Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Paper presented at Symbiosis Pune, 12th Feb. 2011

Title of the Presentation
Linguistic and Cultural Interference in Language Learning.

Author- Skand Shukla
Principal ELTI, UP, Allahabad.

e-mail- skandshukla@yahoo.com

phone no.- 09415254692


It goes without saying that language is embedded in culture. English language is a native of the West which has a culture different in many ways from that of India. Even in India, there are various nuances of that one cultural bed rock which imparts it one hue. One of them is the linguistic variety in this country. Teaching of English therefore involves overcoming these differences of cultures which hamper the acquisition of the second language by a young mind.
India has a different climate, geography and philosophy of looking at things vis-a- vis the West. For instance, it can be difficult for a child to understand as to how can one enjoy outdoors a season like summer, while reading a rhyme (created in the West) celebrating the outdoor frolics during this season. The teachers need to be aware of the cultural differences of our country and that of the West and, also of the extent the cultural background influences learning and teaching.
This paper purports to present some of the differences in the culture of India and the West, the linguistic varieties in our country and, how these differences affect the learning- teaching process. It also purports to explore some approaches in text book writing and employment of teaching methodologies in the classroom conducive to overcoming the hurdles in teaching- learning English in an environment different from where it is native to.

Key Words - cultural and linguistic differences, second language acquisition, implication for the English teacher, classroom methodologies.

Profile of the writer- An officer of the Educational Services of Uttar Pradesh, presently posted as Assistant Dy. Director at the Directorate of Education Allahabad and also holding the charge of Principal ELTI, UP, Allahabad . Articles related to academics have found place in newspapers like The Hindu, The Times of India, Hindustan Times and, The Economic Times.
The Paper
  • Linguistic and Cultural Interference in Language Learning
    The evolution of a language is related to its cultural environment. Even in a unilingual country the singular language has multiple nuances depending on the immediate cultural circumstances. Again, the standard forms of a language also change with the change in ambience. The inclusion of newer words in every new edition of the authoritative English Dictionaries is a testimony to this. India not only is a multilingual country, but also, every prominent language has multiple dialects- for example, Hindi language has two prominent dialects- Bhojpuri and Awadhi, quite different in a number of respects from each other. The pronunciation of English by a Bhojpuri speaking person is generally different from an Awadhi speaking one. Besides linguistic, other cultural differences between various regions also exist that influence the teaching and learning of a language. The world – view of the teacher, the taught and the society also have a major role to play in the teaching-learning. This world view and culture not only differ in various parts of the world but also keep on changing in any one part of it.
    This paper purports to examine some such issues that influence the teaching – learning of English in the Hindi regions of India.
    "Culture and communication are inseparable because culture not only dictates who talks to whom, about what, and how the communication proceeds, it also helps to determine how people encode messages, the meanings they have for messages, and the conditions and circumstances under which various messages may or may not be sent, noticed, or interpreted . Culture is the foundation of communication." (Samovar, Porter and Jain, 1981:24) quoted by ZHANG Xue-wei, YAN ying-jun in the article ‘Cultural Influences are English Language Teaching’ (US- CHINA Education Review, ISSN 1548-6613-USA, Aug. 2006, Vol. 3 No. -8)
    Some instances of the cultural and linguistic differences between the west and India -
    - There is a difference between a westerner and an Indian in the way the world is viewed. In The Geography of Thought (Nisbett 2003) has shown that Asians think in terms of ‘relationships' while westerners think in terms of 'objects'. A sense of reverence towards living or even non-living objects permeates the world view of the Indians. A teacher or elder is not addressed by his name/surname. Family friends are identified through some relationship – 'Uncle', 'Aunty', 'Chacha', 'Mama' etc. There are two different ways of addressing an elder and the younger – 'Aap' (for former) and 'Tum' (for younger) in Hindi.
    - The structure of an English sentence is different from that of a Hindi one. In Hindi syntax, the subject is followed by the object and the verb is placed at the end (ex. Mohan ghar gaya). In English, the subject is followed by the verb and the object is placed at the end ( ex.- Mohan went home)
    - There is no concept of ‘Articles’ in Hindi.
    - The seasons in India are different from those in the West. Shakespearean Sonnet, 'Shall I compare thee to a Summers day’ or, Keats’ ‘Ode to Autumn' are a tad difficult to be understood by one who is not familiar with the western summer or autumn.
    The teachers often have difficulty in explaining 'autumn' to an Indian primary student because even they have no idea of such a season.
    - Associative contexts in which a word is used in a place might evoke a different understanding of that word. I remember that the word 'darling' raised shy smiles among us when a teacher addressed a student lovingly by this term. As 10 years old we had heard it being used in the Hindi films in only one connotation.
    - Is there an English equivalent of the word 'Pranam' or even 'Namaste'? Eliot did not attempt to translate ‘Shantih’ in The Wasteland because, as he himself explained, no English word could have conveyed the sense that ‘Shantih’ does. These words are unique to a country’s culture and world-view.
    - The class 6 book of English in the Government schools in U.P. refers to 'Santa Claus' which teachers find difficult to explain and, so does happen in explaining 'basketball' as 'our favorite game’ in the chapter on 'team work' in the book of class 8.
    - The references in our texts to 'fireplace', 'mantelpiece' in the homes and, the hobbies such as 'camping', 'hiking', 'fishing' evoke questioning glances not only by the pupil but also by the teachers.
    - The synonyms such as- great, big, large, huge- confuse the teacher and the taught.
    - The cultural differences are not only between the West and India, but also between the urban and rural settings in the Hindi belt of the country.
    A nursery level student from the urban area is not unfamiliar with certain English words like 'Good morning', 'sit down', 'hospital', vis-à-vis a student in the remote areas of the Hindi belt. Again, references like- 'zebra crossing', 'traffic signals', 'going out for a picnic', taking a flight'- are remote from the experiences of a student belonging to a rural area.
    - The technical revolution has created another divide between the rural and urban settings. American slangs on cable TV, Computer-language and, short messages on cell phones have affected the language of the urban kids. The structured language has gone hay-wire.
    Dealing with the issue:
    Keeping the issue of cultural interference in mind, changes are required at various steps to improve EL acquisition. It is also a moot point that, should English language, with its permeation of all Indian languages during its long (over 2 centuries) stay in our country, be treated as native. Perhaps the British with the coining of words such as 'pathrao', 'lathi charge' had begun this movement towards making it native. The point is pertinent because the teaching – learning of a native language vis-à-vis a foreign language evokes different psychological responses from the teacher, taught and, the society. In any case, some changes are a must for an effective ELT in the areas of test-book writing, teacher training and, teaching practice, particularly at the primary education level.
    While developing text-books at the primary and upper primary level those references can be avoided that are outside the cultural orbit of the pupil. This does not mean keeping the young minds away from new knowledge but means that those references can be avoided that may strain their understanding and imagination. It will be better if the references are related to their familiar world and objects.
    Teacher Training:
    The teacher – trainees should be made aware of the cultural – linguistic interference issue. This will make them understand that in a motley class a varied teaching practice would be required. Also, that the old method of teaching English by rote is not proper.
    For instance, a student from the 'Bhojpuri' speaking area in the Hindi belt has problems in distinguishing between 'Sh' and 'S' sounds. A student from the western part of U.P. has problems in speaking words like 'minute' (pronounced by them as 'mint'). Incidentally my name 'Skand' is pronounced as ‘Sikand’ by many from the North-Western part of the country. It was even published as 'Sikand' by such a luminary as Khushwant Singh recently in a column of his. The training courses should emphasize on this aspect so that the teacher can effectively teach English to students from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
    Teaching methodology:
    For a student studying English in India, his classroom (and in that too the English period) is the only atmosphere that he gets of the language. In fact this stands true for the teacher also. Some ideas regarding the teaching of English are as follows-
    - The teacher should master the English language as much as possible. Since in most of the schools one teacher teaches all the subjects at the Primary level, the teacher can use some English terms also while teaching other subjects. Thus the span of the atmosphere of the English language can be expanded.
    - References to terms beyond the student’s cultural domain would require explaining the related contexts by the teacher.
    - The teacher should be aware of the concept of interference of the local dialect/language of the pupil so that he may plan his lessons to tackle those points in the teaching of the structure and pronunciation in which he notices an adverse affect of this interference on the learning of English. For this he has to be a patient listener.
    - In large classrooms groups of students can be formed to carry out various exercises like loud-reading and role plays.
    - Graded Reading Materials can be developed to give the students an increased exposure of the language.
    - Films with understandable pronunciation on prescribed texts can be shown to the students.
    Rote method cannot be successful in teaching English to the students who have another language as their mother tongue. The teacher-trainers, text-book writers and, the teachers must be made aware of the differences in the culture of our country and that of the native place of English i.e. the West. Only then they can form strategies to overcome the barriers created by the linguistic and cultural interference in the learning of English.

    Skand Shukla.

    1) Wilga M. Rivers- Teaching Foreign Language Skills, The University of Chicago Press (1968)
    2) Allen & Campbell -Teaching English as Second Language, Tata MaGraw Hill (1972)
    3) M L Tickoo- Teaching and Learning English, Orient Longman (2003)
    4) ZHANG Xue-wei, YAN Ying-jun- Culture Influences on English Language Teaching- US- China Review, ISSN 1548-6613,USA, Aug 2006, Vol 3 , No.8
    5) Tod Vercoe – Taking Advantage of Cognitive Difference of Asians and Westerners in the Teaching of English- Asian EFL Journal, Sep. 2006, Vol. 8, Issue 3 Article 14.