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...
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 JOHN WOODSWORTH
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"Language and culture"
a communication continuum"
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PAPER presented at the Russian session
of the Autumn Conference of the Ontario
Modern Language Teachers' Association
University of Waterloo
20 October 1973
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(page updated 10 July 2002)
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PLEASE NOTE:

The following paper presents language and culture as overlapping aspects of a communication continuum, the middle part of which comprises a broad band where linguistic and cultural elements not only interact but often fuse together in the process of communicating concepts among human beings.

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"Language and culture"
a communication continuum"
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John Woodsworth


"Can the study of language be independent of the study of culture?"  This is a question that was posed a few years ago at a language teachers' conference in America by Jacqueline Elliott (1969).  I think you will find a clue as to how she herself would answer the question by looking at the title of her paper: "Language and culture: two for the see-saw".

Of course a lot depends on what is meant by culture.  Gage's Dictionary of Canadian English (Avis et al. 1967) gives two definitions appropriate to our discussion: (1) "fineness of feelings, thoughts, tastes, manners etc.", and (2) "the civilization of a given people or nation at a given time; its customs, arts, conveniences etc."  The first definition would cover the usual classic studies -- sometimes called formal culture (cf. Nelson 1972) -- art, music, literature, drama etc.; the latter refers to the observable behaviour of a people -- how they dress, what they eat, how they move their hands when talking etc.  This is termed deep culture, which cognitively inclined academics like myself would take a step further to include the implicit knowledge of these elements on the part of a cultural group and how they relate to communication through language.

Some observers have noted a tendency in language-teaching programmes to emphasise formal rather than deep culture (see Nelson 1972: 211), but a number of textbooks give considerable attention to deep culture as well.  Those of you who are familiar with the new edition of A-LM Russian: Level One (Liapunov 1969), for example, will have undoubtedly noticed the various cultural references to sports, films, food etc., and especially the 18-page pictorial section on "Glimpses of the USSR" (following p. 113).  These pictures are tied in with subsequent teaching units (for example, pages with pictures of children are cited in connection with a narrative on the beginning of the school year -- see p. 115).

As noted in a recent survey of Russian textbooks presented to last year's annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Slavists (Woodsworth 1973), emphasis on deep culture is also characteristic of the Nuffield (1967) Russian programme Vperëd!  The introduction to each unit comprises a page of 'background' (cultural) information relating to the topics of the narratives and dialogues included in the unit.  Further, the teacher is advised by the programme authors (Nuffield 1967:10) to "supplement the notes with his own knowledge of the Soviet Union and topical news items" (the points noted here may apply to other programmes as well).

*     *     *

In view of the above descriptions, one might conclude that the cultural component in these two programmes is quite extensive.  What more could one ask?

As far as culture (formal or deep) by itself is concerned, there might indeed be nothing more to be desired.  But I should like to ask again whether culture can be considered by itself.  "Can the study of language be independent of the study of culture?" was the question posed at the beginning of this paper.

I should like to offer the following comment regarding the treatment of culture in the two programmes described above: while culture may be related to the teaching units, it is not really related to the language.  Dr Victor Graham of the University of Toronto French Department has stated (1965: 3): "Language and culture are inextricably woven together, and a comprehension of one without the other is impossible."

I should point out that I am here using culture in a sense that goes beyond the observable outward behaviour of a people and more into the structure of knowledge (or 'cognitive structure', as it is sometimes called) governing this behaviour and its verbalisation in language.  I should like to quote briefly from a recent article by Peter Woolfson entitled "Speech is more than language" (1972: 97; the final phrase in the quotation below is attributed to George Trager):

When we think of communication among humans, we automatically think of language: the intricate system of sounds that differentiates between words that fit into a grammatical framework that makes sense.  Yet human communication is multi-dimensional, occurring within the setting of human interaction and functioning within that complex blueprint of life's activities called culture.  Culture, itself, can be considered "an interacting set of communications".


While all culture -- deep or formal -- may be considered communication in one sense, some aspects particularly of deep culture are more relevant than others to communication through language as we know it.  In order to distinguish these language-related aspects of culture, I should like to give them a special term -- namely, the context of the language.  Any aspect of culture relevant to the use or comprehension of a particular linguistic utterance would be considered the context of that utterance.

Perhaps you are more familiar with the term context in reference to "the parts directly before and after a word, sentence etc. that influence its meaning".  This is indeed the first definition of context offered by Gage's Dictionary, and designates what I would term the utterance's linguistic context.  But other factors influence the meaning of a word or utterance as well -- factors connected with the situation in which the utterance occurs, or factors involving the shared knowledge (or cognitive structure) of the speakers of a language; both of these could be considered a part of what I referred to earlier as the 'deep culture' of a people.  Note how they also tie in with Gage's second definition of the word context, namely, "the immediate environment; attendant circumstances or conditions; background".  The cognitive context, or the part of the culture that deals with what people know, is perhaps the most important, since this also governs the relation of the linguistic and situational context to linguistic utterances.  (This tripartite definition of context is developed more fully in Woodsworth 1973.)

*     *     *

By way of a small illustration of this interrelationship between language and culture ('context') I should like to refer to the use and comprehension of the word peredajte in Russian.  Any major Russian dictionary will offer a number of formal meanings for the verb peredat' (of which peredajte is the imperative); however, I should like to concentrate here on the influence of context on the use and comprehension of this single inflectional form in just one of the meanings listed in Ozhegov's (1961) Slovar' russkogo jazyka [Dictionary of the Russian language] -- a meaning perhaps best expressible in English as 'pass (something) along'.  Even in this one formal meaning, the word will have a variety of interpretations depending on the situation.

One possible use of the word, from the point of view of a speaker, is in a friendly conversation when one wishes to convey one's greetings to a third party whom one's interlocutor will likely be in contact with before the speaker.  (The Russian expression here is peredajte privet, as in Peredajte privet Ivanu! [Give my regards to Ivan], sometimes accompanied by pozhalujsta [please].)  What leads the speaker to utter the word peredajte in the expression of this particular thought?  Partly the situation (or situational context) of talking to a friend with whom the speaker shares a mutual acquaintance, but more significantly the previously acquired knowledge that this is what Russians usually say in such a situation to ask that a greeting be conveyed (including the implicit assumption that Russians in conversation frequently do convey greetings to third parties).  It is this knowledge that I should like to term the cognitive context of the word or utterance.

In comprehending the meaning of the word peredajte under these circumstances, the hearer is aided not only by the situational and cognitive context as just described, but also by the linguistic context in the form of privet plus the name of a familiar third party.  It may be said that the context reduces the hearer's uncertainty about what he hears not only to help him understand it better once he has heard it, but also to help him understand it in advance -- to anticipate or predict what he is about to hear.  As I pointed out in an earlier article (Woodsworth 1972), prediction on the basis of one's "prior knowledge of the language" plays a major role in fluent and effective comprehension.  In fact, if we did not make considerable use of prediction in our perception of linguistic utterances, we would simply not be able to comprehend them at the normal rate of speaking (compare the analysis of the reading process given by Frank Smith of OISE -- see esp. Smith 1971:69).

A rather different use of the word peredajte (but one which would come under the same formal meaning as far as the dictionary is concerned) may be observed on Russian buses.  If a passenger boards a bus and finds he cannot reach the fare-box because of the crowd, he 'knows' from his 'cognitive context' that this is an appropriate situation in which to use the form peredajte, and out it comes automatically, often accompanied by no more linguistic context than the word pozhalujsta [please].  This results in the expected reaction on the part of fellow-passengers -- who as Russians are quite accustomed to hearing peredajte in such a situation and in fact anticipate it -- namely the passing along of the newcomer's money to the fare-box.  More utternaces of Peredajte, pozhalujsta! are to be expected as the ticket is in turn passed back to the passenger.  Note that the form of the word here is the same as in conveying a greeting; the difference in conceptual interpretation lies in the influence of context -- not only the linguistic, but also the situational context, and above all the cognitive context that links the language to the situation.

*     *     *

We find then that as both speakers and hearers of linguistic utterances we are obliged to rely upon context (linguistic, situational and cognitive) in order to bridge the gap between the utterances and the concepts they are meant to represent: as speakers, to know what words will best express our message in the given situation, and as hearers, to understand (and predict) the meaning of the utterances we hear in terms of the situation in which they are uttered.  And what are situational and cognitive context (as we have defined them) but language-related aspects of the culture of a language community?

The argument that language cannot be used apart from its context, and that context (situational and cognitive) is a part of the culture of its speakers, brings new meaning to Trager's definition of culture (see Woolfson quotation above) as "an interacting set of communications" in itself, and gives us a new reason for our answer to the initial question of this paper.  But I think we would now have to go further and consider language and culture as more than just "two for the see-saw".  Perhaps jig-saw would more accurately describe the interrelationship, although in the puzzle of communciation the dividing lines between culture and language are not always so clear.  For the communication of a message is not just the transmission of a linguistic form against a cultural background; the culture itself is an integral part of the means of communication.  The meaning understood by the receiver of the message is not a function of words alone, but rather of the words in their situational and cognitive context taken as a whole.

Language and culture, rather than being two separate units which happen to co-incide in time and place in communicative acts, may be considered a continuum of means of communication, the middle part of which comprises a broad band where linguistic and cultural (contextual) elements not only interact but often fuse together in the process of communicating concepts among human beings.

Without  culture (or at least the language-related aspects of culture termed context, toward the middle of the continuum), language would be but a meaningless form as far as communication is concerned.  It follows that language-teaching programmes having meaningful communication with native speakers of the language as their goal cannot really afford to neglect at least the contextual elements of culture.  A 'cultural component' added to a basic language course is not sufficient.  It is the fitting together that counts.
 

© John Woodsworth, 1973.

 

 

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...
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"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you... 
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."

-- John 14:27
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