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Reflection on a theoretical perspective

Language, society and cultural difference

Language, society and cultural difference and the relationships are both interesting topics. Recently, many scholars and educators have focussed on them and conducted further research. Hall (1997:1) explores the definitions of language, identity and culture and discusses the relation between them in the introduction of his article 'Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices'. This essay will discuss three factors, language, identity and culture. The links between them and a relevant example in terms of my experience will be explored.

The close relationships between language, identity and cultural difference are shown in Hall's circuit of culture (p. 1). According to Hall (2003), 'language operates as a representational system' (p. 1); through language, people may represent their 'concepts, ideas and feelings' to others, meanwhile, 'the representation through language is the process by which meaning is produced' (p. 1). In other words, without language, the 'production and circulation of meaning' (p. 5) cannot take place. People give meaning to things including ideas, values, and emotions through the language. The meaning is what gives us a sense of the group we belong to, of who we are (our identity) (p. 3). Moreover, 'in order to communicate these meanings to other people' (p. 4), people also need to use the linguistic codes (p. 4) of language. Here, Hall claims that language has a much wider sense (p. 4). It is not only spoken and written words, but also involves anything that can represent meaning such as, music, clothing, food, any non-verbal actions, even traffic lights.

Hall (2003) also argues, 'culture is about shared meanings' (p. 1). 'Culture not only embodies the "best that has been thought and said" in a society' (p. 2), but also it is a process, a set of practices. It is concerned with the 'giving and taking of the meaning' between the members of a society or group (p. 2). To put it another way, members of the same culture must interpret the world around them in similar ways and share a set of ideas, images and values of the group or community, which embodies their cultural characteristics and makes them distinctive from members who belong to other groups, which is their identification. When they interpret the world and indicate their identification, they are also consuming their culture. The ways members of the same group share the same cultural code (p. 4) includes their behaviours or life style in human and social contexts.

In this case, language is an important vehicle or tool to convey cultural values and who we are, and the characteristics of the group we belong to. In other words, 'Language is one of the media through which thoughts, ideas and feelings are represented in a culture' (p. 1). Without language, culture could not exist. Meanwhile, language representation, produced meaning and consumed culture regulate social practices and decide the way in which it is organized and governed.

There are a lot of interesting examples which manifest the links between language, identity and cultural difference. From my experience, I remembered my first English class in Australia, which gave me a big 'cultural shock'. When I called my teacher 'Teacher Sue', she was unhappy with that, and asked me to call her by her first name. In China, this situation has never happened. We address older people including teachers, and the boss with a title in order to express our respect for them. The use of the first name without title, would be regarded as a taboo.

At that time, I felt great embarrassment. I could not understand why they dared to use the teacher's first name. And now, I read Stuart Hall's article, I have found the answer and understand why the teacher asked me to use her first name. This is related to the question 'how does the teacher represent herself or himself?' My teacher, Sue represented herself through her first name in her cultural community. However, in my Chinese cultural context, I represent the teacher through the title in order to indicate my respect to the teacher. Thus, my teacher in Australia and I produce our different identity through our representation and language. Hence, as Hall states 'Language is not only the privileged medium in which we "make sense" of things, in which meaning is produced and exchanged' (p. 1), and Meaning is what gives us a sense of our own identity (p. 3). On the other hand, language as a symbolic practice (p. 5) and expresses the meaning of the cultural identity and society we belong to.

Also, when my teacher represented herself through the language, she was also consuming her cultural content. Meanwhile, when she conveyed to me her cultural identity, I had to consume the view 'you are my teacher,' but, also 'you are my different teacher.' Therefore, it can be seen that because of these language systems, we reflect and maintain the common 'life-world' which we call a culture (p. 5). We hold different cultural values, Confucian as opposed to Western values. Confucian culture emphasises respect for the authority of teachers'. Western culture values the lecturer and students as individuals of equality and believes that teachers and students hold equal positions and rights. Also, this manifests the relationships between teachers and students in different cultural backgrounds. When my teacher and I represented and consumed our different cultural identities, the relationships between teachers and students which reflect in the social practice are regulated. In other words, 'shared the meaning' (p. 1) which is culture in the same context, is regulated as a rule through language.

According to my own experience, after I came here as an overseas student, 'cultural shock' happened to me. At that time, I was worried that I had lost my way and my identity. Hall's argument makes me understand that it is a necessary experience, a process of adaptation to a new society. Using a new language means forming new memberships in new cultural contexts. There is a change in language, which leads to a change in identity and social relationships. Likewise, any change in language, identity and culture leads to the change of the other two aspects. And now, I also accept and consume this new culture. I am also used to using the lecturer's first name. However, after I go back to China, I have to remind myself to call the teacher with their title. I change the cultural context where I live and the group which I belong to, so I have to change my language. As a future EFL teacher, understanding the relationships between language, identity and cultural difference is of great help to do a good job.

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