Chapter III:
Culture, Communication and Language

Now that your "cultural eye" has been sharpened, let us look at how culture influences students' language skills and their learning of standard English, the language of education.

The concept of communicative competence (Hymes, 1962), based on one's knowledge of the rules of language structure and language use within a given culture, will be useful.

A major responsibility of teachers at all grade levels is to teach the language and communication skills needed for academic success, and for career and social mobility. Many students come from cultures which use different, though valid, communication and language systems from what is considered "normal" in the classroom.

The study of sociolinguistics can help us understand different systems as a means of improving the quality of our instruction in language and the communication arts.


Sociolinguists examine social and cultural influences on language behavior. Among the most important concepts to emerge are those relating to dialects and language standards.

Sociolinguists have documented the presence of dialects in every language. These dialects, all of which are legitimate, are associated with educational, economic, social and historical conditions. To linguists, the word "dialect" refers to a way of speaking a language, and not to an incorrect way of speaking a language.

While all dialects of a given language are linguistically legitimate, some achieve social prestige. In literate, economically developed societies, the dialect spoken by those with the most formal education, the highest socioeconomic status and the greatest degree of political power tends to acquire the greatest social prestige. Typically, it becomes the standard for the culture, for writing and for education.

Standard dialects also provide a medium through which persons from different linguistic backgrounds can communicate with one another. Social and regional variations may exist within standard dialects as long as they conform to specified linguistic rules, largely grammatical in nature. Standard English, therefore, should not be considered "Northern English" or "White English," since it is spoken, in one form or another, in all parts of the United States and by some members of all racial and cultural groups.

At the other end of the social spectrum, so called nonstandard dialects are generally spoken by the "have nots:" the powerless, the less educated, the less economically well off and the less socially prominent. While legitimate linguistically, these dialects tend to be unacceptable to the "haves" of society.

In American English, nonstandard dialects exist within all racial, ethnic and regional groups ( see Table III ). Each dialect is a product of distinct social, historical, cultural and educational factors. All are legitimate in that they represent the concepts, needs and intentions of their speakers.

For a variety of reasons, including negative public attitudes and inadequate teaching models, nonstandard English speakers often do not effectively learn standard English in school. Without competence in standard English, students will fail academically and face diminished career, social and life options. Many students who do learn standard English do so at a great price: devaluation or rejection of their home or community dialect. When competence in standard English is coupled with rejection of one's own home or community dialect, it may lead to serious psychological and identity problems (Chambers, 1983).

In the United States, the schools' failure to teach standard English is reflected in the poor performance of nonstandard English speakers on achievement, aptitude and diagnostic tests. Perhaps the most alarming evidence of this failure is the low performance of nonstandard English speakers on tests used to place students in remedial or gifted programs. Virtually all of these tests presume competence in standard English (Oakland, 1977).

Many African American children, usually from working class homes or communities, speak a nonstandard variety of English. This variety, often referred to as Black English Vernacular, is thought by many sociolinguists to reflect African influences on American English, and is reinforced by social isolation, segregation and group identity.

Cultural Differences in Discourse

In addition to differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical structures among cultural groups, variations also exist in the rules for general discourse in oral communication, covering such specific acts as narratives and conversation. In communicating with one another, teachers and students naturally will follow the assumptions and rules governing discourse within their respective cultures. Discourse rules govern such aspects of communication as:

With respect to narratives, Gee (1985) claims that story telling during sharing time in the early school years helps to provide students the foundation for reading and writing instruction in later grades. Both he and Michaels (1981) report that schools and teachers prefer linear, single topic story telling, the style that is compatible with strategies encountered in reading and writing activities.

These topic centered stories are characterized by tightly structured sentences that reflect on a single or small set of highly related topics. The speaker presumes little shared knowledge with listeners. Topic centered stories, therefore, tend to be very explicit and contain great detail, emphasizing more telling than showing. Topic centered stories are thought by some to be associated with the field independent cognitive style. I

Gee and Michaels note further that many working class children, particularly those from oral cultures, tend to prefer a topic associating narrative style. These story tellers presume a shared knowledge with the audience, do more showing than telling and imply linkages among a wide range of topics which need not be presented in temporal sequence. Topic associating narrative style is thought by some to be associated with the field dependent cognitive style.

While both narrative styles provide meaningful ways for children to talk about their experiences and realities, research shows that students who tell topic associating stories tend to be called on less and interrupted more often than do children who tell topic centered stories (Michaels, 1981). They also tend to be wrongly considered disorganized or poor thinkers. Finally, they are more likely to be erroneously referred for psychological assessments or placed in special education.

Examples of Cultural and Communicative Tendencies

In this section, we will present examples of cultural and communicative tendencies observable among African American and white students from several cultural groups in the United States. Tendencies are not universal. In order to avoid generalizations and stereotypes about cultural groups, variations within cultures must always be considered. Highly educated people of a given cultural group are less likely to reveal indigenous language and communication patterns than less educated persons. Moreover, many people communicate in ways influenced by other cultures.

Based on a review of literature and anecdotal reports, Taylor (1985) has listed verbal and nonverbal communication styles of working class African Americans as they contrast with those of Anglo Americans and middle class persons of other ethnic groups. Some of these characteristics are presented in Table IV. Similar comparisons may be made between other cultural groups in the "typical" American classroom.

Unfamiliarity with cultural communication differences can lead to misinterpretation, misunderstanding and even unintentional insult. For example, the African American student who shows little reserve in stating his or her feelings may be misperceived as hostile, or perhaps as dangerous. The student, meanwhile, may see himself or herself as an honest person willing to share feelings as a necessary first step in resolving problems.

Similarly, the African American student who looks away from speakers during conversation may be erroneously perceived as showing disrespect or not paying attention. The African American student who freely states his or her position to the teacher may be perceived as challenging the teacher's authority when the student may be demonstrating honesty and pride in the value of his or her opinion.

Teachers, like all human beings, have their own expectations about communicative behavior. The teacher should 1) recognize any incongruencies that may exist between his or her expectations and those of the child; 2) make certain that behavioral norms in the classroom are sufficiently broad to embrace all cultural groups; and 3) teach the rules of standard American culture and the reasons for them.

Have you witnessed any of the behaviors identified in Table IV? How did you interpret what you saw? Which behaviors do you find represented in your classes? What characteristics could you add to the list from other cultural groups? What in group variations have you observed?

The Significance of Culture Based Communicative Behavior in School

A variety of cross cultural communication problems can arise in school, and it is important that teachers not automatically blame the student or the student's family or culture. Problems often result from misunderstandings or value conflicts between teachers and students who are obeying different culturally based communication rules. Some common problems linked to cultural and communicative diversity are presented in Table V.

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