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Language and culture

May 17, 2005

Hello again. I have had some interesting comments about the native/non-native speaker teacher issue, also the whole can of worms of how standards are regulated. I still think the key point about teacher selection is to find the best person for the job. If the non-native speaker fits the bill, then surely that's all that matters. As for regulation, well I agree that students should be protected from sham schools that take their money but don't offer a professional service. Each country, it seems, has its own regulatory system, some stricter than others. It does seem to be a case of 'caveat emptor' or in our case, student beware.

I do a lot of work in the area of cross-cultural awareness and I've been thinking about how language reflects culture.
The way we use language shows preferences for certain types of communicative behaviour while discouraging others. Culture will affect, for example, the extent to which we speak loudly and animatedly or quietly, whether we use lots of ‘I’ statements, whether we choose very explicit language or whether we are indirect and use understatement. Intercultural, or cross-cultural, pragmatics is the contrastive or comparative study of such communicative norms aiming to reach a better understanding of the cultural values that underpin them and it is a field we can all learn from.

When we teach English as an international language, we might usefully consider the role of communicative styles as part of the process. This awareness raising could usefully consider both styles of communication and the communication patterns associated with specific situations. For example, the very explicit language used by low-context cultures—speaker-based cultures, as opposed to the imprecise and ambiguous language favoured by high-context cultures—hearer-based cultures reflect different communicative styles that have an impact on understanding. Let me give some examples. A British English speaker who talks about ‘a slight problem’ could mean a total breakdown, but if the person receiving the message comes from a low context culture in which language is very direct, they might easily think the problem is trivial. Take euphemism as another example. I heard a US American doctor talking about somebody being in ‘a state of negative existence.’ It doesn’t sound too drastic put like that, but it meant of course that the patient was dead.

Situation also dictates language choice. In linguistics various terms have been coined for certain types of key expressions that are related to specific contexts or situations. These conversational routines/prefabricated expressions/politeness formulae/situation-bound utterances could well be useful in raising clients’ awareness about the relationship between language and culture. In essence they are expressions whose linguistic meaning is distorted because of the role they have in a specific situation: linguistic meaning versus use. When British English speakers ask the question: ‘how are you?’ or ‘how do you do?’ they don’t expect a lengthy reply about the state of the respondent’s health. If Americans say ‘let’s get together some time’, they may be saying no more than ‘goodbye’. If Japanese speakers says ‘yes’ in a meeting, it is as well to understand that this is the politeness dictated by the situation and in no way indicates agreement or an undertaking to act.

Alerting learners to the potential for misunderstanding due to the cultural norms of language use is surely an area we should not neglect, especially if our students are going to use English internationally.

Bye for now,

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