Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Language and Culture

Language and Culture


Robert L Fielding

Culture has been defined as 'the total set of beliefs, attitudes, customs, behaviour, and social habits of the members of a particular society'. Richards J et al (1985).  Our culture informs us what is appropriate, what is normal, what is acceptable when dealing with other members of our society. Our culture lets us know what to expect from others, what they will say in certain situations, and the manner in which they will say it.  It lets us know how they will act, and how they will react.   It is the wisdom of the ages handed down to the present.  We are affected by it, and it is affected by us.  Culture is in a constant state of flux, changing incrementally, changing the way we speak and the way we think, the way we act and the way we react.

That culture is indelibly linked to language is undeniable, for language is a vehicle by which it is transmitted, probably its chief vehicle.  One observable way in which language acts as a vehicle  for, or a transmitter of, culture is in the use of idiomatic language.  Idiomaticity is arguably the most common form of language, in terms of percentages of the whole.  Idiomatic language, most often found in the form of phrases consisting of more than one word, often does not conform to say the grammatical structure of non-idiomatic language.  For example, in the phrase, 'at large', as used in the expression,  'the public at large', or in the sentence, 'The escaped convicts were at large for two weeks before being recaptured.', the preposition 'at' appears before what appears to be an adjective, 'large'.  This appears to be in direct contradiction to the 'normal' place such a part of speech occupies in a grammatically correct sentence, viz. before a noun, such as in the following examples, 'at home', 'at work', 'at the office' et al.  The phrase, 'at large'  appearing on the page in isolation from any context that would make its meaning more transparent, has an opaque quality where semantic meaning is concerned, and perhaps still retains some of its opacity of meaning even within the context of a sentence.
To members of the community using such idiomatic language, there is tacit agreement on what these phrases mean, despite their opaque quality.  Idioms are cultural entities.

To learners of a foreign language, any foreign language, culture imbues language with this opacity.  The word, table is easily understood and learnt, but what about the phrase, 'to table a motion'?  That phrase carries a cultural value that is not readily appreciated or apparent to a learner.  The meaning does not reside in the individual words that make up the phrase.  The verb, 'to table' must initially seem nonsensical to a learner.  Likewise, 'a motion' must seem like an anachronism, having learnt that motion is a synonym for the word 'movement'.

Each culture has its own collection of phrases that are peculiar to it, and whose meanings are not readily apparent.  Were this not so, George Bernard Shaw's adage that America and Britain are two nations separated by the same language would have no ironical appeal.  Ostensibly, we speak the same language, the British and the Americans, but both varieties use many different words, and have many different phrases that are often mutually unintelligible, and sometimes uttered very differently.  Sometimes only the context in which a phrase or word is used serves to disentangle.  Sometimes even the context is not quite enough.  Sometimes we think we have understood when we have not.

This points out another feature of culture bound language; that it exists within a larger entity, that localized varieties exist.  What is comprehensible to a person from one region may be unintelligible to one from another.  If this is true within the community of a particular set of users of one language, how much more must it hold true to learners of that language.  Many a learner of English, feeling herself proficient, has gone to England only to find the language at worst totally unintelligible, and at best emblematic, but still not fully comprehensible.

The 'cultural weighting' of any language, in the form of idiomatic phrases, is understood by members of that cultural community, or perhaps more correctly, and more narrowly defined, by the members of that particular speech community, and conversely, is not readily understood by those who come from another culture or even another speech community, albeit ostensibly within the same culture.

Recognizing that students have or will have problems with 'real' English, both written and spoken, is vital if they are to become in any real sense fluent and accurate in the language.  Identifying the idiomatic nature of English is vital to a fluent and accurate use and understanding of it.  The word 'idiom', defined as 'an expression which functions as a single unit and whose meaning cannot be worked out from its separate parts' (Richards ibid.), is often misunderstood as something more akin to the words, 'adage', 'proverb, or 'saying', however.  The enormity of the amount of idiomatic language contained in everyday speech and the written word goes unnoticed by those not trained to differentiate between language that is idiomatic and language that is not, and it is precisely because of the ubiquitous presence of this feature of language that renders it 'invisible' to native speakers.  Culture is, as stated earlier, infused in language, and vice versa.  I would venture even to say that only through a careful monitoring of her own use of language is a teacher of English able to separate the idiomatic from the non-idiomatic use of her native tongue.  The learner of the language may have no knowledge at all of its presence, and this fact, possibly more than any other, can renders learners' English odd-sounding, non-native like, in both written and spoken varieties.  The trouble is compounded by the fact that each and every learner brings to her learning of English, the excess baggage of her own idiomatic language.  How often do we read odd sounding phrases in our students' written work, phrases that are little more than literal translations of idiomatic language from their mother tongue.  I suggest that we read it every day of our teaching lives.  The question is, 'How can we help students round this major problem?'

Well, recognizing that it is a problem is making some kind of a start.  Merely criticizing students' output by saying their grammar is poor totally misses the point. In most teachers' experience, students' grammatical ability does vary, it is true, but I believe it is in the area of teaching idiomatic phrase and expression that most ground can be covered in our attempts to improve students' English.  Helping students to 'notice chunking' in language, or what has been termed 'constituent identification'.(Richards ibid)

When reading language for specific purposes, such as for the Sciences, for example, there may be little evidence of idiomatic language, although there will be some, but in other varieties, idiomatic language may constitute a major part, and students need to be helped in recognizing and understanding such language.

The first and most important step though, is recognizing the nature of the beast.  Even though concordancing software, and dictionaries based on huge corpora of language in vitro are available, teachers often revert to, or are required to revert to textbooks that make little or no mention of idiomatic language, and what is perhaps worse, when they do mention it, do so in a sort of tongue-in-cheek, dilettante manner, treating idioms as adages and sayings, rather than as common features of language.

  1. Richards J. et al Longman (1985) Dictionary of Applied Linguistics  
      Longmans  Harlow


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