Literature and culture


Literature in this context refers to foreign language literature. As a starting point it can be defined as written texts with artistic value, including the traditional literary genres of poems, fiction and drama. Besides the ‘canon’ of culturally and literary accepted texts a broader concept of literature is needed to reflect the wider cultural horizon of text‐mediation. Thus non‐fiction narratives such as diaries, autobiographies and letters are included as well as children’s literature and folklore narratives. Literature should also be understood as a social and communicative system. This wide concept allows for a much more empirical description of actions that are being performed in the field of literature, the main four sectors being production, distribution, reception and processing of literary texts and other literary products. It serves as a basis to understand literature as a set of more or less social activities that mostly can be learned and fostered as literary competences.

Culture is a wider concept than literature, so in this context it will be considered in terms of its relationship with literature, i.e. as a combination of literature AND culture. Thus in the teaching of culture literature plays different roles: it serves either as illustration or a starting point for the study and mediation of cultural phenomena. It is understood as part of a specific foreign civilization, thus by learning about the social, historical, linguistic and other cultural implementations in literary texts specifics of the foreign culture are being mediated.

It is also important to note that not all culture and literature subjects in foreign language contexts are delivered in the target language.

Literature and culture in the European Higher Education Area

In general, foreign language literature modules or programmes are mainly delivered at traditional universities, in faculties of arts or humanities, in translation departments or in programmes of applied language and intercultural communication. In all such cases, literature is offered as part of foreign language syllabi, whereas the picture is more varied when it comes to foreign language culture, which is also delivered in a wider range of institutions such as a business school, polytechnic or college. These are often programmes with a foreign language component but are based in other disciplines (e.g. communication, social science subjects, media, tourism). Newer study fields and programmes are occasionally being developed taking into consideration practical and applied aspects, such as applied literary studies.

Knowledge, understanding and skills (competences)

Having completed a first cycle higher education programme of language study with a focus on literary or cultural study, students should have acquired:

  • knowledge of the historical, cultural, social, and political background of writers, their writings, literary schools, themes, genres, styles, other cultural and social phenomena etc.
  • understanding of some principal concepts of literary theory (basic/complex)
  • an historical and language/culture specific view of critical concepts and methods
  • the role of literary aesthetics in a social and communicative system
  • deepened insight into the differentiation of literary and non‐literary texts, especially literary polyvalence and fictionality
  • the ability to identify, describe, discuss and / or contrast authors, their works, literary schools and the main tendencies in a certain period of foreign language literature
  • understanding of the cultural and literary memory of a wide range of signs (symbols, images, melodies, quotations) in texts (written, audio‐, video‐documents) and activities (events, performance, everyday life)
  • ability to view and understand literature as central for cultural and media development

Students who have acquired such knowledge and understanding will be expected to demonstrate the capacity for:

  • placement and classification of literary phenomena in an historic frame including discussion and / or contrastive analysis of authors, their works, literary schools, the main tendencies, techniques, styles, genres, and periods of foreign language literature
  • identifying and distinguishing the different functions of literature throughout the ages
  • application of theoretical tools for literary analysis and use of theoretical terminology for the analysis of literary texts
  • criticism and interpretation through close reading, textual analysis and comparison
  • developing and discussing his/her own interpretation of a text supported by the text
  • analysis of the multiple roles literature and culture play within political and social history (anticipation, reaction, engagement, detachment, imaginary spaces / times) and how this contributes to a deeper understanding of different contexts of communication in contemporary society (e.g. cultural background of political events or social development)
  • making connections between literary, cultural and media developments
  • producing a systematically developed (oral or written) presentation in the foreign language about an experience (reading a literary text, watching a theatre play, a movie, TV‐programme, etc.), making use of the meta‐language of analysis within a given (multiple) theoretical framework

Teaching, learning and assessment

Teaching literature and culture in a foreign language context depends on the status of languages and cultures in a given society (e.g. in the public educational system). There is a wide variety of status pertaining to foreign languages, ranging from less widely used and lesser taught languages (LWULT) up to more traditionally taught languages such as French, German and Spanish which will have an impact on the formal teaching of literature as part of a language learning programme.

Teaching and learning

The fields of literature and culture are particularly suited to the use of innovative pedagogy, though in most courses traditional approaches still prevail. Nevertheless, there is evidence that new approaches are been used such as using e‐learning and e‐platforms, various types of group work and group assignments, project work, field‐work, study visits, presentations in different media, autonomous learning and cross‐curricular learning – in short, the whole range of learner‐centred teaching and learning methods. There is strong emphasis on the fostering of self‐evaluation and reflection by students as well as on the development of key skills alongside the development of subject‐specific literary and culture competences. These might include:

  • close reading of a variety of texts
  • intercultural skills such as empathy, contextualization, differentiation
  • linguistic competence in the target language which supports engagement with the study of literature & culture


In new programmes decisive trends towards new forms of assessment are being detected (active participation, continuous assessment and assignments, group assignments and presentations, portfolios, final reports on project work, online tests, peer review, self evaluation), while traditional assessment methods still persist to a large extent (final written and oral exams) centring on the reproduction of knowledge rather than the achievement of competences. Essays are used either as part of continuous assessment or as final subject evaluations. Project work is rare in literature subjects, but more common and rising in popularity in the assessment of culture subjects. Other methods of assessment might include open‐book exams (taken home by the students and submitted to a deadline). Longer papers on literary subjects are usually introduced during the 2nd cycle level (MA). Assessment is usually carried out by the subject teacher (internal assessment) but a few countries include additional external examiners who in the field of literature specialise in the subject being evaluated. The assessment methodology is usually decided locally by the teacher/course team delivering the teaching. The provision of assessment criteria and distribution of marks are good practice and in many cases are a quality assurance requirement.