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    A strong culture-bound view which stems from a cultural anthropological perspective of language is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, first formulated by Whorf in 1940 (Whorf, 1956) which holds that language and culture are completely interwoven. The Whorfian hypothesis posits that language determines the way we think; the possibilities and limitations of our language structure our thought, so people see the world differently because of their language. This view borrows from the romantic idea of culture that there is a direct link between a particular language and the particular culture where the language is spoken. In the literature of Dutch language teaching, this close relationship is often stated. In her monograph, aimed at teachers of Dutch as a second language, Van der Toorn-Schutte (1997: 9) suggests that the reason that foreign language learners of Dutch struggle with learning the language is because, not having grown up in the Netherlands, they perceive the world in a different way. Referring to etymology, as well as to pragmatics, she gives examples or words, expressions, linguistic as well as functional aspects of language, which are ‘culturally determined’. Whilst van der Toorn-Schutte seems to hold on to a strong notion of the Whorfian hypothesis, Van Baalen (2003) and Van Kalsbeek (2003) who also both refer to Whorf, agree that language is culturally determined, although they see this in a weaker form; of language reflecting rather than determining culture. Nevertheless, they both hold on to one language, one cultural view. Van Kalsbeek particularly focuses on miscommunication to which she refers as ‘culture bumps’, whereas Van Baalen uses Wierzbicka’s cross-cultural semantics to encourage students to look at the ‘culturally determined norms and values embedded in words’ [my translation] (ibid. p. 107). Examples of these are words such as vriend (friend), tolerant, and the supposedly untranslatable word gezellig which refers to ‘coziness’ as well as to ‘having a good time in company’.

    The problem with using the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to inform pedagogy and the assumption of a direct relationship between one particular language and one particular culture is that it does not acknowledge the complex social, linguistic, and cultural realities of people’s lives. Roger Andersen (1988: 83) suggests that the influence of language on thought is indisputable. I agree that language has an influence on our perception of the world. However, I see this relationship not as being between ‘a’ language and ‘a’ culture, but rather in the way we construct our world through discourses which are part of culture and which we encounter in our daily lives. I come back to this later in this chapter.

    Whilst Andersen (ibid. p. 88) also critiques linguistic relativity because it ignores the fact that people have different experiences, both in social terms and in their relation to the natural world, he adds a critical angle. These different experiences of people are not necessarily haphazard, he says, but based on inequality, because social and material knowledge is not distributed equally. For this reason, he suggests, issues of power relations need to come into the equation when looking at questions of language and thought. Interpreted this way, the issue becomes an ideological one and bears on similar concerns to the questions asked by cultural studies - to what degree are we free to create our own meaning, and can we resist the dominant ‘taken-for-granted’ interpretations of text? These questions reflect a critical approach to language and culture, in critiquing how power is reproduced through language. I will discuss this view of language below.

    This page titled Sapir-Whorf is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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