Language and Culture

Learning a new language involves much more than memorizing and parroting back vocabulary words – it’s deeper than that. A new language allows the learner to view the world through a different lens. To quote Charlemange, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” And this soul can’t be found in a translation dictionary.

There are over 7000 languages in the world. Through symbols written on a page or sounds released through the lips, people transfer ideas between individuals. The language they use shapes how the speakers view the world, and the speakers’ view of the world shapes the language.
Across the globe, languages differ greatly in how they express and conceptualize different ideas. By looking closely at these nuances, learners can better understand the people and not just the words. For example, the common question “how are you?” in English could be translated to “did you eat lunch?” in Korean. During impoverished times in that county having a meal meant you were doing well.

Language can also influence the relationship between space and time. When asked to arrange a group of pictures in sequence to tell a story, French speakers would orient time from left to right, while Arabic speakers would move right to left (based on the direction the language is written and read). Some cultures ignore ideas like left and right altogether. The Pormpuraaw aboriginal community in Australia uses the cardinal directions as reference points. In that culture, “move the picture to the South-East” would be used instead of “move the picture to the left.”

Even a speaker’s impression of a single word can vary from language to language. For example, the word “flower” is feminine in French, but it is masculine in Italian. Does the change in gender affect the way these speakers think about the word? Similarly, Spanish provides two verbs for English’s singular verb “to be.” For that reason, a Honduran would differentiate “I am hungry” (temporary) and “I am a mother” (permanent) in a way that a native speaker of English would not.

These linguistic choices affect not only how a person speaks, but how someone thinks about the world. Without an understanding of these cultural distinctions, communication can be obstructed. Language and culture are not separate entities, but are in fact intertwined, with one influencing the other. Any language student must also be a student of culture. With this as the goal, language learners can start to produce ideas with a new tongue and see the world through new eyes.