The importance of linking language and culture

Trish Riley
Trish Riley

Culture and language have often been described as inseparable and the relationship between them is highly complex. Language isn’t just the sum total of words, grammatical principles and sentence construction. It’s also unique cultural norms, social systems and cognitive processes. Understanding these cultural-specific contexts, along with linguistic principles of a particular culture, is central to effective language acquisition.

In a world that is more connected than ever, learning a language opens many doors. It is a tool for communication, but, as linguist Claude Hagège points out, it also accounts for “ways of thinking, perspectives of the world, and culture.” In many ways, as another linguist, Émile Benveniste, noted, “language is the interpreter of society.”

Emphasising the relationship between language and culture is foundational to how students are taught. In a 2020 research paper, Doctor of Philosophy Nurdan Kavakli found that combining the teaching of culture and language helped “stimulate students’ intellectual curiosity about the  target culture, and to encourage empathy towards its people.” 

By combining a communication-focused approach with a deep understanding of its culture, students are anchored in the realities of the world around them and are more open to exploring and developing stereotype-free perspectives of different societies.

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Exploring other cultures

The evolution of language is often shaped by the culture of the particular group who speak it. If you truly want to master a second language, knowledge of cultural contexts that underpin the language you’re learning can provide you with invaluable insights into certain phrases that are often spoken by natives of a particular cultural group.

The same could also be said for learning about other cultures. Take the ancient Egyptians, for example. It would be a challenge to gain a deep understanding of ancient Egyptian culture without learning about their native language and Egyptian hieroglyphics, in tandem. The two are always connected, no matter what side of the coin you look at. 

Or take the German language, spoken by more than a hundred million native speakers. Doesn’t it open the door to the artistic world of Schubert, the texts of Patrick Süskind or the philosophy of Hannah Arendt? 

Doesn’t learning Italian allow you to grasp the extraordinary richness of a country where Petrarch, Michelangelo and Fellini were born, and whose historical and architectural remains are among the most significantin the world? 

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Overcoming the culture clash

Communicative misunderstandings can often occur between two people from different countries due to an ignorance of opposing attitudes of particular social norms. With more than a quarter (27.6 per cent) of Australians born overseas and 400 different languages being spoken in households across the nation, it’s easy to see how words, gestures and rules of engagement have a tendency to be misinterpreted. 

In order to prevent cultural misunderstandings that could leave two parties fumbling their way out of an awkward conversation, the promotion of cultural understanding is vital to language learning.

Project-based learning supports language development

At the foundation of language exploration are basic linguistic and communicative methods, on top of which educators add discovery of literary texts, works of art, traditions, films, music, as well as culture. Teachers can go on to use project-based learning to encourage students to develop their linguistic, artistic and technological skills– podcasts, writing workshops, theatrical exercises, video editing, and escape games, among others. Working in all these realms of a foreign language encourages students to question its origins, its influence, its footprint and its heritage; and allows them to travel through space and time, with the poetic touch that etymology provides. 

Spanish, for example, has more than four thousand words derived from Arabic, known as “arabisms.” During a session with Arabic teacher Younes Samid, groups of tenth graders studying Spanish explored this, and they discovered ways that a word can contain the history of how two cultures met one another. 

Understanding cultural differences can help cement language learning

It’s clear that when learning a new language, it doesn’t take long to encounter cultural differences. These differences not only dictate how to speak to a native speaker but also depict the world view of their culture.

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While it’s not impossible to learn a new language without gaining cultural insights, if you want to increase your chances of mastering it then diving into the culture of the language you’re learning can be the key to a more enriching and faster learning experience.


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Trish Riley is a Zimbabwean-born writer and communications specialist. With experience in journalism, and public relations, Trish has been developer and editor of several trade publications and regularly contributes articles for diverse sectors including aged care, animal care, construction and education.