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How Does Acculturation Affect Learning and Meaning?

written by: allychevalier • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 8/2/2012

Acculturation is a process that surrounds us on a daily basis whenever we are faced with a foreign culture—we adopt elements from it, from watching foreign films to adopting a French catchphrase. But how does acculturation affect learning and meaning? This article discusses acculturation's effects.

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    What Is Acculturation?

    Acculturation may be defined as the process through which someone learns a foreign culture, that is, a culture other than their own. Culture here includes moral values, behaviors, and—the focus of this article—language.

    Acculturation most commonly occurs with a member of a minority culture being exposed to a majority culture, such as the situation with an immigrant moving into a new country. For language, this means there are two things to consider: the degree to which person learns the language of the new country, and the degree to which the old language is retained.

    However, acculturation may also occur in situations where one culture is not clearly dominating the other in a mutual flow of language shifts. For instance, consider the number of foreign phrases that exist within the English language, from tornado to bon appetit! In such cases, people within one culture have to a degree acculturated to another not necessarily dominating culture.

    Sometimes, a third language may even be created out of the blend of the two cultures. Consider the prevalence of Denglisch, for instance, a blend of English and German, or the varieties of Creole.

    This is to be differentiated from enculturation, which is slightly different. Enculturation has come to mean the process by which you learn your “home” culture and language, whereas acculturation generally refers to the process by which one learns a second culture and language. However, older works still use the terms interchangeably, so be careful!

    This must also be differentiated from assimilation, which is what occurs when one abandons their native culture and wholly adopts another.

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    Effect on Secondary Language Acquisition

    The process of acculturation often leads to a second language acquisition. This may occur through a variety of mechanisms, including both formal classroom education as well as through informal social networks, media and other mediums of culture. The more that the individual is thrown into the other culture, the faster he generally learns the language. This is especially true in situations where the individual comes from a minority culture and is acculturating to the dominant culture.

    This is complicated somewhat by the feelings of the individual regarding the dominant culture. Many immigrants and other individuals who are put into an acculturation scenario still cling to their former cultural backgrounds, often maintaining their preference for their native language. Some will even outright reject the dominant culture, perhaps only gaining a minimal functional use of the dominant language. Others will do the opposite and instead assimilate entirely into the dominant culture, learning the language and taking it for their own.

    Acculturation's effects are usually more successful with the young, partially because they are less at risk for fossilization effects, partially because they are often introduced into education programs where they are formally taught the language, and partially because youth is an incredibly formative period when self-identity is quite malleable, including language preferences.

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