The need to study language AND culture

A literature professor argues that in order to truly learn and use a language, you must also learn about the culture in which the language is used:

I have been asked several times at my university in Oman to do a brief “cultural introduction” to native speakers of English from North America and Europe who have come to improve their Arabic. I start by mentioning that there is a large difference between learning how to speak a language and learning how to navigate a culture. Then I segue into a discussion of how to dress appropriately. My watchwords are: no knees or elbows on display in public. Usually, at this point, several of the listeners look angry, disbelieving and/or bored, especially the men wearing tight, casual T-shirts and women in spaghetti-strap underwear shirts…

My attempts to make Westerners understand that they will need to make adjustments to fit into Omani society have not gone well. The most common response is, “But I am me. They will just have to accept me as I am.” The problem with the “I need to be me” response is that most Westerners do not realize that the consequences of “being me” are not the same as in the West. Omanis rarely use direct confrontation and will simply avoid a person who they feel is violating cultural norms.

The trick is to find a balance between integration and self-integrity while learning not just the language but also how to use it in a culturally appropriate manner. For example, most Gulf Arabs use an indirect communication style. They will rarely make a negative comment in public and never convey negative information that they do not want to share. For example, if there is a specific need to convey a warning or bad news, Omanis will often recruit an intermediary to deliver it. That is why I, a non-Omani, have been asked to give the “dress and act politely” lecture to Western students…

The other answer I get when Westerners refuse to, say, comb their hair, smile when greeting an Omani, or stand up to shake hands, is that “I don’t need to talk to people—I just need the language.” As a literature professor, I find this bewildering. Imagine a person who visited Britain having read all major political-theory textbooks but never having seen Monty Python, read Wordsworth, tasted tea, or been to a soccer game. Could that person cope with references to the “Beeb,” “Oxbridge,” “Beckham,” “twee,” or “pillock”? Words such as “slamming,” “in the dumps,” “bummed,” or “shambolic” don’t show up in vocabulary lists. So much of daily language is slang and metaphors that if a person is not speaking often with native speakers, she or he will never be able to carry on a normal conversation in that country. The last response I often get from Arabic language learners, is “I don’t plan to live in this country, so I don’t need to fit in here.” While it is true that the people who say this may never live in Oman, if they have careers that involve familiarity with the Arabic language, literature, politics, or business, they will probably meet some Omanis down the line. Imagine the icebreaker or dealmaker comments that a person will have at hand if she or he can greet an Omani with a local expression or a local joke.

There is much more to language than just the words, grammar, and inflections: language is a window into much larger cultural frameworks that are full of complicated symbols, values, and meanings.

It sounds like the language learners described above want to learn the language but don’t want the language to affect them too much. In other words, they want the skill of being able to speak another language (and can be perceived as being really marketable) but they want to keep the language at arm’s length. To some degree, this sounds like modern day ethnocentrism: “I want to learn your language to be able to talk to you but I don’t want to have to learn about what makes you tick because that wouldn’t be worth my time.” Of course, it could very well be worth one’s time for business or political or social purposes as the examples at the end of the last quoted paragraph above illustrate.

But, it sounds like a larger issue here is explaining to students why one should learn a new language: is it about checking off a box on a list of high school or college requirements? Is it about being able to put this on a resume? Is it about becoming “smarter” or more “cosmopolitan”? Is it about learning how to authentically interact with cultures different from your own? This last reason fits with calls for students to learn cross-cultural skills as they will go on to navigate a world where more frequently cultures interact and sometimes clash.

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