The Relationship Between Language and Culture Explained
To fully learn and appreciate a language, you need to understand the culture of the people who speak it.
Learning about different cultures helps us approach languages with new insight. It allows us to delve deeper into the meaning of words and expressions and helps us feel more connected to each other.
Here, we’ll explore the relationship between language and culture and, hopefully, when you’re done you’ll have a new appreciation for the language (or languages) you’re currently studying as well as the culture it stems from.
- What Does Language Have to Do with Culture?
- Historical Perspective: The Link Between the History of a Culture and Its Language
- How This Understanding Affects Your Language Learning Journey
What Does Language Have to Do with Culture?
To answer this question, let’s think about the purpose of language.
Language allows us to express our thoughts and feelings as well as communicate and share knowledge with one another.
You won’t fully master a language unless you understand the culture, just like you’ll never fully understand a culture until you’ve immersed yourself in a study of their language. This is because language is constantly in flux and largely dependent on the ever-evolving views, values and customs of its speakers.
Let’s look at just how connected they really are.
Language reflects the values and beliefs of a culture
The differences between two cultures are reflected in their languages. Mastering the nuances of a language means really being able to understand people who (more than likely) grew up with an entirely different set of values and beliefs.
Taking a look at common expressions and idioms gives you a glimpse into what a society deems important.
For example, the vast number of Chinese idioms relating to family demonstrates the value they place on this relationship and tells us a little about the family construct.
You can find lots of examples of the historical and cultural values reflected in typical English expressions and idioms by just listening to an episode of NPR’s radio program “A Way with Words.”
Have you ever heard the phrase “A Whistle in the Dark” or noticed any of the other words and expressions for the word courage? Such observations would lead an English learner to believe that bravery is a highly coveted attribute in English-speaking societies.
But that’s not the only connection between language and culture.
Language reflects our perception of the world
Language affects the way we perceive the world and therefore, how we choose to interact with it.
When discussing language and perception, most linguists will probably point you to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the limits and structure of language determines their user’s thoughts and actions. This hypothesis is supported by professor Lera Boroditsky who wrote a whole paper on the topic of linguistic relativity.
Those who study linguistic relativity often explore the concept of time and space between languages. Boroditsky found that while English speakers view time horizontally (i.e., the past is behind us or to the left and the future is ahead or to the right), Mandarin speakers are more likely to view time vertically (i.e. the order of events is viewed from top to bottom).
Others have studied the connection between bilingualism and personality, finding that when people switch languages they also seem to “switch” their personality to fit the language, shifting their way of thinking to reflect that of the people who speak the respective language.
Language reflects perception, but also the history of a culture and explains why certain ideas and beliefs are so prominent and profound.
A great way to expose yourself to a culture’s unique perspective and values is to engage with native media produced by people from that culture. FluentU uses authentic videos such as movie clips and inspiring talks to not only help immerse you in the language, but also help you take that first step in engaging with a brand new worldview.
FluentU is available on your browser or by downloading the iOS and Android app.
Historical Perspective: The Link Between the History of a Culture and Its Language
Take terms that have lasted from ancient times to modernity to heart
Understanding a culture’s history allows you to form some idea of how and why certain words came to mean what they do. For example, in Mandarin, 心 (Xīn) is often directly translated to “heart” in English. However, the word also refers to the mind and one’s emotions.
The meaning of the word is an important concept in Daoist teachings and makes those teachings much more accessible to Mandarin speakers.
The history of a culture explains the power a term or idea can carry in a language, but it also explains the existence of certain linguistic elements.
To really understand a language, you also have to ask yourself about the influence of other cultures on it.
Watch out for footprints left by other cultures on a language
The English language is a perfect example of mixing cultures and language. The Germanic Anglo-Normans and Latin-based French essentially planted the seed for English as we know it to grow.
Learning all about its history will help you understand the meaning behind certain words and phrases with Latin roots, as well as other words of foreign language descent.
English isn’t the only example of a language with rich history. If you’re studying one of the Romance languages, it helps to learn about European history and the spread of Latin.
Maybe you’re learning Spanish and wondering why there are so many words that start with al? Spanish has many words of Arabic origin due to the Islamic conquest of Spain, such as alfombra (rug, carpet), almohada (pillow) and algodón (cotton).
Knowing the history of a culture is not just a way to get clarification, it also shows how words have evolved to reflect the current cultural climate.
Keep track of the ever-evolving meaning of words
When looking at etymology (the study of word origins and development), you’ll find that many words once meant one thing but now mean something else entirely.
In the past, it was almost impossible to pinpoint the redefining moments for these words. The broadening or dissolution of their original meanings tended to just happen slowly over time with usage. Nowadays, we can study this much more closely.
Words can evolve in various ways. Sometimes they can start out as harmless phrases but evolve to be quite rude, like the word “bimbo” which has its roots in the Italian word “bambino” (little child). In English, this originally referred to an unintelligent man, but over time it came to be quite a derogatory term for an attractive, but not very bright, woman.
Another example is the word “awesome.” Its root is “awe” which used to be synonymous with “dread.” The word maintained that connotation until around the late 1970s when people started using it to describe great things.
As you can see, our ever-developing culture forces language to develop alongside it.
How This Understanding Affects Your Language Learning Journey
Being able to understand the culture behind a language can help immeasurably in understanding the connotations of a word, especially when there’s no equivalency in your own language. Not doing so can cause some embarrassing or offensive situations.
Take a language like Japanese that has words that are closely tied to the culture. The Japanese don’t just have formal and informal forms, but honorific and humble forms as well. This is referred to as keigo.
When trying to master another language, the best thing to do is to go in without any expectations or pre-conceived notions and focus on understanding the culture behind it.
Now that you know why it’s all so important…
Hopefully you can look back at your learning experience with more awareness about what to change about your learning methods or your mindset. We’ve discussed how closely related language and culture is and by association, the importance of learning the etymology of a language.
It doesn’t have to be in-depth but maybe just enough to form a deeper understanding and appreciation for the quirks and rules of the language(s) you’re trying to learn.
How deep is your understanding of the language you learned? Have you just memorized their definitions or translations, or do you understand what they mean and what they imply when spoken?
When you take that understanding of culture and apply it as you learn the language, single words suddenly carry new meanings and words you once found just quirky and strange start to make a lot more sense.