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Social Dimensions of Education

Relationship Between Language and Culture

It culture can affect the structure and content of its language, then it follows that linguistic diversity derives in part from cultural diversity.



Perhaps the most significant of the inventions made possible by culture is language. The learning of culture takes place through language. From our enormous capacity to learn and use language is derived our collective memory (myths, fables, sayings, ballads, and the like), as well as writing, art, and all other media that shape human consciousness and store and transmit knowledge.

Attempts to explain the diversity of languages have focused on the possible interactions between language and other aspects of culture. If culture can affect the structure and content of its language, then it follows that linguistic diversity derives in part from cultural diversity.

Language is an integral part of culture and human culture cannot exist without it. All human societies have languages. In some simple societies where people cannot read or write, they have a spoken language. Through the use of language, wide vistas of reality have been opened. What we have observed and experienced, as well as our norms, values, and ideas exist because we have learned to identify or experience these things through language. These things are shared and transmitted from one generation to another through the process of socialization (Panopio et al, 1992).

One way a society’s language may reflect its corresponding culture is in lexical content, or vocabulary. When experiences, or objects are singled out and given words it may be the result of cultural characteristics.

An approach that may reveal the difference between language and culture is to study how children in different cultures (speaking different languages) develop concepts as they grow up. If language influences the formation of a particular concept, we might expect that children will acquire that concept earlier in societies where the languages emphasize that concept. For example, some languages make more or gender differences than others.

One long-standing claim concerning the relationship between language and culture is that the structure of a language determines the way in which speakers of that language view the world somewhat weaker version is that the structure does not determine the world-view but is still extremely influential in predisposing speakers of a language toward adopting a particular world view. This claim has intrigued many anthropologists and linguists and there is a fairly extensive literature concerning it. The opposite claim would be that the culture of a people finds reflection in the language they employ: because they value certain things and they do them in a certain way, they come to use their language in ways that reflect what they value and what they do. In this view, cultural requirements do not determine the structure of a language – the claim is never that strong – but they certainly influence how a language is used and perhaps determine why specific bits and pieces are the way they are.

Edward Sapir, a linguist, acknowledged the close relationship between language and culture, maintaining that they were inextricably related so that you could not understand or appreciate the one without a knowledge of the other. 

So complete is the human reliance on language that it often seems that language actually determines the possibilities for thought and action in any given culture. Perhaps we are actually unable to perceive phenomena for which we have no nouns or to engage in actions for which we have no verbs. This idea is expressed in the linguistic-relativity hypothesis. In its most radical form, the linguistic-relativity hypothesis asserts that language actually determines the possibilities for a culture’s norms, beliefs and values. Another acceptable version of the theory recognizes the mutual influences of culture and language. One does not determine the other. For example, A person who loves to watch birds will have a much larger vocabulary about bird habitats and bird names than one who cares little about bird life.

So, although the extreme version of the linguistic-relativity hypothesis is incorrect, it has been a valuable stimulus toward the development of a less biased view of other cultures. It is to he understood that a culture’s language both expresses how the people of that culture perceive and understand the world and at the same time, influences their perceptions and understandings.

No amount of training can produce the more advanced uses of language found in all normal humans, no matter what their culture. For example, every human language allows its speakers to express an infinite number of thoughts and ideas that can persist even after their originators are gone. This property of human language which is not shared by any other known species (Eisley, 1970 as cited by Kornblum, 1991), allows human to transmit their culture from one generation to the next.

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