Language IS Culture

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Can one really learn a language without learning the culture? Can one learn a culture without learning the corresponding language? There is no question that people do it all the time, so why does this question keep coming up? I should ask, is it fair to treat a language as though it were created in a vacuum? For my native language, English, I know that learning the language without learning American culture leaves the learner deprived and ignorant of the meaning that lies behind what is being said.

Language & Culture Metaphors

There are several metaphors that could be used to describe the relationship between language and culture. One I liked recently was mentioned by Csaba Toth, an intercultural management and communication consultant, “learning a language without culture is like learning how to drive in a parking lot.” Other metaphors include, “knowing a language without knowing its culture is like a baseball pitcher who can throw a mean curve ball but has never been in a ball park” or one I have used with my clients, it is like building a spaceship to fly to Mars without studying the physical properties of outer space. Toth has stated elsewhere, “learning languages makes you global [while] learning cultures makes you a citizen.” These metaphors and analogies are intended to illustrate that companies cannot merely employ or train people who know languages but are unfamiliar with the culture. Both are needed in order to remain competitive in the global business world.


As a philologist I believe that beginning with the inseparability of language and culture is the only point of departure for any discussion of either concept. The word philology is composed of two Greek roots, philos and logos. “Logos” is often rendered as “the study of…” as in sociology, psychology, biology, and genealogy. However, logos in Greek can mean several things among which is: word, discourse, reason, or judgment. Philology literally loves to look into what exactly words mean in their sociological, historical, and linguistic context, particularly for languages that were spoken hundreds if not thousands of years ago. My background in studying ancient texts has taught me that words are simply one element in a much larger compound of relevant components.

Idiomatic Expressions

Every language has idiomatic expressions or figures of speech that may or may not be related to the culture where that language is spoken. In England if someone is saying “that’s not quite my cup of tea” they mean that it is not an activity they like. This expression may be used in the US where the tradition of drinking tea is not as established. In Australia, the word “boomerang” has become so popular that it is generally understood everywhere in the English speaking world as something that goes out and can come back later with negative consequences – for example in the expression, “boomerang children” or “the boomerang generation” referring to children who go off to college and then return to live at home. As far as we can tell, every language has idiomatic expressions that have meaning unique to that culture. This is just one aspect of the language/culture connection.

Another connection is found in expressions that are idiomatic but don’t necessarily have that folksy wisdom attached to them. An example of a folksy expression would be “go fly a kite” which in Spanish would be best rendered, “vete a freír espárragos.” It would make no sense whatsoever to translate that expression from English into Spanish word for word. Yet expressions such as, “I dropped the keys” have a completely different function in Spanish. In Spanish you would say, “se me cayeron las llaves” which changes the relationship between the agent, the object and the subject. In Spanish the syntax construes a relationship where the keys “fell from me” – obviating the subject from having caused the action.


Another aspect of language that is closely tied to culture is pragmatics. Hyde Flippo comments, “knowing when to say “Auf Wiedersehen” is just as important as knowing how to say it.” Pragmatics means that there is a context to language, it is not merely plugging in synonyms robotically. Edward Sapir, an anthropologist-linguist of the early 20th Century explained the absolute necessity of understanding the holistic and relativistic nature of language: “The fact of the matter is the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies lie are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”

Language Teaching

Those who teach language stress that culture not be a marginalized topic or addressed as a side note in conclusion, but rather interwoven throughout the entire curriculum. Thus, you will find most language instruction on the cutting edge shunning the outdated models of grammar/translation. Language learners now-days do not learn by rote memorization or with drills. Instead, the most effective methods immerse students in a rich stimulating environment with all the sights, sounds and smells of the target culture. Any language professional will tell you that the ideal way to learn a language is in an immersion setting where cultural adaptation is the learning process.

What the business world needs

In conclusion, employers are no longer simply looking to hire bilinguals; they are looking for bicultural communicators who do not stumble over such revealing factors as idiomatic expressions. Lera Boroditsky, a professor of psychology now at the University of California San Diego, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about studies conducted both at MIT and Stanford emphasizing that people who speak different languages actually remembered and recalled events differently. Language is a lens through which we view the culture. Even in the same culture, people who speak two different languages are going to recall an event with a different perspective in many cases merely due to the way the language structures the mind. The fact that the WSJ would publish an article illustrating how language configures our mind to interpret sensory input speaks volumes. The days of debating what there is about culture in language is long past. The pace of business in the 21st century requires effective policulturalists who can hit the global marketplace running at full speed.

Published on the Culture Voyager Website on Dec 1, 2015.

3 thoughts on “Language IS Culture

  1. This definitely resonates with my experience as I make efforts to learn languages, I intentionally make efforts to learn cultures as well. Languages such as Mandarin, English, Spanish, French, Russian and Portuguese have several cultures to learn. Idiomatic expressions change from place to place where these languages are spoken by native speakers. They are spoken under different governments as well. All of this leads to greater cultural differences in such languages. Of course we also have the generation gap, class differences, gender and so forth so every language has layers of different cultures. Business definitely need cultural intelligence in addition to language skills in order to succeed.

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