Language And Culture

Did you know that language and culture are closely connected?

by Louis Alexander

We are what we eat, what we wear, what we drive, etc. Yes, we may be all of those things, but, principally, we are what we speak. Our mother tongue rules every moment of our lives. In our waking hours it is the language we use to communicate to others. It is also the language we use to communicate to ourselves through our thoughts: what is often called 'the stream of consciousness'. When we are asleep, it is the language that dominates our dreams.

Our mother tongue is therefore a kind of code which we share with other native speakers. In some cultures, this code is regarded as exclusive. For example, in such cultures, native speakers might regard it as intrusion if foreigners learn their language too well: as if the acquisition of their language by a foreigner is an invasion of 'national privacy'. They may actually feel shocked that a foreigner has acquired their language with a high degree of fluency and, in doing so, has obtained access to the code through which they communicate with each other. They rightly feel they 'own' their language. In the case of English, by comparison, speakers from the Indian sub-continent can lay as much claim to 'owning' English as speakers in the UK. No one country now exclusively 'owns' English.

If language and culture are inextricably bound together, what happens when you try to acquire a foreign language like English? Do you have to adopt the 'consciousness' of native speakers (British, American, Australian, etc.)? Not at all! English is now the acknowledged 'lingua franca' of the entire world. Learners of English expect to be able to communicate with other people round the globe, regardless of their culture. The most common use of English as an international language is in business and in tourism where it is quite normal for (say) a Finn to be communicating with a South Korean during a business meeting in (say) Mexico City.

Direct English deals with this reality in a number of ways. First, it assumes that when we are using English in our own countries we are communicating with foreign visitors and the situations practised reflect this reality: entertaining foreign guests at home or in restaurants, showing them the sights, acting as interpreter, etc. Second, when we are using English outside our own countries, the situations practised again reflect this reality: getting about, securing accommodation, asking for help to cope with an unfamiliar environment and strange customs. The English taught in Direct English avoids all culture-bound activities, including sports such as cricket or baseball, visits to pubs or anything too closely associated with the culture of native speakers. People who are using English as an international language simply do not need to know about the varying cultural backgrounds of the English-speaking world because they may never have to visit an English-speaking country. This kind of specialized knowledge is necessary only for diplomats, business people or immigrants who intend to take up temporary or permanent residence in the English-speaking world, not for casual visitors.

We can think of speakers of English as falling into three circles: 1) the 'inner circle', ENL (= English as a Native Language). This is the language spoken by native speakers among themselves and often is and will continue to be a difficult code for non-natives to penetrate; 2) the 'middle circle', ESL (= English as a Second Language), where English is the medium of instruction in all subjects in schools in countries outside the English-speaking world and is therefore a 'second language'; 3) the 'outer circle', EFL (= English as a Foreign Language), where English is taught for a few hours a week in schools. This is English as an International Language (EIL) which is the only concern of Direct English.


© LG & DE Limited 2006


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