Culture as Subject Matter in Language Teaching
Language is a social contract. My love of language per se is through the connection language enables between people. I see no possibility to learn or teach a language effectively without considering the culture of the people who want to learn. Until I came to SIT, I connected knowledge of culture as an advantage of language. I had no conscious thought of its requirement for comprehensible discourse. In looking backward, I see how I neglected it in the focus of my teaching. During my MAT program, I saw how it must be the primary subject in teaching any language. If there is a disconnect between the L1 culture and that of the target language, there will be little comprehension. Idioms are a good example. Idiomatic references are cultural. Eg., if I say, to a student who knows nothing about Greek mythology, “It’s his Achilles heel,” I will not be understood.
In Sociolinguistics we studied how linguistic speech acts are culturally bonded. Without a connection to the culture of the speaker, communication is stilted and academic and may be misunderstood. Language is our link to culture, and culture informs our language. Cultural norms direct language. Eg., in my aspect of American culture I will choose my language to reflect my relationship with whomever I speak. And my choice is self directed. In other cultures, where honorifics are mandatory, language is proscribed.
When the target language of a different culture is imposed upon L1, the culture of that language becomes the subject of its teaching. From my Tibetan classmates, I learned that when Tibetans go to school they must learn Mandarin, as the schools are directed by the Chinese government. Mandarin expresses Chinese culture. It is this culture the Tibetan students are required to learn in order to successfully navigate career paths. This endangers the survival of the Tibetan language and, in turn, Tibetan culture.
In the first paper listed above (1_SOC), I discuss how to teach one cultural representation of English without subjugating another. Class and social divide play major roles in the acceptance of Standard American English (SAE) by students who are disempowered simply because they do not speak SAE.
English is as varied as the countries who speak it. Culture absorbs and creates language.
Though I have English as my L1, were I to go to a different culture - culture as subject of the language - I would not understand a great many expressions and words. I would be a stranger
to its culture. Sociolinguistic competence requires cultural awareness and knowledge.
This presentation about Piropos (3_SOC), is an in-depth look at how culture affects a word. As the cultures around the word change, the initial meaning changes as well. It can acquire a completely different connotation from its orginal. The research I did for this presentation gave me a profound and conscious awareness of the power of culture in language teaching. Before I came to SIT, I had focused on the power of linguistics alone. Sociolinguistics became the key to my progress in teaching competence. In the function of language, how language both acts upon and is constrained by the greater social context - the tenet of systemic functional grammar - lies its teaching and learning power.