It is possible to have a basic understanding of a language without knowing its culture but to fully understand a language, one needs to have some understanding of the culture that produced it.
1) Mastery of a Language Requires Understanding its Culture
We will explore here the argument that mastery of a language requires understanding its culture, just as a comprehensive understanding of a culture necessitates immersing oneself in the study of the language. This is because language is a dynamic entity that constantly evolves in tandem with the evolving views, values, and customs of its speakers.
Language has a dual character: both as a means of communication and a carrier of culture. Language serves to transmit culture, convey culture, preserve culture and strengthen cultural ties.
2) The Relationship between Language and Culture
A language and its associated culture develop and evolve together throughout a long period of history. The language becomes a unique expression of that culture. Baker (2006) wrote about how language indexes its culture: the songs, hymns, folk tales, sayings, metaphors, appropriate politeness for interaction with others, the history, wisdom, and ideals of a particular cultural group are all reflected in the group’s language.
Culture shapes language by providing a historical and ongoing context to the meaning of words and phrases in the language and thus language can be viewed as a verbal expression of culture. Folklorist Crats Williams expressed this insight by defining language as “culture expressing itself in sound.”
The semantic categories or boundaries of words, that is what a word can normally signify, are formed in the context that culture provides. Extending the meaning of words is done by relating them to phenomena that are familiar in the culture of the speaker and listener. Language is the vehicle facilitating the creation of shared perceptions and interpretations among the people who use it. Thus, a high level of acculturation is only possible when it is accompanied by a high level of competence in the language associated with the target culture.
Language is not just a set of words and grammar rules, but it is also closely tied to the culture and history of the people who speak it. This means that to fully comprehend a language, one needs to be familiar with the social and historical context in which it is used. This includes knowledge of the customs, beliefs, values, traditions, and history of the people who speak the language.
Monolinguals or those who have never successfully learned another language often have the naïve view that foreign language learning simply involves learning another set of ‘labels’ to designate the same objects, emotions and ideas that a person can express in their mother tongue.
Thus, they often have the mistaken impression that learning another language simply entails memorizing vocabulary lists and expressions that should have a one-to-one correspondence with those in their mother tongue. This view discounts the fundamental links between a language and its culture as well as the multifaceted insights and understandings that learning another language can bring.
3) The Importance of Background Cultural Knowledge for Understanding
Cognitive linguists highlight the importance of background cultural knowledge and categories that structure word meanings. The meaning of many words is not specifiable in isolation but must be understood in the context of a larger set of cultural activities and entities.
There are rampant polysemy characteristics (multiple meanings) of the most common words. For example, in English the verb ‘run’ could be used to describe the physical activity of running, the activity of operating machines, the activity of operating a store or company, the activity of campaigning for political office, and so on. We require a structure network of interrelated words (context) and cultural knowledge (also context) to understand the intended meaning.
4) Idiomatic Expressions
Idiomatic expressions are phrases or sentences that have a figurative meaning different from the literal meaning of the words used. These expressions are often culturally specific and reflect the values, beliefs, and practices of the culture in which they are used.
For instance, the English idiom “break a leg” is used to wish someone good luck, but its origins are rooted in the theater world where actors believed that wishing them good luck would bring bad luck, and so the opposite was said. Understanding the cultural context behind the origin of this phrase is crucial in comprehending its usage and meaning.
The Spanish expression “estar en la luna” (to be on the moon) means to be absent-minded or not paying attention. To understand this expression fully, one needs to know that the moon is often associated with daydreaming and inattentiveness in Spanish culture.
5) 10 Examples Idiomatic Expressions Requiring Cultural Context
Here are 10 other examples of diverse idiomatic expressions that require an understanding of the cultural context behind them to fully grasp their meaning and usage.
- Chinese: “打破沙锅问到底” (dǎ pò shā guō wèn dào dǐ) – to ask until one breaks the wok – means to ask relentlessly until the truth is revealed.
The cultural background of this expression lies in ancient Chinese cooking practices. In the past, people used woks made of clay or metal for cooking, and these woks would often become worn and develop cracks after long periods of use. When the wok became too old or damaged, it was often broken and discarded.
The idiom uses the image of a broken wok to convey the idea of persistence and perseverance in seeking the truth. The expression suggests that one should continue to ask questions until the truth is revealed, even if it means going to great lengths or breaking something valuable in the process.
This idiom has become a popular phrase in modern Chinese society and is often used to encourage people to be persistent and diligent in their pursuit of knowledge or the truth. It also reflects the cultural value of seeking knowledge and understanding, which has been an essential part of Chinese culture for thousands of years.
- German: “Das ist nicht mein Bier” – (that’s not my beer) – means it’s none of my business.
Beer is an important part of German culture, and it is often enjoyed in social settings such as bars, restaurants, and beer gardens. In these settings, people may be served large mugs of beer that are meant to be shared with others. However, it is considered impolite to drink from someone else’s mug or interfere with their beer.
The idiom “Das ist nicht mein Bier” uses the image of beer to convey the idea that something is not one’s concern or responsibility. In other words, just as one would not interfere with someone else’s beer, one should also not meddle in matters that do not concern them.
The use of beer in this expression reflects the importance of social norms and etiquette in German culture, particularly in the context of drinking and socializing. It also highlights the importance of personal boundaries and respecting others’ personal space and property, which are valued in German culture.
- French: “Avoir le cafard” – (to have the cockroach) – means to feel down or depressed.
The expression likely draws on the common association of cockroaches with dirt, filth, and decay. In French culture, these insects are often seen as pests and a symbol of uncleanliness. Therefore, the use of “cafard” to describe feeling down or depressed may suggest a sense of being weighed down by negative thoughts or emotions, just as one might feel oppressed by a dirty and unpleasant environment.
Additionally, the use of animals as a metaphor for human emotions is a common theme in French idiomatic expressions. This can be seen in other idioms such as “avoir un chat dans la gorge” (to have a cat in one’s throat) meaning to have a sore throat, or “être une poule mouillée” (to be a wet chicken) meaning to be a coward.
- Arabic: “الحاجة أم الاختراع” (al-haajah umm al-ikhtraa) – necessity is the mother of invention – means that when there is a need, people will find a way to meet it.
This expression reflects the Arabic cultural value of resourcefulness and ingenuity, which has been a crucial aspect of Arab societies for centuries.
In Arabic culture, people have historically faced many challenges, including harsh environments, limited resources, and political instability. As a result, Arabs have developed a reputation for being resourceful and adaptable, finding creative solutions to the problems they face. This cultural value is reflected in the idiom “الحاجة أم الاختراع” which suggests that when people are faced with a need or problem, they will use their intelligence and creativity to find a solution.
- Japanese: “猫をかぶる” (neko o kaburu) – to wear a cat – means to pretend to be someone or something that one is not.
The cultural background of this idiom can be traced back to Japanese theatrical traditions and the use of masks in performance.
In traditional Japanese theater such as Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku, performers often wear masks to portray different characters. These masks are designed to convey the emotions and personality of the characters, and they are a crucial part of the performance. However, the mask also serves to conceal the actor’s true identity and personality, allowing them to assume a different role.
The idiom “猫をかぶる” uses the image of wearing a cat to convey the idea of pretending to be someone or something that one is not. In Japanese culture, cats are often associated with slyness and cunning, and the expression implies that the person is trying to deceive others by hiding their true identity behind a mask or disguise.
It also reflects the importance of social harmony and avoiding confrontation, as pretending to be someone else can be seen as a way of avoiding conflict or maintaining social harmony.
- Italian: “Mettere la pulce nell’orecchio” – (to put a flea in the ear) – means to plant a seed of doubt or suspicion.
The cultural background of this expression can be traced back to the medieval period when fleas were a common problem in Europe, notorious for causing discomfort and spreading diseases. The expression originally referred to the practice of placing a flea in someone’s ear as a practical joke or a form of punishment. The flea would bite and irritate the person, causing them to feel restless and uncomfortable.
Over time, the expression evolved to mean the act of planting a seed of doubt or suspicion in someone’s mind. This meaning likely emerged due to the discomfort and unease caused by the physical sensation of having a flea in one’s ear, which was used as a metaphor for the psychological discomfort caused by doubt or suspicion.
- Russian: “Запретный плод сладок” (zapretny plod sladok) – forbidden fruit is sweet – means that things that are off-limits are often more appealing.
This proverb is based on the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible, where they were forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. When they eventually succumbed to the temptation and ate the forbidden fruit, they were punished for their disobedience. The phrase “forbidden fruit” has since come to symbolize the allure of something that is prohibited or off-limits.
In Russian culture, this proverb has been used to express the idea that people tend to desire things that are forbidden or unavailable to them. This can be seen in various aspects of Russian life, such as the strict censorship laws that were enforced during the Soviet era, where certain books, movies, and art were banned or restricted. This prohibition only served to increase the desire for these forbidden works of art, leading to the creation of an underground cultural scene.
The proverb is also often used to describe the appeal of forbidden romantic relationships, where the thrill of the forbidden can make the relationship more exciting and alluring.
- Hindi: “अपने अपने नसीब में हैं” (apne apne naseeb mein hain) – to each his own destiny – means that everyone has their own fate.
This phrase reflects the cultural belief in Hinduism that the fate of an individual is predetermined based on their karma or actions from past lives. This idea is closely tied to the concept of reincarnation, where the soul is believed to be reborn into a new body after death. According to this belief, a person’s current life is the result of their past actions, and their future lives will be determined by their present actions.
The phrase acknowledges this belief in predestination and encourages people to accept their fate without resistance. It is deeply ingrained in Indian culture and is often used in everyday conversations as a reminder that everyone has their own path in life and that it is important to accept it without complaint. It also reflects the idea of living in the present moment and making the most of what one has, rather than dwelling on what could have been or what might be in the future.
- Portuguese: “Está com a pulga atrás da orelha” – (to have a flea behind the ear) – means to have a suspicion or feeling that something is not quite right.
In Portuguese culture, the expression is commonly used to describe a feeling of suspicion or unease about something or someone. It is often used when someone has a hunch or feeling that something is not quite right, but they cannot quite put their finger on what it is. The phrase suggests that the person is feeling agitated or uncomfortable, similar to how a dog might feel when it has a flea behind its ear.
This expression reflects the importance of intuition and the ability to read between the lines in Portuguese culture, where people often rely on their instincts and gut feelings to navigate complex situations.
- Swahili: “Asiyefunzwa na mamaye hufunzwa na ulimwengu” – (one who is not taught by their mother is taught by the world) – means that if someone is not taught by their parents, they will learn through their experiences in the world.
This phrase reflects the importance of parental guidance and the role of the family in Swahili culture, as well as the belief that people can learn valuable lessons from their experiences in the world.
In Swahili culture, the family is considered to be the most important social unit, and parents are seen as the primary teachers and guides for their children. Parents are responsible for passing down cultural traditions, values, and beliefs to their children, and for teaching them important life skills and lessons. This phrase highlights the importance of learning from one’s mistakes and experiences, as well as the idea that life itself can be a valuable teacher.
This phrase also reflects the Swahili cultural value of resilience and the belief that people can overcome challenges and adversity through their own efforts and experiences. It encourages individuals to take responsibility for their own learning and growth and to embrace the opportunities and challenges that come their way.
In conclusion, while it is possible to gain a basic understanding of a language without knowing its culture, a deep and nuanced understanding of a language requires an understanding of its cultural context. Language and culture are intertwined, and one cannot be fully understood without knowledge of the other.
Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (3rd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.