The very question; ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ could also apply to language and culture. If language is the main means whereby people conduct their daily business, social lives, and is used as the main communication tool, then the link between culture and language may be evident but quite complex. But before we try to answer the above question, let’s look at some aspects of language and culture which combine these together.
Have you ever thought about, or even been asked by a student in class, how to define what language is? We use it everyday, we know innately what it is, but to put words on it, to try to define and explain is actually quite a difficult thing to do, without being superficial or losing some meaning. Language has been described by some as a system of signs that come together to create meaning. Others have described it as a method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of produced symbols. However, there is one thing which is evident when trying to define language and that is its importance and relevance to those who use it and how it is inextricably linked to culture.
Like language, culture too can be difficult to define. The image of an iceberg can help us have a better understanding of how deeply ingrained culture is. Culture characterises a certain group of people at a given time. On the face value, or the top of the iceberg, we can see aspects of culture such as food, clothing, sport, music, architecture and art, the thing we enjoy when we are on holiday. However, further down the iceberg - under the water mark – it becomes more complicated and we notice that there is so much more to consider: ideas, beliefs, skills, traditions, attitudes and values, as well as social interactions. Culture includes both the tangible and intangible products of a society.
So what is it that links culture and language together? Well to this we can say that both language and culture are learned or acquired. Both have patterns that change and are a universal fact of life, and both are part of our identity. Just as we acquire our first language, we too acquire our first culture. Also, just as we may chose to learn a second language, we can learn a second culture or develop intercultural awareness. However developing ones intercultural awareness can be a difficult thing to do. There are no rules to learn, no structures to apply and the process can vary from one individual to another. This can be a problem in the language classroom. As teachers, we teach a language, and therefore teach the culture of the language, but we also face the culture of the learners in our class, an aspect which cannot be ignored and which we cannot expect our learners to leave at the door for class time. Therefore having an understanding of the different stages a person goes through when developing their intercultural awareness can help us have more of an insight into our learners. It can also help us as teachers settle into the new ways of life we face when we take off around the world teaching English as a foreign language.
The five stages when developing intercultural awareness can be best described in a U-shaped curve (Hoang-Thu, 2010).
The honey moon stage – This is where the difference we see in other culture are exciting and attractive.
The disintegration stage – The novelties wear off at this stage and frustration or helplessness can take over.
The reintegration stage – At this point culture can be problematic. One can become defensive or not respond to the culture.
The autonomy stage – This is where we turn back up in the U. We start to develop a little perspective, opinions become balanced, objective, and start becoming more positive.
Finally we reach the interdependence stage – We adopt a new identity a bicultural or multicultural person.
Recognising these five stages can help us as teachers find our feet when taking on the responsibilities of travelling and teaching in other cultures. Moreover, it can also help us to understand our students and the uphill struggle they may be having, not only learning English as a foreign language, but also getting their heads around the culture of the language too.
So which does come first, the language or the culture?
Hoang-Thu, T. 2010. 'Teaching culture in the EFL/ESL classroom', [Available online][Accessed on 29/4/2013]