Teach English as a Language, Not as a Culture

Some years ago, while teaching English in China, I was a member of a teachers’ discussion group.

Someone asserted that, in teaching English, we were teaching it as a tool for our students to use, something with which I agreed. However, another teacher responded with the following:

“I heard the ‘language as a tool’ phrase many times… I was vaguely offended by the idea and wondered where it came from – now I know. This man obviously hasn’t heard of the even more famous saying ‘When you learn a language you learn a culture’.”

Sad to say, this attitude seemed to be prevalent not only within the foreign teacher community, but also in the Chinese curriculum for the teaching of English as a second language.

I very much doubt the originator of ‘When you learn a language, you learn a culture’ was talking about a language taught as a lingua franca. To be sure, if we learn, say, Chinese, we must learn how to use it in a Chinese context and yes, understanding of the culture is thus essential. We will, after all, be using it pretty much exclusively in talking with Chinese people. However, that is not reflective of how English should be taught given its purpose.

Firstly, which culture? British? Australian? Canadian? American? And whichever we select, what is its value to a Chinese answering the telephone to a Peruvian, or to a Chinese from Xi’an talking to a Chinese from Hong Kong?

I used to be immensely frustrated when some overworked student approached me at a university’s English corner, having been driven through 90 minutes of cultural education, to ask me to clarify some trivial detail of the history of the city of Liverpool because he needed to know it to pass some inane examination. Odds on I wouldn’t know, and odds on I wouldn’t give a damn, so why should he? And why should some guy from Oman with whom the student will be discussing an oil shipment as a part of his job when he graduates give a damn either?

Frankly, I have become heartily sick over the years of Chinese Christmases and Chinese St. Valentine’s days and Chinese Thanksgiving Days celebrated by Chinese who know nothing of Ramadan, this in a land where native Moslems outnumber native Christians; Chinese who, in any case, have their own Lovers’ Day and Spring Festival celebrations. As for Shinto, what’s that? It’s not taught, but perhaps it should be with Japan one of China’s most significant trading partners.

Of course culture should be a part of these students’ education; they are learning English to speak to foreigners after all. But a healthy grounding in cross-cultural communication would be of far greater value to them in the real world, a world in which the majority of their dealings will be conducted not with native speakers, but with second-language speakers like themselves. They should be learning how to be sensitive to cultural differences as they come across them, to learn to expect the unexpected from their interlocutors and how to deal with it, not how to emulate the niceties of some native-English culture or another expecting others to do the same. I can think of nothing more demeaning than a Chinese pretending to be an American trying to have a conversation with a Japanese trying to be an
Englishman to the consternation of a passing Korean who is trying to act as if he’s an Australian.

I wanted my students to be the fully fledged individuals they already are, and they could only be that by being Chinese. At the same time, I wanted them to be sensitive to those with whom they will deal in later life, and they were not going to acquire that ability by knowing the history of Liverpool, the agricultural profile of Kansas or Jane Austen’s date of birth. They were going to acquire it by a broad understanding of world culture and cross-cultural communication.

So yes; English is a tool in this instance. It is a tool used to communicate across cultural boundaries. To have it conform to the cultural constraints of its originating culture – or cultures – is merely to saddle it with a lot of useless nonsense. It abuses not only the individuality of the students who will speak it, but also the individuality of most of those with whom they will speak it. I wanted my students to learn how to be Chinese when speaking English, and to know the best way to approach a person from Papua New Guinea, Holland or Mali. I wanted them to be able to express their own culture through a well-spoken ‘The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away’, not to talk about what mice do in the absence of cats.

I have a Chinese friend in Switzerland who has discovered – to her considerable benefit – that she can not only be herself more easily with the use of Chinese phrases in English, but also that she shines more brightly in company for so doing. That is unsurprising – it is her culture, rich in history, steeped in its own idiosyncracies. That she is more real, more interesting in talking in that way is inevitable.

Those learning English as a language which to do business should adopt the language as their own and adapt it, colouring it with their own culture as much as they are able without interfering with its ability to communicate. Instead, too many feel that they are merely borrowing it, that it is not their own, and that they cannot be themselves when using it.

English should be a European language, an Asian language, an African language. Beyond those parameters required for mutual comprehension it should not be standardised. Above all, it should not be used as a vehicle by which the standards of English-speaking cultures are carried abroad. Such things should be exorcised from the language and from its teaching as far as possible.

8 thoughts on “Teach English as a Language, Not as a Culture

  1. Langauge is much more than just vocabulary and grammar, it is also culture. One can never be fluent in any second langauge without understanding cultural content and attitudes I would argue that content is king, what is the point of any langauge if one was nothing to say. Communications about ideas, feelings, opinions, and experiences is the whole point of communications. Why even bother with a native speaker of a langauge if one does not want to take advantage of speaking to and leadning from a person raised and educated in another culture and system. It would be like an American traveling the world and only staying at western hotel chains, eating at only western food, chains and hanging out with only other Americans overseas. I would say it kind of defeats the purpose of traveling.
    As foriegn langauge teacher I learned a long time ago that I can help my students learn much more as they learned a langauge.

    Do we read any book for just the words and the sentence structures or for the content?

  2. My original reply has spelling and grammar mistakes. I think it illustrates that what someone says is much more important than how they say it. The importance of correct grammar and vocabulary is to better communicate so your reader or listener is not guessing what your actual meaning is. Those who know the structure of a any language, but do not understand the culture behind it. (Speaking English but thinking in Chinese for example) usually end up having much more communication misunderstandings than those that understand the other culture, but may not be fluent and perfect in the mechanics of the other’s mother tongue.

    • I’m hearing the assertions, Joe, but I’m not seeing any evidence.

      I do, on the other hand, see counter-evidence. If any language were so restricted that it was incapable of adapting to other cultures, we wouldn’t have novels such as ‘Wild Swans’. You and I wouldn’t be able to survive in China because, although we may be able to talk about those things common to us and the Chinese both, we wouldn’t be able to discuss Chinese culture or Chinese attitudes or Chinese history or Chinese food or Chinese thinking. If language were indeed that limited, all any of us could ever have would be an unbridgeable gulf between us if we were raised to speak two different languages.

      Clearly that is not the case. English has proved itself eminently adaptable not only in expressing different cultures, but also in expressing its own native cultures as they themselves change. The past, after all, is a foreign country and we probably have more in common with most Chinese these days than William Shakespeare, but Shakespeare is far from unfathomable. Insofar as the language has changed since Shakespeare’s time, moreover, most of that change cannot be seen as cultural adaptation but, rather, a purely evolutionary process.

      Even if we assume that you are correct, of what possible value can it be even then to teach students about Thanksgiving when it will mean nothing to someone from Japan or Saudi Arabia, or even England… or even Canada which, I believe, has it on a different day?

      You and I are from very different cultures in many ways and – as we both know – subcultural differences have widened the distance between us still further, but do we have any problem communicating in English because of that?

      Of course culture cannot be divorced from the language entirely. Take a borderline case. Should we teach students the phrase ‘Beyond the pale’? Well, I don’t see any harm in doing that myself provided it’s a phrase also taught in English classes in Saudi Arabia and Japan, but it is heavily culturally referenced. But then again… is it really? How many native speakers use that phrase every day without knowing anything of its derivation? If we teach that phrase to students, do we have to saddle them with its background for them to use it properly? No. Most native speakers who use it haven’t a clue. Should we tell them? Well, maybe as a point of interest in passing, but not as something they should necessarily remember.

      Joe, even as a Brit I get heartily sick to death here of people wishing me a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ when I’m not even sure what that means and it has bugger all to do with me anyway… and I’m a native speaker. Do we really need a businessman from China wishing a businessman from Japan ‘Happy Thanksgiving’? Are students going to be any less adept at English for not having a clue what it is? (My English is pretty good, and I barely have a clue).

      So no, it’s not needed. Some of it may creep in, but in the end, students are going to be doing far from all their dealings with a native-born Texan with a Christian background. To hell with ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ and, while we’re about it, goodbye ‘Merry Christmas’ unless it’s for a bit of fun.

  3. There are two sides to this. In the context you’re discussing, a lingua franca between two non-native speakers not raised in that language’s culture, it’s largely irrelevant. It becomes slightly more relevant in transactions with natives in that culture because some words have an emotional weight beyond their dictionary definition. On the other hand, if someone’s studying English for literature, rather than business, it’s still language, but it’s a whole different aspect of that language. The professor of my Shakespeare class, I recall, often spoke about the cultural context of the plays which opened up deeper meanings that just wouldn’t be accessible to 20th century Americans without that additional information.

    It’s all context.

    Language is also a tool of colonialism, and that seems to me the deeper thrust of your post. And insidious erasure and homogenization. The main export of America these days is it’s culture, in the form of media and entertainment. Less so with Britain, Australia, and Canada, I think.

    • For sure, as I think I acknowledged in the item, when you’re learning a language in order to be able to interact, very specifically, with native speakers of that language, or in order to examine some cultural artefact of that language such as its literature, then culture is best associated with it.

      It is, very specifically, learning English as a lingua franca to which I’m referring. Most of my students learned it to talk with Italians, Japanese, Koreans, even other Chinese in Hong Kong, and yet many a teacher I’ve known teaching the language with that goal in mind have still felt obliged to saddle it with – usually their own – culture.

    • Maybe I could edit it for you, not sure, and not going to find out given it amuses me to keep any shitty grammar in there.


      (Not that I noticed any. Unfortunately).

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