5.2: Language and Its Relationship to Culture
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This first part of the chapter will enable you to understand three major questions regarding the nature of human language:
- What knowledge of language is available to every speaker?
- What communicative uses of language do speakers utilize in interactive situations?
- How does language reflect cultural beliefs and practices?
5.2.1 Language as a Mental Capacity
To understand the nature of human language, one needs to approach the concept as a complex system of communication. An important distinction should be considered when using the term language. It can be viewed as an internal mental capacity (langue) as well as an external manifestation through speech (parole). As human beings, we are able to produce and understand countless number of utterances which are characterized by the use of grammatical elements such as words, phrases and sentences.
With a limited number language forms, we can produce numerous utterances that can be easily understood by other members of the speech community who share a similar cultural background and language knowledge. This underlying mental capacity is embodied in the concept that language is rule-governed creativity, operating at different grammatical levels in the formation of utterances or sentences.
To illustrate, many examples of utterances or sentences can be derived using a limited set lexical and grammatical words as listed below.
Nouns (book, class, pencil, student/s, teacher) Verbs (forms of “to be”, have, want, write) Adjectives (big, good, red, green)
Prepositions (on, of, for, from, with) Conjunctions (and, but, which)
Some possible grammatical sentences based on the list of lexical and grammatical words are noted here:
The pencil is near the book. / The student is near the teacher. / The teacher writes with a pencil. /
The green pencil is not far from the book. / I want to be a teacher. / The red pencil is mine. /
She wants to write a good book for her students. / This is my book, but I want you to have it. /
No, the red pencil is not mine. / The teacher wants her students to have a good class./
Where is the teacher? / The book is where? / My class has many students. /
5.2.2 Language as a Means of Communication
A salient aspect of language involves the use of the communication system to perform a broad range of conversational acts/functions in “face-to-face” situations. Four major types of conversational acts have been proposed:
- assertives (speaker informs/answers/agrees/confirms/rejects/suggests)
- directives (speaker directs/ invites/ questions/orders someone else to do something),
- commissives (speaker makes an offer/promise involving some future action),
- expressives (speaker apologizes/evaluates/greets/thanks/expresses opinion/reacts).
Minor secondary acts consist of language use that serves to emphasize (repetition of words/phrases), expand (add additional information) and comment on on-going talk. Complementary acts can function as conversational fillers (“you know”), starters (“well”), stallers (“uh”), and hedges (“I mean”).
Participants in a conversation tend to follow culturally specific norms. Speaker A (greets, gives an order, asks a question, apologizes, bids farewell) and Listener B (responds accordingly, and uses appropriate conversational language, necessary to maintain the dialogue). Cultural norms specify “What to say /not say in a particular conversational situation?” “How to initiate/end the conversation?” “With whom to talk/not talk during a conversational encounter?” “What locations are appropriate/not appropriate for the use of certain language forms?
Language use is joint action carried out usually by two people. Its use may vary due to such factors as the personal characteristics of the participants (friends, strangers, native/non-native speakers, family members, age/sex differences). The conversation may also be influenced by the location (home, school, work, shopping center, political meeting) and the topic of conversation (advice, complaint, news about the family, plans for the weekend).
5.2.3 Language as Cultural Practice
Speakers view language as a symbol of their social identity. As the sayings go: “You are what you speak” and “you are what you eat.” The words that people use have cultural reality. They serve to express information, beliefs and attitudes that are shared by the cultural group. Stereotype perceptions come into play when we think about race (Asian, African, European, Native American), religion (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist), social status (working class, middle class, wealthy, upper class) and citizenship status (US born, visa holder foreigner, undocumented worker). Cultural stereotypes are formed by extending the characteristics of a person or group of persons to all others, as in the belief that “all Americans are individualists and all Chinese are group-followers, collectivists.”
Along with cultural beliefs about groups of people, individuals manifest specific views regarding languages themselves. Some make judgments about Language X as being “difficult to learn”, “not useful in society” and “too boring”. Others might view Language Y as the means “to get ahead”,“to make friends”, “to complete a college requirement” or “to participate in the global marketplace”.
According to royal court gossip in the 16th century, King Charles V of Europe had definite opinions about the languages he spoke: French was the language of love; Italian was the best language to talk to children; German was the appropriate language to give commands to dogs; Spanish was the language to talk to God.
Cultural meanings are assigned to language elements by members of the speech community who, in turn, impose them to others who want to belong to the group. Expressions such as “bug off”, “you know”, “you don’t say” and “crackhouse” have a common meaning to members of a cultural group. Members in a speech group tend to share a common social space and history and have a similar system of standards for perceiving, believing, evaluating and acting. Based on one’s experience of the world in a given cultural group, one uses this knowledge (cultural schemata) to predict interactions and relationships regarding new information, events and experiences.
Schemata function as knowledge structures that allow for the organization of information needed to perform daily cultural routines (eating breakfast, going shopping, planning a party, visiting friends). We can examine cultural patterns of behavior in relation to cultural scripts. The concept of cultural scripts is a metaphor from the language of theater. They are the “scripts” that guide social behavior and language use in everyday speaking situations.
“Attending a wedding”, for example, calls for a variety of speech situations (locations and occasions requiring the use of different styles of language). First, there are a series of initial activities (dressing with proper attire, driving to the ceremony, greeting other persons attending the ceremony), then the actual wedding ceremony (participating in the diverse wedding rituals), and finally the post-wedding activities (attending the wedding banquet, engaging in the different activities—eating, dancing, toasting the wedding couple, interacting with other attendees, and taking leave at the end of the festive celebration.
Each speech situation may consist of a range of speech events, different ways of speaking involving various genres/styles: colloquial/informal language, reading of a text, song, prayer, farewell speech.
At the same time, each speech event might encompass a broad range of conversational acts such as greetings, questions, suggestions, advise, promises and expressions of gratitude. For individuals who live in a bilingual or multilingual world, verbal behavior is even more dynamic since questions such as Who speaks What language to Whom, When and Where come into play during most conversational situations.