Cultural Awareness in Language Learning
This paper was written in 1997 for the subject of Language and Culture, taught by Caroline Moore.
University of Guadalajara, School of Modern Foreign Languages.
Learning a foreign language requires entering in contact with the culture of the target language. Moreover, since each culture has a system for dividing right from wrong, or good from evil, acquiring a new language includes embracing a new set of values and different views of appreciating what is considered to be true.
Comparisons are inevitable when one learns a language, and since finding similarities and differences is one of the first attempts learners are tempted by, the presence of judgments and assumptions might blur one’s genuine appreciation of the actual character of the target language if there is a lack of awareness. Thus, it is a foreign language teacher’s duty to serve as a mediator in the understanding of the new culture; to serve as a guide when clarifying the elements of culture that do not explain language and social behavior; and to be an enabler of openness, fairness and a universal/international consciousness.
Languages are at times associated with a particular geographical latitude, with traditions, celebrations, ways of being and ways of knowing. Yet, one must not assume that because a series of individuals coexist in the same cultural context, their behavior and attitudes will be identical. There will always be sets of subcultures within a culture that will cause both language and culture to become diversified. For instance, while most people speak English in the USA (up to this day), the culture and speech of people in New England and the Mid West are completely different.
Thus, when learning and teaching a new language, one must not overemphasize one’s focus on the similarities and differences between one’s culture and that of the target language. One’s aim as a learner should be to eventually be an active participant in that culture; and to constantly contribute as a translator of social, cultural and linguistic events and paradigms as a teacher. One’s openness to learning should directly become the means by which one’s background will become enriched and through which one will be enabled to cause change within our social groups.
Culture is such a complex thing to deal with since people perform differently in their interpersonal relationships. Thus, there are no ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ in a culture; there are only cultural differences that are the elements that constitute a culture’s genuineness, authenticity and uniqueness. For this reason, the moment one starts learning to express ideas and thoughts in a different language, one is automatically enabled to bring that experience into one’s culture and, inevitably, positive modifying its nuances. When one learns a new language, one is no longer the same person one was before the learning experience; and since one is then able to see the world through different perspectives, we are conversely able to participate in a diverse range of knowledge exchanges that cause us to evolve in a more complex way.
For the arguments stated above, it is clear that learning a foreign language is not limited to solely speaking it, but to understand what is behind its structure, its words, its sounds, how it is used, as well as the reasons for the differences that it embodies. Moreover, since learning a new language signifies slowly becoming a part of its culture, one needs to understand that the target language’s culture will never be stable for new learners bring baggage of experiences with them; and it is this collections of understandings what gradually contribute to the evolution of the target language’s culture. E.g. the English language culture is not the same at present, compared to what it was like before English became the language of choice around the world.
It is important to point out that acquiring a new culture, or enriching one’s mother culture, should not be a threat to one’s identity, integrity and social composure, for these days the world is becoming unified by the understandings promoted in foreign language classes. This effect is causing people to become more open minded and ready to appreciate other cultures without losing theirs. In a few words, learning about other cultures only teaches us to become better observers of the salient features we respect in our own culture.
Regardless of the distance between cultures, the emphasized differences, and the surprising similarities, any individual who aspires to learn a language is a LEARNER in principle. Therefore, learners must embrace any secondary learning that emerges from the process they are undergoing. Slowly, world culture is becoming accessible and enriched. Each culture is truly embracing its contribution to the world culture, and, conclusively, developing an understanding of how learning a language is a tool to understand the world should be included in all aspiring language learners’ set of expected learning situations.
For this reason, International Mindedness (I.M.) is the DNA of Change in Learning.