Language Learning and Culture

It has been widely recognized that the so-called “magic words” like “thank you” and “please” are more frequently used in an English speaking society than they will in a Chinese speaking society. One of the explanations for this phenomenon may go like this: Look, these foreigners are really more polite than our countrymen. What’s your opinion?

“You have a very nice home. It’s so beautiful.” – “Thank you.”

“Your English is excellent. Really quite fluent.”—“No, no. My English is quite poor.”

To English-speaking people, praise is to be accepted, generally with a remark like “Thank you.” It is assumed that the compliment is sincere, that the praise is for some not unworthy achievement or thing. Therefore, there should be no show of false humility, no pretended modesty.

To Chinese, however, the customary reply to a compliment would be to claim that one is not worthy of the praise, that what one has done is hardly enough. Acceptance of a compliment would imply conceit or lack of manners.

So, in the two cases, the reason for such different reactions was differences in customs and habits.

What does the relation between language and culture suggest about language learning?

Learning a foreign language well means more than merely mastering the pronunciation, grammar, words and idioms. It means learning also to see the world as native speakers of that language see it, learning the ways in which their language reflects the ideas, customs, and behavior of their society, learning to understand their “language of the mind”.

Learning a language, in fact, is inseparable from learning its culture. Successful mastery of a target language has much to do with an understanding of that culture.

We should get familiar with cultural differences and see things as the members of the target culture will.