Language and culture are indivisible

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When learners learn English as a second language, they become bi-lingual and bi-cultural. This is because learning a new language in addition to your own entails learning the ways of that target language’s culture.

In this way, one will be able to speak the new language appropriately and in the correct contexts. Language goes further than the dictionary meaning of words. Specific words represent the beliefs, history and the culture of their origin and hence must be used accordingly by the second language speaker. There are plenty of examples of how cultural differences shape a language.

In most Namibian cultures, extended families are the norm and are in fact the backbone of the social system. Hence, there are mostly no clear words to distinguish members of the extended family. Your parents’ siblings are simply referred to as your mother or father; cousins are simply your brothers and sisters.

While the English speaking culture places more emphasis on the nuclear family and has words for members of the extended family: words, such as cousins, aunts, uncles, distant cousins, stepmother/father, stepsister, etc.

Furthermore, in Namibian cultures it is inappropriate to rush the greeting process. One must take the time to ask about the person’s health, the health of their family, the weather and other social details. However, a simple “hallo” or “how are you” is more than enough in the English language, which is an indication of variations in languages influenced by culture.

When learners learn English as a second language they inevitably acquire a second identity through a process, called acculturation. In other words, they are expected to adopt the English culture. This is because language is deeply rooted in the culture of its speakers.

To be proficient in the English language, the second language learner needs to look at the world through the eyes of the native speaker, because we see the world in the way that our language describes it.

A common example is of the Eskimos – or Inuit, as they prefer to be called. The Inuit live in a very cold region, which snows most of the time. Therefore, they have about 40 different words for snow, while there is only one word ‘snow’ in English.

This is simply because the two cultures are different and it would take an English person to understand the different concepts of snow from the Eskimo perspective to be able to use them appropriately. Hence, the word ‘snow’ in an Eskimo’s viewpoint and from an English speaker’s view would have quite different meanings.

Given the above examples, it is, therefore, likely that a learner asked to write an essay on ‘a dance’ would write about playing a CD at home and dancing with his/her siblings; or an essay about ‘Thanksgiving’ and would write about how they thanked a friend for doing something special for them.

This is because these concepts are culturally embedded and would expect the learner to be aware of them in the English culture to be able to write within the framework of the question. If not, whatever the learner may write according to his or her own culture and experience will be viewed as out of context.

Thus, cultural differences are areas contributing to misunderstanding in English as a second language.
Language teachers are, therefore, faced with the task of instructing their learners also on the cultural background of the English language. It is important to contrast the different language usages, especially the grammatical, proverbial and idiomatic use in the learners’ specific cultural contexts for the learners to fully understand why certain things are said the way they are in the English language.

If language is taught separately from the culture in which it operates, the learners may attach an incorrect meaning to what is being taught. The learners, when using English, may use the language inappropriately, or within the wrong cultural context, thus defeating the purpose of learning the language.

As a teacher of English, one ought to be culturally aware and considerate of the learners’ culture to avoiding cultural misinterpretations. Hence, teachers of languages are also teachers of culture.

To conclude, although second language learners are learning a new language and culture, it is imperative that the learners are motivated to strengthen their mother tongue. In so doing, they are also protecting their own cultures.

* Leena Iitula is a Master of Arts degree student in the Department of Language and Literature Studies at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Namibia. E-mail:


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