The Relationship Between Language & Culture and the Implications for Language Teaching

The relationship between language and culture is deeply rooted. Language is used to maintain and convey culture and cultural ties. Different ideas stem from differing language use within one’s culture and the whole intertwining of these relationships start at one’s birth.

The relationship between language and culture is deeply rooted. Language is used to maintain and convey culture and cultural ties. Different ideas stem from differing language use within one’s culture and the whole intertwining of these relationships start at one’s birth.

When an infant is born, it is not unlike any other infant born, in fact, quite similar. It is not until the child is exposed to their surroundings that they become individuals in and of their cultural group. This idea, which describes all people as similar at birth, has been around for thousands of years and was discussed by Confucius as recorded in the book by his followers, Analects (Xu, 1997). From birth, the child’s life, opinions, and language are shaped by what it comes in contact with. Brooks (1968) argues that physically and mentally everyone is the same, while the interactions between persons or groups vary widely from place to place. Patterns which emerge from these group behaviours and interactions will be approved of, or disapproved of. Behaviours which are acceptable will vary from location to location (Brooks, 1968) thus forming the basis of different cultures. It is from these differences that one’s view of the world is formed. Hantrais (1989) puts forth the idea that culture is the beliefs and practices governing the life of a society for which a particular language is the vehicle of expression. Therefore, everyone’s views are dependent on the culture which has influenced them, as well as being described using the language which has been shaped by that culture. The understanding of a culture and its people can be enhanced by the knowledge of their language. This brings us to an interesting point brought up by Emmitt and Pollock (1997), who argue that even though people are brought up under similar behavioural backgrounds or cultural situations but however speak different languages, their world view may be very different. As Sapir-Whorf argues, different thoughts are brought about by the use of different forms of language. One is limited by the language used to express one’s ideas. Different languages will create different limitations, therefore a people who share a culture but speak different languages, will have different world views. Still, language is rooted in culture and culture is reflected and passed on by language from one generation to the next (Emmitt & Pollock 1997).
From this, one can see that learning a new language involves the learning of a new culture (Allwright & Bailey 1991). Consequently, teachers of a language are also teachers of culture (Byram 1989).

The implications of language being completely entwined in culture, in regards for language teaching and language policy are far reaching. Language teachers must instruct their students on the cultural background of language usage, choose culturally appropriate teaching styles, and explore culturally based linguistic differences to promote understanding instead of misconceptions or prejudices. Language policy must be used to create awareness and understandings of cultural differences, and written to incorporate the cultural values of those being taught.

Implications for language teaching
Teachers must instruct their students on the cultural background of language usage. If one teaches language without teaching about the culture in which it operates, the students are learning empty or meaningless symbols or they may attach the incorrect meaning to what is being taught. The students, when using the learnt language, may use the language inappropriately or within the wrong cultural context, thus defeating the purpose of learning a language.

Conflict in teaching styles also stem from the relationship between language and culture. During the past decade, I have taught English in Taiwan and have observed a major difficulty in English instruction brought about by teachers and suffered by students. Western English teachers who teach in Taiwan bring along with them any or all of their teaching and learning experiences. To gain employment in Taiwan as an English teacher (legally), one must have received a Bachelor’s degree (Information for foreigners), thus, all instructors of English in Taiwan have, to some degree, an experience of learning in a higher educational setting. From this, they bring with them what they imagine to be appropriate teaching methodology. What is not generally understood, even seldom noticed is that while Taiwanese classes are conducted in a Chinese way, that is in a teacher centered learning environment, the native English teacher’s instruction is focused on student centered learning (Pennycook 1994). Pennycook (1994) continues by pointing out that student centered learning is unsuitable for Chinese students. The students may not know how to react to this different style of learning. A case in point, when at the beginning of my teaching career in Taiwan, I found it very easy to teach English, but very difficult to get the students to interact with me while I was teaching. Teaching was very easy because the students were well behaved and very attentive. The difficulties surfaced when trying to get the students to interact with me, their teacher. At the time, I did not realize that in Taiwan, it was culturally unacceptable for students to interact with their teacher. The Taiwanese students were trained to listen to what the teacher said, memorize it, and later regurgitate it during an exam. I was forced to change my method of teaching so that I was recognised as a “friend” rather than a teacher. The classroom setting had to be changed to a much less formal setting to coax out student interaction. As Murray (1982) pointed out, Chinese students will refuse to accept this “informal discussion” style of teaching. However, once the students were comfortable in their surroundings and didn’t associate it to a typical “Chinese” style class, they became uninhibited and freely conversed in English. The language classes taught using this style proved to be most beneficial to the students with an overall increase in the grade point average.

Because language is so closely entwined with culture, language teachers entering a different culture must respect their cultural values. As Englebert (2004) describes: “…to teach a foreign language is also to teach a foreign culture, and it is important to be sensitive to the fact that our students, our colleges, our administrators, and, if we live abroad, our neighbours, do not share all of our cultural paradigms.”

I have found teaching in Taiwan, the Chinese culture is not the one of individualism, as is mine, but focused on the family and its ties. The backwash from teaching using western culturally acceptable methods must be examined before proceeding as they may be inappropriate teaching methods, intentional or not, may cause the student embarrassment, or worse, to the entire students’ family. As Spence (1985) argues, success and failure in a Chinese cultural framework influences not just oneself but the whole family or group. Therefore, teachers must remember to respect the culture in which they are located.

Language teachers must realize that their understanding of something is prone to interpretation. The meaning is bound in cultural context. One must not only explain the meaning of the language used, but the cultural context in which it is placed as well. Often meanings are lost because of cultural boundaries which do not allow such ideas to persist. As Porter (1987) argues, misunderstandings between language educators often evolve because of such differing cultural roots, ideologies, and cultural boundaries which limit expression.

Language teachers must remember that people from different cultures learn things in different ways. For example, in China memorization is the most pronounced way to study a language which is very unlike western ideologies where the onus is placed on free speech as a tool for utilizing and remembering vocabulary and grammar sequences (Hui 2005). Prodromou (1988) argues that the way we teach reflects our attitudes to society in general and the individual`s place in society.
When a teacher introduces language teaching materials, such as books or handouts, they must understand that these will be viewed differently by students depending on their cultural views (Maley 1986). For instance, westerners see books as only pages which contain facts that are open to interpretation. This view is very dissimilar to Chinese students who think that books are the personification of all wisdom, knowledge and truth (Maley 1986).

One should not only compare, but contrast the cultural differences in language usage. Visualizing and understanding the differences between the two will enable the student to correctly judge the appropriate uses and causation of language idiosyncrasies. For instance, I have found, during my teaching in Taiwan, that it is necessary to contrast the different language usages, especially grammatical and idiom use in their cultural contexts for the students to fully understand why certain things in English are said. Most Taiwanese students learning English are first taught to say “Hello. How are you?” and “I am fine. Thank you, and you?” This is believed to be what one must say on the first and every occasion of meeting a westerner. If I asked a student “What’s new?” or “How is everything?” they would still answer “I am fine, thank you and you?” Students often asked me why westerners greet each other using different forms of speech which, when translated to Mandarin, didn’t make sense. This question was very difficult to answer, until I used an example based in Chinese culture to explain it to them. One example of this usage: In Chinese, one popular way to greet a person is to say (…phonetically using pinyin) “chr bao^ le ma?” This, loosely translated to English, would have an outcome similar to “Have you eaten?” or “Are you full?” This greeting was developed in ancient Chinese culture as there was a long history of famine. It was culturally (and possibly morally) significant to ask someone if they had eaten upon meeting. This showed care and consideration for those around you. Even now, people are more affluent but this piece of language remains constant and people still ask on meeting someone, if they have eaten. If someone in a western society was greeted with this, they would think you are crazy or that it is none of your business. The usage of cultural explanations for teaching languages has proved invaluable for my students’ understanding of the target language. It has enabled them to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate circumstances of which to use English phrases and idioms that they have learnt. Valdes (1986) argues that not only similarities and contrasts in the native and target languages have been useful as teaching tools, but when the teacher understands cultural similarities and contrasts, and applies that knowledge to teaching practices, they too become advantageous learning tools.

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One thought on “The Relationship Between Language & Culture and the Implications for Language Teaching

  1. monalisa March 10, 2011 / 12:54 pm

    thank u so much… this article is help me alot for my presentation in class 🙂

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