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Learning the Culture as well as the Words
M.Yahya Kharrat, King Khalid University, Saudi Arabia
The relevance of acculturation to foreign language learning is really significant when we consider learners who might be situated in the target speech community, and who must understand the cultural values that underlie speech acts if they are to interpret what is said with any accuracy. This article briefly investigates some problems that Arab EFL learners experience when they are placed in a situation where they feel they lack the means to communicate appropriately. The findings here pertain to Arab EFL learners who have only mastered basic vocabulary and syntax in the target language, but who have not developed full competence in sociolinguistic skills. Such learners might find communication with native speakers to be a negative experience. The paper concludes with the admonition that instruction in the target language should focus on enabling students to integrate satisfactorily into the foreign language culture and to express various types of speech acts appropriately.
Foreign language students must learn that the people of other cultures react to the realities of life in many different ways. Because they often have little or no exposure to other cultural patterns and customary beliefs of the target language, students of foreign languages are inclined to make premature value judgements about the speakers of that language. They, like most learners throughout the world, are brought up assuming, quite innocently, that their cultural patterns are right, while the practices of others are acceptable only to the degree that these reflect the belief of their own group. It is known that every culture imprints a value system on its members. Many students, therefore, react with bewilderment and intolerance to a set of values different from theirs (Shanahan, 1997). Languages cannot also be translated word-for-word; referential meaning of an utterance is often different from its underlying meaning. As Kramsch (1993) clarifies it, all languages have significant expressions that carry connotations which are beyond the meanings of the separate words themselves. For example, parallels between Arabic and English at the linguistic level often lead to a totally different underlying message. Thus, the phrase "Lovely weather , isn't it?" may be a greeting or way of starting a conversation in English countries, while in Arab countries, this provides only one meaning – the literal one.
We conclude that people's needs are almost universal, but what differs is the way in which these needs are satisfied in different societies. For example, what constitutes a proper request in Arabic may seem weird in English. To illustrate, the English language has many different ways of expressing the same idea in requests, whereas Arabic does not. Thus, Arab EFL learners are used to having less choice available to them for performing the same speech act in their own language. They, therefore, may use an English speech structure taken from their language that they think is appropriate in all situations. The native speaker is implicitly aware of the subtle differences between "Please + imperative" as a way of performing a request, and the use of "Could I have another cup of coffee, please?" The Arabic speaker, familiar with basically one form of request, is not. When requesting, he tends to say, "Please give me a cup of coffee". This is called sociolinguistic transfer which refers to the use of the rules of speaking of one's cultural group when interacting with members of another group. This may happen in interactions where a student learns a foreign language but employs the rules of speaking of his native language (Chick, !996).
As people converse, their interactions are based on their needs to create certain relationships and make connections with one another. However, when the conversation is between two people of different cultures, many things can go wrong. Although both parties have the best of intentions, they may perceive one another as unfriendly (Berns, 1990). They are not aware that they are operating on different sets of rules for certain topics. Arabs are curious to know marital status; number of children or the reason for not having any; and salary – all of which Westerners consider personal. Arab speakers would also keep nagging one inquiring after one's job, age, the company one works for, and how much this or that possession or article cost. Such inquiries may violate the norms of western culture.
Furthermore, Arabic has many more titles of address to choose from than does English. The system of titles in Arabic is extremely wide, which appears unnecessarily flowery to Americans. While English speakers have limited options such as "sir", "madam" for addressing people, "Fadilat al Sheikh" (His Eminence, the Sheikh) is used to address important clerics. Arabic uses the title "Sa'adit al ameed" (His Honor, the Dean) and "Ma'ali al mudeer (His Excellency, the Chancellor). Likewise, the use of pronouns or of first names is deemed rude in Arabic. For instance, North Americans would freely say "Hi, John!" or "Hi, Madeleine!" to their boss; while, in Arabic culture, one's boss should be addressed by the appropriate title. English does not also make use of pronoun distinctions as far as formality is concerned, whereas in Arabic, such a distinction is very important. For example, the distinction in Arabic between "anta" (you singular), and "antum" (you plural), signals a significant difference in formality. Addressing an important Arabic person by using "anta" instead of "antum" is considered impolite. Sneezing is considered a speech act different from culture to culture. In English, we say "Bless you" first, in response to another person's sneeze, whereas in Arabic, the sneezer says ""Alhumdullilah" (Praise be to God) first, to which the other person responds with Yarhamukumu Allah (May God have mercy on you. The sneezer then responds with "Athabakumu Allah" (May God reward you).
When learning to speak a foreign language, one must understand the religious underlying values of that language. Arabic has its faith in (Allah) God deeply ingrained within its speech acts. Any attempt to analyze speech acts in Arabic must recognize Islam as their foundation; everything occurs as God wills. The phrase, "insha'allah" (God willing), abundantly permeates Arabic conversation. A native English teacher might be confused by the student's intention when using such a statement, because, in English, it carries the connotation of "maybe" or "some day". Accordingly, when an Arabic EFL student is instructed to write an assignment, and says "insha'allah" to his teacher in response to the instruction, the latter might be exasperated because he expects his instructions to be followed as a matter of discipline, not as a matter of "insha'allah" (I will do that, if God wills). Thus, from the initial greeting of "Assalamu alaikum" (peace be with you), to the final parting salutation ("Fi amanilah" – May God safeguard you), a conversation in Arabic is replete with the notion of divine involvement. To the Arab speaker, English rhetoric is manifestly secular, and may display a lack of concern for divine involvement in the life of humankind. This could present a stumbling block in acculturation, which may affect language assimilation due to the dissonance between the mother tongue and the target language in matters of the religious content of speech formulae.
Like sneezing, silence can also be a speech act which varies from culture to culture. Silence in American culture is an appropriate behaviour towards a stranger at a bus stop, but in Arabic culture, it is otherwise. It is not hard to imagine the awkward situation resulting from this situation. The EFL Arab students might consider Americans aloof and distant if they kept silent and did not talk. The Americans, on the other hand, might consider that the stranger approaching them is being forward and intruding into their personal space. It follows that speech act patterns are not only different from culture to culture, but are also largely unconscious. As Valdes puts it, speech acts differ cross-culturally not in the way they are realized but also in the functions they serve (1988). To elaborate on this point, in English, after greetings are exchanged, compliments serve as a way of linking the greeting with a brief period of small talk about neutral topic such as the weather, before opening the topic (or focus) of conversation. This formula is considered odd to Arabic EFL students. In Arabic, by contrast, routine speech formulas are vastly different. Greetings in Arabic, for example, are expected in every social encounter and show fixed patterns (asking about parents, children, relatives, one's health, etc.). In the interest of intercultural understanding, a typical greeting exchange done almost every time people encounter each other is shown hereunder with the appropriate translation.
Sp 1 Assaluma aleikum Peace be with you.
Sp2 Wa aleikum assalaam and peace be with you, too.
Sp1 Keif al hal? How are you?
Sp2 Alhumdu llila May God be praised!
Sp1 Ma Akhbar al 'aila? What news about your family?
Sp 2 Hum bekhair. They are fine.
Sp 1 Wal awlad And your children?
Sp2 Hum bekhair aydan They are also fine.
From the above examples, it becomes clear that by analyzing patterns of speech acts between cultures, EFL students will become conscious of certain cultural attitudes they have never questioned before. Above all, they will develop the insight necessary to accept another culture on its own terms. The theoretical significance of recognizing this variation is that it points to the need for sociolinguistic descriptions of language in use. Oldin (1989) holds that native speakers can tolerate the syntactic and pronunciation errors made by foreign learners, but when the latter violate the norms of discourse in the target language, the violations are potentially much more serious than syntactic and pronunciation errors since such violations can affect "the presentation of self". Thus, the teaching of foreign language words and utterances isolated from their sociocultural contents may lead to the production of linguistic curiosities which do not achieve their communicative purposes (Cohen, 1996).
Language is not only a means of communicating information. It is also a means of establishing and maintaining relationships with other people. If we teach a foreign language without introducing, at the same time, the culture in which that language operates, we are merely conveying words – to which the student might attach the wrong meaning. Unless students understand the underlying cultural implications of the statement, they will attach their own cultural meaning to the statement. Hence, without sociolinguistic competence, the EFL student may not understand the behaviour of others and may show disrespect for the culture and traditions of other people. The teacher's thesis should never be "This is the way it is in our culture and this is the way it should be everywhere". Instead, it should be: "This is the way it is in our culture. How does your culture perceive that? How does your culture deal with the same issue? What do you think about it?" If students are encouraged to think for
themselves about culturally appropriate ways to convey a message to another group of different culture, they may awaken their own lay abilities for pragmatic analysis.
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