Teaching languages through our cultural lenses

Louise Potter

Language is a complex system of symbols which we use to communicate, imagine, and interact with the world. As well as a universal system, it is also a very personal and singular structure which is directly related to the different cultures we are all immersed in. One can divide the world into several groups according to the language spoken, as they all communicate, interact and express themselves using a particular system. We are also able to break down the globe into various macro cultures: Western culture, Eastern Culture, African Culture, etc. Each of these cultures expressing themselves using diverse languages, dialects and body languages.

Culture, in its many definitions, can be described as patterns of a certain group of people, focusing mainly on some specific external aspects such as: language, religion, cuisine, arts, traditions and festivals. However, one can go much deeper than that and say that culture teaches us how to interact with those around us and how to view the world, although we view it through our own cultural lens. Nonetheless, it makes culture and language intrinsically related.

Viewing the world through our cultural lens means we have our own interpretations, due to our own experiences, family values, political views, even our humour at the dinner table and many other subtle daily habits and influences. Our cultural lens leads us to believe who we are and how we see the world is a one-way path. One can say it builds our identity. Nonetheless, that does not mean that what we see, is what the world is like. Most of us tend to wrap ourselves up within our cultural bubble believing the world is what and how we see it, and that is the way it should be. Teaching culture through languages encourages students to look at their lives and of others through different perspectives. It aims at having students change their lens, see different colours and take on experiences different than their own, becoming more understanding, embracing diversity and sharing ideas in this revolving world. The decisions we make on a daily basis are mostly due to our cultural lens, narrowed down to our experiences, blinding us from the real world. Taking off our cultural lens encourages us to see the world through different eyes.

When searching into learning a new language, what are people really looking for and what do they actually get? How well are teachers prepared to deliver what should indeed be given? How can teaching a language be related to teaching a culture? Can it be done?

Just as everyone is in some way immersed in his/her own culture, due to upbringing, experiences, values and others, we all also tend to have our own way of expressing ourselves using our internal language. Although we may share characteristics with others who live in similar contexts, no two people have the exact same cultural views and ideas, and absolutely nobody speaks the same language either. Language and culture, as mentioned before, are closely related. Language allows us to interact and culture tells you how to do so correctly in different contexts. Language is not simply a system where we connect words and making meaning.

“Culture learning is actually a key factor in being able to use and master a foreign linguistic system.” Buttjest (1982, cited in Byran).

Now, one can understand the importance of culture in language learning. And how does that happen (if it does at all) in language and regular schools?

Can you learn a foreign language without learning the culture? It depends. It depends on how the teacher outlines the class and what the students and teachers really want to accomplish: words? Grammar? If you want to understand the complex system of the language it cannot be done without understanding the context it is built in. We are built by the language we were brought up in and it is part of our identity. Language not only expresses identities but also constructs them. (David Evans, 2014)

I believe that if you are learning or teaching a new language, culture must be an integral part of your journey. You can only effectively communicate if you understand with whom you are interacting with and how they interact with the world. One can then state that language learning is cultural learning, so language teaching is cultural teaching as they are interdependent. An individual language speaker’s effectiveness in a foreign language is directly related to his/her understanding of the culture of that language (Taylor, 1979).

Why is this so important these days?

Contact amongst different cultures is increasing as days go by. Intercultural communication is now something that happens within the same city. We no longer need to travel far distances to bump into people who hold different religious beliefs or come from different backgrounds. The problem lies in how we are dealing with this inside and outside of our schools. How are we dealing with diversity?

Unfortunately, most schools still have a monocultural out view in education. Although they state they approach the various cultures while students are studying different parts of the world, they do not actually deal and embracing diversity within the school itself. Most schools have difficulty in dealing with pluricultural issues and diversity. It is sometimes easier to silence and neutralise the effects as if it is not part of our reality. Again, we are stuck in our cultural lens, not being able to take them off and analyse other perspectives.

What does language have to do with it? How can our language classes help? As I have mentioned in a previous article, the best part of being an English teacher is that we can teach whatever we like. The language is a means and not an end.

Working with Project Based Learning (PBL) and using cross curricular studies, enables us to enhance interculturality in the schools. Embracing bilingual education makes us realise that bilingual does not mean we are immersed in someone else’s culture, but we are comparing and contrasting it with our own. By learning and comparing our bubble to someone else’s bubble, helps us take a step further out of our own bubble. It does not mean we are focusing on one cultural that speaks a certain language, but how different cultures use this language in order to make themselves understood and interact in a healthy and respective manner.

So yes, teaching language is definitely teaching culture. And as culture and language are on the move, constantly changing, there is invariably so much to learn. Language and culture are not in any way stagnant. Cultures shift as the world revolves, and an extremely crucial aspect we must look out for is culture stereotyping. Let’s save this discussion for another article.

Byran, M. (1989) Cultural Studies in Foreign Language Education. Multilingual Matters LTD.
Byran, M and Sarries, V. E. (1989) Investigating Cultural Studies in Foreign Language Teaching. Multilingual Matters LTD.
Evans, David (2014), Language and Identity: Discourse in the World. London: Bloomsbury.
Taylor, H.M. (1979) English and Japanese in Contrast. U.S: Regents Publishing Company, Inc.