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Culture and Learning

 Language Learning Forum : Cultural Experiences in Foreign Languages Post Reply
37 messages over 5 pages: 1 2 3 4
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Speaks: Norwegian*, English, Spanish, French, Romansh, German, Italian
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 Message 33 of 37
31 October 2012 at 2:40pm | IP Logged 
Firstly, I think it is impossible to know "everything" about a culture. I am fluent in Norwegian, but I certainly do not know everything about Norwegian culture today. This is partly because I have been living outside Norway for almost 20 years, but it also has to do with differences between generations, and a general fragmentation of culture. When I was young, we had one (yes, one!) television channel in Norway, so everyone watched the same programmes. Today there are hundreds of channels to choose from, not to mention internet.

That being said, it is clear that in any country, there are certain common references from popular culture, both current and past, which a foreigner will not understand unless they have become truly familiarised with the culture. For example, in Norway we have the word "supperåd" (soup council) to describe an organisation or "quango" that is totally useless. The term comes from a TV sketch made by two Norwegian comedians in the 60s.

I have also noticed with interest that in the UK a lot of quotes from Monty Python are frequently used, even by politicians when speaking in Parliament: These come to mind: "Dead as a parrot", "What have the Romans ever done for us?" and ""What is the average wind speed velocity of an unladen swallow? African or European?"

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 Message 34 of 37
31 October 2012 at 3:43pm | IP Logged 
tarvos wrote:
That has nothing to with fluency but the Zeitgeist changing.

Whatever. All I am saying is that having cultural knowledge helps you to communicate
clearly and efficiently and that is the goal of language learning, isn't it? That you
can't be considered fluent if you are constantly stammering is kind of obvious.
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 Message 35 of 37
31 October 2012 at 6:30pm | IP Logged 
nimchimpsky wrote:
Stereotyping? What a narrow view of culture. Knowing your culture doesn't mean that you accept its values uncritically but you have to know it in order to change it. Over time the fringes can become mainstream.

I'm afraid I didn't make myself clear; I was using the term 'stereotype' as a psychological term. I did not use it as a replacement for prejudice or as a judgment on certain cultural trends, but to refer to the way one person perceives another person primarily as a member of a different group, rather than an inidvidual. In this instance, the group is perceived as more homogenous than it actually is. Typically, this mindset can be induced by statements like "the Dutch like cheese". If I interact with you using such a mindset, it means that I delude myself into thinking I know something about you as an individual, even though I only know something about the entire group of 'Dutch people'. More than that, many of those assumptions are plain wrong, outdated for decades, or fueled by prejudice.
Now, learning trivia about another culture usually happens exactly in that mindset that treats members of a different group as stereotypes. If you look at language textbooks, at 'learn to behave like a genuine Englishman' type guidebooks; listen to how people talk about their experiences in a foreign culture. These instances use stereotypes. Even my friends, who tend to be quite open to different cultures, say things like "in Paris, everyone walks across the street when the traffic light for pedestrians is red", they don't say "many people" or "more people than here".
However, when you treat another person primarily as an individual, and only then as a member of a certain group, you can avoid this stereotyping mindset.
Stereotyping is helpful because it saves mental effort when dealing with routine interactions in set roles, for example with a cashier or a waiter. It is not helpful when trying to learn more about another culture.

My reasoning is that because I already have some stereotyped views about the Dutch people, made up from my own cultural knowledge and prejudice, from trivia and from exposure to single Dutch individuals, because that concoction is bound to give me a rather skewed view of who the Dutch are, and because the differences between individual members of one group of people are often greater than the differences between different groups, it is not only more respectful of me to treat you as an individual, but it also helps me improve my cultural competence more, because with such a mindset, I process and remember information differently: With a 'stereotype' mindset, information is primarily judged as whether it makes you fit the stereotype or not; with the 'individual' mindset, information is processed and remembered as pertaining to you, and only possibly as also being relevant to other members of your group/s.

nimchimpsky wrote:
I also think you still underestimate the need for general topics to talk about. My Sister-In-Law is Hungarian and she likes to learn everything about Dutch politics so that she can join in conversations at parties. Knowing a culture enables you to speak not just to a few but to the entire country. However, it is of course a legitimate goal to be able to speak fluently about a specific subject but cultural knowledge can be truly enriching for learners.

I personally make good experiences with listening to other people. It tends to make people feel I'm interested in them, their experience and opinions.

nimchimpsky wrote:
By the way, I am using a very broad definition of culture. To me it is any unit of information native speakers assume you know which enables you to understand messages intended for a general audience.

I use a correct definition of culture. :P For a given definition of correctness, of course.
What you are talking about is described in the theory of common ground. As a non-native speaker of a language, you aren't necessarily expected to have access to said common ground. As a woman talking to a group of men in my culture, I am not expected to be able to talk about football, even though men in general are expected to, unless they openly identify as members of anti-popular subcultures.
The real common ground that all members of one of the bigger cultures* actually have access to is relatively easy to learn. However, the common ground shared within all different groups that are part of a society is impossible to learn even as a member of that society. A twenty-something will have different knowledge about a topic like WW2 than an octogenarian. Even though some twenty-somethings might talk to their own grandparents, and get a better idea of what might be known to their grandparents' generation, this is not true for all, not even for most twenty-somethings in my own culture.
So, the only way I see to deal with the common ground of a group is by learning from that particular group. It's what people do all the time.

*meaning more than a few hundred members, most of which know each other directly

Edited by Bao on 31 October 2012 at 8:28pm

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 Message 36 of 37
31 October 2012 at 7:54pm | IP Logged 
iguanamon wrote:
Maori is a language of the native Maori peoples in New Zealand, not
Australia. Case in point.

And you proved both my point and my lack of sleep (which is a bad excuse).
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 Message 37 of 37
04 November 2013 at 4:44am | IP Logged 
Depends on the circumstance. My background is Chinese. We recognize people in the community as speaking
"different dialects" and are still essentially Chinese. In the West Cantonese & Mandarin tend to be classified as
separate languages. Someone can be Cantonese-speaking from Hong Kong for instance and travel to China or
Taiwan without being fluent in Mandarin. People use chopsticks to eat and they bargain a lot when they go
shopping. On the other hand, there are a lot of Westerners and Chinese in America who knows how to eat with
chopsticks but are not fluent in Chinese.

Sometime ago I was in Taiwan for a tour and met a man who is as fluent in Chinese as I am. Coming from N.
America he did not have a habit of bargaining on the street. If an item cost $10 he would pay exactly the posted
amount. I would usually ask for a lower price. I don't think not bargaining when shopping makes him any less
Chinese. We exchange letters a few times a year. On his last letter he wrote about some disputed islands in the S.
China Sea claimed by Japan but "technically" belonged to China before the end of WWII. There has always been
some anti-Japanese sentiment since the occupation of China in the 1930s into the 40s. Some in the community
would not drive a Toyota or Nissan for this reason.

Part of learning a language involve watching movies, listening to the radio and other media. You naturally pick up
details in cultures. For instances if you are watching a movie from Singapore in Mandarin, you would notice they
don't address older people who are strangers by the usual 先生/太太 (Mr./Mrs.) but instead they prefer to use the
English Uncle/Auntie. I haven't been to Singapore or Malaysia but I picked this up watching local movies (not from
a Chinese phrase book). The Chinese culture is family oriented. Many people tend to be living close to their
families after they get marry like the Italians. You pick this up watching Chinese movies and dramas as well.

Edited by shk00design on 04 November 2013 at 4:45am

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