Friday, September 17, 2021

Separating Culture and Language

 It’s popular nowadays for language instructors to insist that language and culture must be taught together. And certainly, culture shapes language in ways that can be difficult to disentangle. However, I think the embracing of “language = culture” can sometimes have some bad effects, and it’s valuable to consider teaching languages in a more culture-independent manner sometimes.

I attended French immersion classes from pre-Kindergarten to grade 6. And while I was proud of my French language fluency, my exposure to French culture was a deeply negative experience.

The first problem is assimilationism. “Language = culture” generally presupposes that each language has one singular, uniform culture attached to it, usually either the most politically dominant culture overall, or the one most represented in the local community. In Canadian French immersion, the culture taught is mostly French Canadian culture with some highlights of French-from-France culture. No mention is made of other French-speaking cultures.

The French immersion school system requires that attendees have French ancestry, defined officially as “ancestors who spoke French as a first language”. With my father being third generation Belgian, with an even mix of Flemish-speaking and French-speaking Belgian ancestors, I qualified. But French-speaking Belgians - also known as Walloons - are culturally distinct from people from France, and my French immersion school gave me no real connection to my own French-speaking ancestors’ culture.

My parents once suggested at a PTA meeting that they could ask a friend of a friend, who was from a former French colony in Africa, to come and speak at our school about French-speaking culture in her home country. The response they got was hostile and incredulous - why would they possibly want some African to come and speak to them about French culture? (I have no doubt that racism played a big part in their reaction.)

In my school, the assimilationism was explicit, for reasons I’ll get into shortly. In other language classes I’ve seen, the assimilationism is more implicit - simply the failure to acknowledge that any other culture associated with that language could exist. My Spanish class, for example, made no mention of Latin American culture, while talking extensively about the dominant culture of Spain. He also made no mention of linguistic and cultural minorities in Spain, such as Catalonia, and even objected to me suggesting that we should acknowledge that not literally everyone in Spain spoke Spanish*. (In retrospect, maybe that’s a bad example of implicit assimilationism.)

Controversy in the USA about African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) - a dialect of English often treated by English teachers as simply “bad English” - highlight that this linguistic assimilationism is not just a problem in second-language instruction. The idea that there’s one true dialect of every language, spoken by the one true culture for that language, permeates language instruction in general.

And let’s talk about culture. Even setting aside the issue of cultural diversity, should we really be uncritically holding up any and every culture we associate with the speakers of a language as the ideal for language learners? Should learning to speak French inherently go along with learning to be French?

After all, though it’s controversial to say in these days of cultural diversity and equality, the truth is that cultures can have bad elements. French culture, in my experience, includes a significant element of racism and nationalism, as well as an obsession with purity. French is superior, according to my teachers. French language, French culture, French ancestry, all of it is superior, and to be a French-speaking person with the right French ancestry makes you a superior being. Meanwhile, a person who is speaking French poorly is disgusting and worthy of mockery, because they are not French. And someone who lacks French ancestry can never truly speak French properly. (It really irked them that I was actually good at French, despite my inferior ancestry.) And the worst thing of all was to use a loan word or Englishism in your French - even when French people from France happily do so.

This was not a good influence on me. I took to mocking my own mother for making mistakes in French when helping me with homework, and although I thought of it as playful, my mother told me it hurt her feelings. And the negative experiences and associations I built with French culture eventually robbed me of my French fluency, since once I was out of that school and no longer forced to speak French, I found it triggering to speak it or hear it spoken. The French pronunciation of my real name still makes me tense up sometimes.

Lately, however, I’ve found that I want to reclaim my French fluency, and teach my child (once I have one) to speak French. But in order to do so, I have to figure out how to reject French culture while still speaking French.

When I was playing World of Warcraft, I found a non-player character who was a human, at war with the orcs, who spoke Orcish well enough to translate a letter I gave him as part of a quest. This random fictional character came as a revelation to me - I’d always found that if I disliked a culture, it was impossible for me to motivate myself to speak their language, and yet here was an illustration that you could hate a culture and be fluent in their language. Granted, this character was a racist, not someone to emulate in many ways, but he did illustrate one important fact: language is not culture. The fact that he was fluent in Orcish didn’t mean he’d accepted any influence of Orcish culture on his sense of self. And that gave me a model for how I might regain my French.

* After all, Spanish people have children, and a child doesn’t speak any language for several months. And although at the time I was unaware of the linguistic minorities native to Spain, I knew there had to be immigrants, as well as Deaf people and people with communication disabilities.


Post a Comment

<< Home