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Language and Culture - a thesis
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
- 4

But what exactly is culture? As Nemni (1992) and Street (1993) suggest, this is not an easy question to answer, particularly in an increasingly international world. On a general level, culture has been referred to as 'the ways of a people' (Lado, 1957). This view incorporates both 'material' manifestations of culture that are easily seen and 'non-material' ones that are more difficult to observe, as Saville-Troike (1975: 83) notes. Anthropologists define culture as 'the whole way of life of a people or group. In this context, culture (sic) includes all the social practices that bond a group of people together and distinguish them from others' (Montgomery and Reid-Thomas, 1994: 5). According to Peck (1998),

Culture is all the accepted and patterned ways of behavior of a given people. It is that facet of human life learned by people as a result of belonging to some particular group; it is that part of learned behavior shared with others. Not only does this concept include a group's way of thinking, feeling, and acting, but also the internalized patterns for doing certain things in certain ways….not just the doing of them. This concept of culture also includes the physical manifestations of a group as exhibited in their achievements and contributions to civilization. Culture is our social legacy as contrasted with our organic heredity. It regulates our lives at every turn.'


It could be argued that culture never remains static, but is constantly changing. In this light, Robinson (1988) dismisses behaviourist, functionalist, and cognitive definitions of culture and posits a symbolic one which sees culture as a dynamic 'system of symbols and meanings' whereby 'past experience influences meaning, which in turn affects future experience, which in turn affects subsequent meaning, and so on' (ibid.: 11). It is this dynamic nature of culture that has been lost sight of and underrated in foreign language teaching and ought to be cast in a new perspective. Learning a foreign language can be subversive of the assumptions and premises operating in the 'home culture' (Straub, 1999), which requires that learners be offered the opportunity for "personal growth," in terms of 'personal meanings, pleasures, and power' (Kramsch, 1993: 238). As Kramsch (ibid.: 238) notes, '[f]rom the clash between…the native culture and…the target culture, meanings that were taken for granted are suddenly questioned, challenged, problematized'. However, in order to question and reinterpret (Reynolds and Skilbeck, 1976: 6) L2 culture, "L1 observers" must first become aware of what it means to participate in their own culture and what the contents of culture are.

Apart from Brooks, whose work we mentioned earlier on, several other scholars such as Lado (1964), Goodenough (1981), Kallenbach & Hodges (1963), Straub (1999), and others have provided a framework within which to identify the nature of culture, be it home culture or target culture. For instance, Goodenough (1981: 62) summarises the contents of culture briefly quoted below:

1. The ways in which people have organized their experience of the real world so as to give it structure as a phenomenal world of forms, their percepts and concepts.

2. The ways in which people have organized their experience of their phenomenal world so as to give it structure as a system of cause and effect relationships, that is, the propositions and beliefs by which they explain events and accomplish their purposes.

3. The ways in which people have organized their experiences so as to structure their world in hierarchies of preferences, namely, their value or sentiment systems.

4. The ways in which people have organized their experience of their past efforts to accomplish recurring purposes into operational procedures for accomplishing these purposes in the future, that is, a set of "grammatical" principles of action and a series of recipes for accomplishing particular ends.

For Goodenough (1963: 258-259),

'[c]ulture…consists of standards for deciding what is, standards for deciding what can be, standards for deciding how one feels about it, standards for deciding what to do about it, and standards for deciding how to go about doing it.'


Clearly, culture is a ubiquitous force, forging our identities and our relationships with other things and individuals. Were it not for culture, we would be 'little more than…gibbering, incomprehensible idiot[s], less capable of mere survival than a member of the very earliest tribe of prehistoric men' (Kallenbach & Hodges, 1963: 11). To view culture as 'the total life way of a people [and] the social legacy the individual acquires from his group' (ibid.) leads to the belief that to be human ineluctably means to be cultured. What is more, according to Kallenbach & Hodges (1963: 20),

'culture channels biological processes-vomiting, weeping, fainting, sneezing….[while] sensations of pleasure, anger, and lust may be stimulated by cultural cues that would leave unmoved someone who has been reared in a different social tradition.'


Culture creates and solves problems. If, within a specific culture, cows are looked upon as sacred animals, or breaking a mirror is assumed to bring bad luck, 'threats are posed which do not arise out of the inexorable facts of the external world' (ibid.: 24). Furthermore, such notions as "success," "greed," "decorum," or "promiscuity" can only be assessed against a culture-specific yardstick, as it were. '[S]uch value judgments are acquired in the culture in which the individual has grown up and are accepted unquestioningly by most members of the social group' (Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum, 1957, cited in Rivers, 1968: 266). It goes without saying that the importance of 'any single element in a culture design will be seen only when that element is viewed in the total matrix of its relationship to other elements' (ibid.: 29). Let us illustrate this by drawing upon De Saussure's semiotic theory (Barthes, 1973, cited in Leiss et al., 1990: 200-201): Roses signify passion or love. If we analyse their "meaning," we have three elements: the signifier-the roses; the signified-passion or love; and the sign-the "passionified roses" as a whole. Obviously, there is nothing inherently "passionate" or "amorous" about roses; they are viewed as such within the context of western culture. In another culture, roses could signify something different, even the opposite of passion or love. Of course, if we asked an Indian why she worships cows or a Frenchman why he says un pied de laitue (literally "a foot of lettuce) whereas English speakers say "a head of lettuce" and Greek speakers ? ?a?d?? e??? µa??????? (literally "a heart of lettuce"), chances are that we would get no more satisfactory an answer than we ourselves would be ready to give regarding our own language or culture (see Desberg, 1961, cited in Fotitch, 1961: 55). Interestingly, according to Lado (1964: 28), culture comprises various elementary meaning units (EMUs), such as the ones touched upon above, which may be at variance with other EMUs at work in another culture. For him, coming to grips with these EMUs is 'necessary for full communication with natives, to understand their reports on great achievements, and to read their classics'. It is our contention that these EMUs can pave the way for a 'third place' (Kramsch, 1993), a third identity, which can draw upon the L1 and L2 cultures in enunciating personal meanings (this issue will be considered later in the study).
That '[c]ulture is not a relatively harmonious and stable pool of significations, but a confrontation between groups occupying different, sometimes opposing positions in the map of social relations' (Fiske, 1989b: 58, cited in Kramsch, 1993: 24) is further illustrated below (see Henrichsen, 1998): A new teacher from the U.S. was teaching English in a Palestinian school in Israel, working with a fairly advanced group of students and trying to help them understand and use the present perfect tense. To this end, she began with the question, "Have you ever lived in Israel?" Some of the students answered, "No," while the rest of the class seemed a bit confused, shaking their heads in lack of comprehension. The teacher repeated the question, only to receive the same response. Then, a student said, "Palestine, teacher, Palestine," thus shedding light on the misunderstanding. Even though the students understood the question, they refused to give Israel recognition as a nation, even by name. 'The students knew the grammar principle very well; they would simply not acknowledge the political circumstances it assumed' (ibid.).

In view of this, it is reasonable to assert that cultural awareness should be viewed as an important component informing, so to speak, and enriching communicative competence. By communicative competence, we mean verbal as well as non-verbal communication, such as gestures, the ability (or lack thereof) to integrate with a specific group or avoid committing any faux pas, and so forth. In other words, the kind of communicative competence posited here is one which can account for the appropriateness of language as well as behaviour. On the one hand, it can help us understand why the sentence A cigarette is what I want is unlikely to be elevated to the status of a possible utterance in English; on the other, it can suggest why being careless about chinking glasses in Crete may cause trouble. It is what Desberg (1961, cited in Fotitch, 1961: 56) dubs 'linguistico-cultural meaning' that has been extirpated from the foreign language milieu, and led to the false assumption that culture is a compartmentalised subject amenable to 'educational interventions', to quote Candy (1991), rather than an educational goal in itself.

The question arises, however, that if language and culture are so intricately intertwined, why should we overtly focus on culture when there are other aspects of the curriculum that need more attention? To begin with, we should concern ourselves with culture because, even though it is inherent in what we teach, to believe that whoever is learning the foreign language is also learning the cultural knowledge and skills required to be a competent L2/FL speaker 'denies the complexity of culture, language learning, and communication' (Lessard-Clouston, 1997). Second, it is deemed important to include culture in the foreign language curriculum because it helps avoid the stereotypes that Nemni (1992) has discussed and the present study has intimated. The third reason for expressly teaching culture in the foreign language classroom is to enable students to take control of their own learning as well as to achieve autonomy by evaluating and questioning the wider context within which the learning of the target language is embedded. Tomalin & Stempleski (1993: 7-8), modifying Seelye's (1988) 'seven goals of cultural instruction', may provide an answer pertinent to the question posed. According to them, the teaching of culture has the following goals and is of and in itself a means of accomplishing them:

1. To help students to develop an understanding of the fact that all people exhibit culturally-conditioned behaviours.

2. To help students to develop an understanding that social variables such as age, sex, social class, and place of residence influence the ways in which people speak and behave.

3. To help students to become more aware of conventional behaviour in common situations in the target culture.

4. To help students to increase their awareness of the cultural connotations of words and phrases in the target language.

5. To help students to develop the ability to evaluate and refine generalizations about the target culture, in terms of supporting evidence.

6. To help students to develop the necessary skills to locate and organize information about the target culture.

7. To stimulate students' intellectual curiosity about the target culture, and to encourage empathy towards its people.

This list of goals is definitely an improvement on Huebener's (1959: 182-183) list of 'desirable outcomes'.
At any rate, the aim of teaching culture is 'to increase students' awareness and to develop their curiosity towards the target culture and their own, helping them to make comparisons among cultures' (Tavares & Cavalcanti, 1996: 19). These comparisons, of course, are not meant to underestimate foreign cultures but to enrich students' experience and to sensitise them to cultural diversity. 'This diversity should then be understood and respected, and never…over (sic) or underestimated' (ibid.: 20). In the next chapter, we will consider different ways of teaching (about) culture. As Kramsch (1993: 245) succinctly puts it, teachers' and learners' task is 'to understand in ever more sensitive ways why they talk the way they do, and why they remain silent: this type of knowledge Clifford Geertz [1983] calls local knowledge' (emphasis added).

 

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