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What should our students know about language and culture?

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Dr. Algirdas Makarevicius

Language is the most important component of culture. It would be impossible to catch the subtlest nuances and meanings of other cultures without knowing the language.

Learning a second, third or fourth language is easier in early childhood than at an older age.  It is particularly important to learn correct pronunciation when a person is young.  At any age, learning by constant contact with native speakers in their own society is the quickest and best way.  It is superior to taking foreign language classes because it forces you to concentrate on it all of the time.  In addition, you are immersed in the culture and learn it simultaneously.  This immersion approach can be psychologically stressful, but it is an effective way of getting the new language patterns into long term memory.  Young children learn their native language in just this way, since they are surrounded by parents who essentially speak a "foreign" tongue. People tend to perform mental tasks with the language in which they learned them.

Communication is far more than speech and writing.   Most of us are unaware that we are communicating in many different ways even when we are not speaking.  The same goes for other social animal species.  We rarely learn about this mostly non-verbal human communication in school even though it is very important for effective interaction with others.  Growing up in a society, we learn how to use gestures, glances, slight changes in tone of voice, and other auxiliary communication devices to alter or emphasize what we say and do.  We learn these highly culture bound techniques over years largely by observing others and imitating them. Linguists refer to all of these auxiliary communication devices as paralanguage.

It is part of the redundancy in communication that helps prevent ineffective communication.  It can prevent the wrong message from inadvertently being passed on, as often is the case in a telephone call and even more so in a letter.  The paralanguage messages that can be observed through face to face contact also makes it more difficult to lie or to hide emotions.  Paralanguage is often more important in communication than what is actually being said orally.  It has been suggested that as much as 70% of what we communicate when talking directly with others is through paralanguage.

The most obvious form of paralanguage is body language.

The human communication process is more complex than it initially seems.  Most of our messages are transmitted through paralanguage.  These auxiliary communication techniques are highly culture bound.  Communication with people from other societies or ethnic groups is fraught with the danger of misunderstanding if their culture and paralanguage is unknown to you or ignored.

Kinesics is the language of gestures, expressions, and postures.
Proxemics is the study of interaction distances and other culturally defined uses of space.
Language is more than just a means of communication by using words.   It influences our culture and even our thought processes. Therefore, we must learn a foreign language in the context of culture. More....

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