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How Language Transfers Cultural Sensitivity

How Language Transfers Cultural Sensitivity | ITTT | TEFL Blog

As I've had to study several foreign languages, I've realized many things about what's necessary and helpful in studying foreign languages. And I think many of these things could come under the heading of sensitivity to the culture that the language one is studying comes from, as well as an awareness of one's own culture.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Peter B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Cultural Attitude

One thing I've noticed about much of the course material available for some of the foreign languages I've studied, as well as educational texts on other subjects written in English, is that one can see the culture and cultural attitudes, as well as things like the walk of life of the authors of these texts. A very simple example would be a modification in recent years to some of the standardized testing in America. Students were given analogies as part of the test, but one of the questions used the name of a participant in a sport that was only played by privileged students. In response to critiques concerning this, these questions were changed to make them equally accessible to privileged and less privileged students.

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How cultural peculiarities are transferred by a language

But any course will have an aspect of culture embedded throughout. Managing this is perhaps a critical part of teaching a language. Languages especially reflect the culture of their origin. Language books meant for intermediate learners may have stories from the cultures that speak that language natively. These stories may have moral lessons or descriptions of historical events that figure critically into the backbone of the language in question's culture. Other course books may lead the student on a journey, taking them through everyday life within that culture, from simple daily activities to more advanced negotiations of life's twists and turns within that society. Throughout, the phrasing, even that which is used to teach these lessons, conveys the attitude of a native speaker of that language and of that culture and the circumstances they find themselves in while transcribing that course material.

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The importance of learning about a different culture

To make a language accessible to students of a foreign country, I believe one must understand the cultural differences that must be communicated. As mentioned earlier in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language course, a typical, say, old-orthodoxy approach to teaching language is “grammar-translation.” One thing that comes with this is the idea that each word of one language has a direct translation to another. I've found this not to be the case. Further, usages vary greatly, even of words that are ostensibly defined with the same meaning in dictionaries. While there are many basic concepts that people have in common, once past a very beginning level of language education, words and culture may be vastly or subtly different. Further, even with basic concepts, attitude towards those concepts may be different.

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Teaching a course to students of another culture perhaps requires understanding their culture enough to establish a rapport with students and educate them in their useful acquisition of English, but also not short-changing a communication of cultures where English is a native language. For a student to effectively communicate in English, they will have to understand not just vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, etc., but also the culture informing the usage of English where they might be putting their education into practice.

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