Most of you probably know the four main language skills: writing, reading, listening, and speaking. But there is a fifth skill that people often forget, but is just as essential for communication – culture! Today I’m going to explain why learning culture is so important and give you a few tips on how to improve your cultural literacy.

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Learning a language is not just about learning vocabulary and grammar. You can spend hours, days, and years memorising words and studying simple grammar rules… but this doesn’t mean that you will be able to communicate effectively in your foreign language! To learn English it is also important to learn culture.

Language and culture are like two sides of the same coin – you need both to be able to effectively communicate. Culture is a part of language, and language is a part of culture. Of course, without knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, alphabets, and pronunciation you will not be able to speak a language. There is no argument about this – these are essential! And these form the basis of almost every language class out there. 

At the same time, English students need to also be learning about culture – they need to become culturally literate! 

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What is Culture?

What do I mean by culture? Culture is a complicated, wide ranging, and much studied idea. According to the dictionary, culture is “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.” And as this definition suggests, across the world and across populations there are completely different cultures. 

One way of imagining culture is to think of an iceberg – a floating piece of ice in the sea. If you see a picture of an iceberg, you will notice the easy to see top part of the iceberg above the ocean. But the majority of the iceberg cannot be easily seen, and is floating deep below the sea. 

When it comes to the culture iceberg, the easy to see things floating above the ocean are things like language, arts, food, clothes, celebrations, and music. When you look at a culture, these are the things we notice immediately. I currently live in Japan, so let’s think about Japanese culture. Things that are really easy to notice include foods like sushi, udon noodles, and okonomiyaki; the Japanese language; and popular culture like manga and anime.

However, just like an iceberg, the majority of culture is not easy to see and is difficult to discern. The hidden parts of culture include roles, rules, values, customs. beliefs, traditions, and status. People who live within the culture know and understand these things without thinking about them or questioning them. These unspoken parts of culture are created and influenced by history, religion, values, and assumptions. 

You cannot learn to read, write, or communicate successfully without also learning and understanding the unspoken aspects of culture.  I always remember my first day at work in Japan – 6 years ago – due to a cultural mistake I made. I was working at an English summer camp for Junior high school students, and was about to eat my first ever Japanese “school lunch.”

 I was one of the last people to collect my food, and took a seat with a group of students. I was very hungry, and started to eat my lunch, only to realise that all of the students were looking at me strangely. It turns out that in Japanese schools you are supposed to wait until everyone has been served their lunch (even if it’s hundreds of people) and for someone to say the word itadakimasu before you start eating. No matter how much you study the language, you would never know this without also learning the culture as well. 

Cultural Literacy

In 1989, E.D. Hirsch published a quite controversial book called Cultural Literacy in which he discussed the importance of knowing and understanding the basic cultural knowledge needed to participate fully in society. Although he focused on immigrants and the US education system, the concept of cultural literacy has now been extended to learning the skills required to thrive in different cultures. 

According to ABC Life Literacy Canada, “Cultural literacy means being able to understand the traditions, regular activities and history of a group of people from a given culture.” Understanding the cultural context allows you to learn the right meaning for words; and the more you understand a country’s values and background the easier it is to learn ways of speaking and expressions. 

To truly learn a language, you must also learn the different aspects of a society’s culture. A lot of what we communicate about is culturally specific – and so are the words we use. Ordering “chips” in the UK and US will get something quite different. If you had an American, an Australian, and British person in a room together and asked them what their favourite “football” team is… they would give you answers from completely different sports (American Football, Soccer, and Australian Rules Football or Rugby League).

Wearing “thongs” in Australia is acceptable in public, but has a very different meaning in the rest of the English speaking world. Asking for a rubber in a shop in the UK would get you a pencil eraser in the UK, or a condom in America. When I first started working in Japan I had a class on the 3rd floor of the school… I walked up to the 4th floor because the Japanese and the UK floor numbering system is different.

More difficult than just culturally specific vocabulary are the values and customs required to communicate effectively in a foreign language. There is a high chance that your country, your culture, and your language differ from English in this regard. One of the things I struggle most with in Japanese is the complicated system of grammar used in hierarchical situations and with differing degrees of formality. Japan’s values of respect and societal hierarchy exist in language: there are different verbs and nouns used when talking to children, friends, acquaintances, your superiors, and your juniors.

In languages across the world, there are assumptions and features that reflect gender roles, idioms based on things from the country or region, and ways of speaking that differ considerably. In the UK, to signal that you are intently listening to a conversation partner you make eye contact and listen silently. In Japan, there is a language feature called aidzuchi in which it is incredibly common for Japanese people to frequently interject in a conversation. Rather than being rude, frequently interjecting in a conversation is seen as normal! 

Moreover, some languages tend to be blunt and direct; other languages are indirect and have complex ways of turning you down. I have often had problems in the past which involved not understanding when my boss was rejecting my request for something, because the method or way of saying “no” in formal Japanese is not as clear as in the UK.

In some societies, culture and language are even more obviously tied together. I’m specifically thinking about majority Muslim cultures who use Arabic greetings and vocabulary regularly even if they do not speak Arabic. In these languages, the way to greet each other and say hello is often a religious phrase or reference! Without knowing the cultural significance of religion in these societies, the vocabulary can be a little meaningless.

I have included all of these different examples of language features to highlight how important cultural knowledge is in addition to language knowledge. You can learn every Japanese word, but without understanding the fact that Japanese culture is hierarchical you probably will not be able to choose the right vocabulary for the situation. The same is true for English – learning culture will help you to communicate more successfully. If you learn English grammar and vocabulary without understanding the culture, you will be much less effective at communication. 

In fact, many of the mistakes made by English learners are not due to problems in grammar and vocabulary, but due to misunderstandings in culture. Certain sayings in your language may make sense, but in English they will be completely different due to culture. 

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How to Improve Your Cultural Literacy?

There are a few different ways to improve your cultural literacy in English (or I guess I should say British English, American English, Australian English etc). 

You could watch movies or TV shows from the culture in which you are interested. I’ve made a few episodes on TV and movies before, but just to reiterate, you will be able to learn how native people speak and notice the expressions, accents, vocabulary, and tones regularly used. You can also start to learn about the values and history which influence language. This is perhaps the easiest way to become more culturally literate.

A second method is reading. You could read newspapers, magazines, blogs, or literature. By reading different sources and types of material, you will be connected with more vocabulary, understand writing conventions, and work out how native speakers use meaning. 

Third, travelling, studying abroad, or living in another country is probably the most effective way of becoming more culturally literate. The opportunity to use, practice, and learn languages in the real context is a great way to learn culture.  

Final Thought

On this episode of Thinking in English I have tried to explain and emphasise the importance of learning culture to becoming more fluent in English. Without knowing the cultural context and background to a language, you will not truly be able to understand the meanings, values, assumptions, and roles that are accepted in a language. 

As a native English speaker, I unconsciously know these kinds of cultural rules. But as English learners, you need to learn and understand these roles!

Are there any cultural differences between your native language and English?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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