Is All Language No Culture Really Ok?

26.08.20 12:46 PM

Working Languages

We often hear people talk about their "working languages" when asking or explaining how they are an asset to a company. Various sources go back and forth about the necessity of learning about the culture that sits behind a language. In places like our country, many wonder if there really is a particular culture that is intimately connected to a language. If there is, perhaps it doesn't really matter whether we learn it or not. As long as we can communicate some instructions to our bosses, employees, partners, or clients. However, does the lack of cultural awareness behind a language limit what we can do with our "working language"?

Banner of two women talking, computer language and sticky notes.

What Makes A Language?

It is said that language is a bunch of sounds and words, or can include symbols in which others can understand something by. Britannica, a leader in information and knowledge, defines language as a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings express themselves. Everyone agrees that it functions as a means of communication. However, Britannica also points out how it can be an expression of identity or imaginative expression, as well as for playing around and emotional release.

With that in mind we can see that humans, at least, use language to express facts to others that are unaware, describe themselves and even to enjoy the passing of time. If you're only learning a language to be able to work and obtain a particular job you may only stick to expressing facts. Let's assume that the only thing you need to focus on for that is grammar and specific vocabulary. You'll certainly need to have measurements down, but can skip over the more abstract variety of adjectives. There's absolutely no need for onomatopoeia either!

What Makes Culture?

Since you're only learning factual language, culture may not be necessary at all. Culture "is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups" according to Wikipedia, a website dedicated to a collection of free knowledge.

If this can be agreed with, it looks like one would need to spend some time on at least the laws, knowledge and belief parts of culture to ensure smooth communication. People are very heavily influenced by what they grow up around. Since our brains reach a significant development by age five but can't be considered completely developed until age 25-ish, we may have a hard time simply letting go of our cultures. 

We will have gone through five or six years of specific rules in alignment with all of the things that make up a culture. Then we will spend about 10 years figuring out how much we want to align to that culture. In the following 10 years or so, we're usually too busy to actively think about how to adapt and change to any culture except the work culture.

Funny how we have a work culture, yeah? Topics for another day.

Hieroglyphs, Thai dancer and geisha depicting culture.

Language Separate From Culture

As the global language that it has become, some may learn English to land a "better" job or to simply blend into the masses. This is extremely hard to do if you have not learned to instill yourself with a "when in Rome" mentality. Think about it. Have you ever had an instance where you thought, 'they're speaking English, but they have no idea what they're really saying'? The same could happen to you in whichever language you choose to learn.

  • Say you have finally landed a position at a prominent company like Samsung, only to use 반말 with all of your superiors right off the bat? You'll probably end up as the 왕따 for a long period of time, if not let go in a short span of time.
  • What if you've finally been offered the opportunity to present your company's partnership benefits in Latin American and they get stuck on you saying it'll make fine caballo of them.
  • Or how about when you manage to slide into the HR department and end up hated by every woman in the company because you consistently call them XYZ小姐?

There's always some portion of culture that would carry your language skills. In our classes, we make sure to incorporate important aspects of both your culture and that of your target language. As the saying goes, people remember how you make them feel. So make them feel comfortable with you, not like they're talking to a periodical.

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