10 Cultural Universals: The Link Between Language & Culture

Last week, in our ten-part series on the 10 Cultural Universals, we talked about how geography can influence culture. This week, we’ll take a look at the link between language and culture.

Does our language influence the way we see the world? Or does the way we see the world shape our language?

Research suggests that it’s a little bit of both. Here are just a few examples of how culture and language are bound.

Colors

A study done by Lera Boroditsky, Stanford University professor of psychology and Frontiers in Cultural Psychology editor in chief, highlights how the Russian language distinguishes between light blue and dark blue tones.

And, interestingly, corresponding tests showed that Russians are, in fact, able to distinguish between shades of blue better than non-Russian speakers.

Is this because the language calls them to distinguish between dark and light, or does the language reflect the way the Russian people view color?

Time

In the 1940s, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf studied a culture’s concept of time based on language. He found that English-speakers objectify time by placing it in countable chunks – minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc.

By conceptualizing time in this way, English-speakers view it as something that can be lost, wasted, or saved.

Those cultures that look at time as a continuous cycle do not speak of it in such terms. The Hopi language – a Native American language spoken in Arizona – is one such culture.

Other ways in which time is viewed differently across cultures: the Aymara language in South America flips time on its axis, considering the past to be in front of them and the future behind. Mandarin, too, considers the past to be above and the future below.

Do these linguistic concepts of time influence the way we live our lives?

Cause & Effect

Stanford’s Caitlin Fausey studied how language can influence eyewitness memory of cause and effect.

Spanish speakers often use passive voice when speaking about an accident that occurred. For instance, if Sam broke a dish, they would be more likely to say “the dish broke” or “the dish was broken,” leaving Sam out of the action, altogether.

English speakers, on the other hand, are more likely to use the active voice, saying, “Sam broke the dish.”

This has been shown to shape how a person from either culture recalls events. English speakers are more likely to recall who broke the dish, while Spanish speakers recall only that it was broken.

This linguistic trait is only in the case of accidental events, not intentional ones, so a Spanish person is just as likely to recall who broke the dish if it was intentional as their English counterparts.

These are just a few of the ways that language shapes culture and/or culture shapes language. And they highlight the importance of studying the language of any culture into which you wish to integrate.

The 10 Cultural Universals

The word, “culture,” covers a broad spectrum. Sometimes it’s easier to understand what falls under the umbrella of culture by drawing more definitive lines.

When you talk about culture, what topics can you expect to discuss?

These 10 cultural universals are a start.

10 Cultural Universals

  1. Geography – Location, location, location. Location defines so many aspects of a culture – from the clothing worn to the food prepared and eaten – that it would be remiss not to consider geography when discussing culture. The landscape of the region, the natural resources it offers, and of course the rich history generated from the region all impacts a culture’s evolution.
  2. Language – Language is significantly important to culture and can afford those studying any social group some insight into what’s important to them (think: polite language, masculine/feminine use, slang, etc.). When discussing language, you should also consider the group’s written language, body language, sign language, and numbers systems.
  3. Family – Family dynamics are a key part of cultural studies, from the roles of each family member, child to grandparent, to the rites of passage that members undergo. Labor division across genders is also part of this cultural universal.
  4. FCTS (food, clothing, transport, shelter) – The basics of survival form the skeletal structure of culture. Think architectural styles, building materials, modes of transport, traditional and everyday cuisine and clothing, etc.
  5. VBR (values, beliefs, rituals) – We’ve talked extensively about values in this blog. That’s because they are the roots of every cultural baobab. This category also includes the rituals, beliefs, and religious practices of a culture, such as myths and legends, ceremonial rituals and holidays, and stances on contemporary science versus traditional beliefs.
  6. Economics – Jobs, the market, finance, goods and services, production, consumption, and distribution are paramount to societal development and quality of life, making a group’s economy a cultural universal.
  7. Education – This category includes not only formal education, but societal education – i.e. passing cultural values, survival skills, and various types of training onto youth.
  8. Politics – The type of government and the organization of a society, from rule of law to the enforcement of these laws, form the group’s hierarchies, structures, and most important institutions. The politics of a nation can also determine whether that nation is prone to war or peace.
  9. Technology – Technology available to a culture – tools, weapons, digital technology, etc. – contributes to all aspects of everyday life, as well as to the bigger picture, the way the culture operates.
  10. Cultural Expression – This is often the category that first springs to mind when the word, “culture,” is used. That’s because art, music, literature, sport, and every other form of cultural expression is the most bright and vivid rendering of the culture’s essence, its spirit. Creative expression brings culture to life.

Now that you know what constitutes “culture,” we’ll put each of these universals under the microscope in the coming weeks.

The Science Behind Learning a Second Language

Learning language, learning religion, and learning history are important to taking action in your own cultural integration. Of the three, learning language often requires the most drive and focus.

But when you’re a child, you seem to soak up language like a sponge. You don’t need that drive and focus to learn it.

The adult memory – or the lack thereof – is often blamed for this disparity. And the truth is the ability to retain information slows with age. Moreover, different languages have different sounds, which are easier to master at a young age, as the mouth is still forming and speech still developing.

However, though it’s a smart idea to become bilingual as a child, some of us don’t have that opportunity. That doesn’t mean that, as adults, we should pass off language learning as “too difficult.” Instead, we must take a leaf out of the child’s playbook and learn a language like children do.

Learning as a Child

An article published by Patricia K. Kuhl in the journal, Mind Brain Education, entitled “Early Language Learning and Literacy: Neuroscience Implications for Education,” states that language learning in children is a highly social activity.

“There is evidence that children’s early mastery of language requires learning in a social context,” Kuhl writes. “Research shows that young children rely on what has been called ‘statistical learning,’ a form of implicit learning that occurs as children interact in the world, to acquire the language spoken in their culture. However, new data also indicate that children require a social setting and social interaction with another human being to trigger their computations skills to learn from exposure to language.”

Believe it or not, this is the same thing adults need in order to learn a language quickly: a social setting and social interaction. Even more so, we need the confidence that a child does and the willingness to make mistakes.

This is the science behind learning a second language.

Do these rules really apply to adults, as well?

Learning as an Adult

Meet Benny, the Irish polygot.

He’s the author of Fluent in 3 Months and says that although he’s not inherited the so-called “language gene” and isn’t particularly gifted with languages, he’s been able to become fluent in seven languages, simply by having the confidence to speak.

Why?

Benny met a man in Spain who changed his life. In his own words: “He explained that to speak a language, you’ve just got to start speaking it. There’s no magic, he said. You only need a willingness to make mistakes.”

This is actually the secret to learning anything. Think about it: whether it was riding your bike, mastering an instrument, or playing a sport, weren’t you willing enough to just give it a go, even if you weren’t that confident in your abilities to begin with?

The self-described “fun-loving Irish guy and full-time globe trotter” has taught thousands of language learners his approach to becoming competent in a language quickly.

“My mission in life is giving people permission to make mistakes,” he says on his site. “The more mistakes you make, the faster you become a confident language learner.”

Science and practical application turn up the same results. The equation to language learning, whether young or old, is as simple as confidence + speaking + making mistakes = learning through exposure.

This month, my posts will offer resources, language learning sites, and advice on how to plug into this equation and get rolling on a new language.