Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

General discussion about learning languages
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby verdastelo » Wed Jul 24, 2019 2:56 pm

Gòl·lum wrote:Apparently, people do this because they think a language is just a bunch of grammar/syntax rules, vocabulary and sounds. However, you can't really learn a language without being immersed in the culture where it belongs, because there's a lot of slang, idioms, songs, proverbs that relate to the way the people of that culture live and their history. So does it make much sense to start learning, let's say, Japanese, if you don't plan to live in Japan? Is it possible to learn Navajo without spending a significant amount of your life living with and like the people of the Navajo tribe?


I am not sure if that would be possible in case of Japanese or Navajo, but it is certainly possible in case of languages that are widely used as lingua francas.

In fact, a debate along similar lines rages on in African and Asian countries that were colonised by European powers during the 19th and 20th centuries. On the one end of spectrum are people like Leopold Sedar Senghor and Chinua Achebe. Their stance is summarized in an essay Chinua Achebe wrote in 1962. In The African Writer and the English Language, Achebe urges his fellow English-speaking writers to fashion "an English which is at once universal and able to carry his [sic] peculiar experience."

Clearly, neither Achebe nor Senghor loved their colonisers, but they were confident that they could adopt their colonisers' languages and make them their own. Or, to answer Gol-lum's question, yes, it is possible to separate a culture from a language if you are merely going to use the language as a tool.

People have been doing that for millennia. Sumerian was the language of the learned people long after Sumer ceased to exist. Classical Chinese was widely used by the Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese; although that did not mean they were in awe of the Tang, Song, Ming, Qing, or another Chinese dynasty. Newton wrote the Principia Mathematica in Latin. He was a great scientist, but I doubt that he was enamoured of the Romans.

P.S. I think it might be possible in case of national languages as well. A Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura divides languages into three categories:

1. English
2. Developed national languages (Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese, German, Chinese, and others)
3. Regional languages (Punjabi, Pashto, Navajob, Zulu, and others)

Someone does not have to be a fan of anime to be fluent in Japanese. But someone has to have an interest in the culture of regional languages to learn them.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Hashimi » Wed Jul 24, 2019 3:52 pm

verdastelo wrote:A Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura divides languages into three categories:

1. English
2. Developed national languages (Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese, German, Chinese, and others)
3. Regional languages (Punjabi, Pashto, Navajob, Zulu, and others)

Someone does not have to be a fan of anime to be fluent in Japanese. But someone has to have an interest in the culture of regional languages to learn them.


The Dutch sociologist, Abram de Swaan, divides world's languages into a hierarchy consisting of four levels:

1. The hypercentral languages: Today, it's English.
2. The supercentral languages: 13 languages that serve as connectors between speakers of central languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili and Turkish.
3. The central languages: about 100 national languages.
4. The peripheral languages: the rest.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Iversen » Wed Jul 24, 2019 4:03 pm

Esperanto has also got a culture, but not a country where you can live forever immersed in one language. But definitely a culture in the sense that it has a history born out of an idealistic (some would say naive) idea about a world language as the saviour of the world - and this idea still clings to much of the activity you see at the congresses and other meetings or in publications like UEA's "Esperanto". On the other hand it is also a totally mundane language, which you have been able to see at the various polyglot gatherings. And I'm personally a living proof of the fact that you can learn the language without ever being convinced of its role as internacia mondlingvo. You can also learn to play the tuba without ever playing a march of Sousa.

On the previous page Anthony Lauder brought up the very interesting topic of cultural information in language textbooks. It can be done in a proper way, where you learn useful country specific information alongside the terminology you need to do certain things. But in most cases I have seen this information is put in between the text passages in the target language in the base language of the book, and the text passages in your target language are as uninteresting and irrelevant as they were 100 years ago OR they look like an attempt to recount a very boring sitcom, one episode after the other.

I have written in other threads that I like my pedagogical text passages to be extremely repetitive so that I can study the mechanics of syntactical constructions. But if I can't get that (because text authors are scared to death of being boring) then the alternative would be to but really useful bits of information into the texts - and maybe cut down on the standard story about foreigner A who meets local citizen B, and they are lifelong friends from day one - and foreigner A can discuss his ailments with a local doctor in the target language one lesson later and in lesson three he/she is invited to meet the parents of local citizen B. Bah ...how likely is that? It is more likely that local citizen A meets local citizen B, and both are able to discuss the world situation in their native language - but not with you. And textbook characters don't have to be friends. As a tourist I'm more likely to need the vocabulary to deal with a train table than to be invited to the birthday party of a local citizen. Why personalize everything in the first place, and why propose totally unrealistic scenarios?

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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby IronMike » Tue Jul 30, 2019 7:19 pm

rdearman wrote:
Gòl·lum wrote:However, you can't really learn a language without being immersed in the culture where it belongs

Esperanto?

Oh jeez, here we go again.

Yes, there is a culture related to the language Esperanto. It is heavily centered in the artificial language movement. Read Esperanto enough you learn about Volapuk. You learn about the socialist movements in Eastern Europe. You learn about Hitler and Stalin. You learn about crazy musicians, interesting marriages, kooky hobbyists, great detective stories, international travelers. You read African stories not available in your native tongue.

The Esperanto culture is international and interesting.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby rdearman » Tue Jul 30, 2019 7:48 pm

IronMike wrote:
rdearman wrote:
Gòl·lum wrote:However, you can't really learn a language without being immersed in the culture where it belongs

Esperanto?

Oh jeez, here we go again.

Yes, there is a culture related to the language Esperanto. It is heavily centered in the artificial language movement. Read Esperanto enough you learn about Volapuk. You learn about the socialist movements in Eastern Europe. You learn about Hitler and Stalin. You learn about crazy musicians, interesting marriages, kooky hobbyists, great detective stories, international travelers. You read African stories not available in your native tongue.

The Esperanto culture is international and interesting.

Perhaps, but I was looking more at the "immersion" point. There isn't really single place you can go where Esperanto is 100% immersion like English would be in America, or Spanish in Spain. You'd have to create an artificial immersion environment, which is counter what I believe Gòl·lum is suggesting. I think Gòl·lum is suggesting you can only learn a language through immersion (aka being surrounded by speakers), I'm suggesting people learn Esperanto without being 100% surrounded by Esperanto speakers. Regardless of culture, you cannot travel to Esperanton.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Deinonysus » Tue Jul 30, 2019 8:29 pm

rdearman wrote:
IronMike wrote:
rdearman wrote:
Gòl·lum wrote:However, you can't really learn a language without being immersed in the culture where it belongs

Esperanto?

Oh jeez, here we go again.

Yes, there is a culture related to the language Esperanto. It is heavily centered in the artificial language movement. Read Esperanto enough you learn about Volapuk. You learn about the socialist movements in Eastern Europe. You learn about Hitler and Stalin. You learn about crazy musicians, interesting marriages, kooky hobbyists, great detective stories, international travelers. You read African stories not available in your native tongue.

The Esperanto culture is international and interesting.

Perhaps, but I was looking more at the "immersion" point. There isn't really single place you can go where Esperanto is 100% immersion like English would be in America, or Spanish in Spain. You'd have to create an artificial immersion environment, which is counter what I believe Gòl·lum is suggesting. I think Gòl·lum is suggesting you can only learn a language through immersion (aka being surrounded by speakers), I'm suggesting people learn Esperanto without being 100% surrounded by Esperanto speakers. Regardless of culture, you cannot travel to Esperanton.

Well, you could make the same argument for minority languages like Yiddish or Romani that also don't have a particular area where they're spoken exclusively. And they seem to have a comparable number of speakers to Esperanto.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby IronMike » Tue Jul 30, 2019 8:30 pm

I get that, @rdearman, and understand your point now.

But I'd say that one can learn a language through an immersion environment (are we confusing two different threads?) which isn't necessarily located in a country where the language is the spoken language. Many in the U.S. learn Farsi to a high level immersed in the language, surrounded by native speakers, learning the culture along with it, but not in Tehran. (DLI, for one.)

I've known many, many who have gotten to C1 and above in Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Farsi, Korean, solely with immersion during the 7-8 x 50-minute classes throughout the day for 47-63 weeks. And they learned about the culture, too.

Similarly, there are many in "Esperanton" (as you put it) who learned the language to C1 through immersion courses, surrounded by Esperanto speakers, with evenings filled with Esperanto music and theater, covering maybe 5 days or 3 weeks. How is that different from someone traveling to Japan for a 3 week immersion course in order to put some final touches on their Japanese before taking the JLPT?
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby rdearman » Tue Jul 30, 2019 9:05 pm

Yes but I'm just saying that I don't believe you need any sort of immersion in order to learn to a higher level.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby IronMike » Tue Jul 30, 2019 9:32 pm

rdearman wrote:Yes but I'm just saying that I don't believe you need any sort of immersion in order to learn to a higher level.

In that, you and I agree.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby aokoye » Wed Jul 31, 2019 4:43 am

I'm really glad I saw this seven days after it was written. Much of what I would have gotten bogged down over has already been addressed by others :lol:

That said:
Gòl·lum wrote:Is it possible to learn Navajo without spending a significant amount of your life living with and like the people of the Navajo tribe?

There's a lot going on with this sentence. I would argue that yes you can learn Navajo without spending time in areas of the US where Navajo is spoken. I don't think it would serve to do anything with regards to revitalizing the language mind you (which might not be one's motive for learning the language), unless you were working with people within Navajo communities to help create resources and infrastructure. I would also question what you mean by "living like the people of the Navajo tribe".
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