Teaching How Culture is Embedded in Language

One of the real, but sometimes hard-to-teach, realities of the world is that cultural beliefs and values are embedded in language — when our language is really being used. In other words, sentences by themselves — or words — do not necessarily show how that is true. It takes language-in-use, language use in the real world to show how cultural information is embedded in language. Take, for example, the following list of vocabulary and grammar items:
I am, you are, s/he is, it is, we are, they are — present-tense conjugation of the verb ‘to be’
not — negation device
I’m, you’re, it’s, we’re, they’re — contractions of the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense
he, she, it: personal pronouns in the third person singular
visit: a verb or a noun meaning _____________
school
Fort Worth
job
police
teacher
learning
books
bullying
cars
boys
girls
okay
acceptable
good
fair
helpful
Fairly ideologically and culturally non-biased, I would say, for the most part. But when you put them into a context you have many more culture-specific questions and answers — and meanings and interpretations to deal with, as in:
Who are the people here? Where are they? What are their ages? What is their sex (male/female)? What kinds of clothes are they wearing? When is this taking place (time of day, time of year, what decade or century)? Does this tell you there is a problem or a solution? Where does this happen? What is the socioeconomic level of the people? What do the words ‘visit,’ ‘okay,’ etc. mean? Are they the traditional vocabulary-list definitions? How do you know they don’t mean something else? Why is the contraction used? Why is ‘okay’ used instead of ‘acceptable?’ What does this text say about the culture? Who thinks this? What is the thing on which the words are written? Who is/are the author/s? What is the intention of the author(s)? Who is the audience? Who sees it/reads it? For whom is it intended? Where is the text “posted?” What area of the larger city? Does where it is placed within the larger metropolitan area mean anything?

Thus, the words in the vocabulary list and grammar table don’t mean much beyond their superficial surface meaning. When language is 1) used by native speakers for native speakers (authentic), 2) in a context, 3) within the culture, one can really use language the way it was meant to be used, and the way we use it in real-life speaking, reading, writing, and listening: we interpret it. We use the context, our background knowledge, our knowledge of the situation and the culture to interpret it. In other words, our students can only interpret language if we use texts, they can only make culturally authentic meaning of language if we expose them to its textual nature — to texts.

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