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The power of language and culture: how an understanding of it will improve communication

September 6, 2022

After all, a specific language tends to point towards a particular group of people. Interacting with a new language requires considering the following, just to name a few:

  • Words
  • Grammar
  • Lexicon
  • History
  • And of course, culture;

Whether you intend to or not, you're usually also interacting with the culture that mostly speaks that language. Vice versa, you cannot gain anything more than a superficial understanding of a new culture without interacting with its language.

Sooner or later, exploring a new language will lead you to the behaviours and customs of a specific culture. So, whether you're teaching or learning a language, understanding the relationship between language and culture is important. 

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To understand the relationship, let’s consider which came first, language or culture?

While exploring the interesting relationship between culture and language, it's worth asking which one came first. Although this might seem like a classic chicken-and-egg paradox, in reality, we actually have a concrete answer to the question: language almost definitely came first.

Now, it's important to note that we only have access to the world's oldest written languages - but it's clear that the history of language far predates the written word. So, we have no historical proof of how people first communicated or what the actual oldest languages in the world looked like. 

Although we lack such fundamental information, the nature of our current languages, coupled with studies from today's primitive languages of indigenous tribes, shows us one thing: language is innate.

In other words, every living being communicates with members of the same species in some way or another. The only thing that differs between animals and us is the communication's level of complexity. 

Luckily, human brains have evolved to the point where our communication can be considered a learnable language. Not just the spoken language but also body language.

With this evolution we have been able to further develop human life in the following examples:

  • Intercultural communication
  • A more advanced life in society
  • Interpersonal interactions with like-minded people
  • Understanding of cultural diversity and different aspects in society 
  • Meaningful social interactions 

Still, that shows us one important fact: language developed first, and it paved the way for the further development of complex human societies. Without a language that would be used to communicate the elements of a common culture, that culture would have no way of taking root. As our languages became more complex, we were able to use them to convey increasingly complex ideas - allowing for the development of arts and sciences. 

What is the difference between the two?

Both language and culture are societal norms - however, their biggest difference lies in the collectivistic nature of culture and the individualist nature of language.

Generally, most children who develop in a typical fashion acquire at least one language, or potentially multiple ones, during childhood. They do so by observing and listening to the way adults around them talk. 

However, no two people speak in a completely identical way, even in a single household. All of us develop separate and individual speech habits, mannerisms, and patterns. Then, there are regional dialects and language groups that span different cultures, peoples, and states.

Conversely, culture is, by its definition, a more collectivist notion - it describes the basic thought and behaviour patterns of a specific group of people. And language can be one of those patterns, along with traditions, arts, cuisine, religion, etc. 

Of course, people who share an identical cultural background can have wildly different views, thoughts, and behaviours - but culture is still a collective thing, while language becomes more individual from birth. 

Can you learn a foreign language without learning the culture?

To explore the relationship between language and culture, we must also ask ourselves first if this relationship is established? Can one exist without the other? Many people who want to learn a foreign language ask themselves this very question. In other words, is it possible to become proficient in a foreign language without immersing yourself in its culture as well? 

Well, no. Or rather, yes, but only up to a point. If you really want to become effective at speaking a brand new language, you’ll have to learn about the people who speak it as a native language.

How do you start the process of understanding? 

Below are some handy tips you can incorporate into your business when communicating in a foreign environment. 

1) Understand the basics of the language

The first tip sounds a bit obvious You should start by understanding the basics of the language you intend to learn. This means not only being able to read and write, but also speaking fluently. It's important to note that many countries require certain levels of proficiency before they grant visas. It’s one thing to learn some phrases, expand your vocabulary, or even become intricately familiar with the grammar of another language. However, if you want to reach a near-native level of language proficiency, that goal is practically impossible to achieve without interacting with the culture that’s tied to that language.

 2) Learn the culture

Once you've mastered the basics, you'll need to learn about the culture of the country you plan to visit. This includes things like what foods are popular, what holidays are celebrated, what clothes are worn, and how people generally behave. While some aspects of culture are universal (for instance, food), others vary significantly depending on where you go.

In practice, people who are serious about learning a new language know that it’s impossible to do without completely immersing themselves in another culture. If you wanted to learn German or Japanese, for example, you’d have to spend a lot of time watching their TV shows, listening to their music, or just following their news on a daily basis. All of this is necessary to “get a feel” for the language - something you can’t do solely through dictionaries, grammar books, and the odd Duolingo lesson. 

3) Use your knowledge

Once you have a good idea of both the language and the culture, you can begin using your knowledge to communicate effectively. You might notice that certain words have similar meanings in both English and Spanish, which makes translation easier. Or maybe you noticed that the word "hello" is used differently in each language, which allows for a better conversation flow.

Conveying your thoughts clearly in another language entails knowing the intricacies of addressing a native-speaker audience. You may be in the position to perfectly pronounce a sentence "on paper" while also insulting native speakers through your tone or another form of cultural disrespect. 

4) Be flexible

Finally, remember that communication isn't always perfect. Even native speakers sometimes struggle to express themselves properly, and foreigners often find their attempts to communicate frustrating. If you encounter any difficulties or misunderstandings, don't take them personally; instead, try to see the situation from the other person's perspective. After all, they may just be trying to do their best.

Relationship Between Language and Culture

As you can see, the relationship between language and culture is a pretty advanced topic and a source of hot debate among linguists around the world. However, there's one conclusion that's safe to draw -  language and culture are irrevocably intertwined. 

After all, each of us has a language and a culture that are usually closely connected. Our language and cultural background inform how we interact with other people and how we perceive the world around us. If you decide to embark on the exciting journey of learning a new language, you will quickly see that its culture represents an integral part of that path.

To cut a long story short, language and culture are inseparable.


Michelle Trazo
Sophia Dickinson
Sophia is a writer and communications consultant with 10 years’ experience in the public service and not-for-profit sectors. She has also taught English in France and spent a year working at a local NGO in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is passionate about writing, intercultural communication and languages (she speaks French, Indonesian and is learning Spanish).
Michelle Trazo
Sophia Dickinson
Articles, resources and ideas to think, design and go native.
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