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.

Written by Aubrey Neil Leveridge for TEFL.net

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.

Implications for language policy
Creators of second language teaching policies must be sensitive to the local or indigenous languages not to make them seem inferior to the target language. English language teaching has become a phenomenon in Southeast Asia, especially in Taiwan. Most Taiwanese universities require an English placement test as an entry requirement (Information for Foreigners Retrieved May 24, 2007). Foreigners (non-native Taiwanese) which are native English speaking students however, do not need to take a similar Chinese proficiency test, thus forwarding the ideology that the knowledge of English is superior to the Chinese counterpart and that to succeed in a globalized economy; one must be able to speak English (Hu 2005). Such a reality shows that our world has entered the age of globalisation of the English language, in which most observers see a tendency toward homogeneity of values and norms; others see an opportunity to rescue local identities (Stromquist & Monkman 2000, p 7). The implications for language policy makers are that policies must be formed which not only include but celebrate local languages. Policies must not degrade other languages by placing them on a level of lower importance. Policies should incorporate the learner’s first language, the usage, and complexities as a means to create better linguistic comprehension as well as cultural understanding.

Policies for language teaching must encompass and include cultural values from the societies from which the languages are derived as well as being taught. In other words, when making policies regarding language teaching, one must consider the cultural ideologies of all and every student, the teacher, as well as the culture in which the target language is being taught. Language teaching policies formed with the cultural characteristics of both teacher and student in mind will not be prone to make assumptions about the appropriateness of students’ behaviour based on the policy maker’s own cultural values (Englebert 2004) but will increase cultural awareness. The American Council on The Teaching of Foreign Languages has expounded on the importance of combining the teaching of culture into the language curriculum to enhance understanding and acceptance of differences between people, cultures and ideologies (Standards 1996).
One example where as policy makers did not recognize the importance of culture is outlined by Kim (2004), in which the Korean government had consulted American ESL instructional guidelines which stated that for students to become competent in English they must speak English outside of the classroom. The government on reviewing this policy requested that all Korean English language students use English outside of the classrooms to further enhance their language competency. What they failed to consider is that while in America, English is taught as a second language and speaking English was quite acceptable in all locations, that in Korea, English is taught as a foreign language and the vast majority of the Korean population do not converse with each other in English. Korean students speaking English outside of the classroom context were seen as show-offs. In a collectivistic culture, as is Korea, such displays of uniqueness are seen as a vice to be suppressed, not as a virtue (Kim 2004). Thus policy makers must not rely on the cultural views and policies of others, but incorporate the cultural views of the students as well as considering the culture where the teaching is taking place. Language teachers need to be informed about various teaching interaction-based methodologies, manipulate them and develop their own teaching methods compatible with the educational context to foster interaction between students (Kim 2004).

When creating policies, one must consider the cultural meanings of teaching materials used. The materials may have a far broader meaning or encompass far more (or less) than what one has considered. An example of this is when the school I worked for decided that I introduce a discussion topic on holidays with one of my classes. The school did not enlighten me as to the cultural significance of holidays or what the Chinese equivalent of the word entails. This problem, as described by Yule (1996), is that people have pre-existing schemata or knowledge structure in their memory of what constitutes certain ideas; e.g. an apartment, a holiday, what are breakfast items. The culturally based schemata that the students had for holidays were considerably different than that of my own. Their ideology of a holiday was any day that was special, possibly where one did not have to go to school, a weekend, a birthday, or any other major happening. When I asked the students what their favourite holiday was, I received many replies, all of which were not what I was looking for. I proceeded to tell them that Christmas was a holiday. This however, was a bad example as Christmas is not a holiday in Taiwan. In addition, I did not consider that a Chinese definition of the English word ‘holiday’ has a very broad meaning, thus the students were correctly answering my question however in their own cultural context.

Finally, as this paper has shown, language and culture are intertwined to such an extent whereas one cannot survive without the other. It is impossible for one to teach language without teaching culture. The implications for language teaching and policy making are therefore vast and far reaching. As a teacher of language, one must be culturally aware, considerate of the students` culture, and inform students of cultural differences thus promoting understanding. Language policy must reflect both the target language culture as well as the students`, teacher`s, and administrative persons` culture thus avoiding any cultural misinterpretations.

Works Cited

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Brooks N (1986) Culture in the classroom. In JM Valdes (ed) Culture bound: bridging the cultural gap in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 123–128.

Byram M (1989) Cultural studies in foreign language education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Emmitt M & Pollock J (1997) Language and learning: an introduction for teaching (2nded). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Englebert (2004) Character or Culture? An EFL Journal, 24(2), 37-41.
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Kim J. (2004) Coping with Cultural Obstacles to Speaking English in the Korean Secondary School Context. Asian EFL Journal, Vol 6 Issue 3 Retrieved May 12, 2007 from http://www.asian-efl-
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Prodromou L (1988) English as cultural action. EFT Journal, vol 42, no 2, pp 73–83.

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Spence JT (1985) Achievement American style: the rewards and cost of individualism. American Psychologist, vol 40, no 12, pp 1285–1295.

Stromquist NP & Monkman K (2000) Defining globalization and assessing its implications on knowledge and education. In NP Stromquist & K Monkman (eds) Globalization and education: integration and contestation across cultures. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp 3–2

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Written by Aubrey Neil Leveridge for TEFL.net
September 2008 | Filed under Teacher Technique
Aubrey Neil Leveridge has a Masters of Education from Australia and is presently a teacher and lecturer.