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What Is Enculturation?

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

Enculturation may sound like a somewhat exotic term, but it refers to a relatively easy-to-understand process by which everyone adopts their native culture—including language. This article explains.

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    Definition of Enculturation

    Enculturation is the process by which an individual learns the culture that they are surrounded by. It enables them to function as members of that society. Enculturation teaches, amongst other things, moral values, behaviors, expectations, rituals and--the focus of this article--language. This helps unify people to create functional societies.

    Enculturation can occur at many different levels, as culture exists both in broad strokes and in miniature. Consider, for instance, the American culture, which encompasses its many subcultures, some that depend on geography such as “West Coast," those based on lifestyle choices such as hipsters or yuppies, the differences between different generations, and so on. Culture is an incredibly slippery thing to discuss! In terms of language, these nestings of culture can refer to the basic language, then regional dialects, then localized slang.

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    Familiar Mechanisms

    Enculturation can either refer to formal learning, such as in a traditional education system, or informal learning, such as the social feedback you receive from your parents and friends as a developing child and beyond. Both are critical to the process and blend in unique ways to create different personalities.

    Our entire lives may be viewed as an enculturation process as we constantly learn more about the changing culture surrounding us, adding depth and breadth to our knowledge. Other cultures enculturate children differently, obviously, but the broad strokes tend to be the same.

    With regard to language, the mechanisms by which one is enculturated include both formal and informal learning. Oral and listening skills are initially learning from the cradle, often imparted by the parents and other close family members, in a deeply informal process. In many cultures, a formal education process will teach reading and writing skills.

    After the initial child training phase, you continue to be enculturated in your language throughout your life. For instance, you are constantly learning new slang terms as the language changes gradually over time through informal social contacts. If you continue your formal education into college or beyond, or take a career branch that demands skill with the language, you continue to finesse your use.

    Also, enculturation can be either conscious or unconscious on the part of the learner. For instance, the individual may be consciously actively attempting to understand what people are saying, but they may also be unconsciously absorbing new vocabulary words and slang from the conversations that occur around them.

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    Related Terms

    Enculturation differs from a similar looking term, acculturation, in that enculturation refers to the process by which one acquires a home culture, whereas acculturation refers to the process by which one who already has that native culture adopts elements of another, foreign culture. This is a relatively new distinction, so be careful when reading older sources! For more on acculturation, check out this Bright Hub Education article titled Acculturation and Its Effect on Language.

    As you might have guessed from the definition, this learning is closely related to the process of socialization. Indeed, some social scientists use the terms interchangeably. Others prefer to refer to socialization as the general process of acquiring culture, whereas enculturated refers specifically to acquiring your first culture. Others yet make the distinction where socialization refers specifically to deliberate, conscious shaping of the individual and his learning of culture, whereas enculturation would then encompass both formal and informal learning.