Social and Cultural Aspects of Language: Its Implication in Language Teaching

“Language is an essential human attribute

and humans are necessarily social beings”


A.    Introduction

This paper presents our knowledge on the social and cultural aspects of language and how this knowledge can contribute to our English teaching methodology so that our students can speak culturally and socially appropriate English. The discussion starts from a brief description of the paradigm which sees language as social-cultural phenomenon, which does not stand alone. Hymes’s paradigm is presented here to analyze communication in the so-called Ethnography of Communication from which we can get the understanding on how language is used in society and culture which supports it. We will proceed to find out its implication on the teaching of English as a foreign language.

B.     Language as a Social and Cultural Event:

(Sociolinguistics as a New Discipline)

Any discussion on language and its social and cultural aspects, be it for research or learning and teaching purposes, will never get comprehensive views without tracing back to the history of modern linguistics, as a relatively new discipline. Though the development of modern linguistics in the beginning of the 20th century was put forward by some anthropologists such as Frans Boaz and Edward Sapir, who consider that language and culture are interlocked and interdependent, further development of linguistics seen as American structuralism by Leonard Bloomfield in his Language (1933) ignored the social-cultural aspects of language. This school of thought, which is much influenced by behaviorism psychology, considers language as a separate discipline and that investigations of language were done on the basis of observable linguistic behavior. Its theory of language teaching is seen as an attempt of conditioning. From this, we are familiar with the so-called audio-lingual method or aural-oral approach which was so widely used in language teaching classes in 1960’s. Probably some conservative language teachers still use this approach up to the present time.  In this approach, language is seen as habit formation which can be acquired through drills and repetition of sentence patterns.

On the other hand, in 1960’s a new linguistic school of thought was developed as a reaction towards the structuralism which is called sociolinguistics, introduced by some prominent linguists such as Joshua Fishman, John Gumperz, Charles Ferguson etc. and an anthropologist like Dell Hymes. This school of thought considers that language and society are related. This means that language can never be understood and studied fully without understanding its social and cultural contexts. Language is not merely a means of communication, but also an instrument to show human social identity and establish social and cultural relationships and that to speak the language is seen as a cultural event. From here, pragmatics was also developed.

The more systematic and wider way to investigate language as the speech of human groups dates to 1960’s when sociolinguistics came into existence as a new discipline. Some call it as an interdisciplinary linguistics. Others call it as sociology of language, linguistics plus and an opposite of theoretical linguistics. For long, language had been seen as a single discipline, completely separated as from society, since language was meant as just speech and a means of communication. Any effort to relate language and society was assumed useless, because society was the object of sociology, not linguistics.

Consequently, new approaches in language investigations, language learning and teaching were also developed with their new theoretical considerations. For example, social structure may either influence or determine linguistic structure and/or behavior. Certain evidence can be added here to support this view: the age-grading phenomenon (young children speak differently from older children and, in turn, children speak differently from mature adults); studies which show that the varieties of language that speakers use reflect their regional, social, or ethnic origin and possibly even their sex; other studies also show that particular ways of speaking, choices of words, and even rules for conversing are determined by certain social requirements. In short one’s social identity can be seen from the way he or she speaks and his or her choices of words.

The second possible relationship is opposed to the first one that is linguistic structure and/or behavior may either influence or determine social structure, as the view behind Whorfian hypothesis. The third possible relationship is the influence is bi-directional, that is language and society may influence each other. A variant of this approach is that this influence is dialectical in nature. In a Marxian perspective, it can be stated that speech behavior and social behavior are in a state of constant interaction and that “material” living conditions are an important factor in the relationship.

Seeing the relationship between language and society as stated should lead to the understanding that sociolinguistics is not merely a mixing of linguistics and sociology which takes concepts and findings from the two disciplines and attempts to relate them through correlational techniques or in any other simple way. Hymes (in Wardhaugh, 1986: 11) mentions that a mechanical amalgamation of standard linguistics and standard sociology is not likely to suffice in that adding a speechless sociology to a sociology-free linguistics may miss entirely what is important in the relationship between language and society.


C.    Hymes’s Ethnography of Communication

Hymes (in Wardhaugh, 1986: 238-240) has proposed an ethnographic framework which takes into account  the various factors that are involved in speaking as a cultural event. An ethnography of a communicative event is a description of all the factors that are relevant in understanding how that particular communicative event achieves its objectives. Hymes classifies social-cultural events into sixteen components which are simplified into eight categories. For convenience, Hymes uses the word SPEAKING as an acronym for his framework. This framework can be used as a guide in foreign language teaching which involves the social and cultural aspects of that language. Let us now consider those components one by one.

“S” means setting and scene of speech. Setting refers to the place and time,                       i.e., the concrete physical circumstances in which speech takes place. Scene refers to the abstract psychological setting, or the cultural definitions of the occasion.

“P” means participants which include various combinations of speaker-listener, addressor-addressee, or sender-receiver. They generally fill certain socially specified roles. A conversation involves a speaker and listener whose roles change. Considering who will be our participants is very important in communication.

“E” refers to Ends, which means expected outcomes of an exchange as well as to the personal goals that participants  seek to accomplish on particular occasion.

“A” refers to Act sequence, which means the actual form and context of what is said, including the precise words used, how they are used and the relationship of what is said to the actual topic at hand. This is what most linguists have long shown an interest, particularly those who study discourse and conversation.

“K” refers to Key, which means the tones, manner, or spirit in which a particular message is conveyed: serious, precise, sarcastic, relax, and so on.

“I” refers to Instrumentalities, which means the choice of channel to convey messages, i.g., oral, written, or telegraphic, email, etc and to the actual forms of speech employed, such as the language, dialect, code, or register that is chosen.

“N” refers to the Norms of interaction and interpretation, which means the specific behaviors and proprieties that attach to speaking and also to how these may be viewed by someone who does not share them  For example, when we may cut someone’s speech, or when we may ask questions etc. Norms of interpretation refers to the belief system employed in certain society when making communication.

“G” refers to Genre, which include types of utterance such as poems, proverbs, prayers, lectures, editorials, etc.

This SPEAKING model is much useful to be considered when preparing teaching materials and how to teach them to the students. Hymes’s model emphasizes authenticity, which means teaching materials should be arranged in such away that they perform as the real language atmosphere.

Realizing the complexity and holism of communication as cultural event, language teachers need to pay attention that the materials to be taught must consider authenticity as the communication event. The key word for this is Teaching in Context. The teaching materials should be taught in their social-cultural contexts, so that students can apply them authentically. . Teaching greetings, for example, must be understood as a part of  social interaction. Though at the beginning, the students are taught just to understand the meanings of greetings “good morning, good evening, good night, good bye etc., they should finally know how to use them in the real context.


D. Looking across Culture

To get better understanding how cultures can be taught in an English teaching and learning process, the following is an illustration of two different cultures: Indonesian and English. Let us examine how similar or unlike they are.  We shall  look at surface features only, what we see in everyday life. It is  hoped that this demonstrates the differences that exist within the west. (Most examples are quoted from Francis O”Brian’s paper, 1991: 3-5).






3-4 times a day

3 times a day

No regular

important meal


weddings, etc

Dinner in the


Unusual to

talk during a meal

Usual to talk,

But no much



Push on shove;

No waiting

Very important

to queue-seen

as fair



May begin with

A speech; often a strong

Religious element;

Familiar format

Often inside;

drinking very

important, food less so ; no

Set format


E. Causes of Cultural Conflict

One of the objectives of foreign language teaching is to promote international understanding and cooperation by enabling students to gain access to the life and thought of a people who speak another language. This objective becomes the culture of another group.

Hostility can arise because of ignorance. People are likely to be wary of something they do not know. For most people, the main opportunity to learn something about a foreign culture is when they learn a foreign language. Therefore, language teaching should incorporate some teaching  of culture in its contents. Teachers of a foreign language thus have the responsibility to ensure that their pupils have some awareness of the culture of the target language. In this case, that culture is an English language one. Here, we shall restrict ourselves to a consideration of British culture. We shall look at differences between Indonesia and Britain, in an attempt to see where hostility or mistrust and mutual misunderstanding, can occur.

The following are few examples of how British and Indonesian culture differ which might be useful be taught to our students.




F.     Personal Behavior

G.    Indonesia

H.    Britain

-Impolite to use the left

hand to pass things or to eat

Both hands may be used

Impolite to show the soles

of your feet to someone

No stigma attached to

the soles of the feet

Polite to dip your shoulder

if passing someone of higher status

No physical reaction to

people of higher status

a smile is enough

People usually go straight

In to the house / room

Polite to wait for the

Host to say come in

before you enter

-Polite to take off your

shoes when entering a house

Only take off you shoes if

It is your house,

or if invited to do so

When your hear something bad

Embarrassing or distressing,

The usual reaction is laughter (in public)

More usual to look

Shocked, sad, surprised, etc.

A smile is most inappropriate

Polite to stare at some one

Impolite to stare;

may provoke a violent reaction

( what are you looking at?)

Impolite to ask for salt,

etc, when eating at another

person’s  house

No problem

Group Behaviour


Often families live very

Close to each other

Families more dispersed

and may not see each

other frequently

Rarely alone in the house

Often sleep a lone

Gotong royong

Such systematic collective

Work does not exist

When there’s a funeral, most people take part in a procession

Very  rare ; funerals are usually limited to close friends and family

If someone is ill, or if there is a death, many

people from the office, neighborhood, etc, go and visit, to pay their respects

Visiting is limited to

close friends and family

other people write a

letter of condolence

if they wish


Decent or modest clothing is required on all occasions outside the house

(except, may be, within the kampung)

Clothing very much depends on situation,

the individual and the weather

Noise and communal living

are very important

More importance is attached

to individuals and peace and quiet

Polite for men to touch other men in public


A taboo for men to touch

other men in public

Unusual for men and women to

touch or show affection in public

Men and women of ten hold

Hands and are  demonstrative

(other European countries are even more relaxed about showing affection in public


Touching, however, is not so usual in Britain In one survey, British couples did not  touch each other at all during an hour’s conversation, compared with 180 times

In Puerto Rico and 110 in Paris

Invitations often come at the last minute


Normal to give people information about an event well in advance

Jam karet


Polite to be on time or thereabouts


Acceptable to look at some one’s letter / telegram /Material on their desk / in their home

Not polite to read other people’s correspondence, as it is considered

to be their personal affair



G.    Attitudes

Here we shall  consider the ways in which formal and informal situations are different in the two cultures


H.    Indonesia

Informal                                  a very clear distinction

Exists between

Formal and



Formal situation          : A lecture; visiting the house of a person with a superior status; meeting a stranger; at the office; in meetings / seminars / conferences; in business letters, etc.

Informal situation       : outside the lecture hall; popping in to see a friend; hanging around the kapung; shopping at the market; cooking and chatting; talking on the bus, etc.



Informal   the distinction

Between formal and

Informal is not so



Notes :

–          The situations for formality and informality are much the same in the two countries.

–          But the difference in behavior between informal and formal situations in Britain is not as great as here in Indonesia.

–          Therefore, Indonesian culture requires quite distinct behavior according to the behavior.

–          In Britain, on the other hand, such distinctions are slipping. By Indonesian standards, British parties and social interaction. (at the market / in the bus) may seem rather formal, especially among young people.

–          Conversely, many Indonesian formal situations seem very formal to British person, and informal situations here can be very informal.


Some words used by Indonesians to describe “westerners”

– free                                   – rich                                             -Impolite

– free sex                             – aggressive                                  – negative influence on

Indonesian culture

– Irreligious                         – Immoral                                     – loud

–          crazy!


Some words used by British people to describe `Indonesians`

– Who?                                – retiring                                       -late

– inscrutable                        – friendly                                      – conservative

– shy                                    – slow                                           -hospitable

-crazy                                  – smiling                                       – bureaucratic


This is probably the most obvious area where cultural conflict can occur, and can be the easiest way to give offence when you speak a foreign language. It could also be the easiest to correct. It is true that Indonesians and British people talk about different subjects.

Speech positions and posture

Some ways we sit when we speak are different in the two cultures


Indonesia Britain

–          Usual to avoid eye contact especially in an argument or when talking to a superior

Eye contact is usually important

–          In formal situations, sit forward, looking eager and alert.

(from: Halimi, 1988)

Can look more relaxed.

Sit back in the chair, but still concentrate on the speaker.

Beating around the bush”

In general, British culture appreciates directness in speech. In Indonesia, especially in formal situation, people often wait and talk for  a while on general matters before coming to the point of the conversation. Answers to questions are often vaguer in Indonesia.








Er….” (and change the subject when asked a difficult question)

Rather rude to do this.

Bad news / uncomfortable

answers are often prefaced

with “ I am sorry: I am sorry;

I am afraid ( I don`t know)”

“ke sana…….disana

Three streets away ; on the corner

Speech norms

Here we mean expressions which have little cultural equivalent in a foreign language. They are normal and sound acceptable in the mother tongue, but are strange or offensive in another language if translated directly. Another way of saying the same thing should be found. Some examples of Indonesian words / expressions which have no cultural equivalent in Britain.



Direct English



Better English


(kamu tinggal di Tuban?)

-Tentu, di jalan….

(Do you live in Surabaya?)

-Of course. On Jalan……

You are being

Quite rude, Student stupid for not knownig

Yes, I do no, I don`t (etc)


God willing

Unusual to say this : Britain is a more secular society

-With any luck


– hopefully

Teman baik

A close friend

Ok if you know him / her really well; not if you met them once for  five minutes!

-someone I meet once



Unusual to use this word to grant permission

–          bon apetic   (formal)

–          say nothing

–          go ahead


Equally, some English words and expressions cannot be directly translated in to Indonesian, sa the cultural concept does not exist here.



Indonesian Translation


“dating tanpa diundang”



“a stitch in time saves nine”

“pencegahan lebih baik dari pada


“flexibility in time; arriving an hour early or late for an appointment”

“Jam karet”

“joining together to work together with that whole neighborhood an a communal project”

“Gotong royong”


“padi, gabah, beras, nasi, ketan”


Social use of language

Not only do the two societies speak about different things, they also do different things when they perform certain social  speech acts.



British English



-Usually directly but in

On a conversation

“er….excuse me / do you mind

if I interrupt / could you give me a

couple   of minutes?”




–          (maaf) “habis”

–          “sudah dijilid semua”

–          I am (terribly / realy)

Sorry, there`s none left.

We should get some in later”

–          “sorry about that. We made a mistake. Hope it`s alright”

–          “sorry, there`s none left; we`re having a problem with our suppliers”




–          Wah! bajumu bagus, ya?

–          “tidak…., sudah lama…”

–          “wow ! That`s a lovely shirt you`re wearing

–          “thank you, I `ve had it for ages, though”



– “mau ambil sepeda”

–          “could i borrow your bike, please?

–          “can I / would it be possible to / might, I/ borrow your bike, please”



“terimakasih” not used too much in everyday conversation

–          “thank you” is used 3 / 4 times in a simple exchange



Suggestion for teaching culture while teaching language

As teachers, we should impress upon the students that there are many ways of looking at things, and that cultural differences do not necessarily involve moral issues of right and wrong. Learn something  about western culture yourself, read as much as possible about the country, speak to natives from there and find out information about it. Try to supplement materials with examples from Britain, etc. At the lower levels, examples of dialogues and reading passages can be found in many textbooks published in the West to get authenticity. Let us have a try !





O’ Brian, Francis. 1991. “What is Politeness: Culture and Language”, Makalah pada  Ten-Hour Seminar on Socio-Cultural Aspects in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, New Surabaya College, 3rd November, 1991.


Oetomo, Dede. 1991. “Implikasi Aspek-Aspek Sosial-Bidaya Bahasa terhadap Pengajaran Bahasa Inggris: Penekanan terhadap Yang Otentik”, Makalah   pada Ten-Hour Seminar on Socio-Cultural Aspects in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, New Surabaya College, 3rd November, 1991.


Rahardjo, Mudjia. 2002. Relung-Relung Bahasa: Bahasa dalam Wacana Politik Indonesia Kontemporer. Yogyakarta: Aditya Media.


Rogers, Sinclair (ed.). 1975. Children and Language: Readings in Early Language & Socialization. London: Oxford University Press.


Wardhaugh, Ronald, 1986. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Cowley Road, Oxford: Basil

Blackwell Ltd.

Visits: 344
Today: 1

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *