What is Culture? Elements of Culture

What is Culture? 5 elements of culture that can inspire and kickstart your next language lesson

culture

This article provides an introduction to the 5 elements of culture and how they can inspire your next language lesson. Read on to find out more.

Table of Contents

“In language education, the broader definition of CULTURE as adopted by sociologists and anthropologists (and now, a wider range of social sciences) has become more relevant since the advent of communicative language teaching. This is again premised on the assumptions that language belongs to a specific community which can be differentiated from others.”

For many language educators and language learners, culture is inextricably linked to language. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) has also recognised the importance of culture as part of its framework, especially in the context of “plurilingualism and pluriculturalism”. Yet, what is culture? What are the elements of culture?

Take for example the phrases that follow: “To throw a brick to attract jade”; “playing music to a cow”; “adding feet when drawing a snake”. Do these phrases sound ridiculous? They probably do, in isolation and out of context. For Chinese speakers, however, they would quickly ring a bell as these are just literal translations of three commonly used Chinese idioms, namely:

  • “抛砖引玉” (pronounced pāo zhuān yǐn yù): denotes the attempt to use inferior things (usually referring to preliminary ideas or half-baked suggestions) to induce better or more valuable ones (e.g. better ideas, more effective suggestions)
  • “对牛弹琴” (pronounced duì niú tán qín): usually used in a derogatory manner, and refers to situations where one preaches to deaf ears, cast pearls before the swine, offering a treat to an unappreciative audience or providing too much of something (e.g. knowledge) beyond the comprehension of the receiving parties
  • “画蛇添足” (pronounced huà shé tiān zú): to ruin something by adding something superfluous; to do something additional when it is totally unnecessary

No doubt, a part of culture in language teaching involves the teaching of idioms – since idioms are commonly used fixed expressions that can be applied in many contexts. Furthermore, idioms embody elements of the target culture in related to the language. But beyond this scope, what about culture can or should be taught?  How does that relate to the language per se? Before moving to these questions, let’s first answer the question: What is culture?

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What is Culture?

what is culture
Photo from Adobe Stock / A woman sitting on books and painting – Culture with a Big ‘C’?

CULTURE is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This is so partly because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it has now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought.”

Williams, 2015

Depending on the context you are in, CULTURE can denote a whole range of meanings. In fact, U.S. anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn have, in 1952, consolidated 164 definitions of culture found in different disciplines (e.g. philosophy, sociology, anthropology) and across different countries or regions (e.g. America, England, Germany). The conceptualisation of CULTURE is so multifaceted that makes it difficult to converge on one universal definition.

An earlier widely adopted conception of CULTURE was more affiliated with the Arts, such as the “music, literature, painting and sculpture, theatre and film”, and may include “philosophy”, “scholarship” and “history” (Williams, 2015). It included the earlier iteration as the “general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development” of the Arts and the later idea of the “works and practices which represent and sustain it”. This is generally what is known to be CULTURE with the big “C”.

When we talk about CULTURE with the big “C”, it can sometimes be used to distinguish what is to be known as “high” and “low” culture. As such, we describe someone as “cultured” when the person demonstrates interest, considerable knowledge, and literacy of the Fine Arts. The same term is usually NOT used on those who subscribe, instead, to popular CULTURE and entertainment. In that sense, CULTURE with the big “C” can be an exclusive concept which exacerbates class distinction, as something that belongs generally to the elites and intellectuals.

In the contemporary age, the definition has shifted towards its sociological and anthropological sense, where CULTURE is conceived in a much more encompassing sense: “a way of life” (Williams, 2015), where the focus is on everyday meanings. Below are some of the more recent definitions found in academic books on CULTURE and cultural studies:

  • The way of life, including knowledge, customs, norms, laws and beliefs, which characterizes a particular society or social group. (Giddens & Sutton, 2017)
  • CULTURE is what we make, what we do and what we think. (Hasty, Lewis & Snipes, 2022)
  • CULTURE is the ways of thinking, the ways of acting, and the material objects that together form a people’s way of life. (Macionis, 2012, 2017)

Based on these definitions, CULTURE is conceived to pervade every aspect of our lives. It can include CULTURE with the big “C”, and extend to a wider range of entities such as symbols and norms. Most importantly, it emphasises the existence of a community in question (e.g. a particular society, a social group) as the “way of life” comprises patterns of shared meanings within that community.

In general, a distinction is made between MATERIAL and NON-MATERIAL CULTURE. MATERIAL CULTURE is culture manifested in material forms, such that culture is represented through tangible objects (e.g. jewellery, ornaments, furniture, paintings, tools) or anything that we can touch and see. Some might tend to think that only those objects found in museums or academic institutions are then considered as MATERIAL CULTURE. However, MATERIAL CULTURE can include all the tangible stuff we find in our modern everyday life, including the mobile devices we are using, our own house and furniture, the clothes we wear the food we eat, and the cutlery we use.

On the other hand, NON-MATERIAL CULTURE refers to culture manifested through ideas, values and attitudes – intangible notions that we cannot physically touch or see. Taking note of the broader definition in mind, this can refer to how people behave when they make transactions in the supermarket, how people position themselves in a relationship, how parents speak to their children and how a community respond to specific social phenomena.

MATERIAL CULTURE does not exist in a categorically different realm from NON-MATERIAL CULTURE. Both are very much inter-related, as MATERIAL CULTURE are physical embodiment of NON-MATERIAL CULTURE (e.g. ethnic clothings reflecting values of the community in identifying different social roles, credit cards reflecting the financial culture); and the ecosystem of MATERIAL CULTURE is inter-weaved with NON-MATERIAL CULTURE (e.g. school buildings and instructional materials in relation to school processes and instructional approaches).

Regardless of the definition, there is general consensus that CULTURE can be bounded based on various factors, with the more common ones as geographical territories and ethnicity. In language education, the broader definition of CULTURE as adopted by sociologists and anthropologists (and now, a wider range of social sciences) has become more relevant since the advent of communicative language teaching. This is again premised on the assumptions that language belongs to a specific community which can be differentiated from others.

As such, even as the assumptions get challenged in the current landscape of globalisation, questions about CULTURE and its positioning will continue to penetrate discussions on language teaching and learning. So, we may have seen bits and pieces on the elements of CULTURE hitherto that can be useful for our note, so let us now zoom into the details hereafter.

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1. Symbols

symbols
Photo from Envato Elements / An exit sign as a symbol for an action

“Only humans, it is often argued, are capable of creating and transmitting culture and we are able to do this because we create and use SYMBOLS. Humans possess a symbolising capacity which is the basis of our cultural being.”

Williams, 2015

SYMBOLS are things, material or non-material, that represent or convey particular meanings shared by a community (or some would say within a “culture”). To some scholars, the phenomenon of SYMBOLS lays the foundation of a culture, and cultural studies is thus fundamentally a study of the symbolising system in question.

A single SYMBOL can express more than one meaning, even in the same community. For example, the lotus symbolises purity as the flower grows out from the mud without stains. Yet, they can also signify wisdom, strength and resilience by the same characteristic.

Some SYMBOLS can be shared between different communities (different not because they contrast one another inherently, but socially constructed by us to perceive so). Take for instance, tonsure, the “practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp” which is practised in many religious traditions (e.g. Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Hinduism), can be a SYMBOL of renunciation and a devotion to follow the path of the religion.

Unsurprisingly, different communities do have varying SYMBOLS on two layers. First is that the same entity can represent distinctive meanings. A classic example is hand gestures, such as the Ok sign can mean “Ok” in most of the English-speaking countries, but can mean “homosexuality” in Greece and Turkey or “zero” and “worthless” in France. Second is that a particular meaning can be signified by different SYMBOLS. For example, pornographic films are described to be blue in the US, yellow in China and pink in Japan.

SYMBOLS are also not stagnant across times. Such is the effect of cultural change, where SYMBOLS that used to denote certain meaning(s) in a particular moment in history, may not be completely similar today or in future. For instance, the consumption of shark fin soup has been a common practice in weddings across greater China and Southeast Asia to demonstrate the generosity and respect of the hosts to the guests through a rare delicacy. However, with increasing awareness of the sustainability and humanistic issues surrounding sharks and the environment, such consumption has declined with the younger generation adopting alternatives.

Language educators can rejoice (or be very concerned) that Language is one of the most important symbolising systems within a community. It is a mammoth collection of SYMBOLS, articulated through the different components of the language system. In fact, one of the earliest canonical conceptions of language is that it is a system of signs and deeper understanding can only be reaching by studying how the “signifiers” relate to the “signified” (Saussure, 2011). In that sense, to simply learn a language is already a process of learning about the target culture.

However, that also implies that for learners to acquire a language more exhaustively, an understanding beyond just the superficial layer of surface grammar may not be enough. Languaging practices are contextualised in actual communicative acts, especially if we are expecting to use the language for a functional purpose. Without a certain extent of understanding of the symbolising systems, a simple reception of certain lexical items (e.g. idioms as illustrated earlier) makes little sense while a production of language based on flawed cultural assumptions may lead to misunderstandings (e.g. wrong use of colours on films). It is thus our responsibility as language educators, to sensitise our learners to the SYMBOLS in the target culture.

2. Artefacts

artefacts
Photo from Envato Elements / Material artefacts of a culture

Another way to talk about culture will be through the ARTEFACTS. This usually refer to specific objects that are produced by human beings. In fact, for many of us, this can be the most natural approach into the teaching of culture within language education.

ARTEFACTS are conventionally defined to be synonymous with material culture by some scholars, and may refer to archaeological ARTEFACTS (e.g. coins, pottery, clothing) that are recovered from sites of ancient civilisations for the lay persons. We have also earlier mentioned that material culture can include items from our contemporary lives, such as your mobile devices or the food you consume. These can all be considered ARTEFACTS in the context of culture (I believe language educators will agree that food is such an interesting topic for cultural learning!).

Notwithstanding that, if we do accept that ARTEFACTS are “products of some human enterprise” (Burkette, 2015), then we should also recognise that ARTEFACTS can be non-material. Otherwise, how do we regard entities such as a virtual product (e.g. NFT art) or a string of sounds in the context of music and language?

An important part of cultural learning in language education is to have better understanding of ARTEFACTS in the target culture. We cannot take for granted that ARTEFACTS can be easily comprehended, since the symbolising philosophy can differ from one community to another. The earlier example of the idioms illustrates this issue. In fact, members from one community can sometimes find it difficult to appreciate the ARTEFACTS in another, due to all forms of barriers and biases. We have no lack of examples, especially on social media, of how tourists experience culture shocks when they see the types of food been eaten in a foreign country.  

In language, there are also aspects of material and non-material ARTEFACTS which we can consider in the design of an enriching curriculum related to cultural learning. Material ARTEFACTS are characterised in variation, in the sense that mental representations of certain objects in the real world can differ for different languages even though a corresponding word with largely similar meaning is used. For instance, the conception of a “house” can be different for speaker in York (UK) vis-à-vis another in Lake District (also UK), even if both speak English (albeit a different variety). We can further imagine the difference for a speaker in Saudi Arabia in contrast to another in rural China.

In addition, there are certain material ARTEFACTS that are unique to a specific community, that then renders certain unique vocabulary items relating to those ARTEFACTS in the corpora (e.g. kimono of the Japanese, cheongsam of the Chinese and sari of the Indians). Such unique material ARTEFACTS can usually be an intriguing topic of languaging, which can thus be adopted in language lessons dealing with informational texts or conversations.

On the other hand, non-material ARTEFACTS refer to abstract concepts and ideas that are constructed through the language system. Such concepts and ideas can be difficult to understand for non-member of a specific community. Idioms are one such types, while other examples include fixed expressions, jokes, puns and memes. Much of these can be specific to a culture and can be found in certain common speech acts (e.g. means of apology in different languages and their target cultures). 

Where non-material ARTEFACTS of language are concerned, while they may not usually form the centre-piece that guides the planning of a lesson unit, some consideration should be factored in for the introduction or incorporation into your language curriculum. This can enrich the language learning experience while reflecting the target culture, which in turn develops a stronger understanding of various communicative contexts.

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3. Values & Beliefs

values and beliefs
Photo from Envato Elements / Values and beliefs that drive behaviours

Among the elements of culture, VALUES and BELIEFS are considered the most crucial one as they have a profound impact on the symbolising system, the norms and structures (following section) and the eventual artefacts. While VALUES and BELIEFS generally refer to different things, they are usually bundled as one element as both are closely linked to one another.

As a general definition, VALUES refer to the principles and standards that a community identify to be ideals or desired targets of pursuit in life, as opposed to their contrasting counterparts. In simpler terms, they reflect what a community perceives to be respectable and admirable; and what are considered inadmissible and objectionable. For example, in many affluent societies, the pursuit of monetary wealth is upheld by many – monetary wealth is valued as a desired outcome of life.

Underpinning VALUES are then BELIEFS, which denote the ideas and concepts or assumptions about the world the community hold to be true. Based on such BELIEFS, the VALUES are then forged to reflect those BELIEFS. So, in communities where monetary wealth is valued, the BELIEFS about monetary wealth can be that monetary wealth solves many problems and facilitates many opportunities; and is thus the crux to ultimate happiness. Now, you might disagree with these BELIEFS (i.e. you do not hold these notions about monetary wealth to be true), but communities which generally value monetary wealth may agree with them.

Notwithstanding that, VALUES can also shape BELIEFS. Using the earlier example on wealth again, a community that values monetary wealth as an admirable life’s pursuit may thus believe that monetary wealth is an objective indicator of success – the wealthier you are, the more successful you are regarded.

VALUES and BELIEFS can exist within a community on a spectrum from being explicitly declared and constructed to the other end of implicitly practised and experienced. At the explicit end, there will be many open languaging opportunities and demands on those VALUES and BELIEFS, such as the individual rights in the USA, discourse on education in Finland or the issue of happiness in Bhutan. At the implicit end, however, further distillation is required before we can purposefully incorporate them in our curriculum (e.g. the position on needs, wants and privilege).

Sometimes, there can be dissonance between the explicit and implicit VALUES and BELIEFS – one set belongs to the ideal culture, while the other is the actual or practised culture. An example is marital monogamy. In societies where it is valued, there are also held BELIEFS that marital monogamy provides stability and gender equality. Yet, there can still be a fair, if not high, level of infidelity. Where dissonance is observed between explicit and implicit VALUES and BELIEFS, languaging experiences which also develop critical thinking can be facilitated.

The VALUES and BELIEFS of the target language that our learners and the community in which our learners live and operate (which include ourselves) can have a profound impact on the approaches we need to consider for our lessons. Does the community value the target language? Is it a language of solidarity and/or prestige in the community? Do the learners believe in the usefulness of learning the language? The vitality of the target language we are teaching can be a function of the answers to these questions.

VALUES and BELIEFS can also be inherently embedded within language, where the appreciation of those VALUES and BELIEFS will then enable one to be more sensitive to the audience and communicative contexts requiring the use of certain language forms. For example, within Chinese cultures, family relations are highly valued and are generally believed to be fundamental to social organisation (e.g. messy family relations can lead to messy other social relations). As such, there are many artefacts which reflect these VALUES and BELIEFS that requires sensitivity to be used in native-like ways (e.g. idioms and fixed expressions asserting the VALUES and BELIEFS, extensive range of referential terms to address family members in different contexts) .

4. Norms

norms
Photo from Envato Elements / Queueing is a norm in most societies

NORMS are very much related to values and beliefs too, albeit an extension. NORMS generally refer to rules, principles and expectations that guide the behaviours of the members in a community. NORMS are most easily perceived when they are flouted or when they are incongruent with one’s experience. Taking reference from road experiences, think of those moments when people dashed across the street in fast incoming traffic. Compliance is usually expected in relation to NORMS, and people who disregard them can be punished or sanctioned.

NORMS can be formally established and explicitly described in social institutions such as the government, schools and the military. In such cases, the rules and regulations are spelt clearly, including the consequences of non-adherence. Formal NORMS are largely enforced, sometimes unsparingly. Examples of such include laws, codes of conduct, admission requirements and even signage notices.

On the other hand, informal NORMS prescribe conformity to certain behaviours without anything been written. They are usually learned by observation, imitation and socialisation. Remember the different types of food and beverage establishments you have been at – posh fine dining restaurants, fast-food eateries and street hawkers’ stalls – and the process of ordering, having the meal and making payment? Those processes, which are essentially your customer experience, are informal NORMS in practice. There are usually no written instructions, and you probably observe how people do it or learn from others directly (e.g. whether sharing tables with strangers is mandated or permissible).

Informal NORMS can be deemed casual at times, even though violation of such NORMS can also lead to undesirable, if not dire, consequences (e.g. scratching buttocks or farting in public). If you ever did otherwise, you should not be too surprised if you face some form of social sanction. Most people try not to breach even the most harmless informal NORMS.

NORMS can be difficult to learn, especially when you are new to the community. As such, the incorporation of cultural NORMS in second and foreign language learning can be immensely helpful for the learners, especially if the expectation or aspiration of the learners are to be interacting with the native speakers of that language in their countries or regions. An example is the dining experiences listed earlier, since those are such common communicative contexts that learners would probably anticipate.

Similar to values and beliefs, there are NORMS that be inherently embedded within language. In that sense, the use of that specific language can be assessed to be inaccurate when those NORMS are not followed. Classic examples are languages with extensive honorific systems, such as Japanese and Korean. In using these languages, vocabulary, verb conjugation and noun inflection are to be decided based on your relationship with your interlocutors – your relative genders, ages, social statuses and degree of intimacy.

5. Language

language
Photo from Envato Elements / An image with the word “language”

Unsurprisingly, LANGUAGE is one very important element of culture (if not the most important!). Taking reference from the definitions of language, LANGUAGE has an indispensable role in the generational and spatial transmission of culture. I have also presented how culture is encoded within LANGUAGE throughout this article in the earlier elements. It is with the faculty of LANGUAGE that culture can become complex, so much so that cultural understanding becomes critical in the proper understanding of any LANGUAGE.

LANGUAGE is the key that unlocks centuries of accumulated wisdom.”

Macionis, 2017

In relation to culture, LANGUAGE has the ability to influence our perception of reality. This is the underpinning argument of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or Linguistic Relativity. This was a hypothesis proposed by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf in the 1920s, though there are scholars who think that the term “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” is a misnomer since both Sapir and Whorf never co-authored any work or stated these ideas in the form of a formal hypothesis.

According to the hypothesis, different LANGUAGEs represent different cultures and are distinctive from one another in representing realities. In that sense, if we speak different LANGUAGEs, our impressions of the world will also differ (e.g. the example of the house concept earlier) as our cultural framing are dissimilar. There are scholars who have found empirical evidence to support these arguments and that unique features in certain LANGUAGEs have lasting impact on their users’ perception.

The bidirectional interactive relationship between culture and LANGUAGE thus makes it necessary for language educators, aka us all, to be very interested in culture in relation to LANGUAGE. Our engagement of cultural content can lead to deeper understanding of the use of target language in various contexts, while our learners’ growth in the language can also unleash potential for our learners to embrace cultural elements that may be non-native to one’s perception and lead to further cognitive growth.

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Conclusion

This article has attempted to provide a comprehensive illustration of the 5 elements of CULTURE. Notwithstanding such, CULTURE is too extensive and complex a construct that I might not have dealt it full service in the length of the article. Furthermore, CULTURE is constantly evolving, all the more so with the openness of globalisation. In response, we must always be ready to refresh our understanding of the target CULTUREs related to the languages we teach.

Beyond having a good sense of the elements, there are many issues that need to be explored with regard to CULTURE and language learning: inter-cultural considerations, common pitfalls, etc. I hope to revisit this again someday, with refreshed content to support all of us.

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