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Culture and Language

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 19, 2013

Culture and Language

The power of language to reflect culture and influence thinking was first proposed by an American linguist and anthropologist, Edward Sapir (1884–1939), and his student, Benjamin Whorf (1897–1941). The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis stated that the way we think and view the world is determined by our language (Anderson & Lightfoot, 2002; Crystal, 1987; Hayes, Ornstein, & Gage, 1987). Instances of cultural language differences are evidenced in that some languages have specific words for concepts whereas other languages use several words to represent a specific concept. For example, the Arabic language includes many specific words for designating a certain type of horse or camel (Crystal, 1987). To make such distinctions in English, where specific words do not exist, adjectives would be used preceding the concept label, such as quarter horse or dray horse.

Cultural differences have also been noted in the ways in which language is used pragmatically. In our American culture, new skills are typically taught and learned through verbal instruction (Slobin, 1979). In some cultures, new skills are learned through nonverbal observation. A distinction has also been made between cultures that encourage independent learning and those that encourage cooperative learning (McLeod, 1994).

Differences in the social roles of adults and children also influence how language is used. Home and school contexts may represent different cultures, subcultures, or both and may influence language acquisition in noticeable ways. Nonverbal cues (e.g., facial expression) and contextual cues (e.g., shared experience) have different communicative roles in different cultures (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 2003). In some cultures, prelinguistic children (who are not yet verbalizing) are spoken about rather than spoken to (Heath, 1983). Children may be expected, and thus taught, to speak only when an adult addresses them. They are not encouraged to initiate conversations with adults or to join spontaneously in ongoing adult conversations. Additionally, in some cultures, children who enthusiastically volunteer answers at school are considered show-offs (Peregoy & Boyle, 1993). In some cultural settings, children are not asked recitational questions. Instead, they are asked only questions of clarification or for new information. Thus, when these children experience recitational questions in a school setting, they may be confused as to the purpose of the questioning and the expected response.

Further cultural differences in how language is used in educational settings have been documented by Tharp (1994). These differences include variations in how stories are told, the wait time given by teachers to students during questioning sequences, the rhythmic patterns of the verbal interactions, and the patterns of conversational turn-taking.

During the 1970s and 1980s, educators and linguists researched and debated the verbal-deficit perspective. This perspective contended that anyone who did not use standard English did not have a valid language and thus was verbally deficient. Although the verbal-deficit perspective has now been proven invalid, it is important to understand the research that was conducted to either support or discredit that perspective. Bernstein (1971), Bereiter and Englemann (1966), and Labov (1979) were among the researchers who studied language differences between different social groups, including middle- and lower-income groups and ethnic groups. This body of research identified specific differences in the way children from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds used language in school and out-of-school settings. Implications of this research have been widely discussed and interpreted in a variety of ways.

Basil Bernstein (1971) documented the different linguistic codes used by children from lower- and middle-income families in England. Lower-income children were described as using a “restricted code” or highly contextualized language, while children from middle-income families used an “elaborated code,” or decontextualized language. His research also documented differences in school achievement for these two groups of children. Interpretations of Bernstein’s work concluded a cause–effect relation between language use and school success, supporting a “verbal deficit” perspective: the working-class environment of the low-income children created a verbal deficiency responsible for subsequent low educational achievement (Winch, 1990).

Here in the United States, Bereiter and Englemann (1966) conducted further research from the verbal-deficit perspective. They focused on the language of preschool African American children in Urbana, Illinois. Bereiter and Engleman concluded that the language used by African American children was not a valid language and thus recommended that these children needed to be taught English in the school setting (Winch, 1990). Academically oriented preschool curricula were developed (e.g., Blank, Rose, & Berlin, 1978) to provide the needed English language training for verbally deficient children.

William Labov (1979; Winch, 1990) explored social dialects of lower income African American children in urban settings. He studied the differences in children’s in-school and out-of-school (e.g., playground) language competencies. His data directly challenged the verbal-deficit theory because it documented the elaborated and systematic linguistic properties of Black English. His research supported the idea that Black English was a separate language system with its own grammar and rules. Labov described dialects as having “slightly different versions of the same rules, extending and modifying the grammatical processes which are common to all dialects of English” (Labov, 1995, p. 54). Labov’s research supported the idea that verbal differences are not verbal deficits. Because Labov’s research focused on language used in academic and nonschool settings, he also created a greater awareness of the role of context and dialect in communication.

Tough (1977) conducted a longitudinal study of children from advantaged (college-educated, professional parents) and disadvantaged (parents who were in unskilled or semiskilled occupations) homes. The study began when the children were 3 years old, with follow-up at 5 1⁄2 and 7 1⁄2 years. At age 3, the disadvantaged children and the advantaged children showed significant differences in the ways they used language. Specifically, the disadvantaged children did not use language to recall and give details of prior experiences, anticipate upcoming events and possible outcomes, reason about current and remembered events, problem solve using language for planning and considering alternatives, reach solutions, create and sustain dramatic play events, and understand others’ experiences and feelings. When these children were studied again at 5 1⁄2 and 7 1⁄2 years, the disadvantaged children produced shorter, less complex responses. This research contributed to our understanding that children from different cultural environments may be learning to use language differently and may experience difficulty in participating in the language environment in classrooms.

Further awareness of the role of cultural environments in the acquisition of language was influenced in the 1980s by ethnographic research techniques that were used by language researchers. Ethnographic studies have contributed significantly to our understanding of linguistic diversity. Ethnography uses participant observation in real-life settings and focuses on individuals within their social and cultural contexts. In her ethnographic study, Heath (1983) explored children’s acquisition of language at home and school in two communities in the southeastern United States. She found differences in communication in working-class black and white families as well as among middle-class townspeople of both ethnic groups.

Heath also described differences in story structures, language, and sense of “truth” (fiction vs. nonfiction) that children learned at home that were different from those expected at school. To be successful at school, these children had to be able “to recognize when a story is expected to be true, when to stick to the facts, and when to use their imaginations” (Heath, 1983, p. 294).

Heath’s research also documented valid and authentic differences in the ways language is used and in the ways in which children in those respective communities become competent language users. Heath concluded that the contrasts she found in language were not based on race, but on complex cultural influences in each community.

The importance of family context in language acquisition was more recently described by Hart and Risley (1995, 1999). Findings from their longitudinal study document the significance of “talkativeness” in families in influencing language acquisition rather than the family’s socioeconomic status or ethnic group identity. Differences in language use were attributed to the complex family culture—not simply due to socioeconomic status or ethnic group identity. Among the families that were studied, the most important difference was in the amount of talking. Children in families where there was more talking developed higher levels of language in the areas of vocabulary growth and vocabulary use. These differences were strongly linked to school performance at age 9.

Among these families, Hart and Risley (1995) identified five quality features in parents’ language interactions with their children:

  1. Language diversity: the variation and amount of nouns and modifiers used by the parents
  2. Feedback tone: the positive feedback given to children’s participation in the interaction
  3. Symbolic emphasis: the emphasis placed on focusing on names and associated relations of the concepts and the recall of those symbols
  4. Guidance style: parental interaction that used asking rather than demanding in eliciting specific behavior from the child
  5. Responsiveness: parental responsiveness to requests or questions initiated by children

Hart and Risley (1995) speculated that these categories may be “important for the language-based analytic and symbolic competencies upon which advanced education and a global economy depend” (p. 193).

A current hypothesis on why children from diverse linguistic backgrounds experience difficulty in school is the socialization mismatch hypothesis. This hypothesis “predicts that children are more likely to succeed in school when the home language and literacy socialization patterns are similar to those that are used and valued in school” (Faltis, 1998, p. 23). This hypothesis has been applied to children who speak a nonstandard English dialect as well as to children who are learning a second language. Home language socialization patterns may differ from those favored in the school classroom in the following ways (Faltis, 1998):

  1. The amount of talk directed to preschool children
  2. The participation of young children as conversation partners with adults
  3. Opportunities children have to explain or give a personal interpretation of events
  4. The types of questions asked of children during storybook sharing
  5. The forms of narrative that are used (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, or ongoing narratives)

In addition, the social interaction patterns used in the classroom may vary from the home culture’s with respect to expectations for competitive versus collaborative or cooperative activities as well as the “courtesies and conventions of conversations” (Tharp, 1994, p. 140).

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