Language and Culture

 “Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.” Oscar Wilde

My husband and I just watched a murder mystery. The story takes place on the Shetland Islands off northern Scotland. The main characters speak English, and look and dress much the same way as many of us do in Canada. But it is soon clear (murder mystery aside) that the way of life, the attitudes, the culture of the place is vastly different from our own.

Some aspects of culture are visible and readily identifiable. Attending multi-cultural festival days can give us a sense of the wonderful diversity of food, music, dance, traditions, and literature in the world. But other aspects of culture are not as visible on the surface and harder to spot. Growing up in a community, we unconsciously absorb and imitate many beliefs and attitudes. The way that we approach race, education, gender roles, religion, age, money and other issues has been shaped by our family, our experiences, our education and the number of languages that we speak. Overall the approaches to these issues that we share in a community are part of our culture.

For example, what is your approach to money? How do you treat the elderly? What is your attitude to education? Even allowing for individual differences, it is possible to become aware of some common convictions that communities share that are vastly different from those of other societies.

How does language fit into this?

Language is a tool for thinking and the particular language(s) that we speak may shape our thoughts. There’s a recent Ted Talk that explores this idea called ”  Could your language effect your ability to save money?  Take a minute and have a look!

The author of the Ted Talk in question speaks two distinct languages, English and Mandarin. But there are linguistic variations and varied cultures even if you speak only one language.  Let’s take English as an example. It is well known that in England there are many English accents- there’s the English of the BBC that can be understood across the country, but there are also many more regional variations. The entertaining YouTube video 30 Dialects of the English language in the UK illustrates this beautifully. In Canada too, people from the prairies speak differently from those who grew up the Maritime Provinces, or in Toronto, or on a First Nation reserve. When I first went to New York City and asked to purchase 2 tickets at a Broadway theatre ticket office, the young man behind the wicket turned to his colleague and asked, “What language is she speaking?” For both of us, English was our ” native tongue’ but New York English was vastly different from Prairie/Canadian English!

I did not grow up in a multicultural neighbourhood. Our ancestors and those of most of my neighbours came from various parts of the United Kingdom, particularly Scotland. It was only through my study and learning of French that I gradually came to be exposed to the richness and diversity of Canada’s francophone communities including les francomanitobains, les fransaskois, les québecois, les acadiens and more. Eventually, I made my way to Paris and grew to understand that  the country of France also has a linguistic and cultural diversity,

And now with my initial, hesitant steps into the Spanish-speaking world, I have become more conscious of the variations of language and culture between Spanish-speaking cultures in Spain, North America, Central America and Latin America. Further, within Spain, a native Spaniard might speak Castilian, or Basque or …

In Canada, we live in a multi-cultural society. It is entirely possible that our neighbours on our street or in our small prairie city do not share the same culture as we do in our home. How can we come to learn about, understand and appreciate the many cultures of our world? Signing up for a language class is a great first step!


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