Thinking of Culture

Please note: The following originally appeared on on 21 September 2013

Culture is a term we all use without quite knowing what it means. When asked for examples of culture we can give some but they are usually limited and/or stereotypical, e.g. The Italians eat spaghetti (everyone knows that), the French are ironic (just ask the Brits), but much of culture is intangible and/or invisible and almost certainly undefined (there is no grammar of the culture of any group that I know of).

Furthermore, the concept of a definable culture and also the concept of the culture that we “have to teach with a language” (e.g. when you teach English, you must also teach English culture) is demonstrably nonsense per se and, on top of that, we are no longer teaching culture toward interaction with native speakers but largely for enabling non-native speakers of English to interact with other non-native speakers of English. This is especially significant in the globalising world where the homogeneity of “culture” is under attack as a result of the collapse of geographic boundaries and increased mobility. The preceding obviously applies not only to language teaching and learning but also demonstrates the dynamic nature of the concept: we actually would not know where to start teaching and learning culture as an “object” of study: like language which linguistics reifies and purports to describe faithfully.

The fact that we know next to nothing about culture (despite some useful generalisations such as Hofstede’s: they are theoretically rubbery but they provide some way of beginning interactions) can be easily demonstrated through the ways people have been observed to gesture about the past and the future. I am not talking here about most groups having the future in front of them and the past behind them (although that is not universal) but about something much more delicate but just as important. Lera Boroditsky reports that studies indicate that when humans talk about the past or the future they unconsciously LEAN in the direction that their society dictates. Isn’t that amazing? Well sort of… Is it cultural? Well clearly it is! Do we know about it? If we belong to that culture, then we actually do it, probably/perhaps without knowing about it. But we need a research project to identify it and make it visible. How many more zillions of similar cultural manifestations exist that members of specific social groups indulge in that provide a context for meaning-making while going unnoticed.

AND… is this teachable? AND, if it is, how would you identify it as worth teaching and which aspects of culture will you choose NOT to teach (assuming a large number of instances that would place the student in overload). AND … HOW would you teach it?

Now… are all of these things learnable? Well clearly they are, as members of social groups have learned them. So… HOW do you provide the conditions for learning these to happen? Where is the starting point? Somebody’s book? e.g.  A grammar of Vietnamese Culture in Ho Chi Minh City, by, say, A-P. Lian (just a joke, the book does not exist)? Not only would it take a lifetime to write, but it would be out of date by the time the book was published as culture keeps moving not only in its group manifestation but also in its individual manifestation (idioculture): no two people are identical (because of their histories).

The only starting point, I think, is sympathetic and careful interaction with people who learn to live together as much as possible. Central to that notion is that of meaning-making toward functional not prescriptive cultural proficiency. That does not make descriptions useless, it just puts them in their place as a set of helping tools for enabling cultural travelers to perform the task required of them.

Probably a bit naive…