How Can Cultural Differences Affect Language Development?

As a child develops, so does her language ability: Her speech becomes more fluid, sentences longer and structure more complex. But the accumulation of language happens within a cultural context, a context that drives much of how a child understands and produces her language.

Volume of Speech

Culture can affect how much a child speaks, which in turn can affect her ability to speak. As the saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.” Some cultures allow their children to engage in more speech practice. Others, such as that in Japan, perceive talkativeness in a negative way. In Japan, while practice does still make perfect, their culture also states that, “The mouth is the origin of misfortune.” According to the Journal of Child Language, this leads to Japanese children speaking less and in briefer sentences than their western counterparts, who prefer to embellish and give long, detailed narratives of past events.


The structure of the focus of speech also relies partly on culture. According to language scholar Erika Hoff, author of “Language Development,” children learn to structure their speech in one of two ways: topic-centric learning and topic-associating learning 2. Certain cultures, such as western culture, focus on teaching with the focus on a single, clearly defined subject. This forces children to develop language skills to describe more deeply their thoughts on a specific issue. Other cultures, such as African American culture, are topic-associating. These cultures de-emphasize staying on a single topic and allow for more freedom of expression.


While the human brain is wired to learn words the same way regardless of culture, the culture still determines what words a child learns. While the general pattern is the same for children across the globe -- children learn the word “not” before they learn the word “century,” for example -- the pattern for the types of words they learn differs based on culture and language. For example, according to Hoff, American children learn vocabulary with a focus on nouns, with about half of a child’s first 50 words being nouns. Children in East Asian countries, in contrast, have a stronger bias toward learning verbs.


Ignoring language differences, a difference in culture can even affect how two children learn the same language. The most noticeable aspect of this cultural effect is on pronunciation: New Yorkers and Texans say the same words yet pronounce them differently. This is due to the exposure of sounds during childhood. Another difference is content. Children who have learned the same language in different cultures often learn that certain topics are off-limits in each other’s cultures. For example, upon arriving in Singapore, you might find that “How much money do you make?” is a common question and that discussions about diarrhea are not necessary inappropriate; these stem from cultural differences that guide how a person internalizes types of words and conversations.

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