A Language And Its Culture

S4C LogoA language cannot be separated from the culture in which it is embedded. Is this true? What implications does this have for the English language teacher?

There are strong links between the culture of a country and its language. Language is worn as a badge of ethnicity, a badge of cultural independence worldwide. The Welsh who were forced to wear “Welsh not” around their necks earlier last century for speaking Welsh in class were having not only their language suppressed but also the culture that came with it in the form of music, art, poetry and literature. The revised attitudes towards minority languages like Welsh have now improved and the introduction of S4C, the Welsh language television channel, is part of a wider process thanks to which the Welsh have the right to be more optimistic about their culture’s protection than they had any right to be a mere half century ago.

Similarly, in the United States, there is a real struggle underway to get “Ebonics” or A.A.V.E., recognised as a separate language in the hope that this will help to create a better cultural identity for its speakers. All over the world, in fact, speakers of minority languages struggle to protect their culture.

When teaching a language, whatever language, it is difficult to separate it from the associated culture – to teach, in effect, in a cultural vacuum. I could never have learned Italian without experiencing the highs and lows of Little Tony and Alberto Sordi films, Rita Pavone and Lunapop songs as well as the linguistic and cultural osmosis that takes place when one sits in a cafĂ© drinking cappuccino in the morning talking about the previous night’s big match. A teacher wishing to use authentic materials to teach English will need to expose students to newspaper articles from the country, to works of literature, to television programmes, to magazine ads, to cartoons, to comic strips and so on.

But English can be said to differ to a certain extent and it greys the picture somewhat. It is now increasingly seen as a world language. It is now used as a lingua franca by people and not necessarily because people wish to travel, work or live in an Anglophone country. A Swedish businessman and a Greek customer will need to speak English without needing to know anything about British, let’s say, television, politics or sporting personalities or anything else involved in a country’s culture. English is more and more a “stateless” language because of its global use. A student’s motivation is therefore going to be different. A student may well wish to visit South Africa, Canada or any of the other English-speaking country. Today though, it is more likely that a student will have what is called “instrumental” motivation – wishing to use the language as an instrument, a tool, a way to a better job, a better exam grade and so on.

This internationalisation of the English language will clearly have implications for the teacher in the classroom, moreover those teaching EFL abroad, as opposed to ESL in their home countries. Teachers must be more sensitive to their students’ actual requirements. This, then, puts the learner and not the teacher at the centre of the whole process which can only be of benefit. It may well be that the students will want to learn about the teacher’s culture but we should not assume this to be the case. There is, however, more that a teacher can do apart from not choosing a course book that focuses less on one particular “brand” of culture. The teacher also needs to be aware that so-called “linguistic imperialism” can also be in other forms, however unwittingly. Insisting that students use and learn British or American conversational strategies may serve a minority who wish to go on to visit these countries but is not going to be of much use to those who will only need to speak English with other non-native speakers.

Assessing what a student needs the language for is therefore of great importance. A student should be enabled to learn about an English-speaking culture but not forced to.

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