Is culture always burro’d in language?

donkeyMy son is 15 months old, and he is starting to take notice of music. My background as a musician and former kindergarten teacher make it easy to incorporate song into his learning, and my background as a linguist makes it just as easy to do comparative studies of children’s songs in Spanish and English. While both languages share the frequent theme of animals, the donkey is conspicuously present in Spanish songs (or conspicuously absent from English ones, depending on your perspective). What’s more, I grew up thinking that sheep and goats make the same sound, but Spanish distinguishes them helpfully – sheep say “Beh,” and goats say “Mah.”

While there are vastly more similarities than differences between the two languages when it comes to children’s songs and rhymes, such small cultural distinctions shape worldviews. I’ll never forget the moment my husband, playing with our son at 7 months old, asked, “¿Quién quiere unos elotes?” [Who wants some corn?], while nibbling his little toes. It would never, ever, in my Anglo-centric, English-dominant, American upbringing, occur to me to frame baby toes as analogous to corn kernels, but it would definitely occur to a Mexican Spanish speaker. While my husband didn’t draw that from a children’s song per se, clearly, the references that adults use in interaction with children are key to shaping cultural perspectives.

All that being said, it’s no surprise that I gravitate toward using translated children’s songs, rather than relying solely on original English language songs for teaching English, as Joan Kang Shin writes about here. If 5-year-olds in rural Mexico learn “Old MacDonald” as I did–without the donkey–how deeply does that invalidate their world? If children learn English via songs that name the cow but not the ox, bison, or water buffalo in places where those bovids are as likely to be found, how relevant will they find English, the so-called lingua franca? (I think also of well-meaning expatriate teachers that have laughably tried to teach the concept of “snow” in equatorial countries.)

While English may have deep linguistic and cultural roots in the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia, Anglo culture is not and should not necessarily be married to language instruction. It’s unrealistic, for one, since language dynamically takes on a life of its own among unique communities, but it also unfairly cuts short a dialogue about cultural difference, whether in an ESL or EFL context.

How do you balance the language-versus-culture question? Can one be taught independently of the other? How do you use songs to teach language or culture in your classroom? What do you think of Joan Kang Shin’s International Children’s Song approach?

Submit Your Comment