Different anthropologists define language differently. However, all the different definitions include the beliefs of the people, their expectations, their shared values, their customs and related rituals, the jargon that is unique to the society and most importantly, their language. Every society has a language and even in large societies which have one language, there are often different variations across the geographical divide. Societies often represent an amalgamation of different cultures and these different cultures are best reflected in the different languages that are used. In light of the current multicultural society, it is common to have many different nationalities represented in one nation. As Gladwell (236) explains, these societies have histories and cultures that form them.
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When the immigrants relocate to a new country, one of the most important things that they will be required to do is to learn the new Nation’s language so as to effectively communicate with the people they will meet there. In America, many people take for granted the fact that poor proficiency in English is the cause of misunderstanding in communication. Even so, some people who have a very good command of English are often confused when they try communicating with foreigners. What people often fail to understand is that language reflects culture and communicating with someone of another language optimally requires a considerable understanding of their culture.
Many times, people from different cultural backgrounds try to communicate in vain. The main reason for the breakdown in communication is based on one important fact: cognition. Cognition is dependant on the various cultural back grounds. Culture and language share a mutual interdependence. In other words, if we want to attain a good command of any given language, we have to know the cultural beliefs and structures of the people speaking that language. Taking a hypothetical case of China and America, there are obviously very large cultural differences in the two nations. The result of the cultural differences is that a lack of understanding of another language may actually lead to a general misunderstanding of each other during communication whether the communication is structured or not structured (Weismer 21).
One of the biggest problems that foreign students and instructors face is the breakdown in communication due to grammatical errors. As Pratt (5) recounts, a student wrote a terrific essay but it was filled with a lot of grammatical errors. For instance, “grate” was used instead of “great” and” adventchin” was used instead of invention. Such errors are usually as a result of the influence of the first language of the student which inevitable influence his thinking and subsequent construction of sentences in the second language (Weismer 37).
Terms of Address
When a foreign student comes to America to pursue a college degree, he will first have to Learn English as it is the principle language of instruction in all the learning institutions. For the beginner of English, English address is not so easy to learn. The Chinese people for instance often use the Family name as the first name, while the Americans usually put the family name as the last name.
There are many other important differences that come out in the different languages and they are mainly due to the cultural differences. The Chinese have a different name for the uncle from the mother’s side and a different name for the uncle on the father’s side. This is not the case for the English speakers since the term uncle applies both to the paternal and maternal uncle. Such differences will inevitably lead to ambiguity in communication when two people from these different cultural backgrounds try to communicate (Shen 459).
In informal situations, American address is more casual than China’s. An American professional would rather be referred to by his surname as opposed to his title. The idea is to break ice an enhance communication both horizontally and vertically. Quite on the contrary, addressing an elder directly by name is considered to be a very impolite thing to do among the Chinese people. The Chinese student is often left wondering how “disrespectful” the Americans are until he realizes the cultural differences that exist between China and America.
The American form of greeting is usually a short phrase like hi, hello or how are you? In china however, a greeting may go something like, “Where are you heading for” or “Have you eaten yet?” Obviously, The American will be a little bit confused when a Chinese friend asks him if he has eaten yet while it is clearly a long way to dinner time. If an American does not understand this difference, he will think his Chinese friend really wants to know where he goes or he is inviting him to eat something.
The form of greeting is also different across different cultures. In some cultures like America, it is common for a man to peck a lady as a form of greeting. This may not be the case for some cultures. In Africa for instance, it may be considered a very inappropriate thing to do while the Chinese allow kissing only for very close relations. This cultural difference may result in a very clumsy relationship between people of different nationalities with neither understanding why the other person did a certain gesture (Lazear 96).
The Chinese culture places a lot of premium on modesty. For this reason, the Chinese will always accept compliments from their friends with very modest attitude. On the other hand, people from the western cultures tend to express their feeling frankly and directly. For instance, an American visiting with his Chinese friend may compliment his friend’s wife saying that she is very beautiful. The Chinese’ response would probably be something like, “No she is notâ€¦” This cultural difference may cause an embarrassing moment.
Conversation usually involves some topic that some cultures are liberal on while some cultures value privacy on such topics. These topics could include things like salary and wages, marriage, age and family background. In certain cultures, these topics are not considered private affairs whereas in some cultures, they are considered to be very private topics that should not be openly discussed unless the other party clearly does not mind.
Idioms and proverbs
One of the most important pointers to the significance of culture in language is the different idioms and the different proverbs that are used in the different communities. Different cultures entail different language expressions. The implication is that it would be impossible to understand a proverb or an idiom used by a certain community without first understanding their culture. For instance, there is an American proverb that goes, “Young men go west.” The saying can only make sense if one understands its background.
Different terms are also used in idioms across different cultures. For example, in America, the term “dog” is commonly used in idioms such as “luck dog”, “clever dog” to express something good. It is widely believed that a dog is their best friend. This is almost the opposite in Africa and China where the dog is used in idioms to refer to something bad. While the term bull is used in China’s Idiomatic expressions to refer to very industrious people, the Americans may use it to refer to someone of irritable characteristics.
Still, we can find many different language expressions that are intertwined with culture. The color, “blue” in the Chinese context may refer to a sentimental or an unhappy feeling. On the other hand, a blue book in America is a book that holds names of well known personalities.
From the very onset, Shen (459) who was a foreign student had a lot of difficulty comprehending the rule of writing the English essay. As Shen quickly discovered, learning a new language was more than merely translating what one knew in the first language to the other language. Learning of a new language must also involve a learning of new cultures.
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Shen’s first assignment in college was challenging for her since the rules that were guiding her to write the composition represented ideas that were not present in her mother language. For instance, when told to write using the “I” rather than the “We,” it was not entirely clear from the beginning since in the Chinese culture, “I” is usually overridden with “we” in whatever level of society. It was therefore not surprising that she kept replacing the “I” that the professor was talking about with the “We” that made more sense to her.
Leaning of a new language usually involves a lot of cultural realignment and reshaping of one’s ideologies. For instance, the salient rules in English writing and communication often encapsulate ideas and values that are either contradictory to the ones of the other language or some of the values are entirely absent. The student will therefore have no choice but to first appreciate a new view of the society and the universe in order to comprehend the new language.
Culture is different across the different languages. The differences in culture are usually makes it challenging for a student to learn a ne language as it includes the leaning of a new culture altogether. The Chinese for instance will use a “surface to core” in their writing unlike the Americans who will sue the “topic sentence” approach. The Chinese approach reflects a very important fact about the Chinese people; they are systematic in their approach the slow speed not withstanding.
A Chinese author would rather spend enough time “clearing the hedges” first before he embarks on the real writing assignment. It is reminiscent of a society that is leisurely paced. People have the time to ponder the different angles of a topic before embarking on writing on it. In addition, the composition usually must include an introduction that explains why the writer chooses the topic that he is writing on. The rationale behind this rule is that writer will capture the reader’s attention and interest form the very onset as he will show the reader the logical thinking that he went through in choosing the topic.
On the other hand, when an American author uses the “Topic Sentence” approach, it reveals a fast tracked society. It reveals a society that is highly industrialized and hence has no much time to waste. Since everybody is in a hurry, the writer does not want to waste the reader’s time by offering “unnecessary” information. In addition, the writer does not have much time to waste as he wants to communicate his main idea to his reader in the shortest time possible.
Foreign Students did themselves in bad books in an education system that is sympathetic to English speakers. Anzaldua (44) recounts how she was smacked with a steel ruler for speaking Spanish in school. The lecturer admonished her to speak English if she was interested in becoming American. If that was not her interest, then she was welcome to go back to Mexico as the professor said. Another time, she was punished for answering back at a lecturer while actually; she was trying to give the teacher the proper pronunciation of her name. These are some of the many challenges that foreign students face.
We are presently living in a world that is increasingly becoming a global village. with more and more immigrants come into the country either for study, work or due to some other reasons, it is increasingly becoming important to understand how to effectively communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds. As we have established, the key is in understanding the different cultural beliefs, heritages and systems. Communication is greatly hindered due to language barrier. Many times, there are people who have knowledge of your language but the communication is not optimal since either they don’t fully understand your culture or you don’t understand theirs.
Culture is the most important facet in intercultural communication. Usually, language encapsulates the culture of the people. For instance, the Chinese culture considers referring to a senior person using his name to be an impolite gesture. A Chinese student will therefore use the title of the lecturer as opposed to the surname. When the American Lecturer tells the students to simply call him Stanley, the student of Chinese decent may not find it very palatable to his culture.
The barriers in the different languages due to the different cultures can be overcome as suggested by Shen (462) who went through a hard time trying to adjust to the new culture presented to him in the United Sates. Learning a language is therefore inseparable from learning the culture of the people that speak that language. It is not just a matter of the grammar and pronunciation but it entails learning the different customs and behaviors since these are usually reflected in the language. One will need to understand the culture in order to relate to the different idioms, the different proverbs and even the parts of speech that are used in the new language.
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