Language, culture and thought
The problem of the relationship between language, culture and thought bothered many linguists and philosophers since ancient time. To think about this problem, we need to begin with the definition of language and culture. Language is generally accepted as a system of arbitrary vocal symbols used for human communication. And there is a most widely accepted definition of culture: culture is the total accumulation of beliefs, customs, values, behaviors, institutions and communication patterns that are shared, learned and passed down through the generation in an identifiable group of people. (Linell Davis) The definitions of language and culture imply that the two are closely connected to each other. On one hand, culture seems so inclusive, it permeates almost every aspect of human life including languages people use. On the other hand, when people need to share a culture, they communicate through language.
However , the definition alone can not provide us with a clear understanding on the relationship between language and culture. Problems remains unsolved as: how does culture influence people’s linguistic behavior? And does language influence the culture in return? If so , in what way? Varies studies have been carried out, among them, a well known hypothesis is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis made by two American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis describes the relationship between language, culture and thought. The core idea is that man’s language moulds his perception of reality. We see the world in the way that our language describes it, so that the world we live in is a linguistic construct(Liu Runqing). The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has two major components: linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity. The former holds the idea that the way one thinks is determined by the language one speaks, because one can only perceive the world in terms of the categories and distinctions encoded in the language. The latter means that the categories and distinctions encoded in one language system are unique to that system and incommensurable with those of others, therefore, the difference among languages must be reflected in the differences in the worldviews of their speakers. Since the formulation of the hypothesis, discussions have never been ended. Many linguists and philosophers are against the linguistic determinism. They argue if language determines thought totally, and if there is no thought without language, speakers of different languages will never understand each other. Nevertheless, the weak interpretation of the hypothesis is now widely accepted that language do have influence on thought and culture. Evidence is easy to be found. A well known example is that Eskimos have countless words for snow while there is only one word ‘snow’ in English. Therefore, a ‘snow world’ in a Eskimo’s eye and an English speaker’s eye would be so different. This example shows that people’s perceptions of their surroundings are modified by the conceptual categories their languages happen to provide(Liu Runqing). Questions still remains: which goes first, the language or the culture? Is it the native language gives people different perceptions? Or on contrary, is the different worldviews and cultures determine the language?
The problem get more and more philosophical, as Winston Churchill once said, ‘ we shaped our buildings and afterwards our buildings shaped us.’ We describe our experience and culture by using language, and the categories built into language, its structures influence our perceptions--language in turn shapes our thought and culture. Therefore, we should take a dialectical point of view on the relationship between language and culture. As is mentioned at the beginning, language and culture are inextricably intertwined. On one hand, language is a part of human being. It reflects people’s attitudes, beliefs, worldviews. Language both expressed and embodies cultural reality. On the other hand, language is a part of culture. It helps perpetuate the culture and it can influence the culture to a certain extent.
Evidence on the dialectical relationship between language and culture
There is plenty of linguistic evidence of culture difference. We take relationship issue for example to explain the cultural difference between Chinese people and English speakers. In Chinese ,there are more precise terms for describing relationships than in English. Chinese people distinguish relatives on mother’s side from those on father’s side. We have the word ‘biao’ to call the brothers and sisters on mother’s side and the word ‘tang’ for the father’s side. Also, the uncles and aunts are addressed differently on each side. On the contrary, in English, there are limited words to describe relationships. This difference indicates that relationships play an important role in Chinese culture. In a narrow sense, relatives are always vital elements in Chinese people’s life. In a broad sense, the relationships among people around is generally considered important for Chinese people. The precise terms for describing family and other relationships reflect the Chinese culture, and the language may in turn influence the Chinese way of thinking. Therefore, relationships are paid great attention in China. The Chinese ‘ relationship net’ is hard to explain, but it do works in China. Talking about relationships, in English, we have the phrase ‘-in law’ to address a certain kind of relatives, this may indicates that compared to relationships, law plays a more important role in the western culture.
Another example can be found between English and French. English borrows a lot of words from French, and a large part of them are the names of food. Pork, veal, mutton are all French words. Even the word ‘cuisine’ is from French. Judging from the language, we can tell that French cuisine must be more famous than English food, and the catering culture is more important in France than in English speaking countries.
There is one thing should be pointed out that although different languages reflect and influence different culture, there are many concepts that are universal. Also, take the relationship issue for example, people from the English speaking countries can distinguish relatives on mother’s side from those on father’s side, although they do not do so, the concepts are there. People from different cultures can understand each other although they speak different languages and have different worldviews, because many of the basic concepts are universal.
Since language and cultures are intertwined with each other, learning a language can not be separated from learning its culture. only by learning the culture, the L2 learners can better understand the language and use it in communication as native speakers do. Educators now generally believes that it is important to help the L2 learners to achieve the communicative competence as well as the linguistic competence. In pedagogy there is a method of foreign language teaching called communicative language teaching(CLT), and the goal of CLT is to develop students’ communicative competence, which includes both the knowledge about the language and knowledge about how to use the language appropriately in communicative situation. In CLT, culture teaching plays an important role.
In language teaching, on one hand, teachers and learners should pay attention to the culture difference since different languages reflect the different value system and worldviews of its speaker. By knowing the culture difference, one can avoid some mistake in communicating. On the other hand, the same concepts of the two cultures should not be neglected. By sharing the same concept, language learning may become easier and happier. More importantly, since languages have influence on thought, when learning a second language, the L2 learners should at the same time strengthen their mother tongue. Therefore, the native culture is protected.
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The relationship between language and culture and its pedagogical implications Language, culture and thought The problem of the relationship between language, culture and thought bothered many linguists and philosophers since ancient time. To think about this problem, we need to begin with the