The Importance of Teaching Culture in the Foreign Language Classroom

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The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom Radical Pedagogy (2001)
ISSN: 1524-6345
The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom Language And Culture: What IS Culture And Why Should IT BE Taught? In this section, we will briefly examine the relationship between language and culture and see why the teaching of culture should constitute an integral part of the English language curriculum. To begin with, language is a social institution, both shaping and shaped by society at large, or in particular the ‘cultural niches’ (Eleanor Armour-Thomas & Sharon-ann Gopaul-McNicol, 1998) in which it plays an important role. Thus, if our premise is that language is, or should be, understood as cultural practice, then ineluctably we must also grapple with the notion of culture in relation to language. Language is not an ‘autonomous construct’ (Fairclough, 1989: vi) but social practice both creating and created by ‘the structures and forces of [the] social institutions within which we live and function’ (ibid.). Certainly, language cannot exist in a vacuum; one could make so bold as to maintain that there is a kind of “transfusion” at work between language and culture. Amongst those who have dilated upon the affinity between language and culture, it is Duranti who succinctly encapsulates how these two interpenetrate: to be part of a culture means to share the propositional knowledge and the rules of inference necessary to understand whether certain propositions are true (given certain premises). To the propositional knowledge, one might add the procedural knowledge to carry out tasks such as cooking, weaving, farming, fishing, giving a formal speech, answering the phone, asking for a favor, writing a letter for a job application (Duranti, 1997: 28-29). Clearly, everyday language is “tinged” with cultural bits and pieces—a fact most people seem to ignore. By the very act of talking, we assume social and cultural roles, which are so deeply entrenched in our thought processes as to go unnoticed. Interestingly, ‘culture defines not only what its members should think or learn but also what they should ignore or treat as irrelevant’ (Eleanor Armour-Thomas & Sharon-ann Gopaul-McNicol, 1998: 56). That language has a setting, in that the people who speak it belong to a race or races and are incumbents of particular cultural roles, is blatantly obvious. ‘Language does not exist apart from culture, that is, from the socially inherited assemblage of practices and beliefs that determines the texture of our lives’ (Sapir, 1970: 207). In a sense, it is ‘a key to the cultural past of a society’ (Salzmann, 1998: 41), ‘a guide to “social reality”’ (Sapir, 1929: 209, cited in Salzmann, 1998: 41). Nineteenth-century sociologists, such as Durkheim, were well aware of, and expatiated upon, the interdependence of language and culture. For Durkheim (1912 [1947]), children master their mother tongue by dint of making hypotheses as to the possible circumstances under which it can be used, and by learning probabilities. For example, a child sees a canary and is culturally conditioned to associate certain features and attributes of the bird with the actual word canary. And most importantly, the extent to which the child will internalize the relationship (or lack thereof) between the word canary and its referent in the world is contingent upon ‘social adulation’ (Landar, 1965: 225). If he is taken for a walk and sees a sparrow and says, “canary,” he will be corrected, learning that ‘competence counts’ (ibid.). In other words, ‘socioculturally structured associations have to be internalized’ (ibid.)—and, as often as not, these associations vary from culture to culture. Rather than getting bogged down in a ‘linguistic relativity’ debate, the tenets of which are widely known, some consideration should be given to the claim that ‘language is not merely the external covering of a thought; it is also its internal...
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