Language is the verbal or written expression of one’s thoughts and putting what is on one’s mind out into the world.
On the other hand, culture is the blend of thought patterns and characteristics of a group of people. So how are language and culture related to each other? It's not a surprise that they are interconnected. Language can profoundly affect and alter cultural values and vice versa. Let’s understand the correlation between the two in more detail.
Language is the system through which human beings express themselves. This can be verbal or written in nature. It can also include signs or actions using one’s body, also called body language.
Linguists believe that language has existed in some form, starting with the first-ever human beings, but any proof of such a language is unknown. While there is no proof, it's a plausible assumption that humans would’ve had some communication system in place from the earliest days of human existence.
Language is individualistic
While a child or a group of children can learn one or even two or more languages at birth, they do not communicate similarly. The words are the same, and maybe even the sentence structure. The individual characteristics of one's language learning journey are still maintained.
A phenomenon like this can be observed in the English-speaking countries of Europe and the UK. Even though the language is the same, cultural differences have given an individualistic nature to English in Ireland compared to that of Glasgow. Even in homogenized environments, each household’s impact and cultural outlook shape a person’s speech.
Culture is defined as a group of people’s characteristics and thought patterns. Generally defined based on external values like language, food, art, and religion.
Culture, however, is much deeper and can define a person’s cultural lens. It teaches us how to think and how to interact with others around us. It unites people but also divides them based on cultural differences.
We may share similar cultural attributes to those who live/have lived in a similar environment, but there are no 2 identical cultures. Just like language, culture is also highly individualistic.
Culture can’t exist without language, and vice versa
Linguists believe that culture is significantly encoded in language. When language is lost, a part of culture is also lost with it. Culture impacts how we behave and interact with others. It sets the rules of what is socially acceptable. Language facilitates these interactions. One can not exist without the other.
A simple analogy to illustrate can be the example of a building. While language is the structure that you see, culture is the bricks and beams that support and enable language. Without culture, language can not exist; and without language, culture is simply bare.
Language enables us to interact with our surroundings, while culture tells us how to do it right. It is the cultural conditioning that causes us to interact differently with family as compared to talking professionally to our peers. A certain language is acceptable in both circumstances, and the culture dictates what’s right and what isn’t.
How is culture learned, and is it similar to language learning?
Human beings start learning language from the very first day they are born. It is also believed that children learn a language in the womb. They learn to recognize their mother’s voice.
Unlike language, culture isn’t taught by input enrichment. Cultural understanding comes from observation. If a child is born in a playful cultural environment, they would be innately playful and fun. A child born in a household where people talk a lot will make them talkative.
Children observe these patterns and quickly adapt to meld themselves into them. By middle childhood, most children have understood the norms of their surroundings and how to react/behave in them.
Culture and language shape our identities
Over time culture and language have the power to shape our identities. The sense of self becomes more complex, and we can become a certain “type” of person.
This type defines us as individuals, our conditioning, and the people we interact with. It binds us with groups of people to whom we feel a sense of belonging. This is why many immigrants struggle in countries abroad because language and cultural identities change, diminishing the sense of belonging.
It is still ever-changing
Language and culture are still ever-changing. Each individual has a unique life experience with varied experiences and opportunities for cultural and linguistic diversification.
An immigrant can choose to reject a person based on their cultural differences or embrace the differences while rejecting a selected cultural attribute. This choice dictates what we make of the world and how far we can explore and adapt to the cultural knowledge around us.
The more willing we are to take risks and open our worlds to the cultural differences of those around us, the more diversified we become. It's a conscious choice that many make in their day-to-day lives. While the original worldview taught by our parents remains prevalent, our languages and cultures change every single day.
Culture is significant to language learning
Language can not be learned without learning about the culture. As we mentioned that language is only the act of communication, while culture defines the rules of this communication.
Without cultural understanding, there is no need for language learning. Yes, you can study a language and its grammatical structures. But, without the need to speak it, the motivation to do so is very limited.
The cultural significance of the English language in the global sphere (culture) is quite high. This is why English education is prevalent in most countries, including many Asian countries. This doesn’t mean adopting their foods or religion, but understanding them for socially acceptable communication is important.
How is this relationship significant to language development?
The relationship between language and culture is highly significant to language development. Language development arises from the need to use a certain language to communicate thoughts and emotions. Unless the culture demands a certain language to be learned, language development will not happen.
So when we think of language and language learning, culture is very much part of the conversation. As a parent, you must foster a learning environment with linguistic and cultural cues. This is something that comes naturally to bilingual households but will need active creation effort in monolingual households. This forms a major foundation of the family language policy. You can read about family language policy here.
Do not get overwhelmed
Providing language input in a monolingual household might seem straightforward, but fostering a new cultural environment may seem overwhelming. It is, however, not as difficult as it may seem.
Tools like language learning books provide multiple cues to create such an environment. An environment where a parent interacts with their child through the medium of a book. The cultural cue here is to interact with the parent. A child needs a certain language. This can be furthered using food, art, and artists from the region as the child grows up. From there, immersion programs with children who speak the same language will continue this cultural enrichment.
Patience and consistency with language and culture will do the trick. Do what naturally comes to you when making an active effort toward your child’s language learning. There are great tools like movies and language learning books like our A-Z Creatures book to help you along the way. At a higher level, bilingual immersion programs provide formal education. Your child will eventually pick up the language, understand its speakers’ cultural makeup, and express themselves accordingly.