Culture Bound. Edited by Joyce Merrill Valdes.
Cambridge Language Teaching Library. –
Cambridge University Press, 1998. – pp. 3-6.
In 1911 when Franz Boas published his Handbook of American Indian Languages, he could not possibly have imagined that one day an excerpt from it would serve as an introductory article in a book that might be used in a course on teaching culture in foreign- and second-language classes; in fact, the teaching of foreign languages at that time was far removed from his sphere. Yet his work inspired a generation of anthropologists and sociologists before the applied linguists took up the subject of the effect of culture on languages and vice versa, and shaped it to their own use. The process of learning more about the interrelationship between culture and language within the native environment led the way to consideration of the effect of a second culture on second language learning.
The extent to which language, culture, and thought have influenced one another, and which is the dominant aspect of communication, have been matters of controversy for three quarters of a century; the influence of the work of Boas, Sapir, Whorf, Hoijer, et al. is seen in the amount of both speculation and careful research that has ensued. Stated perhaps simplistically, the current consensus is that the three aspects are three parts of a whole, and cannot operate independently, regardless of which one most influences the other two. To see them as three points in a constantly flowing circular continuum is surely more accurate than, say, to see them as an isosceles triangle, with one dominant over the other two. It is conceivable that the lack of acceptance of artificial languages such as Esperanto may be explained by their isolation of language from culture. Thought, in any real sense, is very difficult to express without an underlying value system understood tacitly by both the sender and the receiver in a communication, whether both, one, or neither speaks the language natively, no matter how scientifically successful the lanmay be. While it is true that an artificial language may be a politically wise choice for intercultural communication because it is offensive to none, on the other hand it is a poor choice for a more basic reason: No one can feel, or therefore think deeply, in an artificial language.
The research that has been produced in this century has evolved the theory that a native culture is as much of an interference for second language learners as is native language. Likewise, just as similarities and contrasts in the native and target languages have been found to be useful tools in language study, so cultural similarities and contrasts, once identified and understood, can be used to advantage. Devotion to a language other than one's own is quite common among those who venture into other languages, most often with the connection in mind between the language and the people who speak it. One says, "I love French – it's so musical and expressive," and produces a mental image of a Frenchman or woman speaking in pleasing notes with sparkling eyes and communicative gestures. Another says, "I love German – it's so precise, regular, and dependable," and the stereotype that peeks out from the mind of the speakers is of a sturdy blond plodding down a straight path, keeping a wary eye out for accusatives and datives. Such reactions to both languages and people are subjective, impressionistic, and, fortunately, variable. Yet it is very natural to associate a people - in appearance, manners, and possibly thought patterns – with the language they speak. The most successful language learners are able to take on the "mindset" of the speakers of the second language, assuming the culture along with the language (though not, of course, without reservations that are consistent with their own mindsets). Yet most people are not aware of themselves as cultural beings, products of their own environments, whether or not they are aware of the cultural base for the behavior of persons from other environments.