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Why learn about culture?

What do we mean by culture?

My favorite definition of culture is provided by the Peace Corps. According to the Peace Corps, culture is a system of beliefs, values, and assumptions about life that guide behavior and are shared by a group of people. It includes customs, language, and material artifacts. These are transmitted from generation to generation, rarely with explicit instructions.

The world is more globalized and connected than ever before.

When learning a language (not just English), learning to understand the culture related to the language will help us:

  • understand the silent aspects of communication
  • understand the reasons people say some of the things they say
  • understand the reasons people behave in ways that may be confusing

Truly understanding another culture is like having new lenses for your glasses. You can see life in a whole new way. Things become less confusing and more clear.

Cross-cultural communication can be difficult and frustrating, and can lead to many misunderstandings. The cultural component of language opens the door to understanding.

On a less serious note, my favorite reason to study culture is because…

Culture affects language in really interesting ways!

When I first came to Korea, I found it strange to hear that Koreans use “our” in situations that an American never would. Now, if you understand Americans, you’ll know that many of us LOVE strange and different things in life! So, don’t be mistaken! When I say strange, it is a positive thing. It is interesting! I wonder what Koreans think about Americans constant use of “I”? Do we sound selfish? It’s much more complicated than that.

Taking a look at the historical roots of both Korea and the United States, we can find support for why Americans are more “I” focused and Koreans are more “we” focused. But that will have to wait for another day.

A caveat:

When we discuss culture, we must do so carefully. It is impossible to talk about a group of people without making generalizations. We must understand that many things are personal and related to other circumstances rather than culture. Generalizations are dangerous, but they provide a framework. We have to try not to take generalizations personally, which can be extremely difficult. We cannot blindly apply a concept of culture to every person who is a member of a given cultural group. Nor, as an American, am I saying that American culture is superior to any other culture. It is simply my cultural reference point. When learning about culture, it is difficult not to make comparisons, but as much as possible, these are observations. Due to culture, the observations are colored and it is through discussion that we can come to understand other cultures.

Our goal is understanding.

We  might not like the way other people behave, but if we can understand the belief or value behind the way they act, we’ll be better able to understand why people act the way they do. It is often not what we think. We misunderstand because we are viewing their actions based on our own cultural lens/perspective. It is no easy task to grasp the deeper layers of culture, but it can be an interesting and rewarding journey! Continue your journey here.

 

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