52 8.2 Culture and Language

Culture and language are inextricably entwined. For example, the metaphorical meanings of simple words, such as colors, vary across cultures. In English and Serbian, if we are feeling “blue”, then it means we feel sad, and a “blue day” in Arabic is a bad one. However, if someone describes themselves as “blue” in German, they are drunk. A gay man in Russian might describe himself as a “blue man”, and a blue prince in Spanish is a Prince Charming. If you describe yourself as” turning blue” in Japanese, then you are shocked or scared. Alternatively, if someone tells you that “the fire in the stove is pure blue” in Mandarin, they are paying you a compliment by saying that you are very accomplished. Clearly, colors have very different metaphorical meanings in different languages.

There is also considerable cross-cultural divergence in language practices in social situations, we refer to these as the pragmatic aspects of language. Let’s take a look at a few of these practices, such as saying thank you, and making and refusing requests. It is common in Anglo-American and Australian (and Italian) cultures to frequently thank people, even when they are simply doing their job or if they are doing something that does not require much effort. For example, they thank family members for passing the salt and for cooking dinner, as well as the bus driver when they get off the bus. This is done out of politeness, rather than expressing heart-felt emotion. In other cultures, expressions of gratitude are used much more sparingly, and are reserved for occasions when someone feels genuine gratitude. For example, Liddicoat (2014) describes how a teenager from Chile contrasts all the thanking she observes when staying with an Australian family, with the experiences in her own home. She remarks that her mother would be upset if she thanked her for making dinner—because it is something that she does daily. It would imply that something was wrong with all the other dinners she had made or that something was wrong with that particular meal. In other cultures, such as in South and South East Asia, saying thank you to a family member or close friend for a trivial act, is perceived as overly formal and a way to distance yourself from them. Instead gratitude is assumed in everyday life (Engels & Hsieh, 2021). Thus, in some cultures, saying thank you can be perceived as rude behavior in some situations, whereas in others, not saying it is considered impolite.

Cultural variations in how people make requests are common. Some cultures use direct speech (e.g., Open the door) more frequently, whereas others favor indirect speech (e.g., Would you mind opening the door, please?). People from Persia and Israeli Jews are more likely to make direct requests than people from North America, who tend to use indirect requests most of the time. People from Greece and China also favor indirect requests, whereas people from Spain make more direct requests than people from the Netherlands (Eslami et al., 2014; Le Pair, 1996; Wierzbicka, 2003). Differences in directness of speech also extend to other areas, such as refusing requests or invitations. Again, Israeli Jews tend to be more direct than Americans and Arabs, who are more likely to provide a reason for their refusal. Native speakers of Arabic provide more extensive explanations for the refusal than Americans (Stavans & Shafran, 2017). In some cultures, refusals are so indirect they might sound like permission has been granted. For example, imagine that as a teenager, you asked a parent or older relative if it was OK with them for you to go to a party. If they said “You can go, if you want.” What would that mean to you? Are they giving you permission? The way that the words are said to you, in addition to your language and culture will probably influence how you interpret their response. This example comes from an article by Tannen, who describes a Greek woman whose father and husband never directly refused a request from her. However, she had to interpret what they were really saying from the level of enthusiasm they expressed (Tannen, 1981).

Benefits of Bi/multilingualism

Although historically, Western psychology has studied language from a monolingual perspective, the field today more accurately reflects the fact that the majority of people in the world are bilingual or multilingual. Being fluent in two or more languages has been shown to provide both a cognitive advantage and greater open-mindedness (Anoniou, 2019; Cárdenas & Verkuyten, 2021; van den Noort, 2019; Ware et al., 2020). The cognitive benefits of speaking more than one language have often been attributed to the constant practice that bi/multilinguals have in selecting one language and inhibiting the other when reading, listening, speaking or writing. The majority of studies have demonstrated that bilinguals have better executive function than monolinguals, especially on tasks that require ignoring distracting information (Anoniou, 2019; van den Noort, 2019; Ware et al., 2020). Studies have also shown other learning benefits for bilingual and multilingual toddlers (Brito et al., 2014). Bi/multilingual children who watched a researcher interact with a puppet were able to apply what they had learned by interacting in similar ways with different toys. Monolingual children were less able to generalize their learning. Being able to generalize learning is very helpful for figuring out how to interact with new objects and in new situations. Bilingualism has also been associated with greater creativity, better intercultural sensitivity, and improved chances of employment. In addition, bilingualism also seems to be protective against some of the cognitive decline that often happens as we age (Fox et al., 2019).

Language and Identity

Our use of language is often closely linked to our national and cultural identities (Cárdenas & Verkuyten, 2021; Garcia, 2020). Some bilinguals embrace both of their languages and cultures, but others feel that there is too much difference between them, often leading to abandonment of heritage languages and cultural practices, because of their lack of socioeconomic power.

Multiple studies have suggested that bilinguals feel different when they switch languages, some people feel more authentic and better able to express emotion in their native language (Dewaele & Nakano, 2013). Some bilinguals exhibit cultural shifts in attitudes and behaviors depending on the context, which is often (but not always) determined by their language use (Ramírez-Esparza & García-Sierra, 2014). For example, Mexican-American bilinguals were rated as more agreeable when speaking Spanish in an interview, than when speaking English (Ramírez-Esparza & García-Sierra, 2014). However, Chinese-English bilinguals were rated as more open and extroverted when speaking to a Caucasian interviewer than a Chinese one, regardless of the language spoken (Ramírez-Esparza & García-Sierra, 2014). Thus, bilinguals are able to shift between languages easily, but they also show cross-cultural changes in their body language and pragmatics of their speech.


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Introduction to Psychology (A critical approach) Copyright © 2021 by Rose M. Spielman; Kathryn Dumper; William Jenkins; Arlene Lacombe; Marilyn Lovett; and Marion Perlmutter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.