On Teaching English Cultural Background

By Alan Mcdonald,2014-11-03 13:01
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On Teaching English Cultural Background

    On Teaching English Cultural Background

    Thesis Statement: the article analyses pointed the necessary of teaching cultural communication.

I. Introduction: cultural background

    II. The character of language

    III. The importance of understanding the cultural background

    IV. Intercultural communication

    V. Conclusion: It is necessary for teachers to pass on cultural background

    knowledge to students.

    Abstract: With the penetration of opening and reform, Chinese comprehensive national power builds up and international communication manifolds. English became more and more important in the living life. We must pay attention to the intercultural communication teaching of English in the senior school. Let students know the different cultural background can improve their comprehension.

    Key words: cultural background, intercultural communication

I. Introduction: cultural background

     According to the Russian Encyclopedia, (张宗利、宗文举,2002:89)culture, in

    its broad sense, refers to the development level of the society and the human being

    in history. It is represented by the various kinds of activities people take part in

    and the material wealth and spiritual wealth people create. In its narrow sense, it

    refers to people‟s spiritual field. The French Encyclopedia defines it as a

    summation of the special cultural phenomenon of a social group. (张宗利、宗文


II. The characters of language

     Language is a special social and cultural phenomenon, sanctioned through

    social life practice over a long time. Each language comes into being and grows in

    special social and history environments. Then the language reflects the particular

    cultural phenomenon of the nation and people in different history periods.

    As well as we know, English is the most popular language in the world. With

    the penetration of opening and reform, Chinese comprehensive national power

    builds up and international communication manifolds. English became more and

    more important in the living life. To children, middle school is the important stage

    of learning English. Teachers should introduce some cultural backgrounds to the

    students, and it can help them to study English better.

    For example, “Thanksgiving, Homecoming, sandwich”, etc. in English, and

    “Young Pioneer, moon cake”, etc. in Chinese come into being in particular social environments. We usually translate “少先队,月饼” into “ Young Pioneer, moon

    cake”. These words are easy to us but they are difficult to the foreigners who don‟t understand the cultural background concerned. It is the same when we study English.

     Language and culture have a very close relationship. Language is a very important carrier of culture and culture is the contents that language bears. Human beings create culture by using language, and culture promotes the development of the human society and enriches the language expression. The accumulated cultural heritage has a deep brand on language. Language is the cultural language of human society and is closely related to culture. The language a people owns cannot but bear the people‟s culture and all the social life experience. So it reflects the most important characteristic of the people‟s culture. The concept culture here is in its broad sense, so it is the summation of the political and economic systems, religious faith and customs of a particular society. It is difficult to grasp a nation‟s language if we don‟t understand the culture.

    III. The importance of understanding the cultural background

     A. The necessarity of understanding the cultural background

     People from different cultural backgrounds are usually short of foreign cultures in the international communications. So it easily leads to misunderstandings and hampers normal communications. With the penetration of opening and reform, Chinese comprehensive national power builds up and the international communication manifolds. What the nation needs is the person with deep understanding of the foreign culture when facing the world. So we must pay attention to the teaching of intercultural communication in the senior school English at a higher level and make students own the ability of assimilating different cultures in actual communication. ,陈治刚,1994

     Some people believe that to learn English is just to learn sound, vocabulary and grammar, which makes us read and communicate without barrier. This opinion is unilateral. No doubt that the language basic skill is very important. However, we must realize that to learn a language is not to memorize some words and grammatical rules. Language is the tool for communication. The purpose for people to learn language is to communicate. So the communication ability has become a scale to measure the English level to some extent. Therefore, in the everyday teaching, we must train students‟ communication ability and make

    students have an understanding of the target culture. The students should use language properly according to the topics, contexts and cultural backgrounds. It is not only the command of the principle of communicative teaching of the present textbooks, but also the command of international communication.

B. Different people have different culture

    Different languages have different cultural backgrounds. They have

    commons and individuality. They have relations and special cultural factors. It is the commons and relations that provide base for intercultural communication. The different characteristics and factors form the communicative barrier for different cultures.

    Once an American was visiting the home of a Chinese. As the visitor saw the host‟s wife, he said, “You wife is beautiful.” The host smiled and said, “Where? Where?” -which caused the American‟s surprise, but still he answered, “Eyes, hair, and nose-an answer that the host found a bit puzzling. The surprising was

    ”, in Chinese is a kind of caused by different cultures. “Where” means “哪里

    humble saying. But the American understood it as “Which parts of the body are beautiful?” So, the reason for both side‟ misunderstandings was differences in

    customs and habits. Each was expressing and understanding what the other said according to his or her culture.

    Events like these are fairly common when people of different languages and cultures communicate. Because of cultural differences, misunderstandings may arise, although the language used in communication may be faultless. The same words or expressions may not mean the same thing to different peoples.

     If we don‟t understand the cultural background, we will have

    misunderstandings of the language. For example, if both a foreigner and a Chinese climbs the Yue yang Tower, they will have different images for the view. The foreigner will appreciate the carved beams and painted rafters and will be attracted by the vast expanse of Dong ting Lake, while for the Chinese, Yue yang Tower is not only the place to overlook Dong ting Lake, but the cultural place of interest for Chinese people will think of Climbing Yu eyang Tower by Du Fu, Journey to Yue

    yang Tower by Fan Zhongyan, and also Lu Su‟s training marine and the story of

    Lv Dongbin‟s drunken three times here.

    It is the same for a Chinese to walk on the London Bridge. He will not have the sentence “London Bridge is falling down”.,陈治刚,1994:217When he sees

    the Big Ben, he will not remind the London Big Fire.

    “Shall I compare thee to a summer‟s day? Thou arts more lovely and more temperate”,,陈治刚,1994:302 the beginning of No. 18 of Shakespeare‟s sonnet

    is difficult for Chinese readers to understand. The reason is that Chinese summer is hot while the summer in Britain is pleasantly warm. Only understanding the different cultural backgrounds can we grasp another language better. (郭建中,


    IV. Intercultural communication

    A. The definite of intercultural communication

     Intercultural communication, or cross-cultural communication ( to the communication

    between native language speakers and non-native language ones, also it refers to communications among people speaking different languages and having different cultural backgrounds. Due to the different backgrounds of living places, societies

    and religions, etc. different language habits, cultures and customs appear. During communications, people would like to interpret the words of the other side in their own preferable ways, which easily leads to incorrect inference. Then conflicts and obstacles will appear for that.

    Language is a part of culture and plays a very important role in it. On the one

    hand, without language, culture would not be possible. On the other hand, language is influenced and shaped by culture; it reflects culture. In the broadest sense, language is the symbolic representation of a people, and it comprises their historical and cultural backgrounds as well as their approach to life and their ways of living and thinking. Language and culture interact and understanding of one requires understanding of one requires understanding of the other.

    B. The importance of cultural communication

     Culture differs from one another. Each culture is unique. Learning a foreign language well means more than merely mastering the pronunciation, grammar, words and idioms. It meaning learning also to see the world as native speakers of that language see it, learning the ways in which their language reflects the ideas, customs, and behavior of their society, learning to understand their “language of the mind”. Learning a language, in fact, is inseparable from learning its culture. However, it has been given not enough care to in our teaching for a long time. Although many students have acquired four skills-learning, speaking, reading and writing, according to the demand of our traditional syllabus, they often make mistakes in application of language to real life, because our teaching and teaching materials attach importance to language forms but ignore the social meanings of language forms and language application in reality.

     Nowadays, the communications among nations are becoming wider and wider with the improvement of opening and reform, especially the social information makes people more involved in intercultural communication. The research how to relieve the obstacle in the intercultural communication is more meaningful for English teaching. English teaching is not only to teach the language, but more importantly, to cultivate the communication ability in English.

     Intercultural communication is neglected in the present English teaching. In fact, it can be carried out in different phases and levels. The obvious characteristic is “culture infiltration”, that is, different cultural background knowledge home and abroad should be introduced in the textbooks, thus to make students purposely understand the differences between English and Chinese. Now, many senior school English textbooks have rich reading materials including many intercultural factors, which provides base for intercultural education. English reading is an intercultural communication. The readers are written in foreign languages, which are related to the unfamiliar cultures. Enough language knowledge, customs, cultures and religions, etc. are needed to truly understand the contents of the reading materials.,张宗利、宗文举, 2002

    C. In oral communication

     The everyday oral communication, in spite of its easy form, has many intercultural factors. Cultural factors are not necessarily the direct ratio to the degree of language. The easy language does not mean neglecting the cultural factors in it. For high school students, the real difficulty is not how to spell or pronounce, but how to use the language. In practical teaching, the teachers should introduce the cultural factors and teach language in the pragmatic contexts. Thus the students will have the real communication ability. When our Chinese meet, we often greet each other by “你吃了没有;”, while English people usually greet

    each other by talking about the weather. If you discuss eating with English people when you meet, they will feel quite strange.

     D. In vocabulary

     Vocabulary contains rich cultural information. That vocabulary grows, perishes and is replaced by the new offers the information of cultural development. Meanwhile, the different cultural consciousness also affects the meanings of vocabulary. When people name different things, the symbols they choose are arbitrary. It is due to the cultural consciousness that makes the symbols have different connotations in different languages. For example, whey we see Friday, we haven‟t special feelings, for it is just the fifth day of a week. However, in English, Friday face means pulling a long face; black Friday is a suffering day. Most of the English and American people believe in Christianism. Friday is the suffering day of Jesus. And Sunday is the resurrection day of Jesus. So when people think of Sunday, they will have the feeling of going to church and having holidays for the holy and happy connotation. For Chinese, Sunday has not the meaning above for we don‟t have the cultural background. ,张宗利、宗文举,


E. In grammatical system

     Different languages have a special grammatical system with huge differences. We not only research the differences of logic form and structure, but the intrinsic factor forming the system to find out the cultural factors in it. Let‟s take the “一块

    面包” in Chinese and “a piece of bread” in English as an example. Though there

    is no change in the noun single and plural forms in Chinese, “面包” is a countable

    noun. Let‟s give another example. “My knife and fork is made of sliver.” The predicate is single form here for the customs of the westerners are to use both hands at the same time. The knife and fork is inseparable tools for eating. So the predicate is single form.

     F. In writing

     In writing, cultural background is also important. Why is it that the English writing of Chinese students read so much like translations of Chinese? Why is it that one can fairly easily tell whether an article was written by a Chinese or by a native speaker of English? On the other hand, it is probably because most Chinese students have not yet mastered the language. Chinese writing styles

    different from English is that reflect cultural differences.

     Narration and description in Chinese seem to be a bit more ornate, or

    “flowery”, than in English. The following passage from a student‟s composition is

    typical of this kind of faulty writing in English: “I walked joyfully along the path

    that was lit up by the golden rays of the morning sun. Beautiful flowers of many

    colors were blooming. How fragrant they smelled! Little birds were singing in the

    trees, as if greeting me „Good morning! Good morning!‟… my heart was bursting

    with happiness…”One of the common faults in this matter is the tendency of

    Chinese students to use too many adjectives. Adjectives, of course, are necessary

    in good writing. But if not used with care, they can have the opposite effect. Good

    English writing discourages what are called “trite expressions”.

V. Conclusion

    Maybe some students‟ English is very poor and they haven‟t grasped enough

    vocabularies, clear grammar or correct pronunciation, or maybe the material is

    rather difficult, etc. On the other hand, an important reason is that they are

    unfamiliar with cultural background of the USA and England. Aural

    comprehension, which is closely related to the knowledge of American and British

    culture, politics and economy, in fact, is an examination of one‟s comprehensive

    competence which includes one‟s English level, range of knowledge, competence

    of analysis and imaginative power. When we encounter some unfamiliar material

    or something closely related to cultural background, we may feel rather difficult.

    Even if the material is easy, we only know the literal meaning, but can‟t

    understand the connotation, because we lack knowledge of cultural background.

     Language is a very important part of culture. It records the history of cultural

    development and reflects the fruits of social civilization. It is the tool for

    communicating, spreading, continuing and developing culture. But language can‟t

    exist without culture. It grows in a particular cultural background. If we want to

    grasp and use one language, we must understand the society which bears the

    language, and learn the culture of the society. Only learning the sound, grammar

    and vocabulary doesn‟t mean grasping the language. In intercultural

    communication, if the two sides can‟t go into the same cultural background,

    misunderstanding will appear, thus leads to communication failure.

    Culture is colorful and language is various. Mutual understanding is not an easy thing because of the cultural and language differences. To understand the cultural backgrounds helps to learn the language better.



    2. 陈治刚 《英美概况》 上海外语教学出版社,1994

    3. 郭建中 《文化与翻译》 中国对外翻译出版公司,2000

    4. 张宗利、宗文举 《中西文化概论》 天津大学出版社,2002

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