence,” in J. B. PRIDE and J. HOLMES (Eds.), Sociolinguistics, Harmondsworth, 1972.

RADDATZ V., Englandkunde im Wandel deutscher Erziehungsziele 1886-1945, Kronberg/Ts, 1977.

SCHRÖDER K., „Interkulturelle Beziehungen als Gegenstand des Fremdsprachenunterrichts,“ Der fremdsprachliche UnterrichtEnglisch, 21, 1987, 5-8.

WALTER A. von, Zur Geschichte des Englischunterrichts an höheren Schulen, Augsburg, 1982.

WILKINS D. A., Notional Syllabuses: A Taxonomy and its Relevance to Foreign Language Curriculum Development, Oxford, 1976.

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1  Cf. Merkl’s article on “Teaching Canadian Identity and Multiculturalism in Germany”, in this volume.

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Wolfgang Gehring, « Target Cultures in German Curricula and Didactic Concepts of EFL Teaching »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. III - n°2 | 2005, 246-273.

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Wolfgang Gehring, « Target Cultures in German Curricula and Didactic Concepts of EFL Teaching »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. III - n°2 | 2005, mis en ligne le 29 octobre 2009, consulté le 01 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Wolfgang Gehring

Prof. Dr. (Oldenburg, Allemagne)
Wolfgang Gehring teaches didactics and methodology of English as a Foreign Language at Oldenburg University, Germany. He has worked on various didactic problems, including cultural images in German textbooks for learning English as well as certain aspects of teaching methodology. His recent research concentrates on learner-oriented forms of assessment, and he is currently involved in a research project on learning English as a tertiary language in school environments.

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