Language professor discusses importance of teaching culture

Estefania Espinosa

Foreign language programs do not sufficiently emphasize the cultural aspects of language, according to French associate professor Carl Blyth who spoke Wednesday at lecture hosted by the Texas Language Center on Wednesday.

Blyth, director of the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning, said when he asked his students which words they associate with language and communication, they failed to mention two important words: people and context.

“Language as an object of study is divorced from people and context. I think that’s telling,” Blyth said.

Blyth said the lack of “languaculture,” or the cultural aspects of language, was exemplified on one particular occasion when his students were having conversations with partners, and one asked him how to say “cheerleader” in French. No such word exists because it is an American concept, according to Blyth.

“A cheerleader only makes sense if you understand all the other elements of an American football game,” Blyth said. “These were two American people, talking about an American thing. The entire cultural frame of reference was American. … This is one of the problems we have in communicative language teaching.”

Blyth also discussed the difference between the associations he said Americans make with “individualism,” such as “freedom” and “unique,” and the words he said French people associate with the same concept, such as “selfishness” and “alone.” According to Blyth, this cultural difference transcends into language.

“The French cannot talk about the self without relationship to the group,” said Blyth. “Americans never mention the group. It’s all ‘I’ ‘I’ ‘I.’”

Blyth’s lecture was part of the Language Matters Series, which Thomas Garza, director of the Texas Language Center, said centers around in-house professional development.

“We try to get professors who get very high student survey ratings,” Garza said. “The speakers cover teaching methods that other teachers might be able to employ in their own classes.”

Sarah Jey Whitehead, lecturer in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, said the presentation validated her approach in the classroom.

“Much of my own research has to do with this topic,” Whitehead said. “I so agree, and I’m already on board with this.”

Throughout the lecture, Blyth showed student responses to questions of “languaculture,” which he said were intelligent and sophisticated.

“I’m not saying our students don’t know anything about language,” said Blyth. “They do, [but] I think there’s a lot of room for us to do better than what we’re doing right now.”