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The odd dilemma of language and culture learning

2 months ago

by Joseph Saules


Language teachers interested in cultural learning find themselves caught on the horns of an odd dilemma. On the one hand, language and culture are obviously related, and mastering a language requires an understanding of cultural expectations and nuance. Even learning an “international” language, such as English, requires navigating foreign situations and grappling with cultural difference. Naturally, many of us hope that students will gain cultural insights along their road to language learning. 

Sounds good. Unfortunately, there’s an opposing reality. Big ideas about cultural learning can be hard to bring into the classroom. One reason is a persistent pedagogical split. Day-to-day language teaching often centers on knowledge and skill practice—learning new vocabulary items, doing discussion activities, constructing sentences, doing extensive reading. Cultural learning, on the other hand, is often approached in ways that are inspiring yet abstract: awareness, global citizenship, intercultural communicative competence. Such goals sound appealing, but they are highly abstract and hard to turn into activities. 

This split is found among specialists as well. Linguists speak of second language acquisition, without a parallel term for the process of gaining cultural insight and understanding. Typically, language learning and culture learning are treated as separate processes. The former is often seen as a taking in (acquiring) new knowledge and abilities—while the latter is seen as some advanced form of perceiving (awareness, criticality, reflexivity). We’re left with a head-scratching contradiction—language and culture learning are related, but are hard to fit into the same lesson plan. 


A pedagogical struggle 

I’ve struggled with this pedagogical dilemma for years—in curriculum planning, textbook writing, and day-to-day teaching. I’ve tried introducing culture-themed materials and discussion topics. I helped develop a required course in intercultural communication in English taken by 3,000 students at a large university. I have written textbooks using intercultural topics. I also teach intercultural communication to graduate students training to become language teachers. 

For a long time, I primarily attempted to introduce cultural content that could be discussed in English, or tried to raise cultural awareness in piecemeal ways. I had a nagging feeling, however, that focusing on culture takes time and energy away from language practice. I worried that I could spend time either on 1) language skills, or 2) intercultural awareness, but not both. This is a losing proposition for cultural learning goals, since the pressure to focus on linguistic knowledge and skills often wins in the end. What then of cultural learning? 

Neuroscience to the rescue 

My interest in brain and mind sciences started with Edward Hall, a pioneer of intercultural communication. His 1959 book The Silent Language is considered a foundational work in the field. Influenced by Freudian psychology, he believed that we are largely oblivious to how our own minds work, and are caught in the grip of unconscious cultural programming. For Hall, coming to an understanding of the deeply cultural nature of perception and mind is a critical challenge facing humankind. 

This interest in culture and mind led me to more recent research in the fields of cultural psychology, cultural neuroscience, and neurolinguistics. I discovered exciting ideas about the brain and mental processes—such as plasticity, embodied cognition, and the intuitive mind—and insights into how we remember and learn. I am not a science nerd, but I found many ideas, including complexity theory; dynamic skill theory; and embodied simulation theory, that gave me new ways to think about language and culture pedagogy. 


A false premise 

I’ve come to believe that the separation of language and culture into separate pedagogical frameworks is grounded in a false premise. For a long time, I was influenced by the idea—still common—that language use is fundamentally a form of information processing, and that language learning is related to integrating this information into learners’ mental systems through exposure (input) and practice (pattern formation). I had the impression that cultural understanding, on the other hand, was somehow different—that it relates to higher-order, abstract forms of cognition such as critical thinking. Cultural ability seemed like a more advanced form of learning. 

Emerging insights from the brain and mind sciences, however, have changed my mind. Most fundamentally, I see that all cognition is embodied—completely integrated into the whole organism. There is no separation between body and mind, thought and feeling, rationality and inspiration. The thoughts we experience “in our head” do not exist in some mental space that is insulated from the rest of our body. Even “rational,” everyday decisions are shaped by our feelings, intuitions and desires. To look at language learning primarily in terms of acquiring an information system is misleading. 

Also misleading is the idea that skills are somehow mechanical—thinking of memory as a muscle, for example, or assuming that memorizing things by heart will lead to fluency. Learning is complex, and abilities that seem simple and everyday—vision, recognizing faces, reading social cues, speaking our L1—are not simple mechanical reflexes. They involve highly complex and embodied forms of cognition that we experience intuitively. We have a “feel” for what’s grammatical in our L1, accurately “read” people’s faces, and are guided by “gut” reactions. Skill development requires the development of intuitive abilities that rely on complex algorithms of mind and body. 

Additionally, research into embodied simulation theory shows us that linguistic processing is not primarily the manipulation of mental symbols or discrete concepts. Language use is, rather, a holistic, simulative process grounded in our bodies and our lived experience. When I say the word “dog” my mind simulates my experience with dogs—bringing to mind a poodle for me and a Dalmatian or Chihuahua for you. Hearing the words “wet dog” may stimulate the substrates of the brain responsible for processing smell. The words “barking dog” may provoke a stress response due to the trauma of a long-ago bite. In short, language use is much more than information flow or symbolic coding. It is inseparable from our experience, memories, feelings, intuitions and bodily states. 


The language-culture connection 

These ideas have helped me better understand the language-culture connection. From the socio-cognitive perspective, culture can be seen as embodied patterns of meaning that guide our interaction with our environment (largely in unconscious ways). We often talk about these shared understandings in terms of norms (how things ought to be done), values (what’s important), and assumptions (what we accept as true and real). Having a feeling for these “rules of the game” allows us to get along with others who share these intuitions. These patterns are so deeply integrated into everyday living that we don’t notice them—until we have intercultural experiences. Culture learning is largely a process of self-discovery, not simply learning about some “other.” 

Importantly, culture doesn’t dictate our behavior. Rather, it gives us an intuitive set of standards when choosing how to behave and react to others. There is no contradiction between being a unique individual and sharing in a cultural community. There is a parallel here with language use. We roughly follow syntactic “rules” in our utterances, yet each of us has a unique idiolect—our particular way of speaking, that reflects our individual personality and experiences. Being an English speaker does not dictate what I say. Similarly, growing up in the United States does not dictate my values or actions. It does, however, provide me with an intuitive sense of how the behaviors I choose will be interpreted by a wide swath of U.S. Americans. 

This language-culture parallel is not coincidental. Language and culture are intimately related. Think of language as a tree that is rooted in the earth of shared experience. The meaning of the word “family,” for example, emerges from our lived experience and the cultural values of our community. Culturally laden words—such as amae (dependence) in Japanese; fraternité (brotherhood, solidarity) in French; or halus (chivalrous restraint) in Indonesian—are hard to grasp fully without experience within cultural communities. What things mean in a given language reflects the shared experience of its speakers. 

The linguaculture tree 

Living language 

What lessons does this integrated, embodied view of language and culture have for educators? It reminds us that language and culture are two interrelated strands of a larger, living, complex, interrelated whole, sometimes referred to as linguaculture. This more integrated view reminds us that language is alive. When we cut language off from meaningful experience—when we treat it just as information to be recalled or manipulated—we cut off the tree (language) from its roots (experience, community, and culture) and it withers and dies. This happens when we treat language learning strictly as a mental puzzle or memory exercise. This is not so different from studying, say, verb conjugations and noun declensions in Latin, a petrified language now far removed from the lives of Ancient Romans. 

To say that language use is embodied also reminds us that language learning must engage students at multiple levels of the self—learning should be experiential and meaningful; it should touch both head and heart. That doesn’t mean that we learn a foreign language in precisely the same way we acquire our L1—purely through direct experience. Conscious thought and focused practice are an important part of L2 learning. We are reminded, however, seeing language primarily as an abstract symbolic system—labels for thoughts, for example—is incomplete. Language use is rooted in experience, and so we should strive for a learning environment that brings language to life. We need to turn language learning itself into an intercultural experience—a chance to experience communication in a new way. 


Language learning is cultural learning 

When we bring language to life in the classroom, we are providing an opportunity to learners to experiment with foreignness—to make new sounds and order their thoughts in new ways, to expose themselves to a new linguistic and cultural community. In short, experiences in the classroom are a starting point for cultural learning. It’s no accident that many successful learners were inspired by a good teacher, a fun language class, conversations with an ALT, or a trip abroad. These experiences provide the nourishment necessary for the roots of the linguaculture tree to grow. Conversely, negative experiences of language learning can turn us off, create resistance, and even traumatize learners. 

An embodied view reminds us of the highly psychological nature of language and culture learning. For better or worse, both language and culture learning are foreign—they require adjustments at deep levels of the mind and self. That’s why it’s nearly impossible to learn a language purely as an intellectual exercise or puzzle, and why reading books about cultural concepts is no substitute for intercultural experiences. Embodying foreign patterns deeply into the architecture of our mind and self is hard work. Resistance to such effort and change is normal—it doesn’t help to blame students for being “unmotivated” (their resistance is likely rooted in bad learning experiences) or mislead them by glibly telling them “English is fun!” 

Teachers are not information delivery systems. Effective pedagogy requires taking the whole person into account—head and heart, body and mind, thought and feeling. As part of this, I distinguish between surface learning—focused on conscious knowledge and analysis—and deep learning. Deep learning refers to the more holistic, trial-and-error, experiential process needed to internalize complex knowledge and skills. It also refers to the idea that language learning is transformative—it involves change to our sense of self. The goal of deep learning is intuitive understanding—the “feel” we have for what things mean, and the mastery necessary to apply knowledge in real life, as well as personal growth. In addition to asking how much students are learning, we should ask how deep their learning is. 


A dilemma resolved 

I no longer feel caught on the horns of the language-culture dilemma. I have broadened my view of cultural learning—I see language learning itself as cultural learning. You cannot “add” culture to language learning, because language learning itself requires a process of change, adjustment, and experimentation. We not only learn to speak a foreign language, we become speakers of that language. Deep learning not only provides us with new skills, it helps us develop a foreign language and intercultural self. What was previously experienced as foreign and alien becomes a natural extension of who we are, and a medium to express our unique qualities. 

I now think of cultural learning not as abstract ideas about cultural difference, but as an adaptive process of integrating foreignness into the mind and self. This is a psychologically demanding process. When we are faced with the need to adapt to foreign ways of thinking or acting, we may be intrigued and curious, or we may become resistant and critical. The effort may not seem worth it. As educators, we need to provide the support which reduces resistance, and encourage learners to engage with this challenge—to see the personal rewards of experimenting with a new linguaculture self. 

This view of language and culture learning is reassuring, but challenging. On the one hand, we don’t have to talk explicitly about culture in class. But we do need to provide experiences that engage learners at deep levels of the self. Skilled teachers bring language to life, inspire experimentation and curiosity, and open learners up to new ways of communicating and relating to the world. This excellence is what resolves the apparent contradiction of language and culture learning. So, let’s get to work! 



Joseph Shaules (PhD) is a leading author and educator in language and intercultural communication. He is a professor at Juntendo University, and director of the Japan Intercultural Institute. Books include: Identity (Oxford University Press); Impact Issues (Pearson); The Intercultural Mind (Intercultural Press); Deep Culture (Multilingual Matters). He loves avocados.

The article was firstly published in bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain and Education SIG

Volume 5, Issue 4, ISSN-2434-1002, April 1, 2019


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