Language and culture: two sides of the same coin
Due to the communicative nature of learning a language, I would dare to suggest that, at the same time as working with the four main skills (writing, reading, listening and writing), it is unavoidable to develop cultural knowledge. Because of its close relationship with language, cultural knowledge continuously influences linguistic skills and vice versa. Furthermore, if we left culture out, what would our students read about? what would they talk about?
Whether we like it or not, we transmit culture and we have to be careful with that, because by doing so we are dealing with a fundamental issue for our young students’ development as human beings: values. The first thing we have to think about is what culture is and what it is not. But before a student is able to propose her/his own definition, some work must be done so that they can create a mental draft of all the implications of culture and values.
Depending on the age of our students we could make them reflect on it by themselves, discovering the importance of language along the way. Debating a point or undertaking a project could both be excellent methods of exploring some of the following questions which would enable the student to fully answer the main question: what is culture?
These are some examples of questions we can pose in order to reflect on culture and language:
- Is literature a part of culture? What about comics?
- Are films part of the culture of a specific country?
- Is food cultural?
- Is music cultural?
- Does heavy metal music have cultural components? What about rap?
- Are sports part of culture?
- Is language cultural? In what sense?
- Are there some cultural aspects common to all human beings?
- Are video games cultural?
- What is the relevance of politicians in the development of culture?
- Does dancing have a cultural component? What about theatre?
From these first questions we could progress to some others related to English language and culture:
- Are all cultural concepts translatable to other languages?
- Could you give us some examples of English cultural words that are difficult to explain and translate into your language?
- Is there just one English culture?
- How many English cultures do you know?
Then, the reflection could deal with different cultures and languages:
- Do you need to go to a country to be able to deeply understand their culture?
- Is a culture directly related to a country?
- If you met a person from China/ England/ Scotland/ Russia/ U.S/ Brazil/ Australia/ Japan/ India/ Italy/ Germany/ Canada/ Finland/ Iceland/ South Africa or Tunisia, what would you ask them about their country? What vocabulary would you like to know in their languages?
- Is there any country in the world of which you would like to know more?
- Could visiting another country contribute to your understanding of human nature?
- Do you think going to a country as a tourist is enough to get a grasp of its culture?
- How long do you think that you need to stay in a country to understand its culture?
- Do you think it necessary to live in a country to really speak its language?
- Do you think living in another country is enough, without studying, to learn a language?
- Do you find it important to have general cultural knowledge in order to be able to understand and respect other people’s behaviours and values?
- Do you think that speaking another language can make it easier to understand that country’s culture or people’s behaviour?
To sum up, we would conclude by trying to define culture itself, taking into consideration all we would have been talking about in previous sessions:
- Are there some universal values that we share as a race?
- Do we, as human beings, have more differences or common characteristics?
- Is culture always collective?
- Do you think you have your own culture?
- What are your values?
- Taking all that into consideration, what is culture for you?
Remember, in the English classroom, developing culture can imply developing your own culture, reflecting about culture itself, talking about values, introducing diversity, implementing empathy, debating about human rights and trying to make students curious about English Speaking Countries, their history, music, literature, gastronomy, TV programmes, video games, TV series, costumes, clothes, festivities, geography, and, of course, about their language.
Ingrid Mosquera, PhD