How Language is the Oral Expression of Culture

You might be familiar with the idioms, “It’s all Greek to me” and “Burning the midnight oil.”

But do you know the German idiom, “Tomaten auf den Augen haben,” which directly translates to, “You have tomatoes on your eyes,” meaning, “You are not seeing what everyone else can see.”

Probably not.

Linguists and anthropologists, on the other hand, have long known that a link exists between language learning and culture learning.

Dimitrios Thanasoulas in The Importance Of Teaching Culture In The Foreign Language Classroom quotes linguist Claire Kramsch as follows:

“Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is always in the background, right from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence, challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them. (Kramsch, 1993: 1)”

To put it simply, learning language is inextricably linked with learning culture, because language = the oral expression of culture.

The pair are fed by one other.

Ming-Mu Kuo and Cheng-Chieh Lai lay this out in Linguistics across Cultures:The Impact of Culture on Second Language Learning:

“Language and culture appear on the surface to be two distinct fields, but they have an intertwined relationship and affect each other mutually…The development of a language frequently affects its associated culture, and cultural patterns of cognition and custom are often explicitly coded in language.”

Culturally, language expresses both our thoughts and how we think. 

Kuo and Lai continue:

“Language is also a social institution, both shaping and being shaped by society (Armour-Thomas & Gopaul-McNicol, 1998). This means that language is not an independent construct but social practice both creating and being created by the structures and forces of social institutions within which we live and function.”

What are some structures and social institutions in which language is expressive of culture?

Following are examples of this relationship between culture and linguistics in action.

Family Structures

In this blog, we’ve talked about how the family structures of different cultures are reflected through linguistic terms.

For instance, while in Western cultures, “uncle,” is used to describe both paternal and maternal brothers and, similarly, “cousin” describes those from both sides of the family, this differs in other cultures.

“Cousin” in Yanomani, for instance, is termed dependent on the relationship; “amiwa” for the daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, “aiwa” for the son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle, etc. 

With such specific familial language terms, it can be deduced that the bloodline matters more in such cultures.

Idioms Express Ideologies

Idioms across cultures can also tell you a lot about the ideology of said culture.

Individualist cultures, for instance, might say, “God helps those who help themselves.” 

Such cultures hold lift-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps values. Idioms emphasize individualism and oftentimes capitalism.

“Time is money.”

In contrast, idioms of collectivist cultures often emphasize the group.

One Chinese idiom translates to: “More people produce greater strength.”

This is just one example about how values and norms are reflected in common language, slang, and idiomatic expressions.

Language Learning Aids Cross-Cultural Integration

Knowing how much language informs us about culture itself, it’s clear how paramount language learning is to integration.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three things learning a language will help you demonstrate in your cross-cultural transition.