On The Role of Culture: An Interview with Dr. Richard Young

We interviewed Dr. Greg Anderson for our language expert series earlier in September, and now we’re taking a different angle. Have you ever thought about how much your body language impacts what you have to say? Maybe you recognize the non-verbal and cultural elements of language in everyday use – but have you thought about the impact body language and culture have when you’re learning a new language?

We had the chance to ask a few questions of Dr. Richard F. Young, M.A. (Oxford), M.A. (Reading), Ph.D. (Pennsylvania). He is professor of English linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches courses in Sociolinguistics, English Syntax, Language Acquisition, and Research Methods. His abiding research passion is to understand the relationship between the use of language and the social contexts that language reflects and creates.

He has always seen that relationship as dynamic and reflexive, and his research has focused on change — how newcomers learn to participate in the practices of a new community. Four of his books indicate that interest: Variation in Interlanguage Morphology (Lang, 1991), Talking and Testing (Benjamins, 1998), Language and Interaction (Routledge, 2008), and Discursive Practice in Language Learning and Teaching (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). He has published over 50 articles in journals and anthologies and serves on the editorial boards of three major journals.

He has held visiting professorships in the U.S., Germany, and Malaysia, and is currently visiting professor at the National Institute of Education, Singapore. During 2005-6, he served as President of the American Association for Applied Linguistics and chaired the 14th World Congress of Applied Linguistics. Until 2004, he served as a consultant to Educational Testing Service during a major redesign of the TOEFL test.

We are extremely grateful that Dr. Young was able to take the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Let’s hear what he has to say about his work and the process of language learning in the modern era:

Dr. Young, you study linguistics and the role that cultural cues play in the process of learning a language. How important do you think it is for someone to be immersed in a culture in order pick up the intricacies of a language?

Language is part of a larger system of human communication, albeit the part that we have paid most attention to. The complete range of means of human communication is large indeed, including the way we use our bodies to stand, to bend, to gesture, to display meanings by means of our facial expressions, our clothing, hair, and make-up.

 When we focus on learning a language, especially when we study the language outside the community of people who speak it, we ignore all those other ways of communicating, which are only available when we are immersed in the culture of speakers of the language. But immersion is not enough because we may simply ignore the other ways that people are communicating and focus on what they are saying. We have to somehow, through experience or instruction, come to attend to what people mean in addition to what we believe their words mean.

Having extensively studied language learning, which language do you think is most difficult to learn as a second language after being raised speaking English in the United States?

I actually grew up in England and have lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Americans say that I have a British accent and British people say that I sound American. I write in American English and lecture on varieties of American English. Before and since coming to America, I have tried to learn many languages with varying degrees of success. At school in London, I studied French and German. Today, I can make my way around France with little difficulty. I have lived and taught in Germany for several periods, I was on a doctoral commission for a student at a German university, and I have silently participated in faculty meetings at a German university. I enjoy chatting with German friends and know the grammar of the language quite well.

After leaving school, I was exposed to Italian, Spanish, two varieties of Chinese, and Hmong. After graduating from university, I lived in Italy for five years. I have given lectures to university audiences in Italian, I read modern Italian literature, and I use Italian when emailing friends in Italy. Later in life, I married a Chinese woman who was born and brought up in Beijing. My wife and I joke in Mandarin Chinese at home, and I used to write letters to her in Chinese. I read simple Chinese short stories, and I participate in conversations with Chinese friends. Before learning Mandarin Chinese, I lived in Hong Kong for four years. I have a Certificate in Intermediate Cantonese from the Hong Kong Government Language Training School. Nowadays, I enjoy ordering meals in Cantonese and chatting with wait staff at restaurants in Chinatown. My least successful experience was a short period of studying Hmong with a private tutor in Philadelphia. All I learned was a little bit of the pronunciation.

There is no doubt that languages such as French, German, Italian, and Spanish are easier for native speakers of English than languages such as Chinese and Hmong. The main reason is that European languages that share a common history with English have developed their modern vocabulary from a common historical word-hoard; so learning their vocabulary is easier. But for me the greatest challenge in learning a foreign language is finding sympathetic and patient people with whom I can converse in the language. In Hong Kong, it was a challenge to learn Cantonese because most of the people I met spoke much better English than I spoke Cantonese and preferred to speak to me in English, so although I was surrounded by speakers of Cantonese I had to go to school to learn their language.

In your research, you discuss at length the relationship between language and representational hand gestures. Do you believe using hand gestures to reinforce words, in conjunction with listening to our audiotapes, would improve the rate at which one can learn a language?

Hand gestures and other movements of the body and face are essential aids to language learning for several reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, people communicate with their bodies at the same time as they speak. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “Say ‘It’s cold in here’ and mean ‘It’s warm in here’. Can you do it?” Whenever I have asked students in my classes to do just that, they show their intended meaning by bodily gestures or a sarcastic tone of voice. The point is that we can use gestures and our bodies to completely change the literal meaning of our words.

 Second, our gestures and our language both originate from the same thought; that’s why close attention to gestures can tell us more about what a person is really thinking than their words alone.

Third, our gestures can also help us to remember, to plan ahead, and to think not only about physical things like directions and movement but also about abstract things like desires, intentions, and feelings. So, yes, using hand gestures would provide additional resources for language learners, though the extent to which individuals would use those resources is likely to vary.

Would the indirect exposure to visual cues found in native-language TV shows or films be enough to help a language learner who could not directly immerse themselves in said culture, and bridge the gap between social context and language cognition?

Yes, if it is not possible for a learner to live in the community where the language is spoken, then exposure to movies and still images of people communicating in the language would provide learners with information about making meaning through a variety of channels as well as through language. The important point, though, is that learners need to be trained to attend to nonverbal communication as well as language.

The experience of many students who have studied abroad as part of their academic language programs shows that, unless they make a conscious effort to attend to the ways in which non-literal meanings are made nonverbally in the foreign community, the length of time studying abroad does not predict how well they will learn the language.

To someone who may be considering a career in linguistics, what would say has been your biggest challenge? How about your greatest triumph?

Language is a beast with two heads, and a successful linguist has to develop two distinct ways of understanding language. Language in its’ semantic, syntactic, and phonological structure (its’ word meanings, grammar, and pronunciation) is a remarkably abstract and complex system. Understanding that system involves abstract, often mathematical reasoning. But at the same time language is used as part of the infinite complexities of human communication, which some people have called “the interesting stuff about language.”

Studying language as communication involves studying it from the point of view of its users, “the choices they make, the constraints they encounter in using language in social interaction and the effects their use of language has on other participants in the act of communication”. This is how David Crystal defined pragmatics or what I sometimes call the practice of language. These two aspects of language, the abstract and the practice, have to be studied in balance if one is to become a successful linguist. All of us, myself included, have at one stage of our careers or another focused on one head of the beast and ignored the other. The challenge is to keep them both in sight.

For someone who is looking to learn a language with audio courses like the ones we provide, what advice can you offer to help them enrich their experience and learn the language as efficiently and completely as possible?

There is no substitute for sustained effort. Any course that advertises itself as an easy way to learn a language in a short amount of time is not telling the truth. To achieve success in language learning, a learner must be able to sustain effort over a long period of time and be willing to be exposed to the language in a wide variety of forms and contexts.

Thank you again, Dr. Young, for answering our questions, and we here at Pimsleur Approach wish you the best in continuing to understand the role of cultural cues in language and language learning.

Interview conducted via email, lightly edited.