This is the fifth post in part of a series on language learning. It covers the language and culture relationship. For the overview article on successful language learning, see ‘The Secret Benefit Of Learning Languages: How To Learn Effectively‘. For the article providing specific details into becoming fluent in speaking and writing (the output half) in a foreign language, see ‘Language Learning: How To Speak And Write Fluently‘. For the article on becoming accomplished in reading and listening (the input half), see ‘Foreign Language Learning: How To Listen And Read With Fluency‘. For advice on how to get the most out of immersion and learning overseas see ‘Learning A Language Abroad: How To Use Immersion To Achieve Fluency‘.


It’s a commonly held notion that there are four parts to language learning: speaking, reading, writing and listening. We’ve covered each of those components already at Abroad Lifestyles.

But there’s another aspect that gets overlooked: culture.

Language teaching in schools often doesn’t cover culture. It’s not the type of factor that’ll help you pass an exam. If you’re lucky during school language learning, you’ll pick up some culture from the target language’s country here and there.

Yet just because it’s not tested doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Rarely will you meet a proficient speaker of a language lacking a deep understanding of the country’s culture. 

Cultural understanding and advanced competency in a language go hand in hand.

How does language inform culture?

Behind every utterance is a thought that creates it. Our spoken words shape our actions. The majority of people think in their first language, what psychologists and linguists call our ‘neural code’.

Our neural codes are deeply entrenched—it’s why the grammar and instinct for the composition of our native tongues come so naturally to us. Native speakers can make mistakes in using their language but they’ll never make certain mistakes. A native English speaker would never pronounce ‘blood’ the same way as ‘food’ whereas that could be an easy mistake for a non-native learner.

As so many of our thoughts are verbal, language and thought are one and the same for a multitude of people.

This leads many to believe that language also shapes our reality, a theory known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, named after the two men who conceived it in the 20th century.

Much of the allure of the hypothesis stemmed from ad hoc discoveries of alternative uses of words in certain languages. Either additional words for similar concepts or a lack of words for a concept entirely.

For example, Eskimos have several words for ‘snow’. This led adherents to the hypothesis to believe that eskimos actually see snow with their eyes differently than the rest of the world. Otherwise, why else would they need to come up with so many different names for the same object?

But the misunderstanding stems from the difference between culture and physical reality perceived through our senses

Cognitive scientists have proven that people do not perceive the physical world through their senses differently simply because words are different. You can invent a hundred different words for snow but you will not see and feel it differently from anyone else. Likewise, a Japanese person doesn’t see the colour green differently with their eyes just because their language often uses the word blue (青い, aoi) in place of the word for green (緑, midori).

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis has been debunked for decades. Yet while our sensory reality doesn’t change with language, our cultural one does.

Language And Culture Relationship Inform

Ways in which language informs culture

Language and society

Language has played a huge role in influencing cultures and continues to do so.

The effect of language on the world was most prevalent in history.

For millennia in many societies, the only people who knew how to write were a highly-educated minority of scribes, clerks and elites. These tiny minorities were able to dictate the milieux of cultural life due to the large asymmetry in knowledge the educated carried over the rest of the people.

For example, the political life of many ancient societies was controlled by the heads of religion in their states. Governance required bureaucracy and civil codes that had to be documented in written form. As religion dictated much of political activity and daily life, the religious scholars who could read and write held enormous power over the operation of their societies based on how they interpreted texts that the rest of the population couldn’t understand.

Language And Culture Relationship Society

Language and gender

In many instances, language is entwined with the concept of gender. Arguments based on cognitive research suggest that language has an influence on gender association.

There are languages such as French and Spanish where grammatical gender is baked into the structure of the language. ‘Honey’ might be spelt the same way in both languages (‘miel’) but the word is masculine in French (‘le miel’) yet feminine in Spanish (‘la miel’).

Then there’s conceptual gender in language. Even in languages without grammatical gendering, certain objects and concepts have become associated with particular genders over time. The song ‘Rule Britannia’ refers to the female personification of my home country Great Britain. Many other countries refer to their nation as ‘Mother’. Ships and other seafaring vessels are often given female names even though they’re mechanical objects.

Language and formality

Find anybody learning a language and you’ll likely find someone whose conscious of learning the correct formalities of that language.

Formalities means the levels of politeness we use when speaking to people, also known as ‘registers’.

In many languages, there’s next to no degree of formality. Everybody speaks the same way to everyone else.

But in some languages, ignoring register depending on who you’re speaking to is damning. A lack of it demonstrates naivety and at worst, you’ll come across as rude and derogatory.

Formality is yet another concept demonstrating how language informs culture. Having to change the language you use depending on who you’re talking to forces you to stratify society into subsections. This can change your behaviour towards those subsections leading you to treat them differently.

The most obvious example is languages that use a more formal register for speaking to people that are older than you. The cultural tenet of respect for the elderly informed the language and vice versa in a symbiotic relationship. But there are several other examples such as changing your register depending on how many people you’re talking to and using high formality when talking to customers and clients.

Language And Culture Relationship Formality

Slang and colloquialisms

Another undeniable instance of the symbiotic language and culture relationship is the prevalence of slang and colloquialisms in every language.

We’ve already seen how formality stratifies subsections of people such that degrees of politeness through language are created.

The same force behind this cultural phenomenon is also behind the creation of colloquialisms.

Ultimately, culture stratifies people into different groups based on identities.

No matter the shape and size of a group, it needs points of distinction to justify its existence against the outer world. This is how ‘in-group mentalities’ are created—shared sets of norms, behaviours and codes reinforce belonging to a group versus not belonging to it.

Language can and does act as a point of distinction in this way. Group members use language as an outlet for social group identity.

This results in the creation of unique words and phrases; the creative bending of a language we come to call slang.

Whether or not you use it in a language you know, slang is culture. People use it to signal allegiance with an in-group, whether they’re aware or otherwise.

Language and cultural mediums

The interdependent language and culture relationship is most evident though the different formats of expression we encounter.

Both the spoken and written word are heavily influenced by the cultural zeitgeists the creators draw influence from and in turn, have their own effect on the cultural milieux of society.

The most obvious examples are literature and song. Poetry is one of the most pertinent mediums capturing a snapshot of a particular cultural occurrence.

Lyrical compositions also demonstrate the power of the language and culture relationship. Songs are one of the few mediums that can trigger the full range of human emotions, from exquisite ecstasy to sorrowful sadness. Acceptability of songs is often dictated by cultural appropriateness of the lyrics which reflect the sign of the times.

Language And Culture Relationship Cultural Mediums

Tips on using the language and culture relationship for learning

For much of the time you spend acquiring a new language, you’ll pick up cultural aspects indirectly.

But if you want to supercharge your knowledge of the target language and impress natives, go out of your way to learn the culture of a target language’s country by doing the following:

-> Learn register and appropriate formalities

It can be tempting to ignore learning register and treat it as an annoyance that you can put to the side. You might even believe you can ‘get away’ with using it as a foreigner.

But in the long run it will come to haunt you. You risk not endearing yourself to certain locals and you’ll never attain an advanced level without it.

Do yourself a favour and learn at least the bare necessities of register so that you convey the right sense of politeness when needed. This will show that you can adapt to the culture.

-> Learn key slang words and colloquialisms

On the other side of the spectrum is learning informal language. All countries and regions have colloquialisms that signal a modernity to your command of the language. Even if you think you’ll be in formal situations most of the time, learning informal words and phrases will improve your naturality with the language, protecting you against the over-scholastic nature of some textbooks.

The reason I’ve written ‘key’ is because you don’t have to spend your study time attending the latest rap battles to pick up a bucketload of slang, instead there are certain expressions in every language that are popular.

Exposure is undoubtedly the best way but in the absence of time in the country or a lot of media to consume, ask natives themselves through resources like HiNative. It can be the quickest way to get a natural translation on a phrase you like to say in your native tongue and to pick up colloquialisms from the people of a country.

-> Listen and read beyond standard course materials

During your study time, your materials are often as bare bones and formulaic as they need to be to get you to understand grammar and vocabulary as efficiently as they can.

The problem is this ‘efficiency’ can be a ward against enjoyment of a target language and prevent you from maintaining an interest in why you started learning in the first place—to indulge in communicative expression with the people of the country either through talking to them or consuming cultural content in their language.

Magnify your learning by consuming native content as soon as possible. Listen to music in the language instead of relying on hearing what your teachers say. Read poetry, books, articles and blogs in topics that interest you instead of course printouts. Watch shows and films in the target language instead of ones in your own.

Another tip is to ensure that a good part of the content you consume is modern, meaning created and released in the last few years. As much as learning cultural tropes from history can be interesting, you want to pick up the culture of the country as it is today so that you can best adapt when using the language in real time.


The language and culture relationship is one of interdependency. Language and culture have an influential symbiotic relationship where they each evolve the other. Learning the culture of the target language country is necessary for advanced competency in the language.

Language can influence our thoughts and behaviours. It doesn’t change our sensory reality but it can change our cultural one. The development of language has had a huge impact on societal structures, religion, gender and cultural mediums.

Both formal and informal language through register and slang respectively influence in-group relations within a society. They signal deep understanding of the culture you’re in.

While much of cultural understanding occurs indirectly, supplement your language learning through active exposure to a country’s culture. Move beyond textbooks and course materials and pay attention to formalities, colloquialisms and modern cultural content to expedite your understanding. This will give you a greater holistic mastery of the language that other rote learners won’t have.

Language and culture are intertwined, mastering one will help you master the other.