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The Interplay of Language and Culture

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The relationship between language and culture and the effect culture has on language learning.

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									                                           Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION ....................................................................................................... 1

REVIEW OF LITERATURE....................................................................................... 3

        Culture and Language ........................................................................................ 3
        Culture and Language Learning ......................................................................... 5
        Culture and Linguistic Competence ................................................................... 6
          Culture and Speaking .................................................................................... 6
          Culture and Listening .................................................................................... 7
          Culture and Reading ...................................................................................... 7
          Culture and Writing ....................................................................................... 8

CONCLUSION............................................................................................................ 9

REFERENCES .......................................................................................................... 10




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                                      INTRODUCTION


        What is culture? Searching for answer to this question would generate

innumerable variations of replies, but one thing is certain: Culture is a very broad,

complex, and even an elusive concept. Let us consider some definitions of culture by

noted book authors, language and culture researchers, and specialists.

        Culture is defined by Brown (2007) as ―a way of life‖ (p. 188), while Wang

(2003) seems to imply that culture is life. It is, ―in a practical sense, . . . the air and water

we breathe and drink day in and day out‖ (Wang, 2003, p. 2). If culture is considered as

the very basic elements that sustain life, it can therefore be concluded that people cannot

thrive and survive without their own culture. Authors DeCapua and Wintergerst (2004)

define culture as a ―very general concept, composed of complex system of interacting

elements. . . .[It] is universal, multifaceted, and intricate (p. 11). It also continually

changes and is comprised of ―different ambient factors, diverse constituents, and complex

elements‖ (DeCapua & Wintergerst, 2004 p. 12). This definition seems very complex to

readers, making only the term culture even more complicated.

        A comprehensive explanation of culture is given by Kumaravadivelu (2008 )

which classifies the term into two types—―Culture with a capital C and . . . culture with a

small c‖ (p. 10). Culture with a capital C is also considered as an objective culture

because it takes on similar forms across different nations. I must say that this is an elitist

type of culture for it refers to creative activities, undertakings, and accomplishments such
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as the different works of art like painting, theater, dances, music, literature, etc. The

culture with a small c, also known as the subjective type of culture, stands for things that

permeate the everyday life of a group of people. This type of culture is evident in the

beliefs, traditions, values, norms, mores, values, and customs that people in a certain

community upholds.

       Another interesting definition to note is that culture is the shared products of

human learning (Singleton, as cited in Eckermann, 2004). It is learned though

communication and interaction with the people in the society, thus it a ―crucial concept‖

in language learning and teaching (Kaikkonen, 1997, p. 48).

       Given all the definitions mentioned above, I can still say that culture is a broad,

complex, and an elusive concept. It is a challenge to give an encompassing definition of

the term because of its very broad nature. It is also difficult to put it in simple words

because of its complexity. Furthermore, it is hard to capture it in a few words because of

its elusiveness. Nonetheless, if I have to give my own definition of culture, I would say

that culture is everything that we are. Everything we think, say, and do is dictated by the

kind of culture we have. We are guided by our culture, but we are also incapacitated by it

and its different features like language in some situations because culture varies from

place to place, community to community, and even family to family. This is a challenge

that individuals from different cultures must face and overcome if effective

communication and interaction is desired. With this in mind, this paper aims to discuss

the relationship between culture and language, and how culture affects language learning

in a second or foreign language context.




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                               REVIEW OF LITERATURE


        Looking at the research base, the relationship between language and culture has

been a subject of interest among language practitioners, researchers, and specialists alike.

Many pragmatic scholars advance the idea that language and culture are interrelated, and

that it is impossible to separate these two things on their own without referring to each

other’s aspects and features; hence, it is imperative that culture should also be integrated

into classes that deal with the teaching of the language, especially in second or foreign

language classes.


                                   Culture and Language

        Language and culture are interconnected for the reason that ―language cannot be

isolated from culture‖ (Zhang, 2006, p. 43). As a matter of fact, ―when a person . . .

communicate[s] . . . in another language . . . s/he begins to participate in a culture‖

(Liddicoat, 2000, p. 51). Tang (1999) even postulates an extreme stance that ―language is

culture‖ (para. 6). Accordingly, these two terms are ―inextricably linked‖ (Tang, 1999,

para. 1) that it is of no use to debate if it is really necessary to include culture teaching

into language teaching. Moreover, ―language itself is already culture‖ (para. 7) that it is

expected from someone learning the French language to also learn everything related to

French and France. For Tang, in order to ―speak a language well, one has to be able to

think in that language‖ (para. 6). This is in support to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that


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promotes the theory that one’s language determines one’s thoughts. In other words, if an

individual wants to study and learn French, and expects to effectively use the language in

communicating with French-speaking people, he/she must also study and learn the

French culture as well in order to be able to think in French and somehow assume a

French identity.

       On the other hand, although Kumaravadivelu (2008) is amenable with the idea

that language and culture are connected, the author does not accept that they are

connected ―inextricably‖—that language and culture cannot be separated at all.

Translation from one language to another and contextualization of the English language

into several cultures like Indian and Nigerian (and even Filipino culture) are just some

evidences that prove language can exist independently from its culture.

       Personally, I agree with both views. I am not trying to play safe here by avoiding

taking just one side, but I really think that the kind of relationship that exists between

language and culture depends on a case to case basis. I admit that language is used as a

medium of transmitting one’s culture, and that words are culturally loaded (Zhang &

Yan, 2006); hence, it is really impossible to totally isolate one from the other.

       On the other hand, language and culture can exist independently from each other

at certain times and situations since one can still use the language without being

knowledgeable of its culture. This case is especially true among individuals who use

English as their second language (L2) or foreign language and are interacting with

speakers who also use English as their L2. A classic example of this is the setting that we

have here on campus. Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) is a

multicultural place that uses English as a medium of instruction and communication. I


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would like to believe that when non-native speakers of English use English to

communicate and interact with others, they do not necessarily operate the language using

the American culture or the English/British culture for that matter. Most, if not all, L2

speakers of English express themselves the way they would in their native language.

Nonetheless, if non-native speakers continue to operate on this state when interacting

with native English speakers, it is likely that misunderstanding will occur due to cultural

gap. Still, if we take this account here at AIIAS, cultural misunderstanding are lesser

because the people here have learned to become tolerant of each other’s differences, and

somehow, we have our own subculture as a group because almost all of us belong in one

religion and one church, which is has a distinct culture of its own.


                             Culture and Language Learning

       Taking the idea that culture affects all aspects of human society, and ―permeates

into every area of life and influences the way people think, talk, and behave‖ (DeCapua

& Wintergerst, 2004, p. 11), we can also deduce that culture does influence learning,

particularly language learning. In fact, Zhang and Yan’s (2006) study regarding the

Cultural Influences on English Language Teaching revealed that if students’ knowledge

about the culture of the second language that they are learning is insufficient, their

language skill in their target language is also hampered because words in the second

language carry ―cultural load‖ in them (p. 75).

       In addition, people learn with their cultural glasses on since ―culture provides us

with heritage and a set of expectations about educational settings‖ (Powell & Anderson,

as cited in Hidasi, 2005, p. 10). Also, if we would see and consider ―language . . . as

social practice‖ (Kramsch, 1993, p. 8), then there is really a need to learn the culture of

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the language in order to interact effectively in the society where the language is being

used.


                           Culture and Linguistic Competence

        Cultural knowledge is deemed necessary for language proficiency (Kramsch,

1993), and the interplay of these two elements could not be more evident in second or

foreign language classes (Berry & Williams, 2004; Hidasi, 2005; Kuo & Lai, 2006;

Zhang & Yan, 2006). Kuo and Lai (2006) even claim that ―cultural knowledge is crucial

in achieving linguistic proficiency‖ (p. 6). This means that one’s awareness of the target

culture determines one’s competence in the target language.


Culture and Speaking

        Students coming from a different cultural background from that of the West may

be considered as having inferior speaking skills. This is not only due to their non-native-

like pronunciation, intonation, or accent, but also to cultural factors. Take the Japanese

students, for example. These students are less assertive; they prefer group achievement

over the individual success, value good human relationships, and operate in an ―analogue

worldview‖ which is subjective, subtle, and non-verbal (Hidasi, 2005, p. 9).

        Consequently, if Japanese students continue to remain silent in class because that

is what they usually do in their own culture, instead of only being viewed as having

insufficient speaking skills, they will not also gain adequate verbal skill. This is because

they do not get as much practice as their other vocal peers do in using their target

language inside the classroom.




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Culture and Listening

        Language learners with a tone-based native language like Cantonese would

normally find it difficult to listen and understand English which is a stress-based

language (Berry & Williams, 2004). However, second and foreign language students’

listening skill is not only hampered by the way they pronounce words, but also by their

knowledge of the culture of the language they are learning.

        One factor why ESL students’ listening ability does not considerably improve no

matter how much they rehearse listening is because ―they lack the necessary cultural

background knowledge of the language they have learned‖ (Zhang & Yan, 2006, p.75).

The rationale for this is that it is easy to listen and understand well even though the audio

material contains a lot of difficult words if the culture is familiar; it is difficult to

understand if we are not familiar with the culture of the material for ―the lack of

necessary cultural knowledge may hinder our thorough understanding‖ (Zhang & Yan,

2006, p. 74).


Culture and Reading

        The study of Berry and Williams (2004) among Hong Kong Chinese students in

UK revealed that reading comprehension was not the students’ major problem at all.

Contrarily, knowing a target language—even knowledge of word meanings—does not

really guarantee easy comprehension of the text being read (Zhang & Yan, 2006). Zhang

and Yan (2006) continues to explain,

        Reading is a process in which the knowledge of language, the cultural background

        knowledge, and other specialized knowledge are altogether in effect. And it is



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        also a course of prediction and revision on the basis of language materials,

        cultural background knowledge, and logical conclusion. (p. 74)

        Therefore, when L2 students encounter easy terms but have some cultural

allusions, it is very likely that they will have some problem comprehending what they are

reading.


Culture and Writing

        Writing is another skill that language learners also find difficult because there is

no single universal writing style. Different cultures ―approach writing differently,‖

(Kirkpatrick, 2000, p. 83) and that ―particular text types and styles may have different

uses in different cultures‖ (p. 81).

        In addition, I must say that in English, strong action words are more appropriate,

but other cultures appreciate elaborate use of adjectives and describing words; hence,

when people from this culture write in English, their composition tend to be pompous,

exaggerated, and hifalutin without a very clear meaning. That is why ―recognizing . . .

cultural expectations . . . are as important as grammar and vocabulary‖ (Kirkpatrick,

2000, p. 86) in writing.




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                                      CONCLUSION


       It is undeniable how culture influences language and language learning. The

world now seems to be shrinking because of globalization that no individual can still

afford to remain naïve about the vast world outside of his/her own culture. Oftentimes, it

is really difficult to discover one’s own cultural biases because one is part of it, but for

people learning a second or a foreign language, it is imperative for them to discover their

own cultures so they can understand the culture of their target language as well.

       No one can force any person—not even a teacher to a student—to assume a

second/foreign culture when learning a second/foreign language, but finding a third place

(Kramsch, 1993) between the native culture and the target culture is necessary for

effective interaction and communication with others. Doing this will not only help the

learner’s language learning and linguistic competence, but it will also enable him/her to

make informed choices when dealing with people.

       To end this paper, I would like to say that an awareness of other cultures,

especially the culture of the target language a student is learning, has all the advantages. I

believe that one has everything to gain, and almost nothing to lose (except oneself if one

totally takes on a different culture at the expense of one’s native culture) when a person

keeps his/herself abreast of the culture of the language he/she tries to learn.




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                                        REFERENCES


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Brown, H.D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.). White
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DeCapua, A., & Wintergerst, A. (2004). Crossing cultures in the language classroom.
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Eckermann. A. (1994). The interdependence of culture and education. In Pragmatic
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Hidasi, J. (2005). Impact of culture on second language acquisition. Retrieved from
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Kaikkonen, P. (1997, March). Learning a culture and a foreign language at school –
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Kirkpatrick, A. (2000). Contrastive rhetoric and the teaching of writing: Seven principles.
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Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford
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Kumaravadivelu, B. (2008). Cultural globalization and language education. New Haven,
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Kuo, M., & Lai, C. (2006). Linguistics across cultures: The impact of culture on the
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Liddicoat, A. J. (2000). Everyday speech as culture: Implications for language teaching.
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Nordquist, R. (2010). Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Retrieved from http://grammar.about.com
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Wang, J. (2003, August). Knowing the true face of a mountain: Understanding
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