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

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

Postby tarvos » Mon Aug 19, 2019 12:25 pm

zenmonkey wrote:
Inst wrote: Disliking the politics of a specific culture makes it much harder to achieve language learning. Disliking the IJA and Japanese nationalism, for instance, makes a lot of texts in Japanese unpalatable. Not being able to stomach Communist literature takes you far away from the cultural base that underlines Russian and Chinese culture.


Aside from being extremely reductive (and stereotypical) examples of these societies - they're wrong. For example, Russian literature is objectively vast and it's greatest period (in my own opinion) has absolutely nothing to do with Communist writings.

All literature has issues. The critical reader has the capacity to reject imagery and conclusions.


Besides that, there was plenty of dissident literature - and there was the whole samizdat movement ;)
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Inst » Mon Aug 19, 2019 12:25 pm

zenmonkey wrote:
Inst wrote: Disliking the politics of a specific culture makes it much harder to achieve language learning. Disliking the IJA and Japanese nationalism, for instance, makes a lot of texts in Japanese unpalatable. Not being able to stomach Communist literature takes you far away from the cultural base that underlines Russian and Chinese culture.


Aside from being extremely reductive (and stereotypical) examples of these societies - they're wrong. For example, Russian literature is objectively vast and it's greatest period (in my own opinion) has absolutely nothing to do with Communist writings.

All literature has issues. The critical reader has the capacity to reject imagery and conclusions.


Except that you'd be more limited to reading materials from before the Russian Revolution. Treating the Communist period in Russia as a black hole is not conducive to cultural understanding.

In the Chinese case, the country is still Communist, unless you want to work with other portions of the Sinosphere.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby David1917 » Mon Aug 19, 2019 12:28 pm

Inst wrote:Disliking the politics of a specific culture makes it much harder to achieve language learning. Disliking the IJA and Japanese nationalism, for instance, makes a lot of texts in Japanese unpalatable. Not being able to stomach Communist literature takes you far away from the cultural base that underlines Russian and Chinese culture.


Your first line is absolutely correct. In fact, the kind of people that currently enroll in my University for Russian or Chinese because they are "like important now bro" will always, always fail. Their prejudices against the "regimes" and the people in general will always put up a wall between them and their ability to penetrate the language at large. If you hold the people whose language you are learning in contempt, then you will fail, and it is moreover a huge waste of your time.

Edited for clarity.
Last edited by David1917 on Mon Aug 19, 2019 4:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby David1917 » Mon Aug 19, 2019 12:30 pm

Inst wrote:Except that you'd be more limited to reading materials from before the Russian Revolution. Treating the Communist period in Russia as a black hole is not conducive to cultural understanding.


The response specifically states that the "better" Russian lit is pre-revolution. In fact, most Russians would believe so as well.

Moreover, to say that communism underlines Russian culture is like something out of the 1960's. Yes, you ought to know about it and what the Soviet experience was, but they've been away from Communism (a foreign phenomenon in itself, as pointed out above) for close to 30 years.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby zenmonkey » Mon Aug 19, 2019 1:04 pm

Inst wrote:
zenmonkey wrote:
Inst wrote: Disliking the politics of a specific culture makes it much harder to achieve language learning. Disliking the IJA and Japanese nationalism, for instance, makes a lot of texts in Japanese unpalatable. Not being able to stomach Communist literature takes you far away from the cultural base that underlines Russian and Chinese culture.


Aside from being extremely reductive (and stereotypical) examples of these societies - they're wrong. For example, Russian literature is objectively vast and it's greatest period (in my own opinion) has absolutely nothing to do with Communist writings.

All literature has issues. The critical reader has the capacity to reject imagery and conclusions.


Except that you'd be more limited to reading materials from before the Russian Revolution. Treating the Communist period in Russia as a black hole is not conducive to cultural understanding.


Kind of a straw-man, I don't think I was suggesting that one treat the Communist period in Russia as a black hole. The period is quite rich in changes in language. What I did write is that it is quite possible to be fascinated with the language for its vast literature beyond just the Communist period. One can massively "achieve language learning [sic]" without necessarily focusing on one period.

We are talking about how language learning may or may not be supported by the cultural content of the nations that speak that language. Not the reverse. One can definitely find sufficient culturally rich learning material for Russian before or after what you've called the "black hole".
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby iguanamon » Mon Aug 19, 2019 1:48 pm

Whenever a thread starts to diverge from the original post, it sometimes helps to go back to that post for guidance.
Gòl·lum wrote:I'm asking this because many people learn a language without being really interested in the culture where it developed. They do it out of different reasons, like adding another language to the ones they already know and to have more and better job opportunities. You have many people that learn languages on the Internet without the need to interact with native speakers or visit the country/countries where this language is most commonly spoken.
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?
People all over the world learn English to some extent without ever setting foot in an English-speaking country, reading any native literature or watching any of our native media.

We tend to get out of something what we put into it in life and the same goes for language-learning. Personally, I gain a more richly rewarding experience delving into a culture through its language. This is the primary reason why I learn other cultures' languages in the first place.

Could someone learn communication without delving deeply into culture? Yes. it's done all the time with ESL learners outside of English-speaking countries. Would I want to learn Spanish and know nothing of Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, Almodóvar, Gabo or Tito Puente? No! That would be akin to learning to bake and eating only white bread made from processed flour... to me, all the flavor would be gone.

While people don't have to learn a culture along with a language, especially when learning a large a large pluricentric language, I feel they are missing out on a possibly enriching experience that they could have for just a bit more effort. Learning a language can open the door to that experience. It can open a learner to new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing themselves and their world, new literature, new poetry and songs. A door can be open or shut. It is up to the individual to choose to walk through it or not. Believe it or not, even English has a rich and worthy cultural heritage ranging from Shakespeare to Steven King, from V.S. Naipaul to J.M. Coetzee, from Mark Twain to Moredcai Richler, from Banjo Paterson to Bob Marley, from Flatt and Scruggs to JayZ. As people, we don't have to buy into all the cultural heritage within a language. We can and do choose what we wish to associate ourselves with in life.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Speakeasy » Mon Aug 19, 2019 2:38 pm

David1917 wrote: ... If you hold the people whose language you are learning in contempt, then you will fail, and it is moreover a huge waste of your time.
I do not believe that contempt for a language, for the culture from which it arose, and for the people who speak it, will lead to "failure" in learning the language at a very sophisticated level. Many people, and perhaps most, are capable of compartmentalising the mastering of a complicated task and their abhorrence with many aspects associated therewith. For people who find themselves in such a situation, language is simply a tool, viz. "I despise my oppressors, but I will not deprive myself of the opportunity of seeking vengeance upon them and upon all their kind by refusing to learn their horrid language."
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Chung » Mon Aug 19, 2019 5:51 pm

I'm kind of late to the party (and wonder if Gòl·lum is still interested in this thread - last login was July 27, 2019) but wading through it, Cavesa, Speakeasy and iguanamon have touched on some of the points that I would have explored in greater detail.

For me, it can make sense for a learner to separate a language from the associated culture(s). The problem for me is that "culture" is too mushy of a term as it can encompass so many subjective aspects of human life that it defies a neat link to some language (if any at all). Are we talking about cuisine? Are we talking about the experience of some subgroup in the speech community? Are we talking about printed material from dead authors? Movies by a certain school of directors? Music (and of what kind: instrumental or vocal?) created by members of the speech community? On a related note, I've found that discussions about culture edge into questions of ethnicity (sometimes masquerading under the more quaint labels of "tradition", "history" or "customs" of the speech community or more broadly aspects that "belong" to the speech community). On this point, I take a harsher stance on the relationship or anyone trying to play up the link between culture and language:

On 03/03/2018 at 18:34 in “Icelandic language battles threat of 'digital extinction'”, Chung wrote:
Cainntear wrote:
Chung wrote:You can't fathom how much I have come to hate this sentiment on conflating identity and language.
It is kind of true, though. The reason this is an issue [edit: or perhaps "the reason some people don't see this"] is because of the standardisation of language and thus the use of a single language with minimal dialectal variation over multiple identity groups. For me, I don't build my identity around English because there are so many speakers that are so different from me, but for people with a smaller native language, it really can be a component of a shared group identity.


I know what you mean when you say that it's kind of true (I'd add that for a lot of people it's true to the point where the equation of (social/ethnic) identity with language is a given even for "big" languages like French or Mandarin). It exists from the relatively benign sentiment that one's belonging to the Saami depends on whether one speaks any Saamic language (or can demonstrate that any ancestors was/is a native speaker of any Saamic language) to the less benign sentiment that an enclave of some speech community needs to (be) reunite(d) with the "motherland" (irredentism).

Like you, I don't build my identity around English either (although there are some who do when you think about those looking for the "right" kind of English to show class consciousness or those native speakers on this side of the pond who want to stand out from others by regularly using certain Britishisms (e.g. rubbish for garbage, flat for apartment or dodgy for sketchy) in an otherwise typical subvariant of American English). However the degree to which I've seen how strongly/violently people can regard others by how they express themselves (never mind the content) to fit some national myth or political statehood project was revealing for me initially as the only thing that even begins to compare in North America is Québec, and for a lot of us that's tame or quite far away anyway. I've got a sense for such tension through studying Hungarian and Slovak (i.e. being at different ends of Magyarization/Hungarianization), BCMS/SC (e.g. breakup of Yugoslavia), Polish (which was on the wrong end of Russianization in the 19th century) and Latvian and Ukrainian (cf. internal (and external) perception nowadays of monoglots of Russian in Latvia and Ukraine respectively, in addition to bouts of Russianization in previous centuries).

What has also long made me ridicule, if not always hate (I admit that hating the idea is pretty damned strong), the equation of language and identity (especially ethnic identity) is how much I've come to agree with the Hungarian statesman, István Széchenyi, in an era of rising nationalism in the 1840s when he stated:

István Széchenyi wrote:Feleljünk azon egyszerű kérdésre, hogy vajon ha valaki magyarul tud, magyarul beszél, innen következik-e, miképp neki ezért már magyarrá kellett volna átalakulnia?… Nyelvet, nemzeti sajátságot ily felette könnyűszerrel azonban, én legalább úgy hiszem, még csak biztosítani sem lehet, minthogy – és itt különös figyelemért esedezem – a szólás még korántsem érzés; a nyelvnek pergése korántsem dobogása még a szívnek, és ekképp a magyarul beszélő, sőt legékesebb szóló korántsem magyar még.


"Let us answer the simple question of whether it follows that someone who knows and speaks Hungarian has to transform into a Hungarian... Although it is very easy to link language and national character this way, I for one believe that it is not possible to do so, and here I emphasize that speech is no longer a feeling; the twirl of a tongue is not the beat of the heart, and as such a speaker of Hungarian, however eloquent, is not [necessarily] a Hungarian."

This was in response to his more nationalist rival, Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth had proposed that Magyarization could proceed to the extent that the ethnic minorities of the Hungarian Kingdom could maintain their native languages and customs, but were to live in a state where Hungarian would become the administrative and ecclesiastic language (in practice this soon extended to public education and commerce), and recognize that the Hungarian Kingdom was to become the Hungarian nation-state. Although Széchenyi represented the nobility and rural landowners with their laissez-faire capitalism (and so disliked Kossuth's populist slant that pushed for greater direct democracy and protectionist industrialization), Széchenyi's fear was that the proposal with Hungarian at the forefront would sharpen anti-Hungarian sentiment among the lower classes (who formed a substantial portion of the ethnic minorities), thus adding an ethnic edge to potential class strife. The fragmentation of the Hungarian Kingdom after WWI into several ethnically defined nation-states validated Széchenyi's misgivings to a good degree.


I've studied several languages whose respective speech communities have historical baggage either as oppressors or the oppressed, but it hasn't really bothered me. In line with Széchenyi's thinking, I'm not foolish/arrogant enough to think that my ability in some language, no matter how good or bad, gives me justification to tell myself that "I'm now one of them" ("them" being the native-speaking community of the target language).

On one end, I've studied Northern Saami and the Saamic languages in general have developed an obvious symbolic function in acting as a marker of ethnic identity and stepping stone to learning about the culture(s) of Saamic people. The latter volumes of the "Davvin" series have infoboxes about aspects of Saamic culture as the authors subscribe to the idea that outsiders using the series to learn the language ought to know something cultural however superficial. There's also the tacit delineation that we users of Davvin are often non-Saami and so aren't privy to the culture or customs described in the infoboxes. By the same token, our learning Northern Saami doesn't necessarily make us culturally or ethnicially Saami. I haven't even gotten into the fact that Saamic languages were often deprecated until the second half of the 20th century, and so being a native speaker of any of these languages was long socially undesirable in worlds run by distant power centers full of Norwegians, Swedes, Finns or Russians.

On the other end, I've studied Russian and somewhat like English, it's developed an obvious symbolic function in acting as a marker of identity and "high" culture as well as a big tool in Russification/Russianization. Whenever anyone brings up the benefits or inherent soft power of literature, art music and similar while learning the associated language, I recall similar arguments used when comparing Saamic languages with the "civilized" Norwegian language or Amerindian languages with the "civilized" language of English colonists or Spanish conquistadors. Despite the historical baggage in Russian and my general sympathy to the plight of Uralic minority languages which have been under pressure from Russian, I'm still bloody-minded enough to enforce a distinction between Russian language and Russian culture (and history of the Russian speech community) as required/sensible. I taught myself Russian mainly for reading knowledge, but not so I could indulge in Dostoyevsky or Chekhov (or watch movies by directors from VGIK if I wanted to mix things up), but rather to use textbooks for Turkic languages spoken wholly in Russia. Russian is a tool, and nothing more. It's weird to me that Gòl·lum obliquely wonders how one can learn a language and skip or minimize the mushier cultural dimension in the enterprise. I'm speculating here but my gut tells me that being a native speaker of Catalan and Spanish offers a clue. I know that Catalan is a key part of Catalan nationalism and Catalan identity in general. Learning it often leads to forays into Catalan culture and the history of Catalan-speakers. It follows that learning Catalan as I would as a language geek for the sake of comparative linguistics would be very odd indeed (for me it's not. It's interesting to me by looking like something that shades into Occitan and more broadly stands as something between Spanish and French, and could be worth looking into *gasp!*).

tl;dr, the absolutism of equating language and culture (and the related idea that learning culture cannot be separated from learning a language) ultimately doesn't sit well with me and my preferences for libertarianism and pragamatism. How learners of a language deal with culture(s) of the associated speech community (communities) should be left to them. Making them pay an undue amount of attention to cultural sensitivities which are most relevant to native speakers isn't that helpful, and ignores that language-learners are often (and will remain) outsiders. Native speakers would be foolish to think that outsiders have figured out tidbits though language-study that are really a kind of "inside information" that require exposure. When I see ser's examples about the nuances of certain Spanish phrases, I'm reminded of my experience when learning Korean honorifics which ultimately reflect Confucian societal organization. I'm not expected to know all of the attendant subtleties and really it's enough just to know a few bits on a superficial level so that I don't readily commit an egregious faux-pas (a minor one in the eyes of natives shouldn't invalidate me or invite derision from them).
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Inst » Tue Aug 20, 2019 1:46 am

When I bring up Japanese, it's because Japanese is the arch example of why culture matters and ways of communicating in Japanese are culturally mediated. An anecdote goes about an American woman who did a dictionary and grammar approach to Japanese in the aftermath of WW2. Her Japanese was terrible because it failed to employ Japanese communications styles, so she always came off as boorish and crude.

As I've said before, ignoring the culture can work depending on the use case you are envisioning. If you only need to read academic journals, or translate technical manuals, you don't really need the culture. As mentioned above, one Russian learner picked up the language only the gain access to Russian textbooks on Turkish languages. That's a valid use case, and one that doesn't need culture. But for other use cases you may need to confront the culture.

At the political discussions, someone said that you can critically read a country's offensive politics. This is the best approach, i.e, you can understand the culture of a given country while not necessarily embracing that part of the heritage.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby zenmonkey » Tue Aug 20, 2019 9:06 am

While one can certainly only study Russian to get access to a third language or have the goal of using it to read mathematical journals (*more on that, it's very much a real user case...) I'd like to go back to the basics for a second... When I wrote that language is culture and when I see what people are writing about it, it seems that we need to go back to the definition of "culture".

Culture with a small "c" is ...wait let me borrow ... "Culture is a term that refers to a large and diverse set of mostly intangible aspects of social life. According to sociologists, culture consists of the values, beliefs, systems of language, communication, and practices that people share in common and that can be used to define them as a collective." (see https://www.thoughtco.com/culture-definition-4135409)

"In brief, sociologists define the non-material aspects of culture as the values and beliefs, language, communication, and practices that are shared in common by a group of people. Expanding on these categories, culture is made up of our knowledge, common sense, assumptions, and expectations. It is also the rules, norms, laws, and morals that govern society; the words we use as well as how we speak and write them (what sociologists call "discourse"); and the symbols we use to express meaning, ideas, and concepts (like traffic signs and emojis, for example). Culture is also what we do and how we behave and perform (for example, theater and dance). It informs and is encapsulated in how we walk, sit, carry our bodies, and interact with others; how we behave depending on the place, time, and "audience;" and how we express identities of race, class, gender, and sexuality, among others. Culture also includes the collective practices we participate in, such as religious ceremonies, the celebration of secular holidays, and attending sporting events."

In that sense, language is culture. It is part of the common semiotic representation. It is part of the system of values that a group uses to communicate. If that group is "Russian Mathematicians" then the culture also included the way language and symbols are used to write a scientific journal (distinctly different than the way a cookbook is written) and it can be studied as a corpus.

Perhaps the other definition of culture, culture with a big "C", the dictionary culture is "the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively."

Clearly, if you are studying to read Turkish language manuals from Russian, one can do so while certainly minimising the access to the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement. And I certainly understand that point being made.

Excuse me for saying so, but isn't that kind of obvious and sterile? If one is only interested in reading a language, one doesn't need to study how to speak. If one is only interested in translating technical manuals, one doesn't need to study 19th century drama.

But maybe it isn't that obvious. Back to that math example. *This summer, a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of catching up with a college roommate. His lovely parents joined us for dinner and I discovered that his father, a mathematician had been required to learn German, Russian and French in his graduate program (50 years ago) principally because the cutting edge of mathematics was published in those languages. But the language program did not focus just on reading math publications, it was intended to bring the student fully to what is now called a B2 level. Not necessarily the most efficient use of time, if one is only going to read technical articles. On the other hand, it's fully in-line with the mission of the school to prepare students for fuller interactions across countries and, gasp, cultures.

I'll stop here.

(math is culture.)
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