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Language and Culture: Global Flows and Local Complexity

Language and Culture: Global Flows and Local Complexity

by Karen Risager


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853598586
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 02/28/2006
Series: Languages for Intercultural Communication and Education Series , #11
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.41(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Karen Risager is Dr.Phil and Professor in Cultural Encounters at the Department of Language and Culture, Roskilde University, Denmark. She has conducted interdisciplinary research for thirty years within the fields of language and culture teaching, cultural studies and sociolinguistics, internationalisation and intercultural competence, and the language and cultural learning of adult migrants.

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Language and Culture in a Global Perspective

Introduction: Inseparability of Language and Culture?

Since the 1990s, large sections of linguistics – including anthropological linguistics, sociolinguistics and research into intercultural (language) communication, translation, language acquisition and language teaching – have to an increasing extent highlighted the relationship between language and culture. This has led to intensified research into how cultural differences express themselves and are created via various forms of linguistic practice and discourse, how culturally different conceptual systems and world views are contained in the semantic and pragmatic systems of the various languages, and how language development and socialisation contribute to the development of cultural identities and cultural models of the world.

This integrative view of language is one I share. The investigation of the interface between language and culture is necessary both for the theoretical understanding of language and linguistic practice as parts of larger wholes and for the development of the various areas of practice where language plays a central role. The increased focus on the relationship of language not only to the societal, structural context but also to the cultural meaning-conveying context is, in many ways, a promising sign.

There is, however, an aspect of this development that is problematic. There is often a too unambiguous focusing on the close relationship between language and culture, one that has a tendency to imply a simple identification of language and culture. The enthusiasm for working on uncovering the culturality of language quite often finds expression in such mottoes as: 'language and culture are inseparable'; 'language and culture are intimately linked'; 'language is culture and culture is language'. Such assertions are, for example, extremely frequent within the subject area that forms my point of departure here, i.e. language and culture pedagogy (represented by such people as Byram, 1989; Byram, Morgan and colleagues, 1994; Roberts et al., 2001). In recent years there have been researchers who more or less explicitly have turned against the simplified identification of language and culture and emphasised the complexity of the relationship between them, e.g. Byram (1997), Freadman (2001) and Kramsch (2002a, 2004). However, there still lacks a comprehensive analysis of the structure of this complexity, a lack that this book seeks to redress.

It was the widespread assertion of the inseparability between language and culture in culture pedagogy that originally provoked me to write this book. I wished to demonstrate that language and culture can in certain respects be separated. This does not mean that it is my intention to deny that in many respects there are clear links between language and culture. Nor is it my intention to oppose the practical efforts being made to integrate the linguistic and cultural sides of language teaching more successfully with each other throughout the entire educational programme. But I feel it is necessary for the further development of linguistics, including language and culture pedagogy, to examine and criticise the assertion concerning the inseparability of language and culture.

What I mean more concretely by the thesis that language and culture can be separated in certain respects will gradually emerge from the discussion as the book proceeds. This theoretical discussion consists mainly of a number of conceptual analyses. A discussion of the relationship between language and culture is synonymous with a particular construction of the concepts of language and culture and with the use of certain particular analytical angles of approach to the relation between these two constructions. Central concepts in the theoretical construction are 'languaculture', 'discourse' and 'language-culture nexus'. Even at this early stage, I can say that the analysis will involve a deconstruction of the concepts of language and culture.

My guiding principle in the following is, to put it briefly, the idea that languages spread across cultures, and cultures spread across languages. Linguistic and cultural practices change and spread through social networks along partially different routes, principally on the basis of transnational patterns of migration and markets. I am, then, adopting a view of language and culture that stresses transnational dynamics in a global perspective.

Language and Culture: Generic and Differential

In this book, the linguistic concept of language is the central focus, not the metaphorical uses of the language concept that one meets in other cultural and societal studies, not least those with a semiotic or formal orientation, and in everyday language (cf. concepts such as the language of bees, of film, of dance, of architecture, of advertising, of logic, of psychoanalysis, of power, of love, etc.). The Cultural Studies movement typically operates with an extended concept of language, as, for example, described by Stuart Hall:

How does language construct meanings? How does it sustain the dialogue between participants which enables them to build up a culture of shared understanding and so interpret the world in roughly the same ways? Language is able to do this because it operates as a representational system. In language, we use signs and symbols – whether they are sounds, written words, electronically produced images, musical notes, even objects – to stand for or represent to other people our concepts, ideas and feelings. (Hall, 1997: 1, italics in the original)

The metaphorical uses of the concept of language, which have been characteristic manifestations of modern and modernist developments since the turn of the 20th century, have been and are highly productive – and a stance has per se to be taken regarding them if one is interested in the relationship between language and culture from the point of view of Cultural Studies. In this book, however, I am adopting a perspective that derives from linguistics, not Cultural Studies, which is why I intend to restrict myself to dealing with human verbal language. When talking about language in the following, it is to this sense of the word that I am referring.

As mentioned, I am basing my theory on an integrative conception of language, which means my basic premise is that language is to be conceived as an integral part of culture and society and of the psyche, and that the study of language should have this understanding as its point of departure. I am of the opinion, for example, that linguistic practice is always cultural, in the sense that it is in itself a form of cultural (meaningful) practice, and because it is imbedded in a larger cultural (meaningful) context on which it leaves its own mark. It is, however, very important when examining the relationship between language and culture to distinguish between language and culture in the generic sense, on the one hand, and language and culture in the differential sense, on the other.

In the generic sense, we are dealing with language and culture as phenomena shared by all humanity (often referred to as langage (Fr.) and 'culture-in-general' respectively). The generic sense comes in two forms: a psychological/cognitive one and a social one – one can view language and culture as psychological/cognitive phenomena which, to some extent or other, have certain species-specific (neuro-)physiological prerequisites, or one can view language and culture as social phenomena that have developed as part of the social life of the human species. At the generic level, it makes no sense to say that language and culture can be separated. Human culture always includes language, and human language cannot be conceived without culture. Linguistic practice is always embedded in some cultural context or another.

In the differential sense, we are dealing with various languages and various cultural phenomena. We are dealing with specific forms of linguistic practice, such as 'whole' languages, language varieties, registers and loan words, as well as with specific forms of cultural practice: various meanings and meaningful forms (in relation to such sign systems as images, fashion, food, music, dance), various norms and values, symbols, ideas and ideologies. The question of language and culture spread belongs to the differential level, as does the question of language teaching (teaching of specific languages and specific cultural phenomena). Theoretical concepts such as foreign language/second language, child language/children's culture and written language/literate culture belong to the differential level. It is the differential level that takes centre stage in this book.

At the differential level, one has to distinguish between a general and a specific level; the theoretical concepts of foreign language, child language and written language belong to the general level. It is only when we, for example, look at German as a foreign language, Norwegian child language and French written language that we move onto the specific ('descriptive') level. General theoretical issues of language spread as a phenomenon belong to the general level, while issues such as the spread of the English language belong to the specific level. It is the general level that is central in this book, although I illustrate the analyses with examples from teaching in specific languages. The recurring example has been taken from German teaching.

It should, of course, be emphasised that the differences between the languages are relative. In every language (every form of linguistic practice) there are items that are specific to precisely this language, other items that it shares with certain other languages, and some that must assumed to be universal and which the language in question shares with all other known languages. All languages are thus, to varying degrees, bearers of both the linguistically particular and the linguistically universal. Something similar applies to the cultural forms and relations: some are specific, some are more or less widespread, and some must be assumed to be universal and familiar to all known societies.

There is a logical difference between talking about 'language' in the generic sense and about 'all known languages' in the universal (and differential) sense. There is a difference between claiming that a particular linguistic phenomenon is a necessary ingredient in the very concept of 'language', and in making it seem plausible that a linguistic phenomenon exists in some form or other in the languages we have examined empirically to date. This is a central issue in the discussion between universal grammar and empirical language typology. A quite similar question naturally arises regarding other cultural phenomena than language. But that discussion will not be raised here.

I believe that the confusion concerning the relationship between language and culture is basically that one fails to distinguish clearly between the generic and the differential level. Very few people have seen this distinction clearly. Among those I have encountered is Lévi-Strauss, who in connection with a conference for anthropologists and linguists in Indiana in 1952 wrote:

... it has seemed to me on many occasions that we have unconsciously, in the course of the same discussion, slipped from one level to another ... Initially, the interest has been with the relationship between one language and one well-defined culture. ... We have also discussed at another level where the question asked is no longer that of the relationship between one language and one culture but rather between language and culture in general. (Lévi-Strauss, 1958: 77, italics in the original)3

An Analytical Distinction between Language and Culture

To be able to implement a discussion of the main theme of this book it is necessary to establish an analytical distinction between 'language' and 'culture'. Later on, I will place the concepts 'languaculture' and 'discourse' in the interface between 'language' and 'culture' – see Chapters 8 and 9.

Distinguishing between language and culture is for me synonymous with distinguishing between (on the one hand) linguistically formed culture and (on the other hand) non-linguistically formed culture. The former calls for the presence of verbal-language text, spoken and/or written – I am here referring to the broad linguistic concept of text that is used in critical discourse analysis and systemic functional linguistics. It would, however, be far too long-winded to insist on using the expressions 'linguistically formed culture' and 'non-linguistically formed culture' throughout the book. For that reason, I will from now on use the terms 'language' and 'culture' with the following meaning:

• 'language' = linguistically formed culture;

• 'culture' = non-linguistically formed culture.

This analytic distinction affects in principle both the generic and the differential level, but it is the differential level that is of more central importance here. At the generic level, 'language' in general and 'culture' in general are, as mentioned, inseparable and interwoven in some way or other. But at the differential (and specific) level, one can, for example, ask: what specific forms of culture are associated with the Danish language? And what specific forms of culture are associated with the English language? And these are questions that can only be decided empirically. This issue – placed within a deconstructionist framework – I will return to in Chapter 6.

Foreign- and Second-language Teaching: An Illustrative Vantage Point

The aim of this book is to contribute to the scientific understanding of the relationship between language and culture. The analytical approach draws on a particular field of practice: foreign- and second-language teaching. This vantage point is, I believe, especially productive when seeking to understand the relationship between language and culture, for the following reasons:

Firstly, foreign- and second-language teaching is a highly complex linguistic and cultural reality in the sense that there is always more than one language involved, and that it is always a question of a number of cultural perspectives that relate to differences in national, ethnic and social history, etc. In this multilingual and multicultural reality it is not difficult to find examples of language and culture not always being inseparable – depending on how one defines language and culture, which is something that I will return to later. In Chapter 2 I introduce this complexity with the aid of a teaching vignette that will be the recurring example in the analyses presented in the book.

Secondly, for decades culture pedagogy has dealt with cultural subjects in connection with language and language development. Culture pedagogy is a meeting place for both language people and people who study culture and literature (Brøgger, 1992; Byram, 1997; Kramer, 1997; Kramsch, 1993; Zarate, 1993). So culture pedagogy is in a privileged position when trying to create a better understanding of the relationship between language and culture, one where not only the concept of language but also that of culture is taken up for consideration. This is an important point: one cannot arrive at a satisfactory understanding of the relationship between language and culture without working in an interdisciplinary way with both the concept of language and that of culture. For this reason, I have added certain chapters that introduce various relevant aspects of the concept of culture (Chapters 3–5), and which I will refer to in the subsequent chapters.

The Concept of Foreign Language and Transnational Mobility

It is important to distinguish between the societal role of a language and its role in the language learning of the individual. The concept of a foreign language in particular is sometimes used in the one sense and at other times in the other – and this can give rise to misunderstandings.

When one speaks of a language in its societal role, one is thinking of it as belonging to a special category of languages. This, for example, can be the category of national language, official language, majority language, minority language or heritage language. In this sense, a foreign language traditionally refers to 'a language that is spoken abroad'. I do not myself make use of the foreign-language concept in this sense. Furthermore, I also feel it is unfortunate because it is territorially based and implies a foreignness and exclusion that are unjustified from a transnational point of view.

When one speaks of a language in its role in the language learning of the individual, one is thinking of whether it functions as a first language, second language or foreign language. It is this individual-orientated sense that I wish to make use of in the following. The relevant differences here are at what point in life one has learned/acquired the language, and for what purpose.


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Copyright © 2006 Karen Risager.
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Table of Contents

1. Language and Culture in a Global Perspective
2. Tour de France in German Language Teaching: A Preliminary Analysis
3. The Concept of Culture: An Introduction
4. Language, Nation and Culture: The German Tradition
5. Cultural Complexity
6. A Sociolinguistic View of Language
7. Linguistic Flows and Linguistic Complexity
8. Languacultural Dimensions
9. Discourse and Double Intertextuality
10. Cultural Contexts
11. Cultural Contents
12. Linguistic, Discursive and Cultural Flows
13. The Language-Culture Nexus
14. Language and Culture:A Multidimensional Relationship

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