Your Language My Culture Essay

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Beatrice de Gea for The New York TimesImmigrants from a range of countries have settled in France, bringing their native cultures.Go to related article »

Overview | What does culture mean in an increasingly globalized, connected world? What is the relationship between language and culture? In this lesson, students consider the connection between French and other cultures and languages by discussing key quotations from relevant Times articles and sharing their insights on the questions they raise.

Materials | Student journals, computer with Internet access and a projector (optional), copies of the handout.

Note to Teacher | This lesson can be used in and adapted for a range of humanities courses, including English and comparative literature, foreign and world languages, English as second/foreign language and social studies. It might make for a good course introduction and/or wrap-up, or it might be paired with related content, like the teaching of works by Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad.

Warm-Up | Ask students to make a list in their journals of words they associate with a particular culture. As an example, tell them to think about words used at school that “outsiders” wouldn’t understand. They might also consider jargon used by people in a particular profession, contemporary slang used among friends and/or online and even words that are part of a corporate culture, like Starbucks.

Once students have had time to make their lists, ask them to share examples and then draw on these examples to discuss some or all of the following questions:

  • Why do some groups create and use their own “languages”?
  • What are the effects of having shared a vocabulary and language?
  • How does language reflect culture? How does language shape culture?
  • What exactly is culture? Is it static or fixed?
  • How do new technologies and the Internet affect culture?

At this point, you might also wish to show the video “City of Endangered Languages,” about “endangered languages” that are still spoken in New York City:

After the video, have students discuss what it means for languages to “die” and even how they might feel to learn years from now that their native tongue (or even their slang system) were facing extinction. How integral is language to their sense of individual and group identity and culture?

Related | In the article “Pardon My French,” Michael Kimmelman explores the relationship between language and culture in a rapidly changing, increasingly global world:

So what does French culture signify these days when there are some 200 million French speakers in the world but only 65 million are actually French? Culture in general — and not just French culture — has become increasingly unfixed, unstable, fragmentary and elective. Globalization has hastened the desire of more people, both groups and individuals, to differentiate themselves from one another to claim a distinct place in the world, and language has long been an obvious means to do so. In Canada the Quebecers tried outlawing signs and other public expressions in anything but French. Basque separatists have been murdering Spaniards in the name of political, linguistic and cultural independence, just as Franco imprisoned anyone who spoke Basque or Catalan. In Belgium the split between French and Dutch speakers has divided the country for ages.

Read the article with your class, using the questions below.

Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:

  1. Who is Éric Zemmour, and why is he a polarizing figure?
  2. Why is the rise of English in France “more acute” that the rise of the use of Spanish in the United States?
  3. Where and in what ways is French thriving?
  4. What is “l’exception culturelle”? What fear does it reflect?
  5. Why do some writers outside France write in French? How does their use of language reflect their identity and relationship to the French culture?

Activity | Explain to students that they will read and respond to some statements about culture and language drawn from Times articles, in preparation for small group discussions on the issues.

Give each student a copy of the handout “At the Intersection of Language and Culture” (PDF) and tell them to read the 12 statements and jot down their thoughts on each one (or on selected/assigned ones), as the directions indicate. Encourage them to be prepared to justify their opinions, but also to remain open to having their minds changed in dialogue with their peers.

After students have completed the handout, arrange them into four small groups, as outlined below; give each group a copy of the pertinent questions. Tell them to share their thoughts on the quotations and discuss questions that the statements raised about culture and language. Then they should consider the issues through their assigned question set. Tell them to take notes as they discuss so that they can report back to the larger group when they are finished. And remind them to support their ideas with concrete examples.

Group 1: What is culture? Where does culture come from? Where do we see evidence of it? What role does it play in our lives? In society? How does it reflect and/or shape our individual, group and national identities?

Group 2: What is the relationship between culture and language? How does the use of language represent the broader notion of national or cultural identity? Why is language vital to cultural and national identity? How does it unify people? How might it separate them?

Group 3: What does culture mean in a global world? Does globalization bring cultures together, force them further apart or both? Does it lead more to diversity or to homogeny? Does globalization mean Americanization?

Group 4: How do writers use language to reflect and shape culture? Why might writers choose to write in a language that is not “their own”? What issues are raised by writing in one’s nonnative tongue? What issues are raised by reading works in translation? Do works in translation belong in an English literature class?

When groups are ready, reconvene as a class to share responses. Encourage students to take notes to help them prepare for their homework assignment and ensure they are prepared for further discussion in a future class.

To close class, ask students how their thinking about language and culture evolved during the course of this discussion.

Going further | Randomly, give each student one of the following six articles to read (note that the last one is heavy on philosophy, so reserve it for more sophisticated thinkers) and annotate for homework:

Note that the quotations on the handout were taken from some of these sources.

In a future class, ask students to return to their original groups and discuss further the questions they examined together earlier, using what they learned from their additional reading. They should begin by taking turns and sharing the main ideas from their new readings, and then build on their earlier discussion by drawing on these articles. Finally, reconvene as a class to discuss students’ new insights on the big questions about language, culture and globalization.

Teachers might be interested in this article detailing the implications of the relationship between language and culture for teachers.

Alternatively, or additionally, students write personal essays about their relationships with language and culture. They might focus on one or more of the following questions:

  • What is your relationship to your native language and culture?
  • What is your relationship to other languages and cultures?
  • How does language shape your identity?
  • How does culture (or cultures) shape your identity?
  • In what way have you created your own culture and identity by adopting elements from those you have lived in?

Standards | From McREL, for grades 6-12:

Behavioral Studies
1. Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior.
3. Understands that interactions among learning, inheritance and physical development affect human behavior.

Foreign Language
4. Understands traditional ideas and perspectives, institutions, professions, literary and artistic expressions, and other components of the target culture.
5. Understands that different languages use different patterns to communicate and applies this knowledge to the target and native languages.

Language Arts
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.
7. Uses the general skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts.
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Life Skills: Working With Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group.
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills.

3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society and the individual.

Language Arts

Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.

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