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.
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.
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Wafaa Momani says:
Learners will not learn language separated from its cultural context.
Ala' Hasan says:
Teachers should have an idea about the culture of the language that he /she taught to avoid misunderstanding as the language and culture are tightly connected.
Riham Suliman says:
Most people separate language from culture, but in fact we can not do this because we use language to express our culture and when we learn a language it is not enough to know the structure or the lexis, we need also as learners to be exposed to the culture by using the language, so we would know more about it.
Baraat Alsmadi says:
It is clearly shown the mutual importance of language and culture , a good teacher bears in mind that teaching a language is not only transfering its lexical, phonological or structure systems but also, being aware of the impact of the culture on producing or reciving a language.
Any person can communicate easily by using the target language if he or she knows the specific features of the new culture.
Haifa Saeed says:
It is obvious that the language and culture are strongly related to eachother. They are even noticed in our daily life , when ever we meet new people, they will notice our language and they will immediately ask whare are you from?. This article was very benificial.
The teacher should take into consideration , the different students culture in one classroom. And even plan a lesson upon these different cultures within.
This article was really helpful
I noticed that language is affected by culture. because cultures intetrfere each other which leads to producing new concepts of language.
I noticed that language is affected by culture. Especially because cultures interfered with each other which eventually led having new language.
Thank you for the useful tips. Language is interconnected with culture. We adapt our language to the culture we are exposed to. As teachers, we need to teach our students that each culture has its own characteristics. Students should be aware that they won’t find equivalents for each and everything they want.
Hakam ALkhateeb says:
knowing the distinctive relationship between language and culture helps teachers to be more creative,more skillful and able to solve many problems they may encounter.language teachers should understand and respect students’culture,it’s too necessary to attract their attention toward learning.
Safaa alhussein says:
Thanks for the great article learning a new language means to learn anew culture too,and these tow are compined together introducing anew language within the culture make it much easy.
Areej alhawatmah says:
Culture is something influenced and impacted by the language whereas, language is formed by the culture of a society. Similarly, language is not only an expression or a means of communication, but a component of a culture that makes it unique and specific.
Our values and speech shapes our identity and personality. It not only does represent the individual identity, but represents the identity of where he/she belongs to.
Humans are born in the same way and experience the same stages of life. However, the difference is the environment in which each individual grows up and the accent which he/she becomes familiar to. This creates a specific identity of a certain values and speech that differs from person to person.
Anas abu alghanam says:
thanks for this useful article. Language is the official spokesman of culture, through it we learn about other countries cultures language and culture are very connected to each other.
Fatima Al kurdi says:
Thank you for this interesting article which is smooth and easy to understand ,this let us think about the importance of knowing the culture of the country before learning it’s language to use it in appropriate way.
Rasha Jarrar says:
Culture and language both of them related to each other, we can’t separate them.If we know culture we could easily learn it’s language all babies when they born they are the same but language and culture give him or her the ID
Hebah Tawfiq says:
Thank you for this sharing. I think language is a reflection of cultures. Everyone’s thoughts are shaped by his own culture and the the understanding of related culture helps in enhancing the knowledge of their language. So, teachers of a certain language should refer to the culture to understand some concepts than cannot be transmitted in a new culture.
Do'a akeel says:
Language and culture may consider one unit. Both of them are interconnected. This article was amazing and useful.
Haya Abukayed says:
When you learn a new language, it not only involves learning its alphabet, the word arrangement and the rules of grammar, but also learning about the specific society’s customs and behavior. When learning or teaching a language, it is important that the culture where the language belongs be referenced, because language is very much ingrained in the culture.
Different language with one culture and the whole inter wining of these relationship start at one birth day.The understanding of a culture and its people can be enhanced by the knowledge of their language
Kawther Musleh says:
In order to teach language ,you have to teach the related cultural things and makes a useful link between them
language and culture are two issues inextricably linked and tied to each other. so their impact on each other is nessary inevitable.
Manal Alzawahreh says:
It’s very important to entwin language to culture since they’re deeply connected & affect each other. You , as a teacher, cannot teach a language apart from it’s language coz it’ll be meaningless and Ss won’t benefit the wanted outcomes.
Introducing the language with relating it to the culture makes the vocabs and phrases more comprehensive.
Heba Shwayyat says:
You can’t teach language without teaching culture. You have to link the second language with the culture to stimulate students.
Since thoughts differ because the use of different languages, when one want to learn a new language it is a must to learn about its culture to better understand the way how meanings are comprehended.
language and culture are very connected to each other, so language teacher should teach students culture of the source language to make sure that students will use the language in the right culture context. teacher should also pay attention to the way his students look at teaching process. He should also be aware to the culture of his students.
Arwa AlDaboobi says:
The phrase language is culture ad culture is language,so the relationship between them is very strong.In addition,when we learn language we learn culture and different cultures allow people learn in different ways.
Language and culture are both related to each other every child comes to life and learn the language by interacting with people around him.
Language shaped by the culture because we see that in the same country people use the same language but in differant ways and accents and they use some of the words differantly according to the place they live in.
If we want to learn any language we need to know or understand the culture and the way of thinking for these people who speak this language.
The implications of language being completely entwined in culture and Language policy must be used to create awareness and understandings of cultural differences, and written to incorporate the cultural values of those being taught.so,
Teachers must instruct their students on the cultural background of language usage and conflict in learning styles.
Afaf Sabra says:
“Language is the culture and culture is the language” both developed together .
The more you know about culture the easier it is to get involved and learn new words.
Amani Abusheel says:
Great article. I completely agree with the author, that our language shaped by our culture and teaching language means teaching culture. we can’t separate learning languages from their cultures because the relation between them is deeply rooted.
Thank you for this great content.
I agree with with you that language and culture they are associated together and if you are not that familiar to its culture you won’t be able to learn their language it helps us to onow more about it and gain more knowledge
language is usedto transmit values,laws, rituals and even the taboos. it affects the identy of people who live in the same place and create specific behaviours. also language the way we thinking, living and our style life.
This content is really helpful to enhance my skills of writing and understanding of text in this new study environment. Thanks alot to provide this readings
Silari Emmanuel says:
I have learnt many things when i switched from culture to English learning. Culturally the learning of my language has helped very much in the learning of English language
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Zulekha nassor says:
thanks for the great information…now I know a lot about the bond between language and culture.
Elin Rolfes says:
Yes a wonderful and interesting article. I am a Dutch second language teacher and anthroplogist. And it would be excellent idea to integrate cultural awereness more into language training.
Many thanks for the inspiring insights in this article. I am currently doing my Phd research study at the Tech.Uni.Dresden-Germany, about the theme : “Enhancing Literacy and Cooperatives in the Informal Education Settings in Uganda”. There we have to learn English at school; amidst a myriad of local languages, the two most widely used are Luganda and Swahili in my study area.I would like to receive and use this and other similar examples from Asia as research, teaching and training materials, in order to bring awareness for the need for appropriate language policy implications in Africa, beginning with Uganda.
Therefore, I kindly request for more information in this regard.
Secondly, I would like to be in contact with researchers and actors/activists within the African cultural context
With kind regards
Thanks a lot…
Enlightening and at its best . Thanks for your compilation & direction
I find the article is easy to be understood. Thank you.
From a teachers standpoint, I might agree with some of the previous methods comments, but from a researchers standpoint doing a doctorate study on 2nd language in Korea, I like what you wrote. It will help me. Thank you.
I blog quite often and I seriously thank you for your content.
Your article has really peaked my interest. I’m going to take a note of your site and keep checking for new information about once per week.
I opted in for your RSS feed as well.
Clayton Sundano says:
Thanks for your knowledge despite the fact that it was not properly punctuated and some errors in writing.
Hassen A. says:
thanks for educative article.this article somehow touches my life..
I born and grown up in a society which is not my families type in culture and language. I learn their language and culture but not my families original culture as they were displaced from their original birth place.
2 years ago (after I am 25 yrs old),they relocate me with the whole family to their original birth place. this communities are my relatives in blood but not in culture and language. I cannot speak their language but my father and mother do.I couldn’t adapt their culture yet but my families do.
my parents wants me to marry one the lady from this communities to rebuild my culture and to bring my up coming children on their culture track.
how I can date someone whom we speak different language,culture etc…
If its not for my family,I would have been returned to the place I have grown up.
Pease I need your advice!!!!
sorry for poor english,,..
SF Master says:
Thanks a lot. It really helped a lot.
Stuart Fischer says:
A telling example of cultural differences is your use of the word learnt, a normal usage in the UK, but far less frequently in the US and Canada. It was the one clue which left me with the impression you were not a native born American, our colloquialisms can be very illustrative.
Thanks a lot. My other question is what is the relationship between language, culture and society?
Chioma Esom says:
Your article is a good one. As a masters student of language arts education in Nigeria, I found it so helpful. There is content and the message is clear. Thanks a lot.
Aloyce Oyari says:
thanks for your contribution my is how language affects culture
Thaks alot .it really helpfull piece of writing..very concise and to the point..I -as a second of English -found easy to digest..
language and culture are two issues inextricably interwoven and tied to each other. so their impact on each other is inevitable.
malaika deol says:
thanks.this will help me alot in my assignment.its really great.
thanks, it will help me a lots in my forth coming exam, my medium of exam is Hindi and i will translate it into Hindi.
Manisha Pal says:
Thanks for your guidance through this work of your’s. It is helpful for me asI am doing research on language and culture at JNU.
mrs joy kogbara says:
your work was of great important.i’m a student teacher writting a project on the topic’METHODOLOGY OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND IT’S IMPLICATION’.i’ll welcome suggestions help tools from you.
Alex Case says:
It certainly could do with some editing, but it is provided free both by the author and the site after all. More importantly, I think comments on its content are far more constructive than the comments you have made
Sally Cutler says:
This is a poorly written, error-filled thesis: incomplete sentences, sloppy punctuation, occasional gibberish. It doesn’t speak well for the author or for TEFL.net. Examples: “When an infant is born, it is not unlike any other infant born, in fact, quite similar.” “The implications of language being completely entwined in culture, in regards for language teaching and language policy are far reaching.” “”… 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.” I’m astonished to find that the author is a native English-speaker.