Teaching Culture in Introductory Foreign Language Textbooks

Reviewed by J. Mally – September 20, 2016

Title: Teaching Culture in Introductory Foreign Language Textbooks

Author: Carol A. Chapelle

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, UK

Pages: 263, Year: 2016

Foreign language textbooks are full of carefully selected texts, images, and activities that promote more than just language but also cross-cultural learning. However, many cultures can accompany just one language, yet not all cultures are well represented in textbooks. Moreover, culture has traditionally been overlooked at beginning levels and has been focused on more in higher level courses. TESOL and linguistics scholar and professor, Carol A. Chapelle challenges this view and chronologically analyzes specifically Quebec’s cultural representation in beginning level French textbooks in the United States of America from the 1960’s to 2010. Her work demonstrates that although there have been cultural improvements in textbooks since the 1960’s, first year language students are not exposed to enough culture to peak their interest in the people and places of the language nor effectively improve their cross-cultural communication skills. Therefore, she challenges teachers and material developers to incorporate material relevant to the underrepresented Quebec cultural narrative in introductory level courses which can also be applied to other cultures in other foreign language contexts.

Cultural importance in beginning classes and textbook prevelance

The first two chapters give background information on her study. The first chapter details why culture needs to be examined and taught in language courses from the very first level. She rightfully stresses the importance of including culture in introductory courses since the majority of foreign language students only progress through the introductory phase of language learning. The author presents data showing that less than twenty percent of undergrad students taking a French course in the United States are enrolled in advanced courses. These statistics, coupled with the little cultural exposure and knowledge that lower level language students receive, explain the lack of cross-cultural communicative competence many encounter when interacting with foreigners. She stresses the importance of political and historical knowledge of others to cross-cultural understanding. In the second chapter the cultural viewpoint is narrowed to specifically Quebec. A background of major components that make up the Quebec cultural narrative in French language textbooks is explained that helps readers follow her cultural analysis throughout the book. One cannot culturally analyze textbooks well if they are not aware of the key events and actors that formed the culture. Chapter two additionally goes into detail of the methodology of her cultural textbook analysis and makes use of many graphs and tables to show quantitative findings such as the “Average Number of Apparences [sic] of Canadian/Quebec Content” (p. 68) and a “summary of data showing numbers of contexts, culture notes, and single sentences across five decades” (p. 63). The following two chapters go into depth of the specific aspects of cultural representation: textual and visual images.

Missed cultural opportunities in textbooks

Quebec’s cultural representation in textbooks is examined in chapter three through written text and through images in chapter four. To analyze the texts, she uses genres to examine the variety of texts given. The author lists five main genres the textbooks incorporate to express Quebec’s cultural narrative: history; conversation; newspaper reports and letters; artistic; and invented genres such as lists, statements, and activities. Each genre is then listed with potential linguistic features that are used in the text. Chapelle provides numerous excerpts from textbooks and discusses the linguistic features of the genre and texts. The connection between linguistic function and the cultural aspects of the writings are analyzed simultaneously to ensure that the students are learning not just grammar but also the content of the culture. However, an area for improvement in these materials is that not all texts convey a cultural aspect when there is the possibility to include something. This is also seen in chapter four which illustrates how the cultural narrative depicted by images can be evaluated to permit teachers and material developers to select, create and judge if they are appropriate for beginning language levels. When examining images, three types of functional meaning are outlined: ideational, interpersonal, and textual. These are used to simplify the analysis in order to have useable categories that others can apply to cultural meaning when analyzing other textbooks. Apart from their function, the essentiality of the images is assessed with five categories an image could belong to: task essential, text enhancing, generally orienting, theme building, or independent. Chapelle additionally takes into account how the image is viewed due to distance, angle, and eye contact of those in the images. She claims that students should be exposed to images that make them feel like participants rather than distant observers. Images and texts are not presented alone in textbooks; they interact with each other in different ways which is outlined in the next chapter.

Combining and selecting texts and images to further cultural knowledge

Chapter five brings together text and images to analyze how they work together to represent the political history of Quebec in the textbooks. The author reflects on the importance of professionals being aware of not just what should be taught to augment initial cultural knowledge but also what kind of texts and images are needed to accomplish this. Although there is more cultural information about Quebec in textbooks, Chapelle finds the content to be too short and broad to benefit students. With the material given, learners are not “prepared to attempt to interpret contemporary life in Quebec” (p 212).

Increase personalization and stories to activities in lower levels

The last chapter encourages teachers and textbook developers to adequately incorporate and use material to further students’ cultural understanding of a specific group. She critiques the underuse of autobiographical narratives in low-level material. These are more linguistically accessible than historical narratives which are more commonly found in the materials. Dialogues should not be between random people but be more explicit and their conversations should portray certain opinions or views that reflect their culture. Chapelle also concludes that events should be voiced through a person with a perspective, and not as a person-less, matter of fact presentation. Furthermore, she reveals that images are often not tied with the actual activity or text. An improvement to be made in image selection is to pair them with texts and activities to help scaffold the language.

Throughout the book, Chapelle undertakes and describes both macro- and micro-analyses of the textbooks which guide those who want to analyze language textbooks. The macro-analysis of the textbooks first categorizes the cultural information. For example, the code labels that identify relevant material used are: “Canadian history, Quiet revolution, Quebec identity, Quebec culture, Canadian French, and bilingualism” (p. 83). Through the use of these codes, the frequency of these cultural representations show an increase of Quebec’s cultural narrative in textbooks, particularly in the 80’s and 2000’s. The data also shows how rarely Quebec culture is a feature of the material, even if it has increased since the 60’s. The micro-analysis is narrowed to a few samples that contain the most instances of what is being examined and explains how a particular Quebec or Canadian reference contributes to the cultural narrative.

Use of generic images in language textbooks

In her image analysis she criticizes the use of generic images that do not further the cultural narrative of Quebec. For instance, a picture of a hockey team from Quebec that is paired with the topic of sports but no reference to the team is made in the text, or a picture of an everyday activity that could be taking place anywhere such as a camping trip, or a birthday party could be elaborated on or made to be more culturally significant than textbook developers have made them out to be. These contexts could be better utilized. Instead of generally talking about information that students are already familiar with an additional component of culture can be incorporated as well. I have seen this phenomenon in countless textbooks where images and texts are not culturally significant or connected beyond the linguistic situation.


The detail Chapelle covers in her analysis is extensive and thorough but I believe a small detail is overlooked. The micro-analysis could have included a few more samples from textbooks with minimal representation of Quebec. Her quantitative analysis of images and text are from the three textbooks that had the most mentions of Quebec. Although the books with even the most numerous indications of French Canada had very few instances to examine, it would have given more insight to additionally examine another book with fewer, or perhaps just one, Quebec image or text. This would allow us to compare how and why that one image or text is used when no other reference to the Canadian French culture is made throughout the book. Chapelle does defend her choices by arguing to analyze more examples of how culture can be used instead of focusing on why material developers made such limited choices.

Another feature that could have been incorporated into her cultural narrative analysis is how Quebec representation differs from the representation of French or other francophone cultures. This would further the perspective of the cultural analysis of these textbooks. No reference is made about how other material not pertaining to Quebec is used in these books. However, there is a fleeting reference to this issue near the end of chapter 5 and again in chapter 6; here she points out that the information pertaining to Quebec culture only totals six pages in a 496-page book. This small detail gives some perspective to the reader that the highest rate of inclusion of Quebec culture in textbooks only makes up a tiny portion of the overall material students encounter. Chapelle immediately explains that comparing cultural representations is not within the scope of her study. Nonetheless, without exploring the other components of these books, her cultural narrative analysis lacks a standard to compare it to. Consequently, further analysis and discussion of the unbalanced cultural representations of francophone cultures in these textbooks would add more depth to her study.


Language teachers and textbook developers can apply the knowledge from Carol A. Chapelle’s book “Teaching Culture in Introductory Foreign Language Textbooks,” to culturally analyze foreign and second language materials. The need to incorporate more cultural knowledge at a beginning-level can and should be done in language teaching. There is a need to critically assess the materials language teachers are using. Materials should serve a purpose beyond the grammatical means and further the understandings of other cultures not just the majority culture. This work is applicable to not only a French but any language teacher or material developer so they can increase these cultural features for future language learners. Additionally, professionals need to make further comparisons of how underrepresented cultures are included or omitted in materials to improve lower level students’ cross-culture communication skills.