As citizens of Earth (sorry for the aliens reading this) we are lucky enough to live on a planet that has been blessed and bestowed with a multitude of cultures. Even within a single country, no matter how small, different cities will harbor cultures disparate from one another. As amazing as this is, it also means that learning the language of a country can become that much more difficult.
The question then becomes — “can one learn the language of a country without learning its culture?” To begin to answer this we first need to look at what culture is, how it impacts language and whether it can be considered a language in of itself.
Culture in its essence comes down to two main elements, the surface culture such as food, music, dancing, etc. Think perhaps of Colombia, the salsa, the Arepa, the Reggeaton, all of these are very recognizable cultural proponents of Colombia. Then you have the deeper, more rooted aspects of culture such as the beliefs and values of the people and the behavior that they exhibit. A great example of this is the importance of family and religion in Russia which are often overshadowed by the surface culture of Vodka, Putin and harsh winters.
This now begs the question of “what cultural aspects should be taught?” We know that there are diverse facets of culture but which ones are more indispensable? If we look at the prior example, is it better to teach non-native students learning Russian about Vodka practices over the religious presence of Christianity in Russia? Here we can see that the choice must be made to teach only what cultural aspect will help the student learn the foreign language easier and quicker. What then of English? Which is arguable the most prevalent language spoken in the world yet also the most culturally diverse.
When it comes to the English language, it is interesting to note that it is not only the words that change from country to country but the phrases too. One would be forgiven for thinking that from British English to American English all that one would have to do is interchange between a “z” and “s” here and there. This is unfortunately supremely untrue.
“Couch potato”: For those of us who are accustomed to American slang this phrase is clearly understandable, it’s a description of an individual who is very lazy. Yet for a non-native person learning American English this causes a variety of illogical problems. They will be wondering what kind of potato grows on a couch and why anybody would want to even indulge in a potato that has been grown on furniture.
Culture here is important as knowing this phrase is not enough, students need to understand the American culture and why they would refer to somebody as a couch potato. Firstly, a potato is unshapely and doesn’t move which is a direct reference to how somebody sitting on a couch would resemble. Secondly, it also speaks of American culture which has been stigmatized by its nationals “couched” in front of the T.V. Eating bad food which is predominantly made out of potato – potato chips, fries, hash browns.
“Burn the midnight oil”: Another example of a phrase that will baffle non-natives on a logical and cultural level. On the surface non-natives will ponder what midnight oil is, why it needs to be burnt and what happens when you do. For those reading this who may not know, this phrase means to work late into the night – maybe on work, an assignment, meetings etc. Culturally this dates back to before electrical lighting in America where citizens would use oil or candles as a substitute for daylight.
“Bob’s your uncle”: America is not alone in their peculiarity of phrases and cultural meaning, as we can see with this popular British saying. As one can probably surmise, this doesn’t actually insinuate that one has an uncle named Bob. The humor in this is quite evident, imagine a non-native student who doesn’t understand the culture of England being told “Bob’s your uncle”. The amount of questions that would run through their head – “I don’t have an uncle called Bob”, why are they mentioning my uncle?” “What is a Bob?”
The phrase is used to denote something that is “of no problem”, for instance if somebody is giving another a set of instructions for something easy. Maybe it is to construct something small or put something away, they will end with “Bob’s your uncle”. The cultural meaning goes back to 1887 when Robert Cecil (the Prime Minister at the time) appointed Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary of Ireland. To Mr Cecil, Mr Balfour was known as his “uncle Bob” and the public coined this act of nepotism as “Bob’s your uncle”. However over time, as language has a habit of doing so, words have been changed and the phrase has now taken on another meaning.
“Tie the knot”: In British English, this phrase is used to describe getting married with a cultural history from Roman times. On her wedding day a bride’s girdle was tied into knots and the groom was entrusted with the act of untying the knots before he consummated the marriage. Without this background knowledge of British culture, a non-native student learning English would struggle to see the link between knots and marriage.
When communicating, in any language for that matter, it is principal to know common phrases otherwise loss of understanding is unavoidable. As we can begin to see, it is also crucial for a non-native individual learning English to know as much about the culture as possible. It is not simply enough to know the words, one must also understand why those words were chosen over and others and presented in that way. Language and culture are one of the same, an unbreakable bond that both champions and enhances one another.