Cultural Differences Are Sometimes Crucial When Learning English

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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.


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19 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article on culture! Thank you very much. I have noticed that when I give my students an alternate word or expression for something that appears in a lesson, they tend to remember it. For instance, I told one student that I grew up in Chicago where people say PING PONG instead of TABLE TENNIS. Today he took his unit assessment and described the “table tennis” picture as a game of “ping pong.” I also remember this from my Mandarin teacher: In Beijing, people greet their friends with the expression “Have you eaten?” By the way, I wonder what the history is behind that????

  2. I have a child with autism and he takes everything literally. So we are taking time to explain these type of phrases to him. Sometimes it can be quite funny to think of some of these phrases literally.

  3. I remember when I first started teaching English language learners how easily they became confused by expressions, us native Texans would say. Idioms, in general, are difficult to describe and put into context, so this article makes a valid point. In addition, it makes for teachers to strive in eliminating incidental language as much as possible and when it comes up, be explicit and demonstrate using TPR and visuals for the learners’ comprehension.

  4. Through friendships with others outside the Midwest (I’m from South Dakota) I find there are also many cultural differences and word usages within our own country. A dresser (to hold folded clothes) versus a chiffarobe. A coke (referring to any soft drink) versus a “pop” or the name of a specific drink – Coke, Pepsi, Mt Dew. How confusing it must be for someone new to the English language. I thought it was a great reminder and a good article. Thanks.

  5. This is good to know and consider when working with person from other countries and cultures.
    The language is part of the culture; we must become familiar with both for success.

  6. Interesting as China has a new love affair with basketball, the idiom, “the ball is in your court” can be made more easily understandable for students. They have to make a decision or choice in life and / or language. So the ball is in your court.

  7. Cultural Differences are the beauty underlying every language. Cheers to teaching strategies that facilitate comprehension.

  8. This is great! I don’t know (m)any American’s who say “Bob’s Your Uncle,” yet the point remains well taken. There are so many different regional slang phrases that even fellow Americans aren’t familiar them!

  9. I likedd the way this article was set up as surface cultural differences and rooted differences. To be an effective communicator with non-native speakers, one must be cognizant of both verbal and non-verbal cues. Thank you. I appreciate the article.
    Sincerely,
    Kathy Abels

  10. Good Article! I appreciate learning more about the culture in which I am working. For example I understand Chinese children learn to count to 10 on one hand. I’d like to learn that. It would be useful in the classroom, too. Thank you. Debbie Albright

  11. Culture is so interesting to me and I love to learn about the food, music and customs that go with a language. Culture makes learning a language fun.

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