It is a widely recognised truth that proficiency in a foreign language implies a fair insight into the culture of its native speakers. This insight, otherwise known as background or cultural knowledge, is essential to make cross-cultural communication possible. Indeed, it is a sad unawareness of the specifics of the day-to-day routines, traditional attitudes and values of foreign communities that have to answer for the current lack of understanding between the different countries of the world. Therefore it is vital for every language learner to have the ability to see and, indeed, use a text as a major source of their cultural knowledge. However, it is in most cases easier said than done, for the cultural potential of a text in a foreign language tends to be an elusive and untransparent thing. Which, obviously, makes the whole task more of a challenge, and, hopefully, more fun.
The cultural potential of the text is perceived as a sum total of several diverse elements, or components:
I cultural things:
a) words and phrases without an equivalent;
b) words and phrases with a partial equivalent;
II the idiom
III cultural stereotypes
IV cultural topics
First of all, most foreign texts would usually contain words, phrases, or bits of information that have no equivalent in the learner’s own culture. The former are usually referred to as ‘cultural things’ and need to be specially explained, or commented on, if the text is to be understood by a foreign reader.
Apart from the cultural things and cultural information texts in a foreign language are a major source of the idiom, i.e. the standard way of expression in this or that communicative situation (not to be confused with AN IDIOM, a countable noun used to describe a colourful metaphorical phrase like ‘pay through the nose’, though, of course, a text in a foreign language would also contain those). In other words, foreign texts should be used as instances of the traditional English form of expression, as a source of standard models, collocations and clichés that might, or might not, have close equivalents in the learner’s own language. The challenge here is to try and sort these out from the writer’s original turn of phrase, which can certainly be admired and appreciated, but can hardly be seen as the common English idiom, to be picked up and copied by the enlightened learner. A typical example of the idiom is the extensive use of phrasal verbs and various link words and phrases of the same register.
Thirdly, there is, in any foreign text, some allusion or reference to a more generalised kind of cultural information, the so-called ‘cultural stereotypes’. These are beliefs, values, attitudes or principles specific to a certain national, rather than the international, community. Cultural stereotypes are usually intimately connected with the country’s history, economy, and politics, and are the products thereof. They can be more or less general in themselves, that is, they can also be seen as a multi-level structure. For example, one of the traditional British sentiments is their long empirial heritage, and this largely nostalgic notion,combined with the uniquely insular mentality of the British makes them remarkably snobbish, reserved, overpolite to the extent of becoming devious and individualistic. These general qualities, in their turn, translate into more specific likes or dislikes common for this or that region, profession, or walk of life. All of these attitudes, values and sentiments can otherwise be seen as British, or, for that matter, English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, American (or else, U or non-U, upper-middle class, working class, etc.) stereotypes, whose recognition is a major challenge for any language learner.
And lastly, every text in a foreign language contains language units or bits of information that call for further cultural study. In other words, every text provides a starting point for more research into the cultural background behind it. This component of the text’s cultural potential can be called ‘cultural topics’. For example, some texts below contain a mention of pound – the British non-metric unit of mass, or of the statutory mile – a traditional non-metric unit of length in the States. Therefore, after reading the text, or seeing the film, an ambitious and inquisitive student of English culture would want to know more about English money, hopefully, new and old, or, perhaps, the whole non-metric system of weights and measures that is still a very important part of British and American mentalities. In fact, most of the cultural things mentioned in the texts and films lend themselves to a deeper and more satisfying study and thus can be seen as potential cultural topics.
The point, then, for a discerning and enlightened reader, is to learn to pick up, appreciate, and build on all the various elements of cultural potential of every text, tape or film that come in the course of language study and thus derive the biggest pleasure and satisfaction from their work.