Culture and language are integrally related. Language represents one system of culture, and culture is transmitted via language. Investigations into the relationship between these two concepts involve exploring how individuals and societies construct, maintain and transmit identities. Frequently, this investigation involves examining the texts that are created within a society in order to establish the underlying assumptions and ideologies by which individuals are operating. Researchers are also interested in how multilingual individuals negotiate their identity by making language choices and how socialization processes impact the maintenance or evolution of language within a culture. This article provides a brief overview of issues related to the relationship between language and culture.
Keywords Code-Switch; Cultural Models; Discourse Analysis; Ethnography of Communication; Identity Formation; Ideology; Language Maintenance; Social Identity Theory; Social Networks; Stereotypes; Speech Community
Imagine this order of events: thousands of years ago, cultures began to form as humans learned to use tools and formed family units. Then, language evolved? Or perhaps the order goes like this, "One day humans began to speak; and with this new tool, they were soon able to form relationships, build civilizations and create culture."
The questions of which came first - language or culture - and which has a greater impact on the other - are classic “chicken and egg” questions that can propel late-night philosophers into many a wee-hour in the morning discussions. The fact is that language and culture are so integrally related that it is nearly impossible to separate one from the other. Yet this is the task that researchers in sociology, anthropology, linguistics and other human-oriented fields undertake as they attempt to understand who we are as individuals and as societies. This article will provide a very brief overview of some of the questions that researchers explore when considering the relationships between culture and language. Readers are cautioned that because this topic is somewhat broad, this article cannot be considered an all-inclusive review of the subject.
Ethnography of Communication
The study of the relationship between language and culture occurs in many fields, but in the field of Ethnography of Communication, it is of particular interest. Ethnographers focus on patterns of communicative behavior and how those patterns depend on and influence social processes. Language, as a rule-governed system used to communicate, invites ethnographers to explore how individuals use language and how they come to share linguistic behaviors. What ethnographers have discovered is that patterns of communicative behavior occur at the individual, group and societal levels of a society. At the societal levels, patterns relate to the functions of the language, categories of talk, attitudes and conceptions about language and speakers. At the group level, individuals who share membership in groups defined by characteristics such as age, educational level, sex, occupation, geographic region, etc. may mark their membership by using language similarly. At the individual level, personal characteristics may influence language use. For instance, an individual's language use may reflect various emotional states such as nervousness or fear (Saville-Troike, 2003).
In order to explore language use within a particular level of society or cultural unit, ethnographers must first define parameters for the group to be studied. A speech community is the most common unit of analysis and consists of individuals who share both a language and the rules for interpreting and using that language. Members of a speech community typically share values, attitudes and beliefs about the language itself and its role in the society. Saville-Troike (2003) notes that a speech community cannot be defined only by its use of the same language. This is because language and language use are shaped by the context in which they exist. For instance, although English is a language used around the world, there are many varieties and dialects of English that have developed in different countries. These varieties may contain different vocabulary items, different syntactical constructions or different uses of grammar. Just because speakers in England, the United States, South Africa and India speak English does not mean that the speakers can be said to belong to the same speech community.
In exploring language and culture within a speech community, a key area of study is identity formation. An individual's identity encompasses one's sense of who one is in relation to groups and networks in society as well as within societal structures and practices. For instance, one might define oneself as being male or female, as belonging to a specific religion or as a member of a certain social class. Within any society, there are many categories with which individuals can identify, and individuals generally see themselves as members of more than one category. Social Identity Theory proposes that individuals define themselves along two axes: social and personal. Social relates to memberships in various groups, and personal relates to the personal attributes one has that make one unique from others. For instance, on a college campus, students might identity themselves as being friendly, outgoing, shy, nervous or smart (personal axis) or according to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, regional background or participation in academic or extracurricular activities (social axis) (Howard, 2000).
For any category that exists within a society, there is generally a set of rules or identifiers that mark individuals as members of the group. These rules develop over time through the interaction of group members. Because interaction most frequently occurs through language, language plays an important role in the establishment and maintenance of individual and group identity. For instance, language provides the means by which members can name their group/category. Language allows members of a group to talk about and evaluate themselves. Through this talk, members form self-perceptions and negotiate how they see themselves in relation to each other and people outside the group. Members may also mark their membership by adopting particular languages or language uses (e.g., using vocabulary specific to a particular field such as medicine or creating terminology only members know, such as slang in youth culture). Finally, through language, individuals are able to pass on the rules of group behavior to each other and from generation to generation (Howard, 2000; Saville-Troike, 2003)
Some of the questions researchers ask when exploring language, culture and identity are related to the relationship between language and cognitive processes. To what extent does language use change one's thinking about one's identity, roles and relationships to others? If someone begins to call oneself by a new name such as student or adult, to what extent does language cause one to see oneself as fitting into the category defined by that name? Also, researchers explore how interactions serve to shift or maintain identity. They examine how individuals produce their identity in their talk and investigate how the context of the situation affects identity formation during interactions.
The construction of identity through talk is of particular interest to linguists working in a discourse analysis framework. Discourse analysis involves the study of linguistic choices that individuals make as they interact. The purpose of the analysis is to uncover the underlying assumptions and ideologies of the conversation's participants. Speakers have many ways to identify themselves and their societal status as well as their attitudes, values and beliefs when they talk (Gee, 1999). For instance, some languages encode status right in the grammar of the language. In French, speakers can choose from an informal form of you (i.e., tu) for close friends and younger acquaintances and a formal form (i.e., vous) for use with people who are not as well known or of higher status. In Japanese, speakers can choose from a diverse range of address forms that show the speaker's relation to the hearer. Harumi Williams (as cited in Saville-Troike, 2003) provides an example of the choices a Japanese woman offering tea in her home might make, moving from lower to higher status:
• Ocha? (to own children) [tea]
• 2 Ocha do? (to own children, friends who are younger than self, own...
To accurately discuss or write about the relationship between any two factors, it is important to first have an understanding of each of the factors in question before one can write expressively on such subject matters and this comes into play when language and culture are been discussed.
Language has been defined as the systematic, conventional use of sounds, signs or written symbols in a human society for communication and self-expression. The purpose of language is to communicate with others, to think and to create the foundation for shaping one’s standpoint and outlook to life. Culture on the other hand has multifarious meanings but for the sake of this article, the definition outlined below will serve our purpose. Culture is the total of the inherited and innate ideas, attitudes, beliefs, values and knowledge comprising or forming the shared foundations of social action.
Therefore, the relationship between language and culture is definitely symbiotic as one cannot function without the other. By this we mean that for an individual to inherit or gain knowledge, values and ideas, the individual must first be able to communicate with others knowledgeable about that particular culture through convention sounds/signs which is language. So here are some facts on the relationship between language and culture for anyone writing a project on these subject matters.
- Language and culture are unique human abilities. The ability to create a structured language for communication is what makes humans and our culture distinct from other species. Humans learn their culture through language and foreign cultures are also transmitted through language.
- The role culture plays a major role in language. Humans are born without a language but are born with language-acquisition faculties which enable us learn languages. Research shows that humans learn their local language through cultural transmission rather than from formal learning.
This research goes further to state that to understand specific words and literary terms of a language, an individual must be familiar with the culture of that society.
- There is a strong relationship between language and culture in numbers. There are approximately 6,000 different languages in the world and these are shared among the 9,000 different cultures currently existing on earth.
Linguists have showed concern that 5% of the least used languages in the world are in danger of becoming extinct and in the next 100 years, 90% of all world languages will either be extinct or moribund. Lastly, an entire way of thinking — cultures — gets lost to the human race each time a language goes extinct.
- Language influences culture. Language influences culture in diverse ways and provides people from other cultures with a window into understanding cultures other than theirs. Studies show that the vocabulary of any language tends to place emphasis on words that are considered to be adaptively important to the corresponding culture. Therefore learning the terminologies commonly used by a culture provides a measure of understanding into the way of life of its people.
- Teaching using another language in a different culture is hard. Teachers have encountered difficulties when teaching a second language not local to a culture to its people and here are some facts to explain these difficulties. Studies have shown that how students learn and interact with teachers is determined by their culture. Approximately 80% of language teachers agree that cultural boundaries and roots play a huge role in determining how students understand or interpret the new language expressions they are been taught. Therefore, creators of second language policies must be sensitive to the local culture of all people.
- The language and culture of different societies greatly vary. In all communities, the spoken language is in a synergetic relationship with the culture of that society and Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that; the characteristics, peculiarities, and literary words encoded in one language system are distinctive, typical, and unique to that system and they are dissimilar as well as incomparable with those of other systems. These dissimilarities in turn lead to difficulties in understanding the expressions and terminologies inherent to a certain culture by foreigners.
- The major languages do not represent the cultures of the world. The major languages spoken in Europe—English, French, Spanish etc.—do not truly represent the cultural values in a majority of the nations in which they are spoken. Studies show that colonialism saw these languages having been adapted by diverse cultures for easy administration by the conquerors but they do not provide insight into understanding of these diverse cultures. Most nations using the major languages as their lingua franca have local languages that represent their culture.
- The role of culture in cross-cultural communication is huge. Since each culture has its own language set and ways of communicating, cross cultural communications can be quite difficult for individuals. Research shows that culture constantly makes its presence felt during cross-cultural communication and this can lead to stereotyping and misunderstandings during communication. Language and culture are not monolithic and the belief in a monolithic human identity leads to social and political standoffs.
- The relationship between language, culture and gender. Studies have shown that the language used by specific genders fluctuate in almost every culture. In approximately 80% of the world’s languages, women may communicate at a deficit which is specified as the ‘woman register’ and this places them as inferior to men. This leads to social friction when genders from diverse cultures communicate.
- Learning of new languages is achieved through cultural integration. Understanding a foreign culture plays a huge role in becoming competent with its language. Studies show that students of another language will learn to use expressions and terminologies in their right context if they acquire knowledge of the society’s culture. Therefore an integrated learning policy that targets both cultural and lingual learning is important to mastering a second language.
So here are 10 facts on the relationship between a language and culture for an English project and this article will be taken a step further, with topics on the subject matter of language and culture combined with a sample project which will serve as a guideline for anyone looking to write extensively on today’s topic. Plus genre oriented guide on how to work with such assignment. These multiple pieces of information will be provided in the next papers of this series. So stay tuned.
David, E (2013). The Relationship between Language and Culture.
Campbell, L. (1997). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
Stern, H. (2009). Fundamental concepts of language teaching 4, 6.
Thanasoulas, D. (2001). Radical Pedagogy: The importance of teaching culture in the foreign language classroom.
Wardhaugh, R. (2002). An introduction to sociolinguistics 30-38.
Peterson, E. & Coltrane, B. (2003, December). Culture in second language teaching.
O’Neil, D. (1998-2005). Language and culture: An introduction to human communication.
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