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.

Breaking Down the Barriers of Ethnocentricity: Accepting, Adapting, or Adopting Culture

In the West, particularly in America, equality is highly valued.

Being as such, although gender equality is not exactly level anywhere in the world, when entering into cultures where that disparity is even greater than one’s own (Islamic cultures, for instance), a Westerner’s moral nerve is struck.

In another vein, consider a Westerner entering into a culture with a strictly set social caste system. This, too, strikes a nerve, regarding this value of equality.

When a culture’s values or norms contradict another’s deeply-ingrained values, reserving judgment often proves difficult.

Now, imagine a company wanting to do business in a culture in which their values are opposed.

Last week, we talked about how a culture’s social environment can influence everything from gender roles to social mobility and nepotism in the workplace.

This week, we’ll discuss how to break down the barriers of ethnocentricity.

Morality & Ethnocentricity

When contrasted with your own ethnocentric values, social structures in the workplace can be difficult to get on board with.

Why?

Because, as mentioned above, they hit a moral nerve.

An enormous social divide must be bridged in order for a company to work across cultures of disparate values, and in order for the individuals in these businesses to be willing to overlook their own ethnocentricity and avoid criticizing the opposite culture’s fundamental beliefs.

While the broader company may have an easier time looking the other way, the cross-cultural divide may not be as easy to bridge for the individuals working for these companies.

Although these individuals may not be expected to accept the other culture’s values, succeeding cross-culturally in a business setting requires restraint in projecting one’s own values onto the issues at hand.

So, how to show that restraint when your moral nerve is struck?

Be Aware & Proceed with Caution

As we’ve discussed in this blog, the volume of one’s awareness must be turned up several decibals when working cross-culturally.

Being aware of cultural differences, especially the subtle ones, is essential to breaking down the barriers of ethnocentricity. And that means being aware of both the differences and the nuances behind these differences.

After awareness comes a choice: what reaction do you want to have toward these differences?

Here are the only choices if you hope to succeed:

  • Accept the differences without criticizing or condemning them.
  • Adapt your behavior to the cultural difference.
  • Adopt your host culture’s values.

Needless to say, condemning the differences will get you nowhere. If you are doing business in another culture, you can’t expect that culture to shapeshift around you. The culture may evolve in its own time and become more aligned with your cultural values, but it’s not going to change for you.

With these three choices in mind, next week we’ll talk more specifically about how you can use these tactics to react to cultural differences in a diplomatic manner, avoid breaking an ankle on your own tripwire of ethnocentricity, and successfully work across cultures.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.