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

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

Postby Querneus » Wed Aug 14, 2019 7:53 pm

Personally I am of the opinion that it is actually impossible to learn a language without also learning something about the culture of that language.

It doesn't matter if you don't talk to native speakers or visit the places where it is spoken, the very association of meanings to existing words reflects a culture, the very distinctions made in the grammar reflect a culture, the very choices in pronunciation reflect a certain contextual attitude of native speakers whether you're aware of them or not.

If you try to separate any of these things from a culture, you simply end up with a highly vague and imperfect knowledge of the language as you assign meaningless labels to words, grammatical distinctions and differences in pronunciation.



Imagine you're learning Spanish. Spanish distinguishes informal 2nd person pronouns (tú / vos) from formal ones (usted), with corresponding verbal conjugations. You can try simply assigning the label "informal" to the former and "formal" to the latter, but in terms of understanding how these are used in an actual sentence, whether you hear the sentence or you create it for other speakers, you need to know where the line of formality is drawn in the dialects, and that involves culture.

In Spain, usted is so rarely used that it is barely heard when addressing a police officer or a judge at court. Getting to know who counts as a "police officer" or a "judge" in Spain at all involves quite a bit of cultural knowledge by itself. In El Salvador, if someone is older than you by about 40 years you must use usted, even if it's your uncle (what about someone who is older by only 20 years?). In Costa Rica, it is perfectly normal to talk to your classmates of a similar age at school with usted much to the horror of Spaniards and Salvadorans (and who counts as a "classmate"?). If you don't know anything about these cultures, the labels "informal" and "formal" are practically meaningless!


Spanish distinguishes two nouns meaning 'dance': el baile for informal dances and la danza for formal dances. You can try, once again, to just use the labels "informal" and "formal", but what if you want to use it in a sentence? Does salsa count as a danza? (No.) Does ballet count? (Yes.) Does a carefully choreographed, traditional joropo Colombian-Venezuelan dance count? (No.) Does a carefully choreographed, traditional Chinese dance count? (Yes!)


Spanish varies on whether the letter s corresponds to the sound "s", "h" or in some positions nothing. What happens if you as a learner pronounce pescado 'fish (as food)' with an "h" sound for that s? Most Mexicans would think you're simply trying to learn a non-Mexican dialect. In Spain, many northerners would think it's alright but it'd be preferrable if you used an "s" sound instead, while southerners would think nothing of it. In El Salvador and Argentina, you could even hear the president pronounce it like that while reading the script of a formal Address to the Nation on TV!


If you didn't know any of these cultural things, wouldn't your knowledge of Spanish be so much worse and inaccurate, whether you're reading a text or speaking to another Spanish speaker?
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Cavesa » Wed Aug 14, 2019 8:30 pm

I think you are describing a rather unrealistic situation, Ser, and raising some straw men, no offence meant.

Vast majority of people not caring about the culture, or trying to separate it from their personal language learning, do not go to these extremes. It would be even more work in some ways than just learning some tiny bits.

It is not like "oh, put this away, I don't want to risk accidentally learning something" :-D, it is more like "why are you bothering me with an article about some stupid dance. I just want to serve my customers in Spanish to get a better salary and that's it".

Yes, it is impossible to not learn absolutely anything about the culture (even though Rosetta Stone is trying to do exactly that, with its one set of photos for every language :-D ). But I'd say the more common and real issue this thread is about is different. I'd say the best illustration of the issue is comparing learning from a purely language oriented coursebook and one filled with tons of "culture" bits trying to teach you the language just by the way. Or reading primarily translated literature to the language or focusing purely on the original authors. Those are the extremes. And even if you opted for the most "culture free" option (which almost nobody does), you will still get to learn about Usted vs. tu. And even if you go the most "culture rich" path, you will still make a mistake in this at least one or twice in an unusual situation.

The pronunciation example has nothing to do with culture learning either. You can learn the typical mexican pronunciation without learning much about Mexico. Using a Mexican tutor and learning very culture neutral content would lead exactly to this. On the other hand, you could know a lot about Mexico, from their national anniversaries and local dancing to justice system and idioms, and you could still pronounce everything like a northern Spaniard.

Nobody disputes that learning also about the culture is an advantage. And a person learning a lot about it will be in some ways a better speaker than someone sticking just to culturally neutral stuff. But the second person may still be completely satisfied with their level, it could be sufficient for all their needs, and they may not care at all about the stuff they are missing out on. And that is no crime.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Querneus » Wed Aug 14, 2019 9:00 pm

Cavesa wrote:I think you are describing a rather unrealistic situation, Ser, and raising some straw men, no offence meant.

Vast majority of people not caring about the culture, or trying to separate it from their personal language learning, do not go to these extremes. It would be even more work in some ways than just learning some tiny bits.

It is not like "oh, put this away, I don't want to risk accidentally learning something" :-D, it is more like "why are you bothering me with an article about some stupid dance. I just want to serve my customers in Spanish to get a better salary and that's it".

Oh yeah, I totally agree with you. In fact, I really liked what zenmonkey said some months ago about languages being very useful in practical circumstances (like dealing with customers) even if you know only a little bit of them. You're right I should've used a more practical example than the one about baile vs. danza.

Using your examples about serving customers, distinguishing food options would also require some cultural knowledge. If you're running a Chinese dim sum restaurant and for some strange reason you often serve Spanish speakers, it might be useful to explain the food in terms they understand. "Yes, the "chicken feet" on the menu are really just lightly cooked hen feet like the ones people eat in Latin America. No, the "sticky rice" is really very sticky, have you seen Filipino sticky rice before? Kinda like that. The pea sprouts look kinda like spinach but have a much softer odour and flavour, and we add a little bit of garlic."

I'm just saying that even having different words for each of the fingers reflects something about culture and the need of real-world knowledge. It doesn't matter if most humans in all cultures have the same five fingers on each hand. You could conceivably have a society of advanced robots that basically speaks Spanish but doesn't have the words for fingers because they don't have any. ("We prefer to build highly practical appendages similar to your Swiss army knives instead, gracias y pedimos disculpas.")
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Cavesa » Wed Aug 14, 2019 9:21 pm

Ser wrote:Using your examples about serving customers, distinguishing food options would also require some cultural knowledge. If you're running a Chinese dim sum restaurant and for some strange reason you often serve Spanish speakers, it might be useful to explain the food in terms they understand. "Yes, the "chicken feet" on the menu are really just lightly cooked hen feet like the ones people eat in Latin America. No, the "sticky rice" is really very sticky, have you seen Filipino sticky rice before? Kinda like that. The pea sprouts look kinda like spinach but have a much softer odour and flavour, and we add a little bit of garlic."

I'm just saying that even having different words for each of the fingers reflects something about culture and the need of real-world knowledge. It doesn't matter if most humans in all cultures have the same five fingers on each hand. You could conceivably have a society of advanced robots that basically speaks Spanish but doesn't have the words for fingers because they don't have any. ("We prefer to build highly practical appendages similar to your Swiss army knives, gracias y pedimos disculpas.")


No offence meant, but I still think you are missing the point. The person from your example would learn about food but not as cultural knowledge, but as practical knowledge related to their life. But they still won't care about the dance. But a professional dancer will learn about the dances, it will be primarily practical knowledge for them, but won't care about food.

Really, I don't know what you are arguing about. Nobody ever suggested, that there were people striving to not learn anything related to the culture at all. Your examples don't make much sense. Of course everybody will learn the words for things they need.

I'd say the original topic is much more about separating language learning from anything that is separable. About not being interested in anything beyond a coursebook, exam, job. Most learners are not interested in the target country and just want to learn what is necessary for them. If they get paid for knowing a list of idioms and local dances, they will learn that, but don't look for any interest in the culture behind that.

The other issue is more in the lines of: "should I learn X for practical reasons, even if I don't like the native X speakers for this or that reason and am not interested in their country", which is very valid for some learners and some languages. For example, when a Czech chooses whether to learn Russian, it is also a cultural and political statement. For me, learning Russian is attractive for some reasons (primarily reading the awesome scifi authors), but I would definitely have to cut it away from lots of other things, as speaking the language publicly still means sympathy with a totalitarian murderous regime not that far in our past, the occupation, today's regime in a huge country that doesn't respect human rights. It means sympathy with certain political parties and with that part of my fellow-citizens that are making me leave my country by continuously damaging it, by supporting values going directly against mine, and so on. Russian is a symbol of a certain mindset and values. Here, learning Russian is either a sign of sympathy with their current leading politicians, or it is more and more commonly a message "I do care about their money, I am not interested in values like the human rights/I don't bother to educate myself about such stuff". That is a real issue, and there are many examples like this.

Or there are learners asking whether and how to learn a language like Hebrew or Arabic without being interested in the religion closely tied to the language. And those are good questions, usually leading to considering how much is the common language tied to the religion, and whether this connection is acceptable for the learner, or they should rather learn something else.

As was said in this thread, there are some ugly things tied to the culture and history of any language, sure. But in some cases, it is still very much alive and a contemporary issue. So, the question is, to what extent it is possible to chop the language and whatever you need to do with it from the rest. How much you can cherry pick only some bits, for whatever reasons.

No offence meant, but I think you are inventing non-existent problems like whether to learn a few food related words, and are completely misunderstanding the real issues. Whether and how we can separate languages we need from cultures we are either not interested in at all, or with the values of which we cannot understand. And also what are the consequences for our language skills.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby aquarius » Thu Aug 15, 2019 9:29 pm

Cavesa wrote:For example, when a Czech chooses whether to learn Russian, it is also a cultural and political statement. For me, learning Russian is attractive for some reasons (primarily reading the awesome scifi authors), but I would definitely have to cut it away from lots of other things, as speaking the language publicly still means sympathy with a totalitarian murderous regime not that far in our past, the occupation, today's regime in a huge country that doesn't respect human rights. It means sympathy with certain political parties and with that part of my fellow-citizens that are making me leave my country by continuously damaging it, by supporting values going directly against mine, and so on. Russian is a symbol of a certain mindset and values. Here, learning Russian is either a sign of sympathy with their current leading politicians, or it is more and more commonly a message "I do care about their money, I am not interested in values like the human rights/I don't bother to educate myself about such stuff". That is a real issue, and there are many examples like this.

Cavesa, do you mean that OTHER PEOPLE perceive speaking Russian publicly as a sign of sympathy with Russian politics, or do YOU perceive it like this?


Learning about a culture and being immersed in a culture is frequently assumed to lead to 'developing sympathy and respect for a culture', but it must not necessarily be like this. Personally, I have experienced that the more I'm interested in learning about the culture and the values of a country, the higher is the risk of coming across "something nasty hidden in the history" (or, much worse, in present times), and to be compelled to fall back to some kind of "compartmentalisation".

In this case, it's helpful for me to see that often there is not just one uniforme "culture" of a country, but lots of people with different values, opinions and styles of life.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby David1917 » Fri Aug 16, 2019 12:39 pm

Sound the alarm, politics have entered the conversation.

I sympathize with what the Czechs endured during the Soviet years, and I can understand that an older section of the population is probably still turned off by hearing the Russian language at all. Today is a different story and it should not be discussed here.

-

As for the thread's topic, I don't think it makes sense to separate from the culture. You can be successful in certain cold transactions in foreign languages, sure, but to advance to higher levels your only options are to expose yourself to large swathes of the language, and that almost inevitably includes native books, magazines, newspapers, television, movies, plays, music - aka CULTURE.

Basically, I'd say there are two goalposts to set, the first one can be achieved without culture, the second would be impossible and basically pointless.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby rdearman » Fri Aug 16, 2019 1:25 pm

Some languages are already separated from the culture.

Latin, Old English, Middle English, Sanskrit, Ancient Egyptian. So while you could find native books I challenge you to find magazines, newspapers, television, movies, plays, music - aka CULTURE.

What degree of separation do you need? Many people read Latin, or Sanskrit, or Ancient Egyptian, but they aren't speaking to natives.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby Dragon27 » Fri Aug 16, 2019 4:57 pm

rdearman wrote:So while you could find native books I challenge you to find magazines, newspapers, television, movies, plays, music - aka CULTURE.

I'm not sure if you can equate these things with culture. They can help you connect with the culture of the language (the culture of its natives), but they aren't culture themselves. Most of this stuff didn't exist back then, but that the culture surely did. We can't move in with the natives of the dead languages to absorb their culture first-hand (which is, basically, the social behavior and norms of those extinct societies), but we can learn about their culture partially through the study of history (and reading their books, their stories and anecdotes, ancient plays...).

Latin spans quite a period of time with many cultures. Modern Latin speakers have one too!
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby David1917 » Fri Aug 16, 2019 5:18 pm

rdearman wrote:Some languages are already separated from the culture.

Latin, Old English, Middle English, Sanskrit, Ancient Egyptian. So while you could find native books I challenge you to find magazines, newspapers, television, movies, plays, music - aka CULTURE.

What degree of separation do you need? Many people read Latin, or Sanskrit, or Ancient Egyptian, but they aren't speaking to natives.


You are literally only engaging in a cultural pursuit by reading Sanskrit or Ancient Egyptian because you are not conducting simple transactions in the language. I don't even understand what argument you're trying to make.
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Re: Does it make sense to separate a language from the culture it belongs to?

Postby aokoye » Fri Aug 16, 2019 10:05 pm

rdearman wrote:Some languages are already separated from the culture.

Latin, Old English, Middle English, Sanskrit, Ancient Egyptian. So while you could find native books I challenge you to find magazines, newspapers, television, movies, plays, music - aka CULTURE.

What degree of separation do you need? Many people read Latin, or Sanskrit, or Ancient Egyptian, but they aren't speaking to natives.

Eh I think you're pretty far off base here, especially given that one can easily point to cultural aspects of religion (and religious aspects of culture). Never mind that culture isn't bound to speaking to native speakers and that native speakers don't somehow hold all of cultural power of a language.

Also do you really think it's hard to find music written in Latin? Heck I've sung at least two secular pieces written with in the last 20 years in Latin. The only language of the ones that you listed I could see any of that being hard to find music and plays in is Ancient Egyptian.
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