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How to Learn a Language and a Culture

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Language in Society


Culture is the context of the social encounters between human beings, which involve language.  Each cultural group has a mother tongue and may have one or more additional languages.  Shared experiences become a common basis of identity for a grouping, which we may call a people, or a culture.

Previous experiences affect expectations.  Thus differences in the experiences related to history, and cultural or ethnic identity lead to differences in expectations for communication events.  This, in turn, again  involves and affects language use.

The culture of a community is integrally related to the language they speak.  However, many different peoples may speak the same or very similar language, but still differ somewhat culturally.  Spanish, Swahili and French are examples of multi-national, multi-ethnic languages.   Thus the people's identity (and their worldview) differ from others who may speak the same language, due to different sets of experiences and the resulting different sets of expectations exist even in the same language "community."  Language alone, as a technical, abstract, academic subject, is not sufficient.  You must learn the people and their particular culture to communicate effectively.

Most people intuitively know this, but it is overlooked when we approach the actual learning, because we are so school oriented, that many westerners do not think they can learn unless they are in a school.  Then if they lack such a resource they see no options.

A large part of cultural knowledge is cognitive.  You can gain an entrance into this cognitive world through explanations in your native language.  You can watch movies for cultural insight, you can read sources in your native tongue -- all these can help you move into target language.  But these do not cover the social aspect of culture.

Language is a primary medium of the social culture.  Each social encounter is a communication event.  Language is a medium of interaction in social relationships.

Communication events involve exchange of cultural information.  This is managed in the target language of the culture group and in the context of their common experiences.


Language is a social medium, and thus a social skill.  Language is a major component in social events, communication events, interaction with other people.  In common teaching approaches, language is often isolated from its practical context.  Learning a dialogue only in a classroom, for instance, gives no context for memory other than the classroom.  Then every language text learned in that classroom has the very same memory context! No wonder learners get tired and find it hard to remember words or phrases!

Learning language as a social skill heightens memory and competency.  Learners can retain much more, with less memory work, by association with total event, place, relationship, action or movement, emotion, smell and sound.  Languages are used by social groups (families, clans, tribes, societies) to manage their relationships and cultural roles, obligations and interrelationships.


Language is not information, but the format for processing information -- not explanation, but mastery.  Drill and practice help to impress the models of the language into the learner's subconscious.  This enables the learner to approach natural, spontaneous production, based on thought and intent.

We tend to think of explanations of the language as critical.  And for many, explanations are intellectually satisfying.  But the real cognitive aspect of language is in our use of the language to think.  Therefore, understanding explanations of the language is not the same as using the patterns of the language to form our very thoughts!  the goal is to think the way the target people think.  The language as they speak it leads us to think as they think.

Conscious awareness of the models and structures may help the learner master the structures rather than be limited by them. But the models must be mastered, in order for thought to flow into communication. This is done through practice and use.

As you master phrases in the language, you will gradually be able to see the world as they see it.  This cognitive culture, woven into the fabric of the language, is called worldview.


Additionally, language is a motor skill.  A new language will feel funny, and difficult to produce.  It is analogous to riding a bicycle or mastering a physical sport.  The tongue, lips, throat and other speech apparatus have to learn new positions and sequences of positions.

This takes preparation, practice, mastery and training.  The learner will fall off the bicycle, have limited stamina and skill at first, but the total experience builds as one continues to work on the various aspects of the motor skills involved.

Pracatice in the social context is important.  Listen and observe as speakers converse in your target language.  Watch and mimic their hand motions, facial expressions and intonations.  These social aspects of language are integral parts of the cultural meaning in the language.


First posted 06 July 2000
Last updated 11 September 2007

Based on notes from a presentation for
1.  an Inservice training session for language teachers at Skyline High School, Dallas (Texas) Independent School District, 1974;
2.  an inservice for language teachers at Rosslyn Academy, Nairobi, Kenya, 31 January 1995.
A version of this first published in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, Issue 22, December 1996, as "Perspectives: Aspects of Language."

Copyright © 2000, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.

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