Do Our Language Classes Create “Uncultured Swine”? Read On and Find Out.

I have been a student of foreign language in both a formal setting in a classroom and a self-studier for the past four years. I realize that there are certain aspects of the typical foreign language class that should be addressed, particularly when it comes to culture. In my state of California, we have five levels of each foreign language, taught all the way up to either V (Five) or AP (Advanced Placement). It is usually not until the fourth or fifth level of the class that culture actually becomes a large part of the curriculum. Exceptions include when the teacher is a native from a country where the language is spoken or is particularly enthusiastic in teaching the culture, in which cases culture may be a topic of discussion earlier on.

But let’s focus on the most common scenario: culture is not discussed until the latter levels of the class. We all know that culture is a very integral part of learning a language, and that the language serves as a medium to understand that culture and its people. However, in the earlier parts of the language tracks, the focus is almost 100% on the grammar and practice of the language. This creates the impression that the target language is a reinterpretation of English. Let’s get this straight: languages are not different versions of each other. If they were, then everybody on the planet would be essentially the same, most nations wouldn’t exist, and conflict would be considerably lessened. Culture is part of what defines race and ethnicity, because it reflects not only the history of a language, but also of the people who are a part of it. As I have discussed in my This I Believe response (linked here), each language is the vessel of communication for different cultures. Each is unique, with its own vocabulary, syntax, constructions, word choice, and other properties.

So now that we’ve established that language classes often focus excessively on the grammar and practice of the language (which are still important, by the way), what does this situation do to the students? For one, it bores them out of their minds. They end up thinking that the language is just a bunch of rules and words, not an actual thing people use. Even for the students that do continue to the upper level classes, their understanding of the language is incomplete and unintegrated.

This all stands in contrast to the self-study of foreign language, which inherently implies an interest in the culture as well as in the language. The blog Learning Thai Without Studying by adamf2011 (linked here) does a great job of explaining the role of culture in learning a language, and how grammatical learning is not everything there is to a language. By purposely avoiding the use of traditional techniques, he forced himself into the culture by being in the environment without knowing any Thai whatsoever. While I prefer the analytical approach to language (it’s just easier for me), I still stress the study of cultural material by talking about it online with my Italian teachers, and reading about it online. The complete immersion method makes little sense to me (although evidently it works), so I prefer a half analytical, half cultural method. The only way one can understand a language completely is by using the language in context, and understanding how words are used by natives, in the culture that the language has cultivated, or been cultivated by.

But now, let’s answer the question in the title of this blog post. Are we, “uncultured swine,” because we don’t learn about the culture early enough? I’d wager to say yes. America in particular, while a melting pot society and one very open to different languages and cultures, makes a point of making other languages and cultures very exotic, and strange. While they are different, this view distances learners from the languages they’re studying. In addition, the relegation of these languages to secondary status both at home and the world at large reinforces the idea that other languages are exactly like English, except in different sounds, spellings, writing systems, and sentence orders. But the fact is that each language is independent, and represents a different culture from those represented by other languages. It is for this reason that I advocate cultural exposure and contextualization from day one of language classes, not just in California, but also the US as whole, as well as the whole world.

Thanks for reading this post, and I hope you have some comments, so that you can offer your own views on this matter. I enjoy discussing such things, so please go ahead and leave some comments!

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I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.

  • That whole scholastic approach of, let’s get the student to produce something in the target language as soon as possible — writing or speaking — and let’s test them on it: how helpful is that, really? And it just kind of strips the language down to a denatured pseudo-utilitarian version (“Where is the bathroom?…The book is under the table….”). I think you’re right, in that the end result is the impression that the target language is just a “coded” version of English — and a pretty boring version of English at that.

    What if, instead, people who want to learn a language were simply provided with access to a fairly interesting and natural situation which involved the use of that language? A situation not divorced from the culture that the language is a part of?

    BTW, thanks for the plug! 🙂

    • No problem. I find your blog’s posts quite fascinating.

      How might you suggest this environment that isn’t separate from the culture? It’s hard to organize studying abroad. I was thinking more along the lines of classes that are run by natives of the first, second, and third most common languages spoken in a particular area.

      • Well, yeah, if I wanted to learn a language I would want to learn it from a native speaker; and a native speaker is fluent not only in the language, but in the culture that the language is a part of. So this person could create the situation — telling a story, teaching how to cook or make something, or explaining some history, etc. — and the verbal parts would all be in the target language; the situation or communication as a whole would be coming from this person’s culture. This is pretty much the way they teach Thai at the school I went to.

      • Specifically in the case that I suggested in my post: multilingual education from third grade onward, would you suggest something similar? I think that the hypothetical class should be taught to recognize words and concepts in their own lives, and parallel them to those in the target language and culture. Young children are a lot more receptive to simpler methods.

  • If you’re going to have kids learn a foreign language — and I think that’s a pretty good idea — then I agree that starting young is best. Why not start at the nursery/kindergarten level though, or maybe first grade? It wouldn’t have to be anything really “studious” — just playing games, singing songs, engaging in activities, etc. And I agree that the material should be interesting and relevant to the children. I think the one thing to avoid is the kind of foreign language programs I went through as a schoolchild, where I never really gained any kind of proficiency in the language, I just had to memorize a bunch of stuff so I could answer test questions and turn out (written) homework assignments. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t useful — it wasn’t about real language, it was just about language as a school subject.