What is Culture?
A Look at the Perspectives, Practices, and Products That Mix Together to Make up a Culture
, King George County Public Schools
Sheila Cockey is a Spanish teacher at King George High School, VA, and was on the 2000 Steering Committee for writing the Virginia Standards of Learning for Foreign Languages. She is also the editor of the Foreign Language Association of Virginia (FLAVA) Bulletin. This article is based on a training session the author presented at a workshop jointly sponsored by the Virginia Department of Education and FLAVA in August 2000. The author based the presentation on the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century, published by the National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, and on the 2000 Foreign Language Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools.
Arriving early at the airport, you gather your baggage and travel companions together and go to the end of the line in front of the ticket counter. Thirty minutes later you are no closer to the front of the line. Why haven't you moved forward?
You are a female traveling on business. When you greet your counterparts, you reach out to meet their handshake. Yours is firm and friendly, but not long. The men have a very firm handshake; the women do not. In fact, their handshake feels like you are grasping a dead fish. Is there a message here?
A friend made an appointment for you with a travel agent to arrange a rental car. You arrive about five minutes before the scheduled appointment and finally enter his office thirty minutes later. Once seated, you begin to state your purpose. The travel agent seems to be ignoring your needs because he keeps asking questions about your mutual acquaintance and about your stay in his city. Finally, after another fifteen minutes of conversation, he gets down to business, arranges for the car, and you are out of his office within ten minutes. Why did he waste so much time on the niceties of casual conversation?
What was really happening in the above examples? In each of these personal experiences, the writer found that "her" culture and "their" culture had different ways of handling things. Moving in to the front of the line, especially if traveling with children, is the most efficient way to approach the ticket counter in some locales. In some circles, women who shake hands firmly, especially with men, are sending messages of a potential liaison following the meeting. It is considered necessary to establish a positive rapport with clients before conducting business in some societies.
Being in another country, or even in another part of one's own country, can bring with it confusing incidents. Because we are unaware of the underlying culture of the area, we often expect situations to progress in a manner to which we are accustomed at home. The bedrock of behaviors that govern interaction and communication contributes to creating a unique atmosphere in each country. Successful and enjoyable experiences rely heavily on acute observation and knowing "how, when, and why to say what to whom." (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project 11)
The culture of the group governs how, when, and why to say what to whom. Because culture is the context within which communication occurs, it is important to understand its origins. Culture drives the individual and governs his behavior, values, and possessions. One of the strands of the National Standards for Foreign Languages is devoted to Cultural Perspectives, Practices, and Products as a way of defining culture. By examining how these elements are connected, one may begin to unravel the mystifying ways in which people conduct themselves.
Culture is born of the interaction between two inextricably interwoven parts: the formal culture of the society as a whole and the informal aspects of the individual's daily lives within that society. These two sides of a culture are reflected in the language and behaviors of the people. The formal culture of the society, often referred to as "Culture with a big C", includes the social, political, and economic institutions, as well as the arts, literature, and music. "Culture with a little c" refers to the products of the everyday lives of individuals, including housing, clothing, and foods, as well as the patterns of daily behavior. Each half of the culture is as important as the other. The formal and informal cultures combine to create values, which determine behaviors, which create objects, which determine behaviors, which reflect values, in a never-ending cycle.
Another way to examine both the formal and informal halves of culture is to study the three inter-related components of perspectives, practices, and products that create the culture as a whole. The values of the formal and informal cultures determine the perspectives of the society. Those perspectives then govern the individual's behavior, or practices, in given situations. Their behavior leads to the development of objects, or products, that enable, or ease, the behavior.
Perspectives are often difficult to articulate. The traditional ideas, attitudes, and beliefs are the underlying values that justify a product or practice. They are what individuals think, based on their own particular vantage points, and are molded by society's over-arching framework and belief system. Perspectives comprise the world-view of the group and the individual.
The practices of a culture shape one's behavior into patterns that are accepted by society. They help control social interaction in specific contexts and are determined by one's position within the society. They include such formalized activities as rites of passage and the use of formal or informal language, as well as less formalized actions like the use of personal space and when to embrace, kiss, and/or shake hands.
The products of a culture reflect the values and physical needs of a society. The products are the inventions and innovations of individuals, such as foods, gadgets, games, or forms of transportation. They are also the aesthetic expressions of the group, and as such, include music, law, literature, and the arts. Products are both tangible and intangible.
Values, or perspectives, underpin the products and practices of a group. For example, in the United States today, we value mobility and independence. We practice this by following a job to another city, by attending a school or holding a job in another town. We manage to accomplish this because we have cars. The automobile is an American symbol of mobility and independence. Another illustration is the value we place on casualness in our life. We practice this by dressing and speaking in a casual and comfortable manner. The products that enable us to do this are blue jeans, tennis shoes, t-shirts and slang. A blue jean atmosphere is a casual and comfortable one to an American.
Culture is the complex mix of many unique ingredients. These ingredients derive from our history and our increasing contact with other peoples in today's ever-shrinking world. Influences come from past generations and traditions, from new technologies, from climates and geographies, from any and all imaginable sources. The disparate influences on these ingredients are often unpredictable or illusory in character and many may seem even whimsical on first inspection. Whatever their origins, it is the mixture of those many fragments that makes a culture be the unique thing that it is: the sum of its history and its present.
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Walking in Their Shoes: Understanding Perspectives in Other Cultures
Exploring a new culture is central to learning a language. For language learning, the National Standards divide "culture" into three major categories: products, practices and perspectives.
Products are the things a society creates, such as clothing, art, furniture, literature, movies, electronics, food, cars, medicines, tools, jewelry, and CDs. Practices are the society's traditions and rules. Perspectives are the beliefs and attitudes that people in a society share.
One of the greatest challenges for foreign language teachers in the U.S. is teaching students to understand the perspectives of people from different cultures. This is one of our most important missions as educators.
The National Standards stress the importance of understanding perspectives. Products and practices are what teachers use to help their students gain access to that more elusive, and deeply personal, aspect of culture, perspective. Exposing students to cultural products and practices alone does not necessarily develop students' understanding of unfamiliar perspectives.
Developing an understanding of a different cultural perspective is a personal process. You cannot do it for your student. You can take the student to the brink of understanding, but she must make the leap by herself. Below are a few examples of how you can help your students think from another perspective.
If you are teaching your class about sports in Mexico, for example, you might show the students a video clip of the soccer match. You could ask the students to try to understand the attitudes and feelings of many Mexicans about their soccer teams by inviting them to make inferences about these feelings from the behavior of the fans in the video clip. Ask them to imagine that they are in the audience. How do they feel about the game?
College students in Spain usually live at home with their parents and rarely hold full or part-time jobs. The community sees the only "job" of a college student as studying and attending classes. In order to help your students understand how most college students in Spain perceive their role, you might give them information about the lives of college students in Spain through reading and discussion. However, you need to go beyond simply reading and discussing in order to help your students gain an understanding of the perspective of the Spanish college student. Ask your students to try to put themselves in the shoes of the Spanish students. The point is not to judge another culture but rather to look for those assumptions and feelings they can relate to while consciously trying to build an understanding of how someone in the other culture thinks and feels.
To teach your students about the German concept toward "homeland" or "heimat," you may try to define the word for them, show them the word in context, and have them listen to interviews with Germans describing heimat. To help your students understand the German perspective toward the idea of "homeland," you also can ask them to use their background knowledge about German history, population migrations, and war, to enrich their understanding of the word and the cultural perspective that underlies its emotional intensity in German.
The best way to help your students understand the importance of a sport such as soccer, the role of a college student, or the meaning of a concept such as heimat is to link them to people who live in the target culture. Find key pals (electronic pen pals) for them and let them communicate with target culture people. Through authentic communication they will come to a deeper understanding of the people.
Learning a language is more than learning a linguistic code. It is more than learning about the products and perspectives of a culture. It means getting into the shoes of the people and trying to see what makes them tick. How do they feel, think, and react in certain situations? By making the language learning experience more personal and more authentic, you can help your students gain new perspectives and definitely broaden their horizons.
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