Culture’s Role in Language Development

Language and culture are inextricably linked (Eagleton 25). The idea that “languages are embedded in culture and are born in culture” (Berman 5) speaks to the vitality of culture. If language reflects culture, then being competent in a second language would also require one to be competent and comfortable in the culture/s representing the second language. The idea that culture cannot be broken down into a list of items to be learned in order to become competent in a second culture is what undergirds the notion that cultures represent varying ways of viewing the world (Inglis 184). Current trends in culture and language education give culture a more prominent role (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages); however, the question of how culture is treated needs to be explored further. This essay weaves together the varying ways that culture and language have been linked and discussed some complications due to misunderstanding of cultural codes.

What the Issues Are in Culture and Language

The concept of culture is, to say the least, widely construed, ranging in import from litanies of folkloric traits to concepts of underlying principles (Stevens 42) which account for surface traits, to the possibilities for a Universal Culture, the characteristics of which are analogous to Universal Grammar (Chomsky 130) in many ways. Inglis defined culture as being “the study of enacted values as each assumes its place in the narrative of the day” (163). This leads toward the idea that being competent in a second language (SA) would require one to be able to adopt the perspectives of the second culture (SC). The general theme by those that believe that culture is a set of perspectives is the notion that people’s histories, experiences, behaviors, traditions, languages, and beliefs are reflected in their respective cultures (Inglis 165).

  • Importance of this issue. A definition of culture is important as a matter of first importance in attributing arm role to culture in second language acquisition (SLA). If culture does have a role to play, what aspects of the spectrum of definitions of culture apply? Before investigation can proceed, definitions have to be settled on. Too much of the literature on pedagogical culture, for example, advocates an explicit teaching of “culture” without defining just what the culture to be taught is (Donahue and Parsons 362).
  • What is meant by a cultural “context” for SLA? Given an operational understanding of culture, what is there about it which can be said to influence SLA? If the target language (TL) is learned in a target culture (TC) context (SLA as opposed to FLA), what impact does that context have on the learner? Is the TC context an unfavorable or a favorable environment for SLA? Alternatively, is the learner’s perception of her Self in the TC a variable different from that of either TC or NC (Brown 38)?
  • Cultural Factors on SLA. Factors of a cultural influence on SLA need to be specified. It is neither logically nor theoretically sufficient to posit simply that the TC influences SLA and leave things at that. What is needed is 1) a specification of what aspects of culture influence SLL and 2) an understanding of what the nature of that influence is. Further, the difference between cultural context and a linguistic influence of culture in SLA is, heretofore, unspecified. Is the influence of culture contextual only? Is there a linguistic connection? Is TL performance a function of one competence or two? Attempts to answer these questions and still other questions prompted by them have fallen short.

Schumann’s (90) Acculturation Model, for example, suggests that SLA and acculturation operate in tandem, that an interlingual pidginization parallels the acculturation process. For Schumann, SLA is a function of SCA. Unfortunately, it is not always clear what the connections between these processes are. Schumann (91) even goes so far as to suggest a neurological basis for these operations, but stops short of precise specification of what the influences of acculturation and pidginization on each other may be, even if a neurological locus for the acculturation/ language acquisition process as Schumann describes it could be authenticated. The Acculturation Model appears not to be falsifiable (and is thus not provable). Moreover, data analyzed by researchers undermine the Acculturation Model by demonstrating that residing in the TC, even as a consequence of length of residence (LOR) does not, as Schumann (97) suggest, in and of itself promote SLA. SLA does not equate with SCA. That is, if language competence can be specified as actual competence, not merely performance strategies, the extent to which culture is implicated in that competence needs to be described and documented in the actual performance of learners.


This essay supports the role for culture in the development of language competence, contributory to the latter as a processing universal. Otherwise, a cursory understanding of the SC being studied in conjunction with the SL will serve to reinforce the culture-bound notions that second culture learners hold (Hendon 199). There is widespread, but for the most part non-systematic interest in the role of culture in SLA. The essay consolidates different (and occasionally disparate) views into a codified account of the role of culture in SLA. Thus, an understanding of culture and language, these perspectives need to be gained.

Works Cited

Berman, Russel. “Foreign languages and foreign cultures.” ADFL Bulletin 33.2(2002): 5-7. Print.

Brown, Douglas. “Learning a second culture.” Culture bound: Bridging the cultural gap in language teaching. Ed. Valdes, Johan. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1986. 3-48. Print.

Chomsky, Noam. Suntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton, 1957. Print.

Donahue, Meghan and Heyde Parsons. “The use of role play to overcome cultural fatigue.” TESOL Quarterly 16 (1982): 359-365. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. The idea of Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Print.

Hendon, Ursula. “Introducing culture in the high school foreign language class.” Foreign Language Annals 13.3 (2008): 191-199. Inglis, Fred. Culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004. Print.

Schumann, John. “The acculturation model for second language acquisition.” Second-language acquisition and foreign language teaching. Ed. Gingras, Rhenn. Rosslyn, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1990. Print.

Stevens, Pierce. “Is Spanish really so easy? Is Arabic really so hard? Perceived difficulty in learning Arabic as a second language.” Handbook for Arabic language teaching professionals. Ed. Kassem Mahbu, Wahba, Zeinab, and Liz England. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006. 35-63. Print.

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