If you guys are interested in reading this essay of mine, which could help me win $15,000 for college, I would really appreciate your votes! It is about language, so this isn’t too off topic. It is very similar to my “This I Believe” essay, which I have modified for this prompt: “Discuss one way in which your education has empowered you.”
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!
Recently, my English teacher assigned a personal essay based off an essay prompt from the 1960s, called, “This I Believe,” that encouraged people to send in 500 word essays detailing a personal belief. My teacher encouraged us to make it highly personal in nature, written in your speaking voice, and delve into the inner nature of the belief being written about. It must detail how you came to your philosophy. The original invitation requested these essays to enrich the lives of others, give them some form of wisdom or food for thought, and to stimulate the formation of personal beliefs. Perhaps a bit typically, I wrote mine on language, so I’m posting my essay here for you to read:
“Yake aunge Kannada baralla? Aun kivda, pedda?” (Why doesn’t he speak Kannada? Is he deaf, stupid?) elderly relatives asked my parents in the family house in Madras. I heard and understood every word, but could not form them in a reply.
“Sumne English-li helamma, Shashank. Aurge Kannada-li heltini nin-gosra.” (Just say it in English, Shashank. I’ll tell them in Kannada for you.) my parents would assure me. And I felt miserable because of it. My world was fragmented to me in those days.
I believe that language shapes people, because I myself was shaped by it. I could not speak until I was around three years old, and when I was older, I couldn’t speak Kannada very well, cutting me off from my family and background. It was then that I realized the effect of language on people, especially myself. A lot of people take speaking your mother tongue for granted, but it has always meant much more to me than just a skill.
Years later, I speak Kannada a little better, but not as well as I’d like. I developed a passion for language, and right now, I’m learning three at the same time. It’s not just because I want to look smart, or make myself look more impressive. I believe in connecting with other people on that basic level. I understand someone more deeply in his or her own language. I think in terms of the languages I know. I work to learn languages to learn from the world. I cannot reject language, for I must aspire to know others as I know myself.
The fact there are multiple languages broadens the range of self-expression. I believe in the power that language holds over human beings, to capture the exact way one feels in one or two words. Language retells history, experience, and feeling. I am humbled by the solemnity of sajda, and the absoluteness of sifr. Through language, can I feel duende within myself. You can’t explain these words, because their meanings are fundamentally attached to the way people use them and say them. I believe that to speak a language is to vocalize experience and convey feelings in ways that other arts cannot. Sankocha and aumana are unique to my experience as a Kannadiga, and they hold special meaning for me. Kob-jasti is not just a word my parents use to describe me when I’m being condescending or cocky. Shani, Saturn, is not just a planet to me, and mundede is so much more than just a widow.
Through language, I can understand the full range of the human experience. I can carry myself with sprezzatura, perhaps one day know koi no yokan, and feel saudade thereafter. To use language, for me, is to live life and understand others in their own tongue, how they really are. I believe in the power of language to change people as it has done me, and create mutual, complete understanding between people of each and every background.