Culture: Cultural Identity? Personality? Language? Reality?

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This is my second culture post! The other one was about dualistic identities coming from being raised in two culturally distinct environments (a guest post by Ian Liu). This one is about my own experiences as the only Australian in a French (and French-speaking) workplace.———————————————————————

Imagine this: you’re the new guy at work, and it’s your first day. Between being ordered around and abused in a foreign language, you are expected to make the restaurant run smoothly. It’s worth mentioning that this restaurant is a French Crepêrie, and that you are the sole Australian. Also, you’re the only staff member who knows how to say more than “ze food was is good?” in English. Unfortunately, even though you are in Australia – in this environment, you are the foreigner, not them. Time to bring out that French you learnt in High School? Good idea, mate, but even if you can speak the language of love, you’re still likely to have some problems. Culture and identity carries as much weight as words when it comes to communication.

This said, language and culture are intertwined – organic, ever changing and each unable to exist independently of the other. Ironically, these seem to be the only factors that remain constant between them. An understanding of one does not automatically result in an understanding of the other. For instance – one could, potentially, know all there is to know about the development of the modern French mentality and culture, without ever speaking the language. And, conversely, one could foreseeably become fluent in the French language without speaking to many French people (for instance if they mainly spoke with second-language speakers) and would therefore struggle to build any meaningful relationship with a French person, this time because of the cultural barrier rather than the linguistic one.

This dichotomy between language and culture is exemplified by the demand to study a wide range of different languages at school and at University. People will always be motivated to learn what they find engaging, and, seeing as there is arguably no single topic or subject in this world that could be claimed to be ‘universally interesting’, it would be therefore unrealistic to conclude that a certain, single language could possibly be ‘beautiful’ to everyone, either.

Take, for example, French, a language that is, despite this, widely perceived as being ‘romantic’, and even ‘beautiful’ – although this stereotype is perhaps the product of the way it is portrayed in popular culture and in the media. Nevertheless, this image is seemingly at contrast with the well-known stereotype of the French people themselves, who are often considered snooty, inhospitable and self-impressed. Note that your author does not subscribe to this belief! How is it possible that a culture can be so different from the language that belongs to it? We’re treading on delicate ground here, and at the risk of sounding prejudiced, I’m going to suggest that although they are usually outdated, the result of misinterpretations, or simply incorrect – stereotypes are usually the product of observable phenomenon. That doesn’t mean anything, anyway, since I would argue that any behaviour adopted by a human could surely be manifested in another person from any other given race. But I digress.

If you liked my little anecdote about the Crêperie, it may amuse you to learn that the clumsy Australian depicted is none other than your faithful blogger!

Working in the Crepêrie taught me a lot, however I never thought that I would discover that the stereotypical ‘arrogance’ of the French is actually a veritable part of their identity, albeit one that is grossly misconstrued. Obviously some French won’t have it – but it does seem to be part of the fabric of their cultural identity. Explained in another way, I would say that as a people they are very distrusting, and this is often confused with arrogance due to the French’s general unwillingness (and even fear) of strangers even just simply talking to them.

This is a concept that is well and truly foreign to Australians, or at least Melbournians from St Kilda (we are used to random, strange people talking to us on the tram!). This difference between the French and the Australians is perhaps due to the long history of crime and rebellion in France, particularly in the cities where there are many places that people dare not venture after nightfall.

When I started working there, there was one man in particular who never used to even say ‘hello’ to me when he arrived, or acknowledge my presence in any way. I was offended, and yet, as the new guy, I said nothing. A few weeks later, however, he started talking to me, in a friendly way, too, as if he had forgotten that he just spent a month ignoring me. Later on, I asked him about it. He explained to me that he didn’t want to give me his trust, only for me to later take it away. He said that it was up to me to prove that I deserved it. He came from one of these ‘dangerous neighbourhoods’ in Paris, and this is how his society functions.

In a broader sense, I suppose that it is never safe to assume that things are as they appear. David G Myers, professor of Psychology at Hope College in Michigan, USA, said “there is an objective reality out there, but we view it through the spectacles of our beliefs, attitudes, and values.” Culture is the lens through which we see the world, that allow us to interpret otherwise meaningless information.

Writers, especially poets, have often had problems with ‘reality’, yet have the liberty of expressing their own personal truths through characters in their writings. American author Tom Clancy famously said “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” Perhaps, then, writers create their works to set a point of comparison by which they can better understand the world around them?

Perhaps one’s own culture is also their biggest obstacle to language learning. When you go to a new country, your home culture is your only point of reference, and in a world where you are the outsider, you tend to cling to it. I read an article recently that mentioned that perhaps one of the reasons children are thought to be ‘better’ language learners than adults is because they have not yet fully established their personal identity. They’ve been alive for such a short time that everything is new, and so being placed in a new cultural and linguistic environment carries far less significance than for adults. Because of the plasticity of their identity at that age, they can far more easily assimilate into their new host culture. Adults may be too attached to their own culture and the beliefs and values that they hold to ever completely assimilate into a new culture.

There’s some food for thought!

 

Author: Dan

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  • Matt La Rochelle

    Hi Dan,

    I really enjoyed this article – I love all your other posts about the mechanics of learning languages and all the helpful tips you provide, but it’s really great to have a couple of these cultural pieces every now and then! I thought the thought that a cultural understanding is needed to communicate in a meaningful way was particularly interesting.

    Matt

    • Hi Matt,

      This comment seems to have gotten lost in the mix somewhere, sorry for not replying sooner! Thanks for the feedback! As much as I love learning languages, and talking about practical approaches to learning them, I also love writing! So it’s nice branching out to more abstract things every now and then.

      When I’m in China (from January), I plan to have a ‘culture’ section that will probably be more regularly updated than the actual language learning section!
      So stay tuned 🙂

      Thanks for reading, and commenting, Matt!

      Dan