Learning a language without comprehending the culture is like going to the vibrant Mexican marketplace pictured above and only eating hamburgers from McDonald’s.
Will your food be okay? Sure.
But you’re kind of missing the point. You’re not getting the full experience.
The same goes with language and culture. To fully appreciate a language, you need to understand the culture of the people who speak it—they’re intrinsically connected.
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.
Okay, I might be romanticizing just a bit.
Still, you can’t deny that language is a huge part of culture, so much that it actually affects culture in the same way that a culture affects the language.
That’s what we’re going to be exploring here, so read on 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, or maybe even your own culture. Like I said, it’s all connected.
In a Manner of Speaking: How Understanding Culture Impacts Your Language Studies
What Does Language Have to Do with Culture?
To answer that question, let’s think about the purpose of language.
Simply put, language allows us to express our thoughts and feelings, it allows us to 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 perfectly 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. You have to open yourself up to these differences.
Those contrasting values and beliefs can manifest in a variety of ways. Taking a look at common expressions and idioms gives you a glimpse into what a society deems important.
For example, just looking at all the Chinese idioms dealing with family demonstrates the value they place on this relationship and tells us a little about the family construct and potential dynamics.
Or if you were learning English, 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 an attribute that’s highly coveted 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, it affects how we choose to interact with it.
There have been several studies on this.
Ask a linguist about language and perception and they’ll probably point you to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the limits and structure of language determines their user’s thoughts and actions. It’s a hypothesis supported by professor Lera Boroditsky who wrote a whole paper on the topic of linguistic relativity.
A great example explored by those who study linguistic relativity is the concept of time and space between languages. Boroditsky conducted an experiment in which she 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. That is, they seem to shift their way of thinking to reflect that of the people who speak the respective language. It’s fascinating!
Language reflects perception, but it also reflects the history of a culture and explains why certain ideas and beliefs are so prominent and profound.
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
When you look at any culture, you cannot rightly ignore its history. Understanding its 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 effects of these ancient beliefs on modern Chinese values and culture are still present today. Clearly, the deep-rooted meaning of the term Xin is something a Mandarin learner would want to take to heart if they truly wanted to understand the implications behind the word.
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 (sometimes seemingly random) linguistic elements.
To really understand, you also have to ask yourself about the influence of other cultures on a language.
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.
English isn’t the only example of a language with rich history. If you’re studying one of the Romance languages, it helps immeasurably 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. Clearly, the influence of that culture has left its mark.
Knowing the history of a culture is not only 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
You often hear people say, “back in my day, that word used to mean… something else.”
Words change. A lot.
Take a brief look into the world of etymology (the study of word origins and development) and you’ll find that many words once meant one thing but now mean something else entirely.
Before the internet, it was next to 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. Thanks to the internet, 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 was a term originally referring to an unintelligent man, but over time it came to be quite a derogatory term for an attractive, but not very bright, woman.
Then let’s take a look at the word “awesome,” which nowadays is used to describe the best things ever (like this trivia filled article)! The root of the word 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.
Our ever-developing culture forces language to develop alongside it. We usually don’t notice the strange ways in which these words change until we either look it up or have a non-native speaker point it out.
But what does that mean on a day-to-day basis?
Now that we’ve discussed the fluidity of language and culture over time, let’s take a look at what this has to do with you and your language-learning journey.
How This Understanding Affects Your Language Learning Journey
More than anything else, your learning will help you choose your words more carefully.
Understanding 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 feature 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.
No doubt you already have your impressions of each culture and perhaps even for certain languages based on your own experience (and culture’s history). When trying to master another language, it’s best to go in without any expectations or pre-conceived notions.
Learn with what you know, keep an open-mind and respect the differences you find.
Now that you know why it’s all so important…
So what have we learned today? 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 foreign words 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 and apply it as you learn the language, single words suddenly carry new weight and words you once found just quirky and strange start to make a lot more sense.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.