Cultural capital refers to all the non-financial assets that aid social mobility. It’s all those little extras that help people change their position and situation in the socio-economic world — their education, their intellect, the way they speak, how they carry themselves and even how they dress in certain circumstances. These things are very difficult to measure and have different measurements across cultures. Cultural capital is one of the most difficult things to be genuinely neutral about. It exists everywhere in the social world and is a whole part of the baggage/assets that any learner brings into a learning situation.
This is particularly pertinent when it comes to the world of EFL/ESL. We English language teachers witness every day how learning English gives access to better jobs, better education, and better income in some cases…and while this is perhaps a necessary phenomenon, it’s not necessarily a neutral phenomenon. What do we do with this non-neutrality? How do we articulate it? How do we find positive channels for it?
Cultural capital isn’t just something that one has by birth. It’s not something fixed, but is something that has different value in different contexts and changes not just across generations but through education. This, I think, is important to keep in mind.
It is not so much a fixed entity as one that is shaped based on the desires of the person and the pressures of the people around him or her. Something that is an extremely positive trait in one culture can work against another. Intercultural trainers grapple with this all the time.
Some cultural capital is embodied or built into a person: their general culture, cultivation, and manifestation of their values. These things aren’t fixed and naturally evolve through time, but they can’t however be stripped away from a person very easily.
Cultural capital is also objectified. It is the things a person owns, from paintings to diamond rings, physical things that are passed down to the next generation. I often wonder if there is a ‘digital capital’ for children whose tech-savvy parents raise them in a technologically empowered environment.
There is also institutionalised cultural capital, in the form of academic qualifications, education and so forth- those who benefit from ivory-tower endorsement and those who don’t. All these things influence how we advance in society, as well as in the professional world.
Pierre Bourdieu is the one to read if you’re interested in knowing more about this. Bourdieu coined the term cultural capital and spoke of it in relation to habitus, which refers to the skills and habits we possess that help us navigate our social environment. Bourdieu used call it a ‘feel for the game’- that is, to describe the semi-instinctive responses that an individual has.
- Can these skills and habits be taught?
- What kind would we teach? Based on our values or our students?
- How do we really engage with our students’ value systems?
- Can these skills and habits be talked about?
- What kind of conversations would we have?
- Based on themes chosen by us or by our students?
- How do we shape lessons that give a classroom cultural texture?
- These are some of the questions worth taking with us in our materials writing, and our lesson planning.
Please download the activity sheet for more ideas and an activity (which you might want to try in class) that helps learners think through the gap between the perfect accent and their own reality.