Cultural Literacy and Language Learning
By Jesse Hsu
When I was living in the small rural town in Hokkaido years ago, I met a cheerful Japanese man in his mid-forties who had impeccable English. He not only spoke with great confidence and fluency, but his pronunciation, diction, and intonation were exceptional. Still, there was something unfamiliar with the manner he spoke. I could not put my finger on what it might be.
In the course of our conversation, I discovered a curious detail. Mr. Tanaka* revealed that he learned English almost exclusively through listening to and imitating American radio news broadcasts. As a result, he spoke very much like a radio broadcaster. His words were not only meticulously articulated and spoken with dramatic intonation, but also his choice of syntax was very formal. It was almost like there was an invisible wall between himself and me, a barrier implicit in the form of communication he adopted that was developed for efficiently conveying information to a large audience over the radio. Though his command of English was undeniably remarkable, there was something he lacked: cultural literacy.
Cultural literacy means being familiar with the norms, practices, and habits of any given culture. In terms of language, this equates to being able to tailor one’s language to match a specific social situation. The type of language found in a business meeting and a bowling alley will be terrifically different, as is the written forms found in smartphone messaging, technical reports, and novels; each of these situations has its own ‘social rules’ which will both shape the language used and the nature of social relationships around them. Cultural literacy is, in effect, learning to navigate smoothly through each scenario.
How is cultural literacy developed? One answer lies in noticing the linguistic variations for each social context. Linguists have pointed out that the language of any text, spoken or written, can be described in three dimensions: the ‘what’ of a text (what is the text about?), the ‘who’ of the text (who is involved in communication and what is their relationship?), and the ‘form’ of the text (where is this text normally found?). Through considering these dimensions, the language of any given social context can be well described. Is the language supposed to be more everyday-like or technical? More informal or formal? Concrete or abstract? Personal or impersonal? More spoken or written?
In the case of Mr. Tanaka, he brought language normally used for only radio broadcasting (and other ‘public speaking’ events) to a wildly different communicative context—casual conversation. He overlooked the fact that radio broadcasting language is much more formal, serious, and impersonal, while conversation language tends to be more casual, light, and personal.
Cultural literacy is a fundamental to communication and therefore, language learning. Developing fluency in a language is not simply memorizing and using words, phrases, grammatical structures, but also being aware which words and phrases to use in a wide range of spoken and written communicative situations. It also suggests that one does not simply learn a language, but enters into a culture.
*Name has been changed.